Last week’s Riverdale was a rare, huge misstep for a new show that, in pretty much every episode prior, had done nothing but build confidence in its aesthetic, storytelling, and ability to tease mysteries while finding time to revel in smaller character moments. You wouldn’t think that an episode of TV could be both achingly dull and melodramatic, but that’s exactly what “Chapter Eight: The Outsiders” was. Thankfully, “Chapter Nine: La Grande Illusion” sees the show return to form, offering up a little bit of everything we’ve come to love, including a lot of Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch).
While, much like last week’s episode, “La Grande Illusion” is largely focused on the generational rivalry between the Blossoms and Coopers, there’s a distinct difference that immediately makes this outing much more compelling: The main characters are the focus. As delightful as it’s been watching Mädchen Amick and Nathalie Boltt do their soap opera thing, there needs to be a balance between their dramatic antics and the more subtle notes provided by the likes of Betty (Lili Reinhart), Veronica (Camina Mendes), Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and Archie (K.J. Apa).
So, while the age-old blood feud is the center of the town’s attention here, it’s the younger generation that acts as the centerpiece. The Blossoms are set to hold their annual tree-tapping ceremony, and with that comes the parade of Blossom look-alikes that make up the Board of Trustees, descending on the estate to witness the latest extravagance of the maple monopoly. For some reason, Clifford Blossom (Barclay Hope) has decided that Cheryl can’t take over the family business, and mixed in with the scandal over Jason’s murder, the Trustees are like Ginger Sharks that smell blood in the water. This might be the opportunity to wrench Clifford from his position of power.
What comes out of that power struggle is an intriguing dynamic between Archie and Cheryl that finds tension in the fact that we never really understand their true motivations. Archie agrees to be Cheryl’s escort to the ceremony, partly out of pity for her situation with her parents, but he’s also intrigued by Penelope’s mention of an uncle that has some sway at a prestigious music academy. Archie is nothing if not dedicated to becoming the John Mayer of Riverdale, so of course he accepts the offer. As the episode rolls on, and the ethical conundrums pile up, the strengths and weaknesses of Riverdale are revealed.
On the one hand, there’s a lot to love in the dynamic between Cheryl and Archie. There’s something truly magnetic there. It’s in the way she looks him up and down, devouring him with her eyes, while also playing to his compassion; she knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s in the vulnerability that comes out when she’s alone with him, revealing the inferiority complex that stems from Jason (Trevor Stines) being the heralded child of the family. While those strengths shine, they also can’t help but highlight the show’s complete fumbling of Val (Hayley Law) and Archie’s relationship. With Cheryl growing closer to Archie, there’s no real tension between him and Val. Instead, we get a hurried breakup that doesn’t make the emotional impact it should.
More than anything else, “La Grande Illusion” is a standalone arc for Cheryl. It acts as both a deepening of her character on an emotional level and, perhaps, a shove into pure evil in the episodes to come. Sure, the episode spends some time fleshing out other storylines, with Hermione (Marisol Nichols) finally telling Frank (Luke Perry) the truth about Hiram, and it seems that Polly (Tiera Skovbye) is working as a spy within the Blossom household in the hopes of discovering something about Jason’s murder, but this is without a doubt Cheryl’s hour. Her moments with Archie, including a single kiss and an ‘84 Les Paul, show a sentimental side that’s been hidden up until this point, at least when it comes to anyone who isn’t her brother. That makes her late-episode madness all the more terrifying, in the wonderfully giddy kind of way that Riverdale likes to revel in. A lone, pale figure in an elaborate bed of silk sheets and pillows, she angrily scratches out the faces of Polly and Archie from a photo taken during the ceremony. If there’s one lesson that’s been made clear throughout this season, it’s that you don’t piss off the Blossoms. Cheryl may be a flurry of great dialogue—she tells Fred that he’s looking “extra DILF-y” when she greets him at the door, and tells her brood of friends to “scatter, my vixens”—but that way with words is also the reason she’s so dangerous. She’s perceptive and manipulative and capable beyond her years. In essence, she’s a Blossom, something that Archie seems to forget.
Of course, “La Grande Illusion” isn’t all about Cheryl (sigh). In fact, the episode gets back to really examining the inner turmoil of its “teen” characters. That means Betty and Jughead get a very sweet moment of strength and support, and Veronica gets to remove herself from the cloud of her father’s misdeed and find some sense of redemption in her blooming friendship with Ethel. While the kids continue to mature emotionally, the adults stay bitter and angry. Alice and Hal are as far apart as can be, Hermione has lost Fred as a romantic partner, and, as Archie eavesdrops through a pair of evergreen trees like some sort of half-baked comic book sleuth, Clifford and Penelope openly discuss the downfall of Hermione and the fact that they orchestrated Hiram’s conviction and subsequent sentencing.
None of that is as captivating as the arc of Cheryl Blossom, but it contributes to “La Grande Illusion” feeling like a much-needed course correction after the directionless nature of last week’s episode. It turns out that Riverdale isn’t running out of steam just yet. In fact, “La Grande Illusion” suggests there’s still an awful lot of story left to tell.
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.