We talk a lot about representation here at The Niche. But I feel like something’s missing from that conversation, a form of representation that hasn’t been addressed yet. What is this form, you ask? It’s when you’re watching the show you hate-watch drunk every week with your best friends and said show suddenly becomes very directly about the very institution of higher learning you’re currently sitting in.
I’m talking, of course, about Riverdale’s Bennington subplot.
A quick synopsis of Riverdale, as much as one can be provided (spoilers ahead, and for basically the whole article): the show takes the teens from old Archie comics and moves them into the 21st century, turning the idyll of Riverdale into a corrupt town full of gangs, murderers, and maple syrup runners. Over the past few seasons, the show has featured its ‘core four’ (Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Jughead Jones, and Archie Andrews) dealing with situations ranging from serial killer parents, cults run by Chad Michael Murray, a prison called the Leopold & Loeb Correctional Facility, at least 3 drugs based on candy, and a cursed game of Dungeons & Dragons.
At the end of last season, the four characters sat in a booth at Pop’s Diner and toasted to the beautifully normal senior year they assumed was ahead. Of course, because this is Riverdale, that illusion couldn’t stay for long. A flash-forward shows us Archie, Betty, and Veronica in the woods, nude and covered in blood, standing around a fire. They agree to never speak again of what’s happened that night, and they throw Jughead’s iconic beanie in the fire. We cut back to the teens toasting in Pop’s, and the season ends.
For fans of Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, this scene — nude young adults in the woods, covering their tracks after an act of frenzied violence — will be instantly familiar. The novel, famously based on Tartt’s time at Bennington College, centers a group of Classics students who descend into moral turpitude in an attempt to live like the Greeks they study. Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has confessed to being a “huge fanatic” of the novel, and previously tweeted a screenshot of Veronica reading it.
— RobertoAguirreSacasa (@WriterRAS) November 12, 2017
During the show’s summer hiatus, Esquire published “The Secret Oral History of Bennington: The 1980s’ Most Decadent College.” The article detailed the intersecting lives of a number of students who attended the college in the early 1980s, including Donna Tartt, Brett Easton Ellis, and Jonathan Lethem (the Niche has previously written about the article here.) The article painted a picture of a place as turbulent as it was magical, a fantasyland where it felt like anything could happen. I initially read the article at 2AM, painting a diorama in my studio after a late-night breakfast dance party in Bennington’s cafeteria. Nothing ever really changes here.
When Riverdale returned this fall, it was clear that teens on Dark Academia Twitter weren’t the only people who’d read the article. Jughead, tired of attending a school where class takes a backseat to murder and musicals, is recruited by prestigious private school Stonewall Prep. (Yes, really. Stonewall.) In a voiceover, he tells us that “there is no school more nihilistic or privileged than Stonewall,” a sentiment echoed by almost every article written about this period of Bennington’s history.
There, he meets the charismatic asshole Bret Weston Wallace, who introduces Jughead to his friends, Donna Sweett and Jonathan (who has no last name, presumably because the writing staff isn’t sure that The Teens have been reading Motherless Brooklyn.) This is not a show known for subtlety. They’re also all part of an elite literature class, taught by the inspiring and genial Mr. Chipping, just like the students of The Secret History.
The teens tell Jughead about the Stonewall Four, four Stonewall students who, at one time or another, disappeared mysteriously from the school. The story has a real-life parallel in the Bennington Four, four Vermonters, all wearing red, who disappeared in the “Bennington Triangle,” an area centered on nearby Glastenbury Mountain and full of ghost towns.
They proceed to torture Jughead week after week, locking him in cabinets, threatening him with fake axes, all in the name of ‘initiation’. Jughead and Betty begin investigating the group, finding evidence of a secret society. Donna claims to have had an affair with Mr. Chipping, the type that’s a mainstay of old Bennington lore. While each of the Stonewall characters has a Secret History counterpart (Bret is Henry, Donna is Camilla, and Jughead is Richard), they also all have more than a little of Bunny in them.
Watching this show at Bennington has, after the initial shock of recognition, added a layer of games to our viewing parties. Our printers, after all, are named Tartt and Lethem. Every week, we gather around a laptop, drink spiked seltzers, and guess what the next reference will be. Will a haunted music building be featured? An infamous nude party? While I’m iffy on Riverdale‘s twists and turns, I can’t deny that it’s creating a uniquely perfect portrait of Bennington. This school is so over-the-top and ridiculous that only a show like Riverdale could capture its contradictions. After all, it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when your school is being referred to as Stonewall Prep.