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Riverdale Season 5 Premiere Spoilers: Did Choni Break Up?

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There’s a lot to like about the belated Season 5 premiere of The CW’s Riverdale, from an emotionally charged storyline involving Veronica (Camila Mendes) and Archie (KJ Apa), to spiraling weirdness with Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation into the mysterious Auteur. But when it comes to Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Toni’s (Vanessa Morgan)…

There’s a lot to like about the belated Season 5 premiere of The CW’s Riverdale, from an emotionally charged storyline involving Veronica (Camila Mendes) and Archie (KJ Apa), to spiraling weirdness with Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation into the mysterious Auteur. But when it comes to Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) and Toni’s (Vanessa Morgan) storyline, things, well… They stumbled. Perhaps badly. But not irrevocably, because there’s still plenty of time for the show to get things right.

Spoilers for the Riverdale Season 5 premiere, “Chapter Seventy-Seven: Climax” past this point.

A bit of recap and table-setting before we get into it, because it’s been a while since the Town of Pep was last seen on TV. Cheryl and Toni, a.k.a. Choni, are Riverdale’s preeminent gay couple. From a Season 2 storyline that found Cheryl embracing her Lesbianism thanks to Toni’s devotion and support, to moving in together in Cheryl’s palatial mansion, to co-running multiple gangs, Choni have been fan-favorites for a reason.

They’ve also had their fair share of spats, most notably one in Season 3 that led to Cheryl forcing the entire school to perform Heathers: The Musical (they say revenge is a musical best served cold), that itself led to an emotionally charged resolution where the two finally had an overdue conversation about… Well, actually talking.

It was surprisingly raw, thanks to the lovely performances from Morgan and Petsch, and it’s been mostly smooth sailing from there. Granted, part of that has been that Toni hasn’t had much (if any) of a storyline of her own other than attaché to whatever is happening with Cheryl. That’s been pronounced to the point that Season 4 saw Riverdale‘s toughest bad-ass sitting calmly while her girlfriend had tea parties with the corpse of her brother, and a doll she thought was possessed by the spirit of her other brother who she believed she ate in the womb. You know, typical teen stuff.

Though the beginning of Season 5 is technically a continuation of Season 4 (the premiere was reportedly mostly shot and finished before the series was shut down because of COVID back in March, 2020), it is refreshing to see the couple sitting at a table selling tickets to Prom, joking and talking with Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) in their opening scene. It’s a nice reminder of how they work as a couple: Cheryl acting like Queen Bee; Toni trying to rein her in, and actually interacting beyond Toni rolling her eyes and saying “babe” like a talking doll with the pull-string broken.

That said, it’s all, uh, kind of downhill from there.

riverdale cheryl and toni prom picPhoto: The CW

Despite great performances by Petsch and Morgan, and even some solidly scripted conversations throughout, the plot we see unfold for the rest of the hour doesn’t match what we know at all about Choni as a couple, or in particularly Toni as a character. This is sort of de rigueur for Riverdale, a series that often feels like it’s written exquisite corpse style with writers only given basic details on what’s happened in the previous episode and told to run with it from there. That, honestly, is usually part of the joy of the show, the wild swings it’ll take that just don’t gel with anything else that’s happened (see Skeet Ulrich’s FP Jones somehow being simultaneously 44 and 50 years old). But in this case, it led to moments that felt so massively out of character that, for this writer at least, it pulled the viewer completely out of the show.

When we check back in with Choni post-Prom ticket selling, they’re snuggling in bed discussing pre-Prom plans. Cheryl wants to throw a dinner party, which Toni immediately thinks will be for their friends. Cheryl, though, has a different idea: maybe she can invite over the surviving Blossoms, and have them meet Toni’s family.

A little side note on continuity here. Since we met Toni in the Season 2 episode “Chapter Sixteen: Watcher in the Woods,” we’ve encountered exactly one (1) of her family members. While everyone else seems to have relatives popping out of the woodwork (including Cheryl, whose mother once literally popped out of the woodwork), we’ve only been introduced to her grandfather, Thomas Topaz. He’s a member of the Indigenous tribe that lived on the land that became Riverdale, land that was stolen centuries earlier by the Blossoms. You can probably see where that’s going, but more to the point other than said grandfather, and two unnamed distant relatives, there has been nary a mention of Toni’s family, much to fans’ consternation.

Here, though, Toni recoils and looks uncomfortable at the suggestion that her family might come over for supper. Her reasoning?

“Cheryl, even though I’m out to my grandparents, and am their favorite grandchild, I don’t think they could handle some big, gay Prom dinner party,” she explains. When Cheryl mockingly questions whether that means she should pretend not to be Toni’s girlfriend at graduation, Toni surprisingly agrees. “I know it’s crazy, and backwards, but that’s my reality, babe.”

riverdale cheryl and toni in bedPhoto: The CW

There are so many, many things that don’t track about this scene, from the mention of Toni’s grandparents, who, other than one episode with Grandpa Thomas, we’ve never met before; to Toni pseudo-being in the closet. Toni was introduced as out and proud, and I do understand that in real life there’s always nuance there, different levels of “out” to different members of the family. But given everything we’ve learned about Toni over the past two and a half seasons, there doesn’t seem to be a world where she would try to closet herself; or, more importantly, Cheryl, who she has encouraged every step of the way.

Naturally, she’s also lying, which gets around the weird closeting bit; but in and of itself is out of character for Toni, who is usually extremely forthright.

