They call it a “crush” for a reason, and no crush—not Davy Jones of the Monkees, not Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Taylor Hanson, not Chris the DJ or Ed Chigliak from “Northern Exposure,” not a recent and unbecoming fling with Kylo Ren—has pulverized me into stardust like Jughead Jones. I know he is just a fictional character, first of the Archie comics and now of the TV series “Riverdale.” My higher critical functions believe this. But the loins of my limbic system are aflame with a Tunguska-event sized impact. I’m like an orphaned falcon chick that’s imprinted deep love on the glove that’s feeding it: as far as my dopamine levels are concerned, I’ve met someone.
This is Jughead we’re talking about, right? The whoopee-capped gourmand of the Archie universe, the cynic who’s blind to every female’s Dan DeCarlo charms? I had my adenoids out when I was five. My dad bought me an Archie Digest to keep me company in the children’s ward. Most of what I remember about that book is that Reggie played that prank on Archie where looking through binoculars left a black ring around one eye. The sudden deformity of that practical joke scared me so much my dad had to rip out the offending page. I still liked Archie Comics. Mr. Weatherbee was funny, and Veronica was a banged brunette like me. But Jughead was my favorite. Even at five I respected how he was above the bullshit. Let everyone else get lathered up about who’s in love with whom this week. Jughead knew what he liked—his dog, burgers, and being left the hell alone—and saw no reason to let the world’s petty half-passions unseat what he knew to be worth defending. He was the Spock of the gang—and don’t forget how women loved Spock, too. He just hasn’t found the right woman yet, the pining goes.
But on “Riverdale,” Jughead has. That big dope Archie (K.J. Apa) can’t see how his childhood best friend Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhardt) has a dark and sharp intelligence burning beneath those Dresden doll eyes. Not seeing, however, is different than not noticing. To Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Betty’s as invisible to him as all women are in the show’s first three episodes. Then in episode four, while he’s in the middle of a sputtering tirade about how the town dares to tear down the drive-in that’s his spiritual home, Betty slyly suggests the last movie should be “Rebel Without a Cause.” The jibe makes him pause and shoot her the slightest of “got me” smiles, and, in that moment, he falls for her wit, her movie knowledge, and her dry sympathy. His passion flowers quietly as she recruits him to write for the school newspaper and uncover the murder of a classmate, and his yearning for her culminates in a kiss so intimate you can almost smell his skin through your TV.
I’m not saying that if I saw Cole Sprouse in my backyard, I would call Animal Control to remove him. But he is an unconventional heartthrob, with off-kilter features: scowl-browed, slightly rabbit-toothed, sharp-nosed, with thick dark hair and narrow ice-pale eyes that pierce like Cupid’s arrow. (I didn’t watch “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody,” so I am a perfect scientific control for Jughead’s appeal: there is no tween crush bleeding through my besottment.) I’m impressed by Sprouse. He is a canny and capable actor who found Jughead’s rhythms quickly and knows the character well enough to shed him in season three’s “The Breakfast Club” homage episode, where he plays his father FP (Skeet Ulrich) as a teen. FP is all darted glances and too-cool bad-boy smirks, devoid of Jughead’s steady, scowling, cogitating stare. FP’s just another heartbreaking life-ruiner: those smirks have no Jughead-sais-quoi. As a critic, I’d be happy to see Sprouse (and Lili Reinhardt, who is also one of the most capable members of the cast) in indie dramas after this good run is over. But I’m sorry, Cole: I truly wish you all the happiness this life and your talent can offer, but I only have eyes for Jughead.
The celebrated kerfuffle of the Archie comics recently is that, under the writership of Chip Zdarsky, Jughead revealed himself to be asexual—a forehead-slappingly “of course” revelation that clarifies the past 77 years of his behavior. Asexuals have expressed disappointment that “Riverdale” didn’t follow suit, but that doesn’t mean Jughead’s sexuality isn’t somewhere on the spectrum. He’s most likely a “demi-romantic” and/or “demi-sexual,” which means (and I’m just going to quote thehere) “Someone who can only experience sexual attraction or desire after an emotional bond has been formed.” He’s the rare romantic hero for whom the path to his heart is through his mind, and the path to his libido—a non-stuttering and robust one, by the way—is the last stop on the tour. Self-reliant, self-contained Betty is not a cry-on-a-shoulder kind of gal, but Jughead’s has been there for her on every occasion. When he discovers she suppresses the raging darkness inside her by digging her nails into her palms so hard that there are eight half-moon scars, he tenderly kisses her fists. He would never pull that black eye joke on her.
And it’s been a pleasure to see Jughead grow over the course of three seasons. He’s gone from being the town’s sole intellectual, alienated in a white-picket wasteland, into a fierce tactician leading the South Side Serpents away from petty crime into a politicized defiance of the town’s pecking order, resplendent in his club leathers and crown like some conquering Shakespearean king. The boy loner who cowered in introverted dread when Betty threw him a surprise party has become a man who smashes down the door to rescue her from a dangerous impostor in her home, Serpent cavalry behind him, switchblades drawn. He may usually be in a state of mid- to high-dudgeon, and his Achilles heel is that he never quite understands that other people are not moral agents like he is, but his love for Betty is all-encompassing, unconditional, and unshakeable—even when she dumped him (for his own safety, for reasons she couldn’t divulge). Bereft, he sunk to the shadow side of his need to defend those he loves and banished a scheming Lady Macbeth from making him and his father her drug trade pawns by carving her Serpent tattoo out of her flesh. That monstrous act, part of season two’s heart-of-darkness arc, shook him, and when Betty took him back he repented. Her Hitchcock blonde cool is the balm for the heart he can’t help but wear on his sleeve.
Betty and Jughead have the healthiest relationship I’ve ever seen on television. They’re a partnership, in work and in romance. They are friendly lovers and loving friends. They’re patient and forgiving, and don’t seek to change each other. They defend each other, and shoulder each other’s burdens. They have a robust and affectionate and responsible sex life, as clandestine teenage sex lives go. At the end of season two, Jughead proposed. They may only be juniors, and she hasn’t yet said yes, but marrying him may be the smartest thing Betty ever does. (I’m holding out for a series finale wedding at Pop’s, with both of them going triumphantly off to the same college—him to study Journalism and English Lit, she forensics—and returning to form their own detective agency back home.)
This essay isn’t a diatribe about how there’s no good men. Here’s the dirty little secret, dirtier than all the dead bodies “Riverdale” keeps piling up: There are Jugheads everywhere. They aren’t griping about being “incels” on venomous message boards. They’re biding their time with the books and the movies and the disciplines that matter until they find that rare woman who’s also above the bullshit. Their sarcastic wit is the thinnest of protective rinds over a true chivalry. The dead eyes of pornography repel them because it can’t match the torrent of real, not synthetic, eros inside them. They would throw a punch on a woman’s behalf. And their minds are ceaselessly curious and eager to play with one true, smart, loyal, funny valentine, forever and ever.
Hold out for Jughead, all you teens and not-so-teens watching a model for a good boyfriend that has never been on TV before. Don’t go looking for him, because you’ll just imagine him onto all the wan Archies of the world. But when you step forward in your brilliance and sharpness and tenacity, he will see you. I know. Because I married one. And watching “Riverdale” every week reminds me that I did. So, sorry, Jughead, in the end it was never about you. But you’ve got Betty. I think you understand.