As far as iconic American characters go, it’s hard to compete with Archie Andrews. The star of Archie Comics has had a long life as the quintessential small-town kid; he’s perpetually caught between two beautiful, smart women who love him, has a quirky best friend, and is a successful high school athlete. His goofier qualities — scheduling two dates at once, being oblivious in social interactions, hamfistedly trying to be a good guy — are the sort of traits we look for in a well-meaning sitcom dad. The CW’s Riverdale, however, has found a way to make him even more American: this teen soap has turned him into a fascist. (Warning: Light Riverdale spoilers follow.)
Riverdale’s appeal comes, in large part, from taking the cleancut image of Archie Comics, and filtering it through the hyper-stylized, bloody haze of Twin Peaks. This is small town America filled with dead corpses and horny bodies — a town where, as Jughead takes great pains to remind us every other episode, everything is not as it seems. Archie, however, actually isn’t that different from his comics counterpart; for most of Riverdale’s first season, he’s perhaps best described as a goobus. Sure, he sleeps with his 20-something music teacher, but that’s partly because he’s so naive he thinks there’s a chance they’ll wind up together. Sure, he’s trying to investigate a murder basically on his own, but what would you do if you were the teenage equivalent of a golden retriever?
Over the course of the season, Archie gets named captain of the football team, but turns it down to work on his guitar music. He’s oblivious to Betty’s obvious feelings for him. He has a brief, very dumb relationship with Val, one of the Pussycats. More importantly, he is consistently the least interesting part of the show. Archie is ostensibly the main character, but the whip-smart Veronica, genuinely empathetic Betty, and amusingly weird Jughead are all exponentially more compelling. Archie is a teen soap archetype, the lunkhead who is admittedly rather hot but doesn’t have much going on in the “character” department.
Then, at the end of the season his dad gets shot, as he becomes the first target of the serial killer known as The Black Hood. He survives, but Archie’s perception of Riverdale as safe and idyllic shatters. His commitment to protecting his family — and, eventually, tracking down The Black Hood — grows like a weed into something that threatens the rest of the town. He starts out spending his nights keeping watch in his house, equipped with a clutched baseball bat, but then he buys a gun, because of course there is no other way to keep the town safe. Eventually, Archie starts The Red Circle, an organization of fellow Riverdale High athletes that is somewhere between a militia, a neighborhood watch, and a LARP club — which is to say, The CW’s version of the American right.
Archie decides to found The Red Circle in part because of the influence of Hiram Lodge, Veronica’s semi-imposing, businessman father, who becomes the major agent of Archie’s radicalization. Hiram, a mobster, is very into “law and order” as a nexus of political concepts implying the limitation of civil liberties and democracy, and the beefing up of the state security apparatus. He basically owns Riverdale’s mayor for a period of time, secretly buying up plots of land on the town’s Southside with little to no pushback. Confronted by someone he thinks is an agent for the FBI, Archie throws his lot in with Hiram, directly causing the murder of a mobster named Papa Poutine. And in last week’s episode, we finally learn Hiram’s big plan for Riverdale: to build a private prison using the guts of South Side High, while using the rest of the land he’s been purchasing to house and provide for its employees.
As far as devious plans by teen soap villain dads go, this one is pretty good — it’s all-too-realistic, evil, and actually seems plausible as a necessary real estate secret, since getting the sleepy town of Riverdale to agree to host a cash-grab carceral factory does in fact sound like a hard sell. Archie, as a proto-fascist idiot, loves the idea, to the point where he is willing to turn his back on his horrified father, who’s ostensibly the reason he became interested in Riverdale’s “safety” in the first place. Bringing a visible symbol of the power of law and order in all its forms to Riverdale seems, to this impressionable teen, to be an excellent idea, a way for him to maintain control in the face of all of the things threatening him in the dark. Motivated by fear, Archie makes a blood pact with a duplicitous hyper-capitalist who justifies his crimes by appealing to the family unit, a man Archie ascribes the not-at-all-creepy quality of “seeing what has to be done and doing it” — a perfect little parable of the American right.
Riverdale’s broader politics, such as it has them, are downright bizarre. The show seems committed to presenting very special episodes and plots based on Tumblr circa 2010, and to highlighting issues it thinks are important in ways that don’t really clarify how or why the show thinks they’re important. In one episode, Riverdale’s token gay character Kevin Keller tries to justify his habit of cruising in the serial killer-infested woods. Eventually, he shouts at Betty that she has dating options unavailable to him — a declaration that makes a lot more sense in a pre-Grindr world. Betty’s eventual embrace of camming as a source of confidence verges on a positive, potentially groundbreak depiction of sex work — except that she’s like, 16.
Archie believes in an American ideal of strength and stability, and the blank-faced capitalist offering it to him is his best option to make the world into somewhere he feels safe living.
In this context, Archie’s corruption is a shockingly successful throughline. Archie believes in an American ideal of strength and stability, and the blank-faced capitalist offering it to him is his best option to make the world into somewhere he feels safe living. The things Archie cares about — his father, his girlfriend, the vague idea of Riverdale as a town where everything is peachy and fine — are, if not shared, at least recognizable. The things he does to protect them, however, are classically authoritarian. In last night’s episode, Jughead and the rest of the Southside Serpents chain themselves to South Side High to try to stop it from being turned into a prison. Archie rides over on his bike and, inexplicably backed by the wrestling team in homogenizing, matching blue-grey outfits, cuts Jughead down. Truly, Archie is living the American dream.
The major difference between Archie and a Proud Boy, besides the fact that he has canonically had sex, is that he isn’t actively racist: Riverdale has a pretty big, willful blind spot when it comes racial politics, of the sort where it never really acknowledges that characters even have races. The Southsiders who make up the show’s oppressed working class are almost all white, while the black mayor and Latinx crime family scheme to build a prison that will house, presumably, more people of color, in addition to the white Serpents. The only real nod to the possibility of racial injustice is the character Toni Topaz, whose grandfather is descended from the Native tribe long-since slaughtered by local folk hero General Pickens. But, like the very real Frank Miller cosplayers who populate the American right, Archie has been sold a fantasy — the fantasy that defined Archie Comics for decades. “Riverdale needs a change,” he says, but it’s a change that really exists to push back against anything else that might alter the town’s tenuous balance.
Hiram offers Archie the dream of “the safest small town in America” — a perfect town with its own self-contained economy totally fueled by local businesses, a town where the rich guy down the road has servants and no discernible skills besides feeding on other people’s money but is ultimately a good-hearted grump with a beautiful daughter. A town where the most pressing question is how to take two girls to the same dance. It sounds pleasant enough, as long as you don’t think about whose backs are paving the streets.
The old archetype of the trusting, good-natured boy scout has produced some powerful characters, but it comes with pretty clear authoritarian undertones that are worth exploring. Archie in the 1950s might have been struggling to balance dates with Betty and Veronica, but Archie in 2018 is busy leading a group of indistinguishable jocks to break up a protest on behalf of a rich criminal. It’s possible — even likely — that Archie will eventually turn on Hiram and help Jughead save the town. But if and when that happens, it won’t erase the fact that Archie — and the sort of blithe Americana he represents — was more than willing to sell out the town for the illusion of security. Archie may continue to try to pursue the dream of the old Riverdale but, for him and for us, there’s no going back.