Verdict: The Last Picture Show is a story of hits and misses – a frustrating conclusion to the Ms. Grundy plotline mixed with some compelling subplots that put forward this show’s strongest world-building yet.
Riverdale came out of the gates confident in its vision of a small town blighted by secrets and prejudice that lurk just beneath the surface – a skewed take on the classic Americana teen soap influenced just as much by crime drama and film noir as it is by Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek. It’s impressive to see just how quickly this show has crafted a textured world with believable idiosyncrasies and flaws, and with its fourth episode, it offers up the richest portrayal of Riverdale the town yet, both in the added layers given to some relatively unexplored characters and the weird new reveals about the way this deeply unusual place operates. Riverdale is a place that’s caught halfway in between hyper-realistic 2017 social consciousness and the self-conscious artificiality of a place that could only exist on a stylised TV show, and it’s proving to be a very entertaining place to visit every week.
But it’s not all there yet. The Last Picture Show hits the mark so often with its subplots and character reveals that it’s easy to look past the glaring flaws of its actual main story, Archie and Ms Grundy. Since the pilot, it’s been emblematic of this show’s growing pains in reconciling its soapy elements and ripped-from-the-headlines relevance and believability. It’s fair to say that Riverdale has improved in its interrogation of the emotionally unhealthy nature of the relationship, and the show has always been clear that Archie’s blindness in this case is his greatest flaw as a character that forms a big part of his character arc this season.
And in places, The Last Picture Show doubles down on that punchiness. Initially, it’s Betty and Veronica who are the voices of discontent to Archie, and the sympathy they’ve earned as characters means that they’re well-placed to vehemently make the argument that Archie’s affair is a touch problematic. On a simple level of calling Archie out for behaving like an idiot in the whole affair, and opening his eyes to the deceit that underlies the relationship, The Last Picture Show passes with flying colours. But the show is never able to translate that interrogative tone to Ms Grundy’s character, and that’s where problems begin to crop up. The episode seems to have very little clarity about who it wants Ms Grundy to be, and therefore her relationship with Archie, and the stance that the show is taking on it, becomes increasingly hazy as the episode piles on the twists. She’s given a backstory that is wholly sympathetic and appears to be somewhat genuine, so evidently she’s not being painted as a wholehearted villain. Indeed, her main antagonist in that final confrontation is actually Alice Cooper, a character who has been the mouthpiece for a whole host of problematic views with not much emotional realism behind that, which creates the sense in the final scene that Riverdale wants us to believe that Ms Grundy is being attacked for something that goes way beyond her crimes. Painting her as innocent is problematic enough, because her behaviour has been too manipulative and calculated in past episodes for the ‘she’s good after all!’ viewpoint to really fly. It comes across as slightly toothless, Riverdale retreating on its scathing and arguably justified criticism of her character when it counts the most.
However, The Last Picture Show also wants Ms Grundy to keep that manipulative nature she’s exhibited in past episodes. The closing note of her character is a repeat of the first time we saw her seducing Archie, only with some other footballers as she makes her way out of Riverdale, which implies pretty heavily that she’s very much a repeat offender in this case. Coming after a humanisation of her character and an indication that she’s being attacked unfairly, this just creates a confusing message, with Riverdale failing to come to a coherent viewpoint on who she was. The element of mystery is clearly intended, as shown with Betty’s final voiceover, but that calculated uncertainty ends up feeling like confusion. As a result, we have Ms Grundy getting a very light punishment, fitting for someone who had good intentions, with the possibility that she’s been freed to keep committing a crime that no-one ever really interrogated her for in the first place. The Last Picture Show’s intent is crystal-clear with Grundy, and the episode gets some good points in about the predatory nature of relationships like these before it begins spelling out the tragic backstory, but the execution is contradictory and quietly problematic in what it implicitly condones. Riverdale had big ambitions for this story, but it ended up tripping over its shoelaces.
Grundy might have been a bust, but that doesn’t sink The Last Picture Show at all. Curiously, for an episode with such poor execution in some places, it’s really, really good almost everywhere else – and considering the amount of subplots piled on outside the Grundy story, that’s a lot to dig into still. The defining theme of these vignettes is the idea that the simple, apple-pie old Riverdale is slipping away, replaced with something marked by uncertainty and moral compromise, and that point is made most empathically in Jughead’s storyline. Jughead has been a fun character so far, his cheesy voiceover articulating Riverdale’s self-aware melodrama and genre blend, but there hasn’t been much exploration of what makes him tick, which makes his storyline here so enlightening. For all of Jughead’s elaborate hipster tics and detached air, it’s proven here that he’s motivated by simple and emotional things – a desire to hold onto the rose-tinted past embodied by the Twilight Drive-in, and in a quietly affecting reveal, a need to find a place to sleep at night now that stability has been upended. The episode’s closing revelation that his dad is part of the biker gang that terrorises Riverdale could have been silly, but it’s a surprisingly weighty and meaningful twist for Jughead a character that Cole Sprouse sells with a convincing weariness. In The Last Picture Show, the lack of inner life for Jughead beyond his friendships and a fascination with observing the unfolding story of Riverdale moves from being an oversight to the defining point of the character, which adds a poignant edge to his dynamic with his friends – something that’s a necessity for his happiness in a way they can’t quite grasp.
