Whenever TV presents us with a teen drama, even one as darkly re-imaginative as the CW’s Riverdale, we expect to encounter some familiar stereotypes. A series enclosed in the decrepit halls of high school usually spawns a jock, a nerd, a princess, and always a rebel. Riverdale High is no different and early on, the show made it clear which characters fell into which roles. Or at least we thought they did.
Every high school story needs its mean girl and Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) fits the part perfectly. Flowing red hair, expensive outfits, a background that spoke of breeding and money and a disturbing proclivity for cutting takedowns, Cheryl arrived as the living embodiment of every socially awkward pre-pubescent teenage girl’s mortal enemy. (She was the kind of monster a frumpy, oily-faced, frizzy-haired girl like me would have nightmares about and would take different routes to class to avoid during the day.) The show wanted us to see Cheryl and immediately associate her with every tormenter we’d ever encountered in our formative years. We were supposed to hate her, be suspicious of her, curse her for trying to take down our high school heroes, the people we theoretically aspired to be at that age – jockish Archie (KJ Apa), golden girl Betty (Lili Reinhart), rebel-without-a-cause Jughead (Cole Sprouse), and bad girl Veronica (Camila Mendes). Cheryl Blossom was supposed to be the obligatory Queen Bee, the necessary bad guy (at least until the real killer terrorizing the town was caught).
But I’m here to call bullshit on all of that.
It’s not just my stubborn, hopeless belief that 2017 can produce a teen TV series that doesn’t play into ingrained misogynistic formulas that say women must be jealous, catty, or just plain evil that fuels my love for all things Cheryl Blossom. The badass bitch is, without question, the best thing about Riverdale, thanks in large part to the unique character arc the show has given her.
I get it: the OG redhead of Riverdale is Archie Andrews. He’s the show’s default protagonist, the guy we root for to get the girl, save his best friend, and pursue his half-baked dream of a music career. And the redhead at the center of the murder mystery that drove Riverdale’s first season was Cheryl’s brother, Jason (Trevor Stines). But it’s wrong to ignore Cheryl Blossom’s layered, emotionally-complex storyline. Tortured male characters like Archie and golden-boys-gone-wrong like Jason are common on TV, but a character like Cheryl Blossom, a flawed young woman publicly grieving the loss of her brother while fighting for her own survival is unusual, and Riverdale made her story highly compelling.
Cheryl Blossom went from a self-proclaimed Head Bitch In Charge to a young woman suffocating under the weight of guilt from her brother’s death, one struggling to keep her family together, survive the daily abuse doled out by her unfeeling parents, fend off enemies, and overcome a serious bout of depression that led her to a suicide attempt. Over the course of the show’s first season, Cheryl’s journey saw her break ties with her ordained destiny to run the Blossom family empire following the death of her brother and literally setting fire to her past and resolving to forge a new path for herself.
Sure, Cheryl has a mean streak. She introduced herself in the show’s premiere episode with savage one-liners questioning the relevance of a gay best friend in 2017 and informing Betty and Veronica that faux lesbianism hadn’t been taboo since 1994. She used phrases like “Efron-esque emergence from the chrysalis of puberty” when taunting Betty over her obsession with Archie, dissected frogs while referencing the impending autopsy of her murdered twin brother, and employed “social handmaidens,” underclassmen eager to rise up the high school popularity ranks by doing her bidding. Her morality was nonexistent, her personality prickly. In all honesty, she was terrible. But so was every other character on the show, in one way or another.
When we first meet Archie, he’s ditched his best friend for a secret affair with his music teacher. The two hold back important information about the murder of Jason Blossom in order to protect themselves. Later, he hooks up with Veronica Lodge in a closet, despite knowing Betty’s feelings for him, then proceeds to date Valerie Brown (Hayley Law), learning from her songwriting talent until she breaks up with him for being a flaky boyfriend.
Veronica Lodge is an admitted mean girl herself with a father who’s embezzled innocent people’s money and destroyed lives. She befriends Betty, then betrays her by entering a closet with Archie, she lies to Jughead about her family’s involvement in tearing down the drive-in theater he loves and routinely manipulates her mother to get what she wants.
Betty, the proverbial girl-next-door has a dark side, too, one that comes out early in the season when she drugs a sexist football player, holds him hostage in a hot tub, and threatens to drown him, all done in costume. Similarly, Jughead has perfected the art of keeping people at arm’s length, a skill he shares with Cheryl, by keeping secrets, mocking attempts to include him, and constantly defending his deadbeat dad.
None of the heroes on Riverdale are actually heroic, which makes them interesting and their stories at times thrilling to watch. That’s doubly true for Cheryl, a young woman shouldering a burden no one her age should have to. She’s forced to grieve the only loving member of her family, her brother Jason, knowing she helped him set events into motion that led to his death. She’s forced to reconcile her childlike belief in his goodness when she finds out about his involvement in the football team’s playbook of conquests and his relationship with Polly (Tiera Skovbye). She’s forced to endure abuse at the hands of her mother while surviving the onslaught of apathy and disappointment of her father. And she does all this while trying to maintain an outward persona that shields her true feelings with sarcasm and acerbity.
And yet still, Cheryl is often the hero of Riverdale.
When the girls discover the existence of a book chronicling the sexual conquests of the football team, she aids Betty and Veronica in making the boys pay for humiliating and degrading the girls in her grade. When Jason comes to her, asking for her help in escaping his family and disappearing from Riverdale, she lies to the police, her parents, and the entire town in order to fulfill his wish. When Betty’s sister Polly shows up pregnant with twins, Cheryl’s compassion and well-wishes are genuine. She opens her home to the girl, warning her when she thinks her parents might be conspiring to take the unborn babies once they’re born. When Archie accompanies her to a family event, helping her to impress her father and the board of her family’s company, she gifts him a guitar and expensive music lessons. And when she discovers that her father is the one who murdered her brother, she doesn’t cover for him or try to protect him as others might, she confronts him, holding him accountable for his actions.
Cheryl experiences more emotional turmoil in the first season of Riverdale than any other character and time and time again, she bounces back, growing, maturing, reflecting, and trying to change when she can. The show ended its first season with a shot of her slicking the walls of her family’s mansion with gasoline, promising her mother that they would start clean, free of curses and the baggage of the past. Her entire life literally goes up in flames before the episode’s fade to black and all Cheryl Blossom could do while her mother railed at her, striking her and screaming, was smile.
Cheryl Blossom has consistently silenced our preconceived opinions about her. She’s more than a “mean girl,” more than “rich,” “entitled,” “manipulative,” or any other cynical qualifiers people try to label her with. She’s multi-faceted, just like every other character on the show. She’s flawed and sincere and complicated and immature with good intentions and some nasty habits. But if you’re tuning into Riverdale with expectations that she’ll be your typical teen-drama TV Queen Bee, prepare to be disappointed.