If it didn’t go against the episode naming scheme, “Chapter Thirty-Four: Judgment Night” could just as easily be called “The Town That Dreaded Sunrise.” Not only because Riverdale already has an episode (and technically, a serial killer) referencing The Town That Dreaded Sundown but because the ominous feeling in the air is what happens when this night ends. When the riots presumably end, in the harsh light of day. If the Serpents and the Ghoulies actually meet to rumble at Pickens Park at dawn. If Hal’s plan for his post-recording confession means the murder-suicide it sounds like it means. “Chapter Seventeen: The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is kind of like a prequel episode to this one, with that episode’s Bulldogs/Serpents rumble being nothing compared to an entire town on red alert. As this episode synopsis says, it’s now an “all-out war” between the North and Southside. Only that’s not exactly the case: It’s just specifically what Hiram Lodge wants it to look like. After all, even Archie and his fellow Bulldogs think at first that the Serpents have followed them to Pop’s, instead of the Ghoulies. And especially to the unfamiliar Northsider, there’s no difference between the two gangs—they’re just two gangs.
First of all, allow me to make clear: In all the chaos, at no point does Riverdale commit the cardinal sin of coming up with terrible excuses for characters not making phone calls or checking in with each other. It’s not even just a parent-teen thing either, as even Pop is calling people to let them know the skinny. When he’s not teaching Archie how to make Molotov cocktails, that is. Seriously, besides just the general story logistics, something as simple as these characters letting each other know what’s going on is the closest to real friendship and camaraderie between them that’s been shown here in a long while.
Speaking of Archie though, the kid does everything he can to be the hero he’s much more cut out to be in the episode. He’s level-headed and always willing to get the actual answers before he and his friends do anything stupid (like the initial Ghoulie/Serpent confusion at Pop’s). It’s just a more likable and enjoyable version of Archie, even if it’s “boring.” “Boring, solid-as-a-rock” Archie is good. “Really focused on his music Archie” is a mess, but it at least has its unintentionally entertaining moments. “Mobster, angry white kid Archie” isn’t “edgy”—it’s an insult to the character and KJ Apa. The implication might be that Archie has to go this far down first to finally see just how bad it is when someone like Reggie—someone who’s definitely not fighting for truth, justice, and the American way—is also allowed in this world without even jumping through the same hoops he did. But the show can leave the villainy to its actual villains.
For example, the Ghoulies are something out of a pre-Nolan Batman movie. In fact, their leader Malachai’s trusty taser gave me flashbacks to Batman Returns, while their entire vibe screams Schumacher Batman thug. Only with 100% less DayGlo. The inspirations are right there this episode, with Veronica bringing up Gotham City (her best zing in a long time) and Jughead venting about the frustrations of living in Mad Max. (Reggie is living in his own mini-version of The Warriors as this all begins.) But if the Ghoulies are Batman thugs and henchmen, then Penny Peabody is 100% a Batman super villain. I suppose this makes Jughead the Batman of this piece, one who does everything he can to prevent more bloodshed before and after Fangs dies—eventually offering up his own life to Hiram/Ghoulies/Penny in exchange for peace. But Penny tells him as he’s being beaten to death, that his death won’t even mean a thing when it comes to the destruction of the Southside. Absolutely depressing, just like Batman.
While there’s a frantic energy in the streets of Riverdale, the same can be said for inside the Lodge penthouse. As Archie found out last week, Papa Poutine’s son Small Fry is out for revenge. And as we learn this week, “Small Fry” is an ironic name.
Hermione may be breaking down over Hiram’s quest for power above all else, but we see here that she’ll still protect Veronica no matter what—and shoot a mobster four times in the chest if she really has to. In an episode with chaos all around it’s intentional that Hiram stays on a ride-along all night long to avoid riot crossfire (and make criminal deals), while having no problem letting his wife and daughter stay where Andre is their only line of defense. In a season with Veronica either throwing tantrums at—at least, that’s what they come across like compared to the adults’ side—or being all-in with her parents, this and last week’s episodes have worked better about making her perspective land. Especially since it’s a perspective where she wants to get back the Hermione the audience knew in season one, or least a Hermione who isn’t subservient to Hiram (under the guise of being equal partners).
Meanwhile, leave it to Cheryl to turn a horror movie escape into a reason to wardrobe change into kickass Little Red Riding Hood. It’s an impressive choice—one that can only work with a character like Cheryl—just like the fact that, for once, running up the stairs is actually a good decision. In fact, as ridiculous as it is, I wasn’t expecting an explanation. But it’s still a nice touch that she provides Betty with one: “Luckily I was able to get to my archery set and hunting cape.” (The hunting cape is still never described as “necessary,” although the general Riverdale stance on performative capes remains “yes, please.”) Yes, Cheryl could’ve just killed and captured the Black Hood then and there; after all, she only misses when she means to. But that would both make for a pretty oddly-structured episode of television—“Chapter Thirty-Four” is pretty great with the rise and fall—and a true botching of the Black Hood reveal.
“Now remember—I’m making this movie so we never forget what your daddy sacrificed for us.”
So, the Black Hood is Hal Cooper. After failing at murdering Cheryl and bleeding his way through town, Hal sits his wife and favorite daughter down for a truly chilling home movie—one that documents his origin story and fills in the blanks about Svenson (and how easy he was to manipulate, more than once). And of course Riverdale goes with giving its big horror villain a “momma’s boy” (to simplify it with Alice Cooper’s own words) backstory. Norman Bates and Jason Voorhees would be proud, right? I’m not quite sure how Mama Cooper would appreciate her son’s own sinning (adultery) though. Still, I’ve written plenty about why Hal makes the most sense as the Black Hood, but outside of the narrative and even general process of elimination reasons, it boils down to this: Hal Cooper as the mild-mannered, lame husband and father was truly a waste of Lochlyn Munro’s talent. In the scenes at the house, as Hal forces family time and explains and threatens, I said to myself, “There it is! That’s the reason you hire Lochlyn Munro in the first place.”