Meanwhile, The Last Picture Show tilts its focus slightly away from the teens and towards the adults. I would be lying if I said that the backroom deals and manipulation involving biker gangs and Veronica’s incarcerated father aren’t massively unrealistic, but that’s never something that Riverdale denies. This is a show that’s been unafraid to paint in broad strokes when that fits the tone, and here, the outsize nature of the conspiracy that Veronica’s mother and the mayor participate in fits the melodramatic vision of this show – a world in which everything is dialled up to eleven, and where only some people actually notice that. Furthermore, The Last Picture Show is more substantial than that description suggests, in that it populates the biker gang storyline with characters we like who have very good reasons for doing what they’re doing. It’s a strong storyline for Veronica’s mother, whose previously defining aspect, her maternal protectiveness, informs all of her actions even as they craft her into a deeply flawed figure with some highly questionable morals, shaping her into a character who, whilst we can still generally like, possesses the complexity and capacity for both good and evil of the teen characters.
It’s also a strong episode for Archie’s father, who is fast becoming a TV Dad for the ages. Luke Perry is great as Fred, conveying a world-weariness and stoic warmth that places him in an intriguing contrast to the emotional and impulsive Archie. The Last Picture Show manages to nudge him out of that very narrow world and sketches out a more substantial role for him in the show’s world. While his dynamic with Veronica’s mother is a little simplistic, with a tilt into romantic territory looking more and more predictable, his role within the destruction of the drive-in as the reluctant facilitator motivated by simple maths in comparison to the complicated double-dealings going on is a strong way to take his attitude towards parenting into the wider world and therefore to define him as more than just Archie’s wise mentor. Riverdale isn’t there yet with bringing the parents up to speed with the teens – Alice Cooper has a good scene with Betty at the end where her controlling behaviour is hinted to be a reflexive move to protect herself from the trauma of losing her first daughter, but she too often strays into cartoonish antagonism to stir up conflict – but it’s certainly getting there.
One of the best parts of this episode actually plays out right at the fringes of it all, which is Kevin’s own travails. Finally, The Last Picture Show finds a way to break him out of the ‘gay best friend’ role by fleshing out his own life beyond Betty and Veronica and by introducing his own independent romantic storyline. His dynamic with his sheriff father is a pleasant surprise in how forward-looking and tolerant it is – the hints of previous episodes that Kevin was constrained by a conservative household are replaced by a full supportiveness that’s really great to see. The increased focus on his own desires is also an encouraging development, allowing Riverdale to substantially explore his sexuality beyond glib humour – his fling with a biker gang member, the most awkward situation imaginable for the son of a sheriff, is a good start in giving Kevin as much importance as the myriad heterosexual characters. With Kevin’s story here and the brief exploration of white privilege last week with Archie and Josie, Riverdale is definitely moving in the right direction with its representation, even if there’s still a lot more to do (such as with Jughead, whose own sexuality looks set to crop up soon if the preview photos are any indication).
Riverdale is four episodes in now, so it’s safe to say that it’s settled in for the long haul. As this episode shows, there are so many elements of the show that are well thought-out and dramatically compelling in a way that reasonably few shows could match in their first season. Indeed, the world building in this episode, from the biker gang to the revelation of the Mayor’s own complicity in affairs, is an impressive leap forward for a show that established its world confidently in the first place. The Last Picture Show is a reminder that Riverdale still has some significant problems in executing some of its thornier storylines, with the sharpness and singular intent of last week’s slut-shaming storyline replaced by a confused approach to Ms Grundy’s teacher-student affair that feels caught between two viewpoints. But this show has come a long way already, and there’s no reason to believe that it can’t tackle its problems in time.
Odds & Ends
- Cheryl’s dialogue has progressed from ‘realistically verbose teenager concerned with a manicured self image’ to ‘is she reading from a thesaurus at all times?’. I can only imagine how elaborate it’ll be by the finale.
- No Jason Blossom this episode, other than the reveal that he was taught by Ms Grundy. Unless she makes a surprise return, however, it’s likely that’s just a red herring.
- Is Pop’s the only restaurant in Riverdale? It feels like a strange place for a father and son to go for a thank-you meal with a teacher.
- Betty and Veronica have broken and entered two episodes in a row now. They’re racking up those felonies together. True friendship is something else.
- This episode and Oscar favourite La La Land have something in common: a major scene where the characters watch Rebel Without a Cause. Tenuous connections!