It’s important to marry someone, she said. Not because you need them to complete you or because you ought to be someone’s wife by hook or by crook. It’s just that worlds want to combine, they want to marry, and they use people to do it, the way you mix medicine in with something sweet, so it’s easy to swallow. That’s why we have to have all those silly things: a frilly dress and something blue and a bachelor party and a priest. Just so that a boy and a girl can live together and make babies? Posh. Because the big worlds inside us are mating, and they need the pomp.
-“Kallisti,” in The Bread We Eat In Dreams, Catherynne M. Valente.
I knew I would like Riverdale, even before I found out it’s a retelling of Archie comics. Yes, there are shows I like that are provocative and artistic that I can comfortably advertise as an interest of mine – but often what I find myself watching, for pure fun, is often high-stakes teenage melodrama. I’m now nine years out of highschool, but life has never lost that quality of choice that these retellings of adolescence often underpin: that being the mean girl or the nice girl come with moral short comings either way; that love is not going to be simple; that you have to work on every area of your life at once. Maybe someone with a degree in psychoanalysis or fairy-tales could point to the adolescence of these characters as an archetype in every person; you’re still a beginner, even when crow’s feet start to spur down your cheeks, and it might be more palatable to watch someone with a decade less on them make a mistake than someone who ought to know better. Maybe that last clause explains why I had weaned off these shows. Give me thirty-year-old women, a little older than me, and give me a blue print for how to be them and be smarter. These kids make the same mistakes I do. Teach me not to make them, instead of slapping my fuck-ups on a focus-tested face.
I digress: I knew I would love Riverdale because I had loved Gossip Girl, a show about wealthy Manhattanites so different from myself that identification should be impossible, in the way that the wholesome perfection of Archie and Betty ought to be fictionally untenable but is not. But just like Gossip Girl, the show features an attraction between the offspring of former sweethearts, which always irks me, and I’m trying to work out why now. Now, doubtless there’s a lot of very meaty metaphor you can read into that; often these shows cast the stakes of romantic selections as a choice between destiny and freedom. ‘Freedom’ gets tagged with moral superiority, following one’s true heart or true self, despite the many eases that ‘destiny’ offers. Usually the aborted romance of the parents is because one of them (typically the female partner in a heterosexual romance) chose the safe-bet husband, and as their worlds collide again, their children face the same temptation, and perhaps make a different choice.
Archie Andrews meets Veronica Lodge and is instantly drawn to her; her mother and his father reference their bygone relationship, how Hermione Lodge chose “the rich guy” over Archie’s construction-company father. Had she not, she would have altered the setting dramatically, but she chose business as usual. Supposedly.
There are two obvious components to take beef with: that these sorts of stories seem to suggest genetic, rather than moral, destiny (as it’s never adopted children making eyes at one another); that these stories often cast the self-interested choices of women as wrong, often because of that self-interest, when the spurned men rarely stand to lose as much as they do. But I think what bothers me is the closed ecosystem of the worlds that these stories take place in. The romantic options are always known-quantities, the children of former romantic options. The world is so much stranger than that. And if Archie ends up with Veronica … what then? If that’s rebellion, it’s not one that fundamentally changes the ecosystem of Riverdale, or even the ecosystem of romantic options. Rich romantic options go on, remain tempting. Unless they fuck off to parts unknown, their children will continue to orbit a world of old flames and wealth families, and even then it’s not the romance that changes the game, it’s the choice to leave town, an option even open to a spinster like me. Their child comes to the same crossroads. I feel like that sort of drama bills itself as the possibility of a truly new choice, but it isn’t. It doesn’t change the world. When their worlds collide, they don’t produce anything new.