Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge and Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper in season seven of "Riverdale." Photo courtesy of The CW, 2023

How ‘Riverdale’ righted Betty and Veronica for a new generation of fans

6 mins read

Cults and serial killers. Magic powers, musicals, and mystical comets. Time jumps and time travel. For seven seasons, “Riverdale” reveled in outlandish plotlines, exposing the classic characters of Archie Comics to increasingly dark and bizarre situations.

The show was ridiculous, a statement its most dedicated fans and ardent detractors would both agree with. But through all of the wild antics, “Riverdale” remained true to the core of its iconic characters. Everything around them was over the top, yet the gang still felt familiar. This was especially true for Betty and Veronica, whose friendship was central to the program, and “Riverdale’s” commitment to the duo served as a much needed course correction after the comics had strayed from the closeness that made their relationship work so well for over eighty years.

Betty and Veronica are pop culture icons, largely unchanged since their very first appearances. Betty Cooper was a sweet, blonde girl next door when she debuted in the inaugural “Archie” feature in “Pep Comics” no.22 in December 1941. Veronica Lodge was a vivacious, brunette rich girl when she joined the gang four issues later. They were rivals initially, fighting for the affections of the hapless Archie Andrews, but as “Archie” quickly grew from a short feature to its own series to an entire line of books, the girls launched their own feature and a unique friendship soon developed. By the time their own series, “Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica,” debuted in 1950, the friendship was fully cemented. They were best friends and confidantes, and the rivalry that marked their earliest appearances had become a game. While they still fought over Archie, they were trying to beat the other girl, not land the boy, and they routinely returned Archie to the other girl when they grew bored of him.

Fashions changed and trends came and went, but Betty and Veronica’s friendship endured for decades over each different era of Archie Comics. Their series was even relaunched in the late 1980s, dropping the “Archie’s Girls” angle to highlight the duo as “Betty and Veronica,” no longer adjuncts of some boy.

By the turn of the 21st century, Archie Comics was getting stale and the publisher began to experiment with new ideas. “Life With Archie” followed the characters as adults, imagining dual alternate universes in which Archie married each girl. “Afterlife with Archie” was a dramatic shift in tone, a horror book that saw Riverdale destroyed by a zombie invasion. Ultimately, the gang was rebooted in a new series, simply titled “Archie,” in 2015, with modern storylines and realistic art instead of the classic cartoon style. All of the books were hits for the publisher that garnered strong sales, but they all sidelined Betty and Veronica’s friendship.

“Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica” no.1 (July 1950), art by Bill Vigoda; “Betty and Veronica” no.1 (September 2016). Art by Adam Hughes

In “Life With Archie,” the girls were separated once they were married in both timelines and rarely interacted, their stories now revolving fully around Archie. In “Afterlife With Archie,” petty rivalry characterized their depiction as they squabbled over one of the last remaining boys in Riverdale. The Archie reboot had the girls at odds from the start, and it took nearly three years for any semblance of a friendship to grow. Meanwhile, a “Betty and Veronica” mini-series written and drawn by famed pinup artist Adam Hughes pitted the girls against each other for the entire book. Although the final issue showed that their lengthy fight had been a ruse, no friendship was on display. The publisher’s new direction had left Betty and Veronica behind.

Then “Riverdale” premiered on The CW in January 2017, and underscored the importance of Betty and Veronica’s friendship from the very first episode. Camila Mendes’ Veronica was a humbled rich girl, looking for redemption in her new small town home. Lili Reinhart’s Betty was reserved and lacking confidence, and very much in need of a friend. They were a perfect match, and supported each other from the start. When Cheryl Blossom tried to tear them apart during cheerleader auditions, Veronica informed her that “Betty and I come as a matching set. You want one, you take us both.”

