Riverdale loves history and pop culture, and sees the two as inextricably entwined. From the way these characters interact, often relying on pop culture references to get their point across, to the way the murder of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) is used to dig into the town’s past, this is a show that’s very much interested in the way history informs the present, and the way cultural artifacts shape our understanding of times both past and present. Archie (K.J. Apa) may recognize that his relationship with Val (Hayley Law) comes close to “breaking up the Beatles,” but he also doesn’t have a clue what his father is talking about when he mentions Dylan going electric. We’re all confident we have a grasp of our place and time, but such confidence can’t exactly hide our blindspots.
I mention Riverdale’s focus on history and pop culture at the top here because “Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” is perhaps the series’ most clever look at the way the past interacts with the present. That’s not just evident in the episode’s title, referencing Russ Meyer’s 1965 gender role-challenging exploitation classic, or in Josie’s (Ashleigh Murray) evocation of the specter of Donna Summer to capture her feelings of emotional listlessness; it’s also evident in the way the folks of Riverdale seem sharply divided along generational lines. Much of the first season has seen tension between the questions and curiosities of the town’s teenage heartthrobs and the more firm, cold stances of the town’s adult heartthrobs, but “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” really takes it to another level.
The most obvious (and insightful) way to examine how Riverdale explores the generational divide is to look at the relationships betweens the kids of Riverdale and their parents. This is an episode that’s all about the way the dynamic shifts as kids get older, a process arguably expedited by the speed with which this new generation is being forced to grow up. I mean, in the span of just six episodes, Archie is forced to reckon with the very adult process of grieving a lost love—who may have manipulated him sexually (and illegally)—while also navigating the very childlike notion of stage fright. Though Archie’s musical hopes and dreams are the show’s weakest link by far, a hollow, dissonant note in an otherwise perfectly crafted, neon-tinged soundscape, the show does a good job of using that story to demonstrate that while these kids might talk and boast killer bodies beyond their years, they’re also, well, kids, complete with all sorts of insecurities and self-destructive patterns of behavior.
In other words, Riverdale has spent much of the first half of this season making sure its protagonists look unassailable. That’s not to say that there haven’t been cracks here and there, but rather that this is the first episode that makes these characters feel more like messy teenagers. “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill” is certainly overstuffed with plots and subplots, lacking the focus of earlier episodes, but the narrative also acts as a necessary stumble for the Riverdale kids. Presenting Betty (Lili Reinhart), Archie, Veronica (Camila Mendes), Josie, and the others as insecure teens still trying to figure their shit out gives those characters a real sense of depth and relatability. Josie, for instance, has largely been a bit character, a controlling bandleader with little room for compromise. Here, we learn of her fraught relationship with her father (Reese Alexander), a jazz musician who sees little artistic merit and value in the way Josie chooses to express herself. That Donna Summer performance is a devastating moment, with Josie turning her back to the audience, her face filling the frame while she struggles to hold back tears. Considering how underserved the character has been so far, the fact that the emotional moment lands is a testament to the episode’s nuance.
In Josie’s relationship with her father, we see not only a strained familial bond, but also an exploration of the way the rising generation wants to be heard. I hesitate to label the Riverdale crew “Millennials,” because they feel so out of time, but there’s no denying the parallel between the way their struggles with identity, technology and art mirror those of the present. Josie wishes her father could see the heartfelt expression hidden underneath the pulsing sonic artifice of “I Feel Love,” or the way Beyoncé’s politically charged music has more in common with her father’s beloved jazz heroes than he might expect.
Parents are always looking to make sure their values are embodied in their children. It’s an understandable impulse, but there also needs to be room for independent growth. Just look at Polly (Tiera Skovbye), pregnant with Jason’s baby and holed up in a nun-run facility straight out of Gothic horror; all that’s missing is some yellow wallpaper and an oppressive attic. The act of sending Polly to the Sisters of Quiet Mercy comes across like the Coopers scrubbing their history clean, as if Macbeth was left out of the curriculum at Riverdale High when they were growing up. Similarly, Jason and Polly’s getaway car, filled with drugs, may be nothing but a charred hunk of metal now, but that doesn’t mean the stain is removed.
“We’re not our parents. We’re not our families,” Jughead says (Cole Sprouse), just before he kisses Betty. It’s hard to know if that’s true right now, but “Faster, Pussycats! Kill! Kill!” shows us that these kids are trying desperately to remove themselves from the shadow of their families and the past actions that have led the town of Riverdale to this moment of crisis. Meyer’s film opens with narration—sound familiar?—that gloomily boasts, “Violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises,” and that’s certainly true of Riverdale, where nearly every bit of sage parental advice and calls of “it’s for your own good” are tinged with little bits of violence and judgment.
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.