Also, to convincingly pull off the menacing, unhinged vibe while repeatedly saying “grandpappy” is especially impressive.
These scenes also allow Alice to get her groove back, even if her dressing down of Hal is mostly a stalling tactic for Betty to get the drop on him. Like the cold amusement of Alice saying Hal wouldn’t have been man enough to have killed Jason Blossom in season one, Alice emasculates her husband in the best way possible. Because it’s not even just an attack on his manhood—it’s an attack on his whole mission statement. Let us all cherish the moment when Alice calls Hal/the Black Hood the worst serial killer ever. Because he is. Even as the Big Bad, Alice can tear him down to size—and it’s a scene neither Lochlyn Munro nor Mädchen Amick could’ve had if not for the Black Hood reveal. A scene that’s so needed after how much Riverdale chipped away at Alice during the Chic storyline.
I’ve also written before how “the darkness” in the Cooper clan is a very suspect blanket statement for mental illness, but here, Hal using that as his excuse for why he thought Betty would be down for his lifestyle works. Because his “darkness” is certainly on a different plane than Betty’s, really; his is a warped view of right and wrong, perfectly cognizant of what he’s done and why. As for Betty’s—in the first season, the only time it actually worked, all things considered—she genuinely disassociated from her behavior and had no memory of what she had done. That’s since devolved into the Serpent Dance, a black sex wig, and the largest waste of time in this series’ short history, web cam Betty. Either way, neither version of Betty’s darkness is exactly the stuff of Hal’s origin story. The exception is her letting Chic go to be taken by the Black Hood, but I already wrote in “Chapter Thirty-Two: Prisoners” how that particular story choice fell flat as result of the weakness of Chic’s story and the possibility of a Black Hood/Chic cahoots story.
But perhaps the biggest surprise about “Chapter Thirty-Four” is that I genuinely liked the episode. Even with the more technically competent episodes in this second half of the season, actually enjoying them—especially with the storylines it’s chosen to focus on—has been a difficult task. All it took was Riverdale burning to the ground—as opposed to the build-up of kindling to get there—for it to finally happen.
- Riverdale Roulette: I believe I wrote about this in her last appearance, but Brit Morgan deserves her own show and then some. Because of that, I’m going to go with an atypical choice: The Middleman. I have to believe The Middleman wouldn’t have stood for all the rioting in these Riverdale streets.
- Josie and the Keller-cat: There is no way Attorney McCoy is going to let her daughter leave the house when there’s a full-blown riot going on. Meanwhile, Kevin Keller says the line everyone is thinking (because he’s the gay character, honestly)—“Hot Riverdale dads to the rescue.”—only to ruin it by ignoring that one of these “hot dads” is his dad.
- But seriously, my notes had “hot dad brigade” as soon as they showed up. I didn’t applaud when they saved the day like everyone in Pop’s did though.
- When Reggie says, “Mr. Lodge left me hanging,” Archie asks if Hiram put him up to shooting Fangs. Before Reggie can answer, the Ghoulies show up. But clearly Archie has gotten his mind right, as he later points out that Hiram was nowhere to be found all night.
- Even though it’s really only the appetizer for this episode’s full course, Charles Melton nails Reggie’s fear of the Serpents. While Hiram rejecting him (“That’s unfortunate, Reggie. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”) is funny, the rest of it isn’t, despite how much of a jerk Reggie’s been.
- Hal has Betty list his victims, and two things stick out. First is that he had nothing to do with the shooting at the debate. Considering the next scene is a Black Hood copycat going right after Fred Andrews, I think it’s safe to assume this one is all a Hiram thing. (I figured it was Andre, but he was on Veronica duty. And now he’s dead.) The second thing that sticks out is Betty not saying or asking anything about Chic. Considering Hal’s “you haven’t seen the last of me” looks as he’s being taken to jail, maybe we’ll see if he passed that darkness onto an apprentice.
- Like Betty’s “It’s my dad.” excuse for a Black Hood call, Cheryl was also right in her pre-chase exasperation over the possibility of “one of [Penelope’s] gentlemen callers” being at the door.
- As ridiculous as Cheryl’s hunting metaphors are when she’s telling Betty how she wounded the Black Hood, she’s actually right about him “running on instinct”—that’s why he kills Dr. Masters.
- Betty cleaning up all the blood in the kitchen is the most Cooper family moment in this episode—after Alice tearing Hal down, that is.
- Nice little touch: the arrow wound bleeding through Hal’s sweater during the home movies scenes.
- Hermione: “Your father has secret funds.”
Veronica: “My ass he does.”
- Penny’s right about Toni being the “Southside Smurfette.”
- It’s Archie doesn’t have a Black Hood/green eyes flashback when he sees Hal too—both because he has one with the copycat earlier and because this is officially the first time Archie would have gotten a chance to look into Hal’s eyes this season. It looks like it’ll happen, but it just doesn’t. Kind of anti-climactic, but considering Archie’s imagined confrontation with the real Black Hood was never going to translate into reality, I suppose it makes sense.
- So… Jughead’s dead? If so, now’s the chance for witchcraft and zombies. Also, for all of Jughead’s more cringeworthy leadership moments, I’d say Cole Sprouse has pulled Serpent Jughead off better than Weird Jughead. It’s really the difference between an engaged Jughead and a disaffected one, and the disaffected one didn’t often make Sprouse look good on the acting front.