Roll up your JNCOs and go ahead and commit to that “WINONA FOREVER” tattoo you’ve been mulling: It’s time for Riverdale’s much-anticipated ’90s episode. Finally, we’re about to learn the origins of Gryphons & Gargoyles and, more importantly, to witness the principal cast playing their parents like this is a flannel-heavy, live-action version of Muppet Babies.
Here in 2018, the extent to which G&G has taken hold among Riverdale’s youth suddenly makes every jingle-jangle storyline look, by contrast, like a realistic, harrowing portrait of America’s opioid epidemic. Mayor Lodge responds by banning the game, which is of course a time-tested, surefire method of making sure teenagers immediately lose all interest in a thing.
Betty confronts her mother with a file from the morgue archives provided by her man on the inside, Dr. Curdle Jr. (just typing that sublimely ridiculous name gives me full-body ASMR). There was a suspicious blue-lips death at Riverdale High back in Alice’s day. Ugh, fine — Mrs. Cooper is ready to tell her daughter all about it. Back in time we go: Doodley-do! Doodley-do! Doodley-do!
Skateboards! Floral skirts! Ripped acid-washed jeans! Please mark Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” on your period-soundtrack bingo card, and look forward to some Bowie, Spandau Ballet, and Tears for Fears. (For the purposes of this episode, please interpret “the ’90s” as a sort of pop-culture super-decade that spanned at least 17 years.) It’s fun to watch all the kids in new roles, but nobody nails it quite as hard as Lili Reinhart with her bad-girl hottie Alice, in full black leather serpent regalia and with a conspicuous lack of ponytail. I love her rendition of Mädchen Amick’s sultry purr.
Anyhoo, Alice discovers she’s pregnant from a pee-stick in the girls’ room at school, as future Mayor McCoy writes “END APARTHEID” in lipstick on a nearby mirror. The baby’s (oblivious) dad is FP Jones II, then a preppy football player for the Bulldogs who pretends he doesn’t live in Sunnyside Trailer Park. His arm is in a cast thanks to FP Jones I, a shitty, drunk dad who doesn’t care for his son’s plan to choose college over the gang.
As much as I would have enjoyed a Riverdale Ferris Bueller, a Riverdale Sixteen Candles, or even — especially? — an extremely confusing Riverdale National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, there’s no doubt about just which John Hughes movie serves as the primary inspiration for this episode. Every member of our previous-generation ensemble, more strangers than friends at this point (and that includes Alice and FP, even if they did do sex), ends up in Saturday detention.
Fred is a musician and baseball player (remind you of anyone?) with dark, slicked-back, Dylan McKay hair. Innocent Hermione, in a uniform plaid skirt and San Junipero glasses, is apparently in denial about the fact that she does not attend a Catholic school. In braces and even more face-swallowing specs, nerdy hall monitor Penelope Blossom (that’s right, maiden name Blossom — more on that trauma-o-rama in a bit) looks like the hypothetical child of Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in, yes, The Breakfast Club. To further underline the connection, the not-at-all hypothetical Anthony Michael Hall himself is on hand himself to play Principal Featherhead.
With nothing else to do, the kids decide to swap secrets. Sierra has been quietly dating Tommy Keller for months, but needs to hide their relationship from their parents. Hermione is crushing on Hiram Lodge (“Dude is ripped,” Fred says admiringly), but her mother doesn’t approve. Fred wants to stay in Riverdale forever and look after his sick father.
But Penelope has the biggest bomb to drop, by far: She actually grew up at the Sisters of Quiet Mercy. When she was 8, the Blossoms asked to see all the red-headed children at the orphanage and selected her. But not just as a daughter — she understands she’s been “groomed” to be both Clifford’s sister and his eventual life companion. And we thought Jason and Cheryl were uncomfortably incest-adjacent!
Penelope and Hermione get into a fight when one of them maligns the other’s mother for cleaning hotel rooms at the Five Seasons, and the other maligns the other’s mother for “stealing child brides out of orphanages.” (I’ll let you guess which is which.) Next thing the kids know, the entire group is in for four more weekends of detention, where proximity and boredom soon make friends of them all.
