In the woods on the edge of Riverdale, away from the diners and drug deals, beyond the halls of both the good and grimy high schools, sexy things are afoot. Muscled men in tank tops rendezvous with each other, glistening as if to imply sex acts the CW cannot air. Here we find sweet, beautiful, dull Kevin Keller, the sheriff’s son, pretending to jog, looking for a chance to get off. Kevin Keller, whose BFF wishes he weren’t cruising right now. Kevin Keller, who, for once in Riverdale history, has something interesting to do.
Like the best of Riverdale, Kevin’s cruising story line is a little ridiculous, and therefore sublime. He doesn’t have a way to express his sexual desires and hates using the hookup app GrindEm because people never look the same in person as they do online (which, honestly, sounds like more of the complaint of a 30-something TV writer than a repressed and horny teen), so he likes to go off to Fox Forest to cruise men. This worries Goody Two-Shoes Betty, who thinks Kevin might get targeted by the town’s resident serial killer.
What starts as an excuse for Riverdale to clad Kevin in its finest low-cut tank tops unravels into some compelling character work. Betty, as it turns out, doesn’t understand that Kevin has sexual needs that don’t have a good outlet amid Riverdale’s heteronormative embrace of high-school love triangles, dances, and occasional S&M fugue states. “You act like we’ve got the same set of opportunities,” Kevin tells Betty. “But we don’t.”
Later, Cheryl reveals unexpected psychoanalytical depths as she tries to explain to Betty that Kevin, who has grown from homely to “smoke show” (a.k.a. sexy like the smoke monster on Lost), is still insecure and craves validation. The conflict develops organically out of Betty and Kevin’s actual personalities, unlike this season’s serial-killer plot, which, no matter how many bodies pile up, feels tangential to the interpersonal drama you want from the show. I don’t look to Riverdale for realism, but I prefer it when the characters do things because they’re people, not because some writer hit a button that reads “Add Random Murderer.”
Speaking of which, the Black Hood’s latest target, Moose, also gets a sliver of the spotlight this week when he shares an emotional moment with Kevin. The two have hooked up, and though Moose remains closeted, they still share solidarity over the fact that they live in a town that ignores and discourages their needs. Like Betty, Riverdale concern trolls Kevin to an extent, having him (reasonably!) back away from a creepy dude in a car and realize cruising might be more dangerous than he thought. But the show also does a good job of staying on his side, making it clear that Kevin — and Moose, to an extent — need this outlet to survive. They won’t be happy with a knockoff of what Archie and friends have, and they won’t settle for, to quote a line from Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, “a grade-B imitation of a heterosexual marriage.” In this case, just substitute “marriage” for “teen drama.”
All this attention on Kevin, who was upgraded to a series regular this season, works to move him past witty quips in search of a personality and into something more of a character. Casey Cott, bless him, is doing his darndest to make Kevin’s relationship with his gruff-yet-liberal sheriff dad land, and although Riverdale’s likely to forget about Kevin in the next few episodes as Archie goes vigilante LARPing, the show has proven that it can add depth when it tries. By the end of the episode, if we don’t know exactly who Kevin is, we at least know that what he wants is distinct from what Betty & Co. want. “If you can’t accept that’s what I do,” he tells Betty, “then we’re not friends.” Speaking from personal experience (even if mine does not involve serial murderers), the realization that friendship with a straight female friend can only go so far can be hard to process. It was surprisingly poignant to watch Kevin arrive at that conclusion, and to see that story told from his perspective on a big, popular CW show.
That said, I have a lot of logistical questions about this whole cruising situation. Is Riverdale’s population large enough to support a thriving backwoods sex scene? Do gay men from the local region drive over to Fox Forest to get their kicks? How cold is it supposed to be in this town if everyone is going around with their pecs exposed, but wearing coats elsewhere? Still, I have to admit that there’s something winningly retro about the show’s embrace of a local cruising spot, as opposed to secret chat rooms or hookup apps. Even in New York, many cruising standbys have been cleaned up and gentrified to oblivion. Riverdale embraces a sort of anachronistic 1950s era, juxtaposing diners and drive-in theaters with smartphones and Mad Men references. I’m glad the local ordinances have made space for gay life, too.