Rivalry is one of storytelling’s most popular (and most relied-upon) devices. Need to shake things up? Plot feeling stale? Pit two characters against each other. Rivalries, in general, tend to be widespread–from sports teams to genre franchises–but it’s also very commonplace in the world of comics. Ask any comics fan to name a “versus” pair and you’ll most likely get answers such as Batman versus Superman or Captain America versus Iron Man, but these are superheroes. In the sphere of ordinary, unpowered comic book characters, it could be argued that no rivalry is as well-known–within and without comics fandom–as Betty versus Veronica.
At surface level, the comics versions of Betty and Veronica seem like straightforward opposites: blonde versus brunette, light versus dark, and good girl versus bad. In the world of Archie Comics, the two are frequently pitted against each other as the dual objects of Archie’s affection and usually wind up duking it out to determine who will win over the hapless, clumsy ginger’s love once and for all. As for Archie, he tends to fall prey to his own indecision rather than to any swaying loyalty one way or another; the polarizing differences between Betty and Veronica are such that Archie can never quite manage to make up his mind.
However, in the world of Archie fandom, the waffling of the main character never quite extends to the fans who read his stories. Most fall very clearly on the side of #TeamBetty or #TeamVeronica, barring that the question of whether or not a fan personally considers themselves more of a Betty or a Veronica is one that gets brought up in Archie-related discussions.
When news of a dark and gritty Archie Comics adaptation was first announced, many of the details were scarce. How would the show handle the Betty-Archie-Veronica love triangle, let alone the famous girl versus girl rivalry? While Riverdale hasn’t exactly been playing fast and loose with these characters, one of the most unexpected (and refreshing) storylines we’re getting three episodes in is the surprisingly complex and intimate friendship Veronica (Camila Mendes) and Betty (Lili Reinhart) have outside of any ties to a certain redhead.
Sure, the two women are introduced to one another with Archie (K.J. Apa) as proxy, but their friendship begins to take root shortly after that with him nowhere in sight. Aside from one questionable scene in which Veronica kisses Betty in order to memorably finish an audition for the high school cheerleading team, the show has chosen to focus more on the intricacies of what a close female friendship looks like between two characters who have previously been defined by their oft-publicized rivalry. Those involved in the series (writers and cast included) have made it clear that Betty and Veronica won’t be pursuing a romantic relationship anytime soon, but there’s something very powerful in giving these two girls space to hash out how they relate to each other, apart from the boy they’ve historically been linked to time and time again in comic form.
It’s not insta-love between Veronica and Archie in the world of Riverdale either. At the moment, Archie seems pretty wrapped up in his own issues; he’s trying to juggle football and a passion for songwriting while keeping a super-squicky affair with his music teacher on the down-low, but that doesn’t stop Betty from having an unrequited crush on Archie or Veronica from trying to nudge Betty into telling Archie how she feels. There are scenes early on in which it could be argued there’s no bigger Betty/Archie shipper than Veronica herself, and that’s mostly because she wants Betty to know the freedom that comes from being honest.
It would likely have been easier, but also lazier, to establish a competition between Betty and Veronica after the pilot, especially given the scene where Veronica and Archie wind up making out in a closet during Seven Minutes in Heaven. Even before Archie and Veronica lock lips, the ghost of Betty’s feelings is hanging over them. But it’s the way Veronica deals with the fallout of her actions–first by insisting that someone go to check on Betty in the aftermath, then apologizing by way of showering Betty with gifts–that powerfully and effectively veers their friendship out of predictable territory. Later, Veronica promises Betty that the preservation of their newfound friendship is more important than any guy that could come between them, and shortly after that, they make a toast to that pact over milkshakes at Pop’s.
As the show has progressed, so too has Betty and Veronica’s allegiance. When Veronica finds herself on the receiving end of some undeserved slut-shaming courtesy of a Riverdale football player, Betty is right by her side when she marches into the boys’ locker room to confront her harasser. (It’s worth noting that Archie’s only appearance in that moment boils down to a confused look before Veronica pushes past him in search of her target.) Betty is initially hesitant to get involved in Veronica’s quest for vengeance, but a combination of friend loyalty and the revelation that her sister was a recipient of the same harassment eventually draws her in.
Based on what we’ve seen so far in Riverdale, this season is going to be a deep-dive into some complex issues for these characters. Betty, in particular, appears to be repressing some emotions that are probably going to rear their ugly heads in episodes to come. Her behavior in the latest episode speaks to some underlying issues, but it isn’t enough to drive a wedge between her and Veronica or to scare her new friend away. Veronica’s concern for Betty has dual implications; it means she’s not going to abandon Betty when the going gets tough, but it also humanizes Veronica herself and gives her more dimensions beyond the stereotypical “mean girl” trope she’s commonly associated with. It helps that, as Veronica, Camila Mendes has infused the character with the kind of sensitivity and warmth that doesn’t often come across in the comics. Meanwhile, Lili Reinhart’s portrayal of Betty shouldn’t be overlooked; she’s more than just the girl next door or a picture of innocence. With each scene they share, these two actresses play off each other in a way that feels completely believable, and because of their chemistry on-screen, you don’t question the sincerity of their friendship.
There may be plots deserving of critique on Riverdale, but if anything makes this series worth watching, so far it’s the refreshing evolution of two girls who are exploring what they mean to each other–no boys allowed.