One Saturday, Hermione breaks into a teacher’s desk drawer and finds, among other student contraband, a copy of Gryphons & Gargoyles. The kids have heard urban legends about the game, so obviously they start playing, and waste no time in becoming addicted.
With Gamemaster Penelope at the helm, Deadeye FP, Siren Sierra, Thief Hermione, Sorceress Alice, and Radiant Knight Fred roll their dice and traverse the board to visit places with very D&D names like Necromancer’s Alley and Arcana Maze. In the course of completing a quest to find a gemstone hidden in a vending machine (it’s not important, just keep reading), FP and Hermione nearly kiss, and Fred and Alice actually do —just once, modern-day Alice quickly reassures Betty. They share a fleeting Moment when they discuss how playing the game allows them to escape everything they don’t like about their lives. Before long, though, Alice/FP and Fred/Hermione seemingly form the canoodling pairs they were destined to form, even if their eventual marriages would suggest otherwise.
The kids start sneaking into the school to keep playing after dark (why not just take the game home?), branding themselves the Midnight Club, which is not to be confused with the Midnight Society. They dispense with the board and start acting out their adventures in the cloaks and swords and crowns that were presumably just lying around a drama classroom somewhere. The Midnight Club even discovers that another group of students — Hiram Lodge (who, sadly, is not played by Camila Mendes in drag), Darryl Doiley, Tom Keller, and whatever Reggie’s dad’s name is — have been playing G&G, too, and so they combine their games.
The kids find wax-sealed invitations, signed by the Gargoyle King, in their lockers, summoning them to ascend to the third level. That night, Hiram distributes a mysterious new street drug called “fizzle rocks” (isn’t that how Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died?). Everyone but Alice gets extremely, weirdly high. “Our dark doppelgängers were released,” she explains to Betty. Specifically, that means everyone laughing sweatily in closeups, wrestling, making out, skateboarding indoors — you know, drug stuff. There’s also an impromptu concert by the Fred Heads, but then again, impromptu concerts seem to happen several times a day in Riverdale.
Alice heads into the bathroom for a solo puking session. When she leaves the stall, she’s horrified to see the words “FLIP FOR YOUR FATE” scrawled in either some very bloody-looking lipstick or some very lipstick-y-looking blood on nearly every square inch of the restroom’s surface area. A coin and two chalices beckon to her from the sink. No, thank you. Worse still, out in the hallway, Alice encounters the Gargoyle King loitering in all his creepy-ass, murder-tree splendor. Before she peaces out, the only appropriate response to seeing, well, whatever that was, she spots Principal Featherhead looking around the halls.
The next morning at school, the principal is MIA. And Alice learns that something terrible has happened: Fred’s dad died during the ascension party. Of course, Fred is torn up. If he hadn’t been LARPing around like a stoned moron, he would have been there, by his father’s side. By the next week, Featherhead has been officially declared missing. A janitor opens a forgotten closet under the stairs and the principal’s corpse topples out, flies buzzing around Featherdead’s unmistakable blue lips.
Absolutely no one shares Alice’s drive to go to the cops about the principal — she was the only one who saw him that night, after all — and so the Midnight Club makes a pact to destroy the game and never talk about it again.
Their newfound friendships have been poisoned, too, and their futures changed irrevocably. Fred sells his guitar and enters the family business. Sierra and Tom split up; Hermione and Hiram grow closer, as do — yuck — Penelope and her brother-husband Clifford. (I wonder how Uncle Father Claudius fits into this whole paradigm.) FP resigns himself to a Serpent fate, while Alice slips into a conservative pink tweed jacket and invites future serial killer Hal Cooper out for a malt at Pop’s.
But who filled the chalice with poison, and which member of the Midnight Club must they have intended it for? And what if Alice’s Gargoyle King sighting was really the same person who Betty saw traipsing twiggily through Fox Forest?
Betty can’t promise her mother she won’t investigate the game, but she does swear she won’t play it. For some of her best friends, it’s already too late.
Betty descends into the bunker to find a G&G game very much in progress, played by Cheryl, Toni, Sweet Pea, and — et tu, Jughead? “All of this is becoming clear,” he raves to Betty. “It’s only a matter of time until I ascend.”
To paraphrase another very ’90s episode of television, I’m so excited … I’m so scared.