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Riverdale's Pro-Union Storyline Spotlighted the Same Issues Raised by the Hollywood Strikes

It just did so via a "ghost train" and an immortal, mind-controlling supervillain.
  • Erinn Westbrook, KJ Apa, and Vanessa Morgan in Riverdale Season 6. (Photo: Colin Bentley/The CW)
    Erinn Westbrook, KJ Apa, and Vanessa Morgan in Riverdale Season 6. (Photo: Colin Bentley/The CW)

    Riverdale has always characterized Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) as a man unable to make up his all-American mind, but when it comes to the importance of unions, he's never once wavered.

    Archie grew up in a pro-labor household, and his father, the late "union man" Fred Andrews (Luke Perry), taught him the value of collective action from a young age. The red-haired hero put those lessons to good use over the past seven seasons as the town faced countless threats — including multiple serial killers, an organ-harvesting cult, and Mark Consuelos' power-hungry businessman Hiram Lodge — but it wasn't until Season 6 that Archie took up the mantle of labor leader in "the battle for Riverdale's soul." In a three-episode arc (the first of which was written by Gigi Swift and Ryan Terrebonne) that spotlighted many of the same issues raised by SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild as they fight for a fair contract, the young adults of Riverdale banded together against a capitalistic, union-busting supervillain determined to wipe "The Town with Pep" off the map.

    When Percival Pickens (Chris O'Shea) first stumbled into Riverdale at the beginning of Season 6, it was obvious his charm was masking something much more sinister: namely, his ability to control minds. Percival used that power to convince the unhoused residents of Sketch Alley to leave town, winning over conservative townspeople like Alice Cooper (Mädchen Amick) and securing a seat on the council in the process. It wasn't long before Percival was "appointed" mayor and set out to build a railroad through town, a project that required the demolition of Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe, Riverdale's beloved, historic diner.

    But in true Riverdale fashion, Percival wasn't just laying the groundwork for an ordinary Amtrak extension line. He was hell-bent (in this case, literally) on building a "ghost train" to transport dead souls to town for one last battle that would determine Riverdale's future. 400 years ago, Percival made a deal with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for immortality; now, he'd returned to remake Riverdale in his image, turning it into a "Sovereign State of Percival" governed by dark magic and intimidation.

    The fight over Percival's railroad set the stage for "a conflict between good and evil — or in this incarnation, between those who work, and those who exploit workers," as Jughead (Cole Sprouse) said in the narration at the beginning of Season 6, Episode 16, "Blue Collar," written by James DeWille and Arabella Anderson. One episode prior ("Things That Go Bump in the Night"), with Percival taking steps to destroy Pop's, Archie and Tabitha Tate (Erinn Westbrook) recruited a crew to rebuild the landmark in a new location. Like all Andrews Construction projects, this was a union job, "which means health benefits, time-and-a-half, pension plans, and no scabs," explained Archie, and Riverdalians eagerly signed up.

    Archie's project went swimmingly (save for a few ghosts haunting the diner) until Percival poached his crew with the promise of "higher wages, a signing bonus, and not a penny in union dues." Of course, within days, Percival showed his true colors: Not only was he paying his railroad workers less than the agreed-upon rate, but he'd be charging a "rental fee" for all tools and equipment. When Fangs Fogarty (Drew Ray Tanner) protested, Percival insisted he's "simply responding to fluctuations in the marketplace." The statement aligns Riverdale's big bad with Hollywood CEOs like Bob Iger, who recently accused SAG-AFTRA and the WGA of "adding to the set of challenges that this business is already facing" by not being "realistic" with their proposals for on-time payments and meal breaks, among other requests.

    When Archie and Tabitha discovered Percival's latest scheme, they resolved to "do some good, old-fashioned agitating" by encouraging his workers to unionize. The two camps went back and forth, with Percival threatening violence against those who organized, and Archie and Tabitha informing the workers that Percival's great-grandfather once wrote that management must "break [the] backs" of laborers and "remind them of their place, which is beneath our heels." (Sound familiar?) That bit of Pickens family history was the final straw for Percival's crew members, who called a strike — only to be forced back into his service by his mind-controlling abilities.

    But the agitators had one last trick up their sleeve. In Episode 17, "American Psychos" (written by Tessa Leigh Williams and Greg Murray), Archie, Tabitha, and Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan) broke Percival's spell by reminding his crew that they must stand in solidarity to fight for a better, more just Riverdale. As they sang "Bread and Roses," a poem that's long been associated with the labor movement, the workers threw down their tools and walked off the job, shutting down construction on the ghost train for good. (Technically, Archie resumed work on the railroad when Percival unleashed Biblical plagues upon Riverdale, but it was short lived.)

    Riverdale's pro-labor storyline wasn't always elegant — at one point, Tabitha explains, "Unions literally unite people, and united people are more difficult to control" — but it offered an unambiguous, full-throated endorsement of collective action, a rarity on television. That Percival, the most powerful villain in the show's history, was also staunchly against worker's rights and equal pay only reinforced the progressive message hiding beneath all those ridiculous plot twists. As Riverdale wraps its seven-season run, its ability to blend meaningful storylines with absurd drama (and unexpected musical numbers) may be its greatest legacy.

    Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 9:00 PM ET on The CW, with previous seasons available to stream on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Riverdale, The CW, Chris O'Shea, Erinn Westbrook, K.J. Apa, SAG-AFTRA, TV Writers' Strike, Writers Guild of America