After two cruel, cruel weeks away, Riverdale returned to the CW last night to pick up with Polly Cooper’s plot line. And though the show has happily chucked chipper comic book characters into a world of drug deals, blood feuds, and murder, “The Outsiders” episode strangely shied away from using the one word at the center of its big reveals: abortion.
A couple of eps ago, we learned Polly didn’t so much have a mental breakdown—as her parents claimed—as much as she was spirited away to a nunnery because her prudish parents refused to sully their picture perfect family image with a pregnant honor student. Mr. and Mrs. Cooper didn’t want Polly carrying the child of their enemies the Blossoms, so they planned to have her pop out that baby in seclusion and give it away for adoption. All of this against Polly’s wishes. But the Cooper parents insisted they knew what’s best for their eldest daughter, and this week we found out they learned from experience.
After fleeing the creepy Sisters Of Quiet Mercy: Home For Troubled Youths, Polly hid in her parents attic before being accepted into the home of Veronica Lodge as a guest. Still, Polly was faced with an impossible problem: Her baby daddy is dead. The drugs he secured to sell for their future have gone up in smoke (supposedly). Her parents want her home, but under no conditions will accept her bastard Blossom baby. Meanwhile, Jason Blossom’s surviving family members absolutely want his baby, but not so much the girl who’s having it. So Veronica suggests a baby shower, in theory because she thinks forcing the Blossoms and Coopers to share air amid so much enforced cheerfulness will unharden hearts. (But probably because she didn’t get to go to the Vanity Flair Oscar Party or even the Elton John one this year!)
To Ronnie’s credit the shower did allow Polly to feel the warm acceptance of her peers, who happily turned up with gift bags and smiles. And the kooky Blossom crone of a grandma used her combined powers of “dementia and gypsy blood” to predict Polly is carrying twins! (Fuck, I love this show.) But then the glare-off between Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Blossom began, with some shouting and storming. Ultimately though, it forced both sides to bend! (Brava, Veronica!) The Blossoms opened their home to Polly, and promised she’d be treated like the family Jason wished her to be. And Polly’s mom finally accepted she was going to be a grandmother, and invited her daughter home. (And if you didn’t cackle when Mädchen Amick full-body cringed when Betty used the g-word, we can never be friends.) But then comes another family secret: Daddy Cooper tried to force Polly to get an abortion.
Mrs. Cooper looks genuinely shocked to hear this, and when she gets home she tears into her mister, demanding to know why that’d be necessary when they were already planning to ship Polly away to have her shame baby. And then seemingly mild Mr. Cooper lets loose his spitty Blossom-centered rage once more, spouting about how no daughter of his would carry that seed to term! And then we learn that these high school sweethearts who seemed to have a happy family once had an abortion of their own. He arranged it, she submitted.
This neatly explained why Mrs. Cooper has been so intense about teen pregnancy despite the fact that the stigma is way less than it once was. And we need to note there’s something seriously disturbing about the possessiveness Mr. Cooper exerts over the wombs of his wife (well, his then-high school girlfriend) and his daughter. (Something tells me Mike Pence and he would get along.) But even though abortion was a central element of this episode and its discussions, no one said the word.
They threw around euphemisms like “mistake,” and said repeatedly that Mr. Cooper “made an appointment, with a doctor.” The implication was clear. But why not just say it? They called slut-shaming out as slut-shaming. Why shy away from a legal procedure that is an actual option (for now) for young women who find themselves pregnant, but don’t want to be?
This isn’t the first time Riverdale has shied away from directly using a term that clearly applies to a situation. During the Grundy arc, the character’s on the show described the sexual abuse between the teacher and her underage student a number of negative ways. Jughead said she was “messing with” Archie. Betty called it “illegal,” her mom called Grundy out as a “child predator.” But—as many of you pointed out in comments—they all stopped short of calling it rape.
Now at the time, I excused this, because it made sense to me none of the characters used that word. Archie was already cutting out people in his life who might try to separate him from Grundy. So if any of his friends used that word, you could see him shutting down completely. And who does that leave? Mrs. Cooper was right calling Grundy a child predator, but her animosity toward Archie undercuts her righteousness here. So if she had called it rape, it could have risked undermining that too, painting it as an overreaction instead of an accurate description. That leaves Archie’s dad Fred (LUKE PERRY!), who barely said boo about the whole calamity. But that also made sense in context of his character. Fred’s been shown to be a man of few words who loves his son above all else. At the end of the episode, he hugged Archie, and told him none of it was his fault. Where in there was he to say “rape?”
But this time around, I can’t find character justification. If Polly is as outraged as she seems about her dad’s pushing an abortion on her, why wouldn’t she be more direct? The same can be said for Mrs. Cooper, and Betty. And this made me reflect differently on the Grundy exclusion of the word “rape.”
Despite Riverdale dealing in plenty of mature content, it’s actually pretty tame in its specifics. The most shocking thing shown on the series was Jason Blossom’s body with a bullet hole right between the eyes. But beyond that, there’s been little in the way of sex (aside from some making out moments and bad Betty’s fetish strut). There’s a drug plot line, but no one on the show is doing, just vaguely dealing. So it’s all more suggestive—even sanitized—to allow the teen crowd to watch, even if their parents peak in. Is that it? Kids know that drugs and murder exist, and that they are bad. So maybe it’s cool to show both as long as that message is clear. But when you get into topics that are trickier like the definitions of rape outside of the expressly violent variety, or abortion full stop, Riverdale pumps the breaks. Is it to spare parents having their wide-eyed child turn to them and ask directly, “What is abortion? ” “What is rape?”
If so, I’m disappointed. Riverdale is at its best when it’s taking on taboo topics, calling out slut-shaming and exploring the twisted double standard applied to male victims of sexual abuse. But we’re seeing now how the show is pulling its punches. With the series having recently secured its second season, I’m hopeful that moving forward, creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa will have more faith in his audience, and dare to have his characters call the issues by name, always.