Reinhart as Betty and Mendes as Veronica in season one of “Riverdale.” Photo courtesy of The CW, 2017

Rivalry did bloom soon after, but it was quickly squashed. Cheryl got her revenge through “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” sending Veronica off with Archie, Betty’s crush. After they kissed, Veronica immediately apologized to Betty the next day, bringing her flowers and cupcakes to atone for her error. They had a frank conversation in which all was forgiven, and they ended the episode by sharing milkshakes together at Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe, an old fashioned vanilla for Betty and a rich double chocolate for Veronica. The girls made a pact that no boy would ever come between them again, and they were fast friends from then on.

Riverdale’s focus on female friendship can be credited in part to the show’s staff. Betty and Veronica’s comics had been written, drawn, and edited primarily by men, from their earliest days through the publisher’s recent reboot. This narrow perspective often limited their characterization, and the reboot especially felt like the writers were viewing the world through Archie’s eyes. Riverdale was much more diverse, and over the course of the show’s early seasons over a third of the episodes were directed by women and nearly half were written or co-written by women, numbers well above average for this period. This brought a broader perspective to the show that bore out in the end product.

Even more influential were the women who played Betty and Veronica. Comic book characters are wholly crafted by their creators, drawings that have no agency or sway on the story. Actors do have agency, however, and both Lili Reinhart and Camila Mendes were adamant that Betty and Veronica would be more than mere love interests. Reinhart said of her approach to the relationship, “These girls have other things going on in their lives besides Archie. They aren’t frenemies, they aren’t rivals; they’re best friends, and they do truly care for each other.” Mendes agreed, “We’re not doing the rivalry. We’re not playing that out. We’re playing the support and the empowerment.”

Over seven seasons, both women shepherded their characters with a protective zeal, embodying their iconic qualities while growing them in new directions. Reinhart tapped into her own mental health history to portray Betty’s anxiety, and spoke up when she felt like the character’s growing strength and complexity wasn’t being properly portrayed. The writers listened, and incorporated Reinhart’s suggestions. Mendes transitioned Veronica from her classically snobbish, unapproachable comic book depiction to a lovable and relatable character. She also leaned into her own Latin heritage, making Veronica a powerful, layered woman of color who didn’t fall into the stereotypes that often plagued Latina characters.

The show maintained Betty and Veronica’s friendship throughout its run, even through the increasingly dangerous and ridiculous situations the girls faced. There were fights and drama, but they were always resolved. When a serial killer forced Betty to break off contact with Veronica, Betty apologetically told her that there was no sane excuse for her behavior, prompting Veronica to ask “So what’s the insane excuse?” and immediately forgive Betty once she learned the whole story. When Betty felt betrayed after she learned that Veronica was involved with Mr. Lodge’s malicious plans for Riverdale, a fight ensued until Betty realized the tremendous pressure Veronica was under and forgave her. They switched romantic partners over the show’s run, swapping the initial pairings of Betty with Jughead and Veronica with Archie as the series went on, and any conflict was swiftly resolved. While the relentless pace and high stakes of the show left little downtime for friendly hijinks, the girls were always there for each other when it mattered, through their teen years, adulthood, and back to their teens again.

Reinhart as Betty and Mendes as Veronica, both adults after a time jump, in season six of Rivderale (The CW, 2022).

“Riverdale” was a surprise pop culture phenomenon, and ultimately redefined its characters for a new generation of fans. That Betty and Veronica’s friendship was at the forefront throughout bodes well for their future, and Archie Comics are focusing on the characters more and more as of late, setting aside their rivalry for fun stories that explore their relationship as best friends. The impact of the show is already clear.

It’s fitting that “Riverdale’s” recent series finale focused on Betty, now elderly and looking back on her life and her friends, as she was the heart of the show in many ways. It’s even more fitting that the finale revealed that during the final season, which took the gang to the 1950s and returned them to high school, Betty and Veronica dated Archie and Jughead interchangeably, and even dated each other in an open, polyamorous relationship. No one romantic pairing was “Riverdale’s” endgame. Instead, the show transcended rivalry all together by showing that Betty and Veronica’s close relationship with each other was the true endgame all along.

Tim Hanley is a historian and the author of “Betty and Veronica: The Leading Ladies of Riverdale,” which is now available in print and as an audiobook.

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