Slip on your black lingerie, throw a plaid flannel over that, maybe add some suspenders, and then top if off with your toughest leather motorcycle jacket, because we’re about to do a deep dive into Riverdale’s second-baddest biker gang: the Southside Serpents. Vulture talked to showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Cole Sprouse, and costume designer Rebekka Sorensen to answer all the pressing questions about the Serpent lifestyle: Where they come from, what they wear, what exactly it is they do (and don’t do), and just how dangerous Jughead’s clique of choice really is.
The Serpents first appeared in “Li’l Archie.”
“It was the adventures of Archie and the gang when they were in grade school, Aguirre-Sacasa said. “So it was like Muppet Babies, but Archie Babies.” But while Aguirre-Sacasa knows this is where the Southside Serpents made their debut, he’s never seen the actual issue in which they appear. “I don’t know if they were a biker gang menacing these toddlers or if they were fellow toddlers who rode on bicycles. I just knew that in the Archie mythology, there was a group called the Southside Serpents, and that always stuck with me.”
Luckily, a Spotlight-caliber investigation by Screenrant unearthed this classic comic and found that the original Southside Serpents were “a group of surly-looking kids” who “can be seen competing in contests of athletic prowess and physical strength,” like relay races or baseball. Their outfit of choice? “Matching sweaters with snakes on them.” Even without this adorable information, Aguirre-Sacasa said that “when it came time to introduce our biker gang — I can’t even remember why we felt like we needed a biker gang — I was like, ‘Oh! It’s the Southside Serpents.’ And they kind of grew from there.”
No real gangs were used or referenced in the making of the Southside Serpents.
There is nothing about the Serpents that is based directly on real-life bikers, gangs, biker gangs, or serpents. “I wish I could say [our inspiration] was like Sons of Anarchy, but it was more like the T-Birds from Grease, or the Greasers from The Outsiders,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. (This adds up: Betty is such a Soc.) “It was kind of 1950s, Crybaby, much more that iconography.”
Sorensen confirmed this approach, saying that their vision-board collage was full of photos of “the 1950s and ’60s greasers. The Outsiders, Marlon Brando, James Dean.” The only real gang that was on the mood board, so to speak, was the Hells Angels, Aguirre-Sacasa said, “because of the sense of community that they had, and the sense of family.”
“We always cherry pick on Riverdale,” he added. “When we want things to be realistic we make it realistic, and when we want alternate universe, we do alternate universe.”
The CW wasn’t initially thrilled about the idea.
During early conversations with the studio and the network, Aguirre-Sacasa remembers some raised eyebrows at the prospect of a motorcycle gang roaring through Riverdale. “They were like, ‘Bikers? Really?’”
But Aguirre-Sacasa knew the plan was never to make the Southside Serpents “the ur-villains of the series.” As soon as Jughead joined the Serpents, the Riverdale writers created a rival gang — the Ghoulies, those dirty, scheming jingle jangle angle dealers — who “hung around in funeral homes” when they weren’t moving product and corrupting the innocents. Anyway, the Serpents are sweethearts at heart. “In a weird way, [the Serpents] have a stronger sense of community and loyalty, and a stronger moral code, than many of their north side counterparts,” Aguirre-Sacasa said.
Rule No. 1: Dress for the gang you want.
What started as just a leather or denim jacket with a Serpent logo escalated once “we realized, very quickly, we wanted them to look tougher and more intimidating,” Sorensen explained. “We then added chains and any type of accessories, like dog tags or a belt, or cuffs, or rings,” to get that grit. Individual characters got spirit animals: Penny “The Snake Charmer” Peabody wears an owl claw because she’s “smart, educated, and the owl is a monster of the night”; Sweet Pea has wolf rings, to symbolize his loyalty and “desire for freedom”; Toni wears suspenders.
Want to shop the Serpent look? The women’s jackets are typically from All Saints. Jughead’s is from Jofama in Sweden. While they occasionally use real vintage jackets — F.P.’s is the real deal, for example — most of the ’50s style jackets on the show are from 2017. For one thing, the newer wares are softer. “Period leather jackets from the ’50s and ’60s are quite stiff,” Sorensen said. (Presumably because people wanted them to be useful in the event of a motorcycle accident.) Vintage is also dicey because you need duplicates for photos and stunt doubles. When they buy modern jackets, Sorensen said, “We take it, break it down, sand it, and God knows what else we do.”
As for the rest of the outfits, she said, “We shop them at Topshop, honestly sometimes at H&M, Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister.”
Wait, Abercrombie and Hollister? On Riverdale?
“It’s their plaids,” Sorensen explained. “Because we want them to have different color plaids. We wash and break them down, so they look darker and not so new. And I think half the show is from Nordstrom.”
For his part, Sprouse likes how Jughead’s jacket and hat operate as these “contrasting symbols,” two sides of his personality duking it out for dominance. “In my opinion, Jughead was a lovable, dorky loner who is turning into, through circumstance alone, a character who feels he is not qualified for this world,” he said. “And the adoption of this jacket means he has to find a way to fit this skin.” (“I love the jacket,” he added. “I’ve already told costumes I’m stealing it.”)