Cheryl, true to form, uses the opportunity to introduce herself to Toni’s grandparents. It’s a classic Cheryl Blossom move to go and make matters worse by taking the most direct route, and arguments of whether she should have learned her lesson about outing people back when she did the same to Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) in Season 3’s “Bizarrodale” aside, it’s weird that we don’t even get to see this scene happen. We only find out about it when we’re introduced to Nana Topaz (Doreen Calderon), angrily sitting in a chair, chiding Toni for dating a Blossom.

That’s the crux of the matter, then; not Toni’s sexuality, but her fraternizing with the Topaz’s sworn enemies. Toni is of course pissed at Cheryl for blowing up her spot, but ultimately relents by joining her for Prom, winning Prom queens together (we won’t even get into how the triumph of Riverdale’s first openly gay Prom queens is defanged by the fact that there was zero competition), and slow dancing, up until insanity shuts down the party in the form of a possible snuff film.

Hey, it’s Riverdale, what are you gonna do?

Anyway, post-Prom, Cheryl is expecting to head back to Thistlehouse with Toni, but Ms. Topaz has other plans. She can’t go home with Cheryl because, “My Nana said if I don’t get home by midnight she’d never speak to me again. I hope you can understand.”

“Of course, Toni,” Cheryl replies. “Family is the most important thing. Go and be with your Nana. And thank you for tonight.”

Toni embraces the teary-eyed Cheryl, and tells her that, “I’m sure we’ll be able to work it out, she just needs time.”

Later, Cheryl sobs on her own Nana’s lap, saying, “Once again I am a victim of this family’s curse. I can no longer outrun my fate. I am a Blossom. Destined to be alone.”

cheryl and toni on the riverdale season 5 premierePhoto: The CW

Look. I am not going to pretend that over four seasons (and now the fifth season premiere), Cheryl hasn’t consistently taken the most dramatic path possible at all opportunities, that’s baked into her character. There’s even a world where I can sort of follow the line of Cheryl Blossom assuming that since Toni doesn’t want to spend one night in her house, they are now broken up. That part, I am almost okay with, and I’ll get to why in a second.

The part I am not okay with is a family member who we’ve seen for a total a 54 seconds (yes, I timed the scene) who doesn’t leave her chair and has never been seen or referenced in any episode prior suddenly somehow being more important to Toni Topaz that Cheryl Blossom.

If there had been previous references to Toni’s family? Hints in other episodes? Any sort of build-up to this storyline? Perhaps then it would be acceptable. But the Toni Topaz we all know and love would never take an ultimatum from anyone when it comes to Cheryl, even her grandmother. If anything, she would have stayed with Cheryl, and explained that things need to be worked out with her family.

Not to mention: we don’t know where Toni has been living, up until this scene. That’s not an exaggeration. The fight during the Heathers musical had to do, at least in part, with Toni feeling things were moving too fast, including moving in with Cheryl. The resolution there was that Toni would not move in with Cheryl. But since that Season 3 episode, not only have we not been told where Toni has been living, we’ve almost exclusively seen her in scenes inside Cheryl’s house, with Cheryl, and often sleeping in Cheryl’s bed. Even for most of this episode, until Toni says she has to go back to her grandparent’s house, it is not clear that that is where she lives.

There’s also the issue that Toni knows exactly what Cheryl will think if she stays with her Nana — that they’ve broken up — because it’s happened before. See the aforementioned Heathers storyline, when the couple discovered the reason they were fighting was because they weren’t talking about fighting. Do people engage in repetitive, destructive behavior when it comes to relationships in real life? Absolutely. But watching fictional characters make the same mistakes on screen in similar ways is not dramatically satisfying. We need to see them grow and change, not assume it’s the end of the world because they’re not spending one night together, again, and again, and again.

As frustrating as this storyline is (and for what it’s worth, I was extremely frustrated to the point of furious the first time I watched it through. I have since calmed down considerably. I am an adult), there’s still hope. Though there will be a time jump seven years forward after graduation, there are still two episodes fo Riverdale to right the ship (and write the ‘ship) when it comes to Choni, and I fully expect that they will do so.

The biggest reason, as mentioned earlier? Toni can pretty easily explain to Cheryl that they haven’t broken up, she was just sleeping somewhere else for one night. As long as Cheryl doesn’t go nuclear as usual and burn the school to the ground, there’s every chance that in one scene we can move beyond this otherwise forced break-up drama.

There’s also the fact that there’s now time to develop Toni’s family, since we’ve broken the seal there, so to speak. Though we’ve only met her grandfather once, and her Nana for that one, short scene, there’s the promise that they will be back for graduation — Calderon posted on Instagram that she’ll be seen in Episodes 1 and 3 of the season — and we’ll get some resolution, presumably of the, “I love Cheryl even if she’s a Blossom and you have to accept that” variety.

Whatever direction the show goes in, though, this is clearly a way to amp up the dramatic relationship arc for Choni right before graduation. Is it clunky and arguably unearned? I’d say so. But the proof will be in the next two episodes, how they now use this info going forward, and how it impacts and changes Choni.

There’s also the behind the scenes fact that these next two episodes were filmed in full after the very public discussions about Toni’s character between Vanessa Morgan, showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and the entire internet. Thanks to a trending hashtag #HearVanessaMorgan, the production publicly responded that they were already talking to Morgan about how to be a bigger part of the show, and by all accounts that’s coming post-time jump.

My hope is, though, that these discussions led to a change in the thrust of this pre-time jump plotline, as well. Though scripts were already written for what is now episodes 5×02 and 5×03, Aguirre-Sacasa and company noted that with the extra time allotted “thanks” to COVID, they were able to reassess and reevaluate everything going forward. Ideally, that includes whatever they had planned for Choni post-Prom.

And hey, if not, maybe we can meet one (1) more of Toni’s family members in another two years.

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on The CW.

Where to watch Riverdale

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