I will be the first to admit that I’m not Riverdale’s most devoted fan. I binged season one last summer but then lost interest in the most recent season’s serial killer pretty early on last fall. A few weeks ago, though, after being barraged by commercials for the midseason premiere, I decided to check back in.
And I’m really glad I did, because I was able to the witness the beautiful rise of Riverdale’s newest couple: Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) and Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan).
Also known as “Choni,” the pairing is groundbreaking. It marks the first bisexual relationship and first relationship between queer women to be portrayed on the show. It is also notable because of how powerful it’s been for Cheryl, who has been through a lot in her life. (WARNING: I will mention suicide, sexual assault and conversion therapy.)
In season one, her best friend and twin brother Jason (Trevor Stines) was murdered by their father Clifford (Barclay Hope). Cheryl nearly died in a suicide attempt. The season ended with Clifford committing suicide and with Cheryl epically burning down the family estate.
This season, Cheryl was nearly raped after being drugged by her date to a school dance, Nick St. Clair (Graham Phillips).
Most recently this season, Cheryl was sent to gay conversion therapy after her hateful, domineering mother Penelope (Nathalie Boltt) discovered that she had recently had a crush on Josie McCoy (Ashleigh Murray). Penelope began psychologically abusing Cheryl in junior high, though, as Cheryl revealed to Toni, when she found Cheryl in the same bed as her childhood best friend and first love, Heather, during a sleepover.
Cheryl was broken out of the therapy facility in last week’s episode by a determined Toni (“We search each and every damn room until we find her”), with the help of Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) and Kevin Keller (Casey Cott). Choni became gloriously canon with a beautifully tender yet passionate kiss in front of the projection of a homophobic propaganda film.
Cheryl is beloved by fans, but some joke that she’s “psycho,” which I find incredibly problematic. Toni was able to see Cheryl differently from everyone else: not as a bully or a psycho but as a person who is in pain. Viewers should try to as well.
Kids like Cheryl who are raised in traumatic environments often exhibit distinct affects such as extreme aggressiveness or extreme openness. Aggression arises as a protective mechanism. Kids don’t want to risk being hurt again, so they instinctively push people away, even those who may want to help them.
Openness, or a kind of lack of inhibitions, results from an overwhelming desire to be loved. Kids form deep attachments very quickly, even with relative strangers, to compensate for their lack of such close relationships.
Cheryl actually displays both affects, though aggression is her default. By intimidating her classmates, she keeps them at a distance in an effort to protect her emotional wellbeing. She is mean and rude at times, but I don’t think it ever comes from a desire to be cruel. She’s just looking out for herself the only way she knows how.
Another source of Cheryl’s aggression is a need to exert control. Kids raised in traumatic environments often feel powerless, especially with a domineering mother, so they seek to be compensate however they can.
That need for control is part of why Cheryl is so attached to her position as “Head Bitch in Charge” of the River Vixens and her status as a popular student at Riverdale High, both of which involve ordering people around. It is also why Cheryl burning down her own house wasn’t random.
Cheryl’s openness toward others has been on display much less frequently but no less meaningfully. Aside from Jason, Cheryl has only ever truly confided in three people: Veronica, Josie and Toni. They all went above and beyond anyone else in showing that they cared about her, and Cheryl became attached to them quite quickly.
Cheryl relied upon Josie this season after the attempted rape and became deeply attached to her, which resulted in romantic feelings. However, unaware of Cheryl’s feelings, Josie began pursuing a relationship with resident (maybe reforming?) jerk Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway).
Out of a desire to protect Josie and to keep Josie for herself, Cheryl left a threatening message and a bloody pig’s heart for Josie and named Chuck as the culprit. Needless to say, it was an extreme measure to take.
But think about it. If you only had one person in your life who you felt loved by in any sense, wouldn’t you be pretty desperate to hold onto them, too?
Toni is such a worthy partner for Cheryl because she loves Cheryl as she is, affects and all. In the midseason premiere, recognizing Cheryl’s aggression as a mask for pain, Toni tried to get her to open up, something no other character has ever done before.
As soon as Cheryl realized Toni genuinely cared about her, Cheryl opened up more than she ever had with anyone else, tearfully revealing the pain of being seen as “heartless” by those around her and being labeled “deviant” by her mother due to her bisexuality.
Toni could’ve been overwhelmed by Cheryl’s emotional baggage, but she embraced the role of being Cheryl’s person (in a Grey’s Anatomy sense) immediately and without hesitation. That is love, rooted in friendship, and it’s is what makes their relationship so incredible.
I would be remiss not to mention that some fans have expressed concern over Toni being burdened with Cheryl’s traumas and Cheryl not being able to offer equitable support to Toni in return. It’s true that much of their relationship thus far has focused on Toni helping Cheryl learn to love and accept herself. But Cheryl already has an incredible capacity to love others and not only in problematic ways (i.e. Josie).
Prior to Jason’s real death, Cheryl had helped him stage a fake death so he could escape their parents’ toxic grasp and start a family with his pregnant girlfriend Polly Cooper (Tiera Skovbye). In doing so, Cheryl let go of her best friend and only ally against her parents. She was willing to take on that burden to make Jason happy.
I have no doubt that Cheryl would take on any burden for Toni’s sake in an instant.