Good evening, all you Riverdale fans, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspended in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.
As always, spoilers ahead.
1. The Vintage of the Vignette
Before we present the first of our three paintings, we must first turn our eye to the gallery itself. Thornhill Manor, on a thunderous night much like the one I’m writing in, sets the stage. Gothic and ominous, the threat of electric destruction and a soaking chill are kept at bay by thin walls, the constant drumming of rain a reminder of just how thin that illusion of safety. Dark, candlelit shadows bounce about in the red halls, an unwelcome set of motions at the periphery of one’s vision. It is the perfect place for paintings of paranoia, pain, and predation. And yet, this is merely the gallery within the gallery of Chapter 90, for the episode itself is structured with a specific frame.
Invoking the name of another classic anthology series, “The Night Gallery” frames itself as as a successor to one of the strongest episode of Riverdale, “Tales from the Darkside,” allowing the vignette format to feel natural and organic. Framing, in art as in many areas, is key to ensuring understanding a subject and can, in important ways, change the way one views such a subject.
“The Night Gallery” plays with this by creating evocative images of three subjects – Archie, Betty, & Jughead – and uses them, as well as the tone of the gallery, to surprise by subverting the expectations created by the images. It even goes so far as to use the expectations set by the gallery’s gallery to subvert itself, but that is getting ahead of ourselves. First, we must delve deep into the mine of a troubled twenty-something in…
2. Palladium’s Provocation
Archie’s PTSD and latent traumas are at the fore in this vignette as Cheryl’s decision to mine for palladium before Hiram can get at it pushes him to the brink. Exacerbated by carbon monoxide poisoning thanks to him/his crew not realizing that mines could be dangerous in ways the buddy system can’t solve, Archie lashes out at his new therapist, terrifying her and ending the episode haunted by more than just his dead pal Bingo.
It’s a slow descent, or as slow as one can portray in around 15 minutes, highlighting not only how Archie has failed to properly seek help for his time in the army, concerned as he was for others more than himself, but also how the town of Riverdale primed him to be mistrustful of Dr. Winters in the first place. Granted, it is very weird to have a therapist just grab a bottle of pills from their drawer and hand it over but allowances must be made for TV and for mood to lend some credence to Archie’s paranoia before being shown how wrong he was.
Archie feels the need to solve everything himself. He wants to be the image of his father he has romanticized, a rock to the community who could always be depended upon and stood on his own to support others. However, he cannot be this because not even Fred was that pillar. Archie’s, comparatively minor, lashing out at those who want to help him prior to the CO poisoning is fed by this conflict, which is exemplified by the loss of his platoon. He failed not only to save his friends but to live up to this imagined version of his father, and he continues to fail. He is far from the picturesque, Rockwellian boy he feels the need to embody and the weight of that is certain to become only heavier with each passing day.
What happens, then, when the weight becomes too much, when carefully crafted appearances break down in the face of one’s goals? One twenty-something former FBI agent is about to find out in…
3. Steel and Enamel
Betty’s revenge quest finally bore fruit in last week’s episode when she captured who she thought was her sister’s killer. While we don’t have full confirmation by the end of her vignette, it is safe to assume he, along with his family Truck-San, Truck-Sama, and Truck-Ko, had something to do with it (and no, this bit will never die). Throughout this vignette, Betty puts on her many masks – FBI, revenge seeking sister, serial killer – to try to get a confession out of “Milton.” Each one cracks and fails to convince him to drop his own.Continued below
The lack of control she feels is apparent with each passing attempt and that lack of control frustrates and frightens her, now more than pre-time skip thanks to the extreme loss of control at the hands of TBK. In an attempt to wrest it back, she grabs a chainsaw, ready to become the thing she fears most. It does not take, as “Milton” bites his tongue off before she can commit to any acts, but it was close.
It is hard to watch. It is even harder to watch Worst Mom of the Year™ be the best she’s been in years, tortured with the knowledge her daughter was (likely) murdered by a man with this little care for human life, falling so far as to give her other daughter permission to kill him with nary a hint of hesitation. It is a reminder that family binds together but it is not always a force for good. The Trucker killers are a family too, after all. And one wouldn’t say Betty’s family has always been the best influence on her.
It’s true that sometimes an influence seems like a boon, a godsent, a life-saver, but look closer at that influence and you can see the rot at its heart. One twenty-something knows this all too well as he takes a deal with…
4. The Writhing King
Jughead lost about a week from one of the worst nights of his life. Unlike Archie or Betty who are haunted by things they cannot unsee, Jughead is haunted by a period he cannot see. Or, he was at least. After hitching a ride to New York at the end of “Strange Bedfellows”, Jughead learned that he had fallen into a sinkhole whereupon he was covered in rats and, once freed, wrote a story in the margins of his book to keep himself lucid before crawling back into the daylight and getting to a hospital to be treated for rabies. He lost this story, as it was stuck in the sewers, but he has since regained it.
Jughead’s story is the only one of the three that ends somewhat optimistically, perhaps because he is the only one who is confronting his problems wholeheartedly. The story he tells, for he is a storyteller after all, is of how he attributed the same vices which doom him on his worst nights – alcohol on the release party night and shrooms on the sketch alley night – to the days of his success. By doing this, he identifies how what he thought were tools for growth were instead making him toxic and isolated.
Moreover, these nights were ones where he was attempting to recapture his past, be that a happy relationship with Betty or the conditions under which he wrote of his first novel, and how that attempt backfired, either because he was not being emotionally mature or because the shrooms were not panacea he thought they were. While he does continue to have his hang-ups and major issues, he has confronted the toxicity of his past in order to move beyond it. By recognizing this, he can finally begin to see the future not through the lens of the past and can grow in a healthy way.
The mistakes of the past are not always so easily rectified, though they can be set aside briefly, as one, final, twenty-something finds out thanks to…
5. The Secret of Psyche
Cheryl Blossom does not get as much screen time as our other three painted Riverdalians but that doesn’t mean the goodbye night she has with Minvera is less important. In a reveal which upends the usual three painting structure of a typical Night Gallery episode, Cheryl reveals a fourth of her and Minvera, inspired by the story of Cupid & Psyche. It is telling that she positions herself as Cupid, swooping down to save Psyche, something that is not lost on Minerva. However, she also knows the meaning behind the gesture as a whole and, even if it is for a fleeting moment, is willing to put aside the past to embrace the present.
Perhaps she will return, perhaps this was the true parting she hoped for. We will have to wait to find out.Continued below
Before I go, I wanted to commend Mädchen Amick – Alice Smith – for her directing this week. The four stories felt visually distinct and were made far more engaging thanks to a change in the usual camera work and a commitment to stark differences between them. This is her second time directing, after “Killing Mr. Honey”, which was written by the same writer as this episode AND the aforementioned “Tales from the Darkside,” James DeWille. Perhaps we will get this team again next season for an episode more akin to The Outer Limits. Until then, and until next week, stay splintered Riverdale.
Best Line of the Night:
Cheryl: “In the name of the divine brother, as they enter this dark hole, help keep our strapping mud men from harm.”