How dangerous are the Serpents?
On a scale from “they will straight-up murder you in cold blood” to “hey now, there’s no conflict we can’t resolve with a kitschy drag race,” where do the Serpents fall?
“It’s a little of both,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “It is true that the Southside Serpents, though they didn’t kill Jason Blossom, F.P. and the Serpents were drawn into that murder — covering it up, cleaning the body. And it is true that Hiram Lodge hired the Serpents to trash the drive-in so he could opportunistically buy it. And they did send the rattlesnake to Hermione. And Jughead was in the drag race and was dealing with the evil drug lord Malachai. So there’s danger, for sure.”
“They definitely lean a little bit more West Side Story,” said Sprouse. “The Serpents are kind of victims of circumstance who, if they end up getting involved in crime, are really only doing so because of necessity. That makes them more of a morally gray gang.”
So the Serpents aren’t “necessarily gang members in an organized crime sense of the word,” Sprouse said. “But rather, they’re a group of people that have each others’ backs and who sing and dance and snap in unison.”
How does one become a Serpent?
The “hazing ritual” for would-be Serpents includes adopting the gang mascot, Hot Dog (he’s very cute), to sticking your hand in a terrarium with a rattlesnake in it (less cute) that has its venom glands removed (pretty considerate, considering). Then Jughead, as we saw, has to “run the gauntlet, and that’s a version of the beatdown that many new gang members go through, where they’re beaten to a pulp by their own, to show they can hang in a gang war,” Aguirre-Sacasa said.
“Much of the content is over-the-top, but everyone in the world takes it as seriously as life and death,” Sprouse said. Ironically, Jughead’s goal is to “ascend through the ranks of the Serpents … to take him even further from a life of organized crime to a group of people who are looking to do good and bring their community out of this trouble they’re in.”
Are the rules different for women?
Do ladies also have to do the gauntlet? The Southside Serpents are feminist enough to include women in their ranks, but also sexist enough to still have a “Serpent dance,” which I promise we will talk about in one paragraph. “When the gang is beating up Jughead, there are female serpents in that gauntlet,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “So the assumption is that to earn your place to be doing that, you have to have done it yourself.”
“As Toni says to Betty, there’s this old tradition that comes up from one of the older Serpent ladies at the Whyte Wyrm, and that’s the Serpent dance that female Serpents have to do,” Aguirre-Sacasa added. “And you don’t know if the biker lady is joking or not, and then Toni says, ‘That’s an old, misogynistic Serpent tradition.’ And in a misguided attempt to get closer to Jughead, Betty does the Serpent dance.”
This deeply uncomfortable sequence is intended as a callback to season one’s Dark Betty, a.k.a. the Betty in the wig who almost drowned a dude in a hot tub, who is “more violent and sexualized,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “Of course, Betty’s plan tragically backfires and it drives her even further away from Jughead.”
Jingle Jangle used to be heroin, but now it’s more like a grown-up Pixy Stix.
At one point in season one, Aguirre-Sacasa said that Clifford Blossom’s drug empire came up and the drugs in question were “described as heroin-based.” But as season two planning was underway, they decided to pull back. “It might have been a note from the network that said, ‘Can you not be dealing heroin on Riverdale?’”
After some initial concerns about Standards and Practices lame-ifying the show, Aguirre-Sacasa said, “We put a twist on it. There used to be this Archie song called ‘Jingle Jangle,’ and the joke was that it’s like an acid trip.” Aguirre-Sacasa liked the lyric, “So we took the word ‘heroin’ out and put the word ‘Jingle Jangle’ in. That’s much better, in a weird way. It captured people’s imaginations.”
Sprouse said, “When we first got the script with Jingle Jangle, I think all of us sat down with Roberto and said, ‘Is this for real?’” That said, he’s on board with the campiness. “We know the world that we come from. We come from 75 years of, ‘Golly Archie! Gee whiz!’ So it’s almost more of a disservice to not poke fun at that in these codified ways and to acknowledge them the way we do.”
And yes, it’s supposed to look like Pixy Stix. “That was a way to, as always, corrupt these youthful things we all remember from when we were kids and show the darkness of that,” Aguirre-Sacasa said.
Can a Serpent ever leave the Serpents?
As her mugshot revealed, Alice Cooper is a former Serpent — or at least, she was Serpent-adjacent enough to have a fishnet top and other such Hot Topic–esque stylings hidden away behind the bulk of her suburban wardrobe. Also, let’s not forget that Betty got awfully nervous the minute Jughead pulled on his Serpent jacket.
Sprouse’s sense is that “once you’re a Serpent, you’re a Serpent for life.” He pointed out that you get “branded as a Serpent in a tattoo” and people like Penny Peabody have, shall we say, a hard time letting go of her partners. “The fact that you went through the initiations and the fact that you were ever once part of the family, whatever circumstances took you out, you’re still in.”