Brow Beat

Riverdale Is Nowheresville

The small-town America the CW’s Archie Comics reboot pines for never existed, and that’s its appeal.

Mädchen Amick, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, and Skeet Ulrich in Riverdale.
Mädchen Amick, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, and Skeet Ulrich in Riverdale.
The CW

There are at least 21 Riverdales in the United States, neighborhoods, cities, and unincorporated townships scattered across the entire country. Like Springfield, or Riverside, or Midway, it’s a name that could exist anywhere. It conjures the Everytown, USA image of a place where Americana is alive and well and the big scary city doesn’t intrude on its citizens’ lifestyles. The CW’s Riverdale recreates this trope with roots planted in iconic source material—the Archie Comics series, which ran throughout most of the 20th century and has been successfully revived in the 21st. This Riverdale is a reboot of the comic strip’s setting, with plenty of pastiche, camp, and Lynchian darkness thrown in. It is also a town the show’s characters are determined to save, no matter the personal cost.

But what is the town, exactly? It has a “north side” and a “south side;” a Sweetwater River; a diner called, simply, “Pop’s Chock’lit Shoppe.” It neighbors a town called Greendale. The newspapers for the public high schools are the Blue and Gold and the Red and Black. It is, simply, an empty town, a blank slate on which the characters project their lives and desires. The characters build their sanity and happiness on the idea of a peaceful Riverdale. When the town encounters chaos—the death of the star quarterback or attacks by a black-hooded terrorist—nothing takes a higher priority than returning the town to its status quo. But with no real identity, the town has nothing to return to. The characters aren’t mourning the loss of a place; they’re mourning the loss of placelessness, because with placelessness comes unaccountability. When a town can be anything the characters want, they are free to engage in corruption, classism, or any number of moral evils without fear of retribution.

The chaotic soap plotlines in the show all stem from unmasking the choices of Riverdale’s most powerful citizens. Jason Blossom’s death in Season 1 revealed drug dealing, incest, and murder within the richest family in Riverdale. Blonde, blue-eyed Betty Cooper transforms into a dominatrix alter ego; Jughead Jones has to tell his best friend Archie Andrews (and the entire town) that his dad is a Southside Serpent. Veronica Lodge sees her mother’s conniving and manipulative hands up close. Season 2 continues the high-stakes trend: A kind teacher is the biggest drug dealer in the town, the mayor participates in a discriminatory arrest sweep of an entire high school, Archie leads a faction of teenage boys in a band of vigilante fighters. And at the center of it all is the Black Hood: a terrorist who claims his acts of violence and fear are a means to expunge the “sinners” of Riverdale.

Betty Cooper is the light to the Black Hood’s darkness, adopting a Nancy Drew–like identity to stop him from wreaking havoc on Riverdale. She claims she wants to stop him to prevent more violence in her beloved town, and yet she gives up the name of sexual predator Nick St. Clair with ease and conviction. As a result, the Black Hood tells her they are cut from the same cloth. The show has spent time slowly revealing Betty’s secret dark side. Betty doesn’t really want to stop violence. She wants to stop having to acknowledge the visceral, dangerous impulses that reside in her own body. And, by extension, she wants to return to the Riverdale where no one experiences the consequences of their choices because, in that town, she never has to look at herself either.

That dark side is Betty’s reality, and it’s Riverdale’s reality, too. But reality is scary. Projection is not. So the entire town yearns for the peaceful Riverdale of the past: a town filled with 1950s-era Americana touchstones, rigid levels of self-containment, and not much else. It functions as a physical callback to a town of yesteryear—or rather, a mirage of yesteryear. The physical icons are there, and the citizens participate in the imagined space, but the town’s immediate degeneration demonstrates how the structures could only exist when nothing questioned their legitimacy. All the characters had a stake in maintaining the image, so only freak violence from an unknown source could wrench the pre-established sense of decorum. A murder came to town, and the entire structure crumbled. Riverdale’s version of small-town life may be high stakes and pumped with teen drama, but it demonstrates how the safety and security of small town life has always been a fallacy. Nostalgia for idyllic midcentury life is nostalgia for a world that never existed. Nuclear family security came with legal marital rape; black mobility was within segregated boundaries; the U.S. was undermining democracies around the world in the name of freedom. Small-town idealization has always been a way of yearning for a world where it was commonplace to opt out of political realities. The false identity of American wholesomeness doesn’t just assuage guilt or complicity in the crimes of our modern world: It prevents the feelings from existing in the first place.

The ties that bind Riverdale’s citizens to the town are wrapped around a void. No such voids exist in real life; every town is a representation of America’s broader histories, policies, migrations, successes, failures. Riverdale’s obsession with place as salvation, though, is not unique to the show. Recent American politics have reflected stark levels of regionalism in contemporary life; the 2016 voting map shows the division between urban and rural lifestyles in America, and each side clings to narratives about their own existence. Cities are bastions of progress despite contributing to rising income inequality; small towns are “real America” despite having racial makeups that don’t reflect the actual diversity of the country’s population. The citizens of Riverdale aren’t the only ones projecting onto their town, demanding it hold an identity that doesn’t require anyone to accept reality.

The longer the Black Hood occupies Riverdale, the more mythic his status becomes. The show takes a Flannery O’Connor–esque turn when the town starts viewing the Black Hood as a hand of God, there to cleanse the town and manipulate its citizens at its will. The Black Hood’s language of “sinners” in Riverdale sets up the parameters for the religious exchange: “Show me you’re pure of heart, and my work ends,” he says in the seventh episode. “Continue to sin, and I will take up the sword again.” Archie ruminates on the Black Hood, saying, “We’ve all done bad things since the Black Hood walked into this diner. It’s like he’s making us do them.” Archie puts the responsibility of chaos into the terrorist’s hands without recognizing that the “bad things” he references are merely more overt expressions of what the entire town was already in the habit of doing. For Archie, though, and all of Riverdale, it makes more sense to fear a hooded figure than to fear the very place he has sworn to protect.