Last night, Kevin Keller was at long last meant to get his due. In season one of Riverdale, Betty’s bestie got a haphazard hook-up that ended in discovering a corpse, a short-lived (and underwritten) romance, and otherwise was on hand to play the sassy gay, ever ready with a quip or pop culture reference. But the charisma bursting forth from Casey Cott had fans demanding more for Kevin in season two. And we had reason to hope for just that!
Last May, it was announced Cott was upgraded to series regular. Then that July, during Comic-Con International in San Diego, Riverdale’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa told me Kevin would finally get an episode centering on him with “The Watcher in the Woods.” Well, that chapter aired last night. And frankly, this Kevin fan is still disappointed.
The first season revealed the special brand of hell that Kevin faces in Riverdale. No other boy at his school is out. So he was left to sneaky trysts with Moose, then a bad romance with Southside Serpent Joaquin. But with that beautiful boy fled to San Junipero, and Moose back with Midge, Kevin is all alone. So, he goes to the woods at night, seeking some affection and connection in the form of anonymous hook-ups. Yeah, Kevin goes cruising.
A concerned and judgmental Betty gives him hell about it, declaring it too risky. But Betty’s blithely overlooking that Kevin and she face very different obstacles in love. Something he makes very clear when she and Cheryl later team-up to catch him in the forest before the Hood might.
Kevin: For god’s sakes, Betty. What do you want from me?
Betty: I want you to have more respect for yourself than this.
Kevin: Respect for myself! Look. We have been friends for a long time, but you still have no idea what it’s like—
Betty: Well, then tell me, Kev! PLEASE!
Kevin: You act like we’ve got the same set of options. But we don’t. You live in this pale pink world of milkshakes and first kisses, and “am I going to date Archie or Jughead”.
Cheryl: (interjecting) Except when she’s Dark Betty.
Kevin: Right! Except for when you’re exploring your BDSM sexuality, which again, you’re allowed to do. But I’m not? Because why? This is what I’ve got, Betty. Me and these woods, so please don’t come here and tell me it’s disgusting. If you can’t accept what I do, whatever I do, then we’re not really friends.
The scene jumps away, with Kevin angry and Betty bewildered. And look. I get it’s easy to side with Betty here. After all, there’s a vigilante calling himself the Black Hood terrorizing the town, and who shot up Moose and Midge at the very wooded area. But Kevin’s pointing out a grim reality she’s happily overlooked: he sees no other option.
This reminded me of some of the criticism the coming-of-age tale/gay romance Call Me By Your Name is facing. Some people (not just asshat hypocrite James Woods) have argued that the romance between a 17-year-old and a 20-something is not something to be celebrated. But again, that’s looking through a heteronormative lens that ignores that though all teens may be aching for love and thirsty for sexual exploration, they don’t all have the same options.
In an incredible and personal response, film critic Jason Adams wrote less about Call My By Your Name, and more about how his own life made the film uniquely romantic and important. I cannot stress enough you should read the whole piece. But I’ll highlight this section, where he recalls his first sexual experience with a man.
He’d picked me up walking home from school - he somehow knew my name. He was the cousin of one of my classmates, or so he said. He asked for my phone number and a few days later he picked me up. We drove out to a field. I thought I might be murdered, so I wrote a letter to my mother and hid it inside of my wallet, apologizing for being murdered…I figured that was what I had. It was being murdered in a field, or it was AIDS. Hell-bound, ticket for one. The idea of a man holding me, telling me it was going to be okay - that was so far beyond what I imagined could be possible it was straight up science-fiction. It would never, not ever, be okay.
This is very much the space Kevin Keller is in. And there’s an actual killer prowling around, shooting up people he sees as sinners. But imagine being so vulnerable, so in need of a kiss that you’d risk wandering into a dark woods where a killer might lurk. That’s a story dark, complicated, and valuable. Riverdale has taken on such tricky topics before with episodes on slut-shaming and statutory rape. So, I was breathless waiting to see what came next. But here, the series fumbled.
Kevin got a big moment to lay out his truth. Cott slays it, being equal parts outraged and heartbroken. But the show undercuts the complexity of this situation by siding with Betty in the next Kevin scene. He goes “jogging” once more, and comes across a shady character in a car. There’s something just off about this guy. While he’s not wearing a hood, Kevin can’t see his eyes and envisions the worst case scenario: leaning in for a kiss, this dark stranger stabs him instead. Fearful, Kevin runs from the woods. And when he gets home, he had a heart-to-heart with his supportive but previously willfully oblivious father.
Alerted by Betty, Sheriff Keller says, “With everything going on right now, I need to know you’re safe. You hear me? You hear me?” Kevin nods. “I know there are certain things that we don’t talk about. Maybe it’s time that we start trying. Okay?” Kevin nods. They hug. The end. That’s it.
Here’s my fear: Riverdale had their edgy cruising episode, and now Kevin will retreat to the background, chastened and alone. Here’s my hope: This will be the start of a longer, deeper arc that explores more of who this clever gbf is beyond the quips.
Aguirre-Sacasa has been outspoken from the start on the desire to have inclusive representation on the show. We’ve seen that in the racebending of Veronica, Reggie, Dilton, Josie and the Pussycats. Last night, Riverdale introduced Jughead’s new gal pal, Toni Topaz, who will reportedly be bisexual on the show. But it’s not enough to have an inclusive cast and LGBTQA+ characters if they falling into tired tropes. Kevin needs to be more than the sassy sidekick. Cott’s performance here shows he can handle it. So why was so much of this episode about Veronica and her devilish dad?! Why isn’t this truly his chapter?
We literally cut away from Kevin crying as he hugs his dad, to this:
Guys. Veronica is super mad at her felonious father, but she also wants his approval. Did you get that after one after another after another scenes of her smiling for his attention and serving up her friends for his judgement? That whole bit where Hiram gives Archie booze and bad ideas is clearly setting the guy up as a Godfather type, an alternate Big Bad beyond the Black Hood. But it’s a damn snooze to watch a white-collar criminal scheme when we could be watching shirtless football players barking about vigilante justice, a terrified Ethel escaping the clutches of a mysterious van, or Kevin Keller getting more than a furious speech and an abrupt dad hug.
There is reason to hope. At Comic-Con, Cott teased that season two “dives — in a weird way that sounds a bit like a cliché — into Kevin’s relationship with himself. Which then influences [him and his dad] specifically, and just figuring out what makes Kevin tick.”
This suggests Kevin’s cruising thread won’t be dropped after one ep, even if Kevin doesn’t return to the woods. Plus, Kevin and Betty are divided at the end of the ep, which may lead to more of Kevin being the hero of his own story instead of the campy comic relief.
Maybe the Riverdale writers take advantage of the longer second season. (It’s 22 instead of just 13!) There’s a longing in Kevin’s story that’s not only compelling television, but also something crucial for queer teens in small towns across the country. Here’s hoping Riverdale’s future eps will give them a narrative they recognize, and a reason to hope.