“I think many of us, maybe the entire town, had been hoping against hope that somehow Jason Blossom hadn’t drowned on July 4th. That we’d come to school Monday morning, and there Jason would be. Or that we’d see him and Cheryl in a booth at Pop’s. But that was before the undeniable, irrevocable fact of his bloated, waterlogged body. A corpse with a bullet hole in its forehead, and terrible secrets that could only be revealed by the cold, steel blade of a coroner’s autopsy scalpel.”
That’s the overwrought voiceover, courtesy of Jughead (Cole Sprouse), that begins “Chapter Two: A Touch of Evil,” and it really embodies the best and worst of Riverdale so far. On the one hand, it’s certainly evocative, painting a picture of a small town that’s not used to violence, at least in its physical form. (There’s lot of emotional violence to go around, though). On the other hand, the voiceover is simply too much, drawing attention to itself without really adding much to the story. It’s a bit of flair, a surface shine that doesn’t contain much underneath. Sure, the voiceover lets us know that Jason’s body contains new evidence about what happened to him, and that ties in with the end of the episode, but it’s also an overblown statement about the show’s themes of innocence, denial and coping with tragedy. Sometimes it’s better to show and not tell, you know?
Horribly trite voiceover aside, “Chapter Two: A Touch of Evil” goes a long way to highlighting and accentuating the strengths of the season premiere. Firstly, the mystery surrounding Jason’s death feels part of the show’s fabric now. While the premiere pushed nearly everything Jason-related to the side in favor of necessary character work, “Chapter Two” begins to interweave the stories. Riverdale is putting pieces into place in an organic way, making every small detail potentially relevant to the mystery of Jason’s death. We learn that Josie (Ashleigh Murray) is the Mayor’s daughter. We see Betty’s mother, Alice (Twin Peaks alum Mädchen Amick), paying off the coroner to get the “inside scoop” on Jason’s autopsy. We learn that Kevin (Casey Cott) is the sheriff’s son and, finally, that Jason died one week after the July 4th weekend.
That’s a lot to put into a single episode, and the effect could be dizzying, but Riverdale is showing itself to be adept at using the details and secrets surrounding Jason’s murder to enhance every other story. Take Betty (Lili Reinhart), for instance. She’s heartbroken after her encounter with Archie (K.J. Apa), his wishy-washy answer to her proclamation of love still stinging. So, she reacts irrationally. Instead of sincerely accepting Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) apologies, she goes with the “path of least resistance,” only to end up alone with an unhinged, accusatory Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), who’s convinced that Betty’s sister, Polly, was involved in Jason’s murder. It takes that encounter, spurred on by the new information about Jason, to get Betty back to her fighting self. She orders Cheryl out of her house, refusing to be vulnerable and spineless. It’s a beautiful character moment that also adds some layers to the mystery at the heart of Riverdale.
Much like the premiere, the most compelling aspect of “Chapter Two” are the character dynamics. Riverdale tends toward melodrama—it’s in The CW’s DNA, after all—but that doesn’t mean the heightened emotions aren’t rooted in authenticity. When Betty and Veronica finally have a heart-to-heart after cheerleading practice, it’s a conversation filled with honesty that allows us some insight into where these characters are coming from and how their perspective shapes their surroundings. Veronica, for example, knows she’s the new girl that gets attention, but she’s also on a mission to change her behavior and become someone better than she was in the Big City. So, she refuses to stand down when Betty uses her as a punching bag for her frustrations with Archie. Veronica standing up for herself isn’t meant to deride Betty or point out her flaws; rather, it’s part of her effort to change. She knows she needs Betty as a friend, as someone who can push her and challenge her to be a better person, and she’s not ready to lose that motivation just because Betty is heartbroken.
In other words, “Chapter Two” doesn’t use melodrama as a vehicle for empty, over-the-top dramatics, but as a tool to highlight the genuine emotions of these characters. Whether or not the secret between Archie and Ms. Grundy (Sarah Habel) is relevant to Jason’s murder, it works better as a way to accentuate the division, and eventual reconciliation, of Jughead and Archie. Riverdale even acknowledges, in a sly, winking way, that these heightened emotions and situations reveal something deeper and more powerful. “Why don’t we do that bro thing where we nod like douches and mutually suppress our emotions?” Jughead says, after he and Archie make up.
Surely, the dramatic end of “Chapter Two,” which sees Cheryl arrested after something in Jason’s autopsy leads the sheriff to her, will only lead to more heightened paranoia, uncertainty and unearthed secrets. For now, though, “Chapter Two” is best seen not as more fuel for the murder mystery, but as a deepening of the lived-in feeling of Riverdale. The connections drawn between characters, the glances shared, the quiet conversations: They all contribute to the show’s neo-noir feel, making “Chapter Two” a more substantial and promising statement in terms of what to expect from Riverdale as the first season unfolds.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.