One week ago, Luke Perry suffered a stroke at his Sherman Oaks home. He was immediately hospitalized, where he remained until passing away from complications related to the stroke five days later. His untimely death at age 52 has spurred an outpouring of excellent, passionate writing vaunting Perry both as the indelible embodiment of his career-defining Beverly Hills 90210 role and so much more than that. These articles exist in part to relay to the public what we Riverdale viewers realized a few years ago: that Perry possesses — possessed — a soulfulness and savviness and untouchable cool that perfectly equipped him for the scare-quoted melodrama of the teen soap. Plus, I found out that he stood up for striking WGA members when some jabroni started taunting them. He had something that can’t be taught.
Though it feels crass to be thinking about the show when a man’s life has been lost, I am technically on assignment, so... Perry’s absence creates a crisis for Riverdale on both a practical and existential front. For one, the writing staff now must figure out how to contour the production to this sudden and unexpected speed bump. I’m reminded of the janky SFX used to cut-and-paste the late Nancy Marchand’s face onto the head of Livia Soprano for enough scenes to ease her character into the great beyond. While I’m sure the technology has seen great advances since the early aughts, the fact remains that Perry was relatively young, vital, and dashing. He cannot be erased.
Which poses the second, more complex issue of how this show will grieve and process the loss of Perry and the eventual loss of Fred Andrews. He’ll create a vacuum that it’d be cruel to ignore, that will shake Archie as the latest in an ongoing series of lifelong traumas, that will further destabilize any sense of security that remains in the town, that imbues a terribly real sadness in a show that may not be mature enough to handle it. This episode ends with a title card inscribed “In Memoriam” for Perry, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has said on Instagram that the rest of the series will be dedicated to his memory. But the day will come when they will be made to reckon with this sad loss.
Perry makes one appearance in “Chapter Forty-Nine: Fire Walk With Me,” showing up in the nick of time to save Archie from a kitchen-knife-wielding street urchin. Fred protects his son, calms the kid down, and generally restores a dash of reason to a plotline that is staunchly in favor of Cocoa Puffs. In his new purview as the janitor of his boxing gym, Archie stumbles upon a hiding child named Ricky while cleaning, and makes the classically Archiean (read: kind, ill-advised) decision to take in the ragamuffin. Even after his origins connect him to Archie in a deeper capacity, Ricky’s abrupt introduction feels as hilariously out-of-nowhere as the total lack of conversational segue prior to Archie bringing the kid up when chatting with his pals.
So yeah, he’s the late Joaquin’s brother. And sure, he’s trying to join the Ghoulies. And he’s been ordered to murder Archie, why not! This plotline falls under the category of “just gotta roll with it,” a mode in which the show is not uncomfortable. Maybe it’s just because I saw the camp diamond The Bad Seed last night and I’m on a killer-child kick, but I think it works. Ricky doesn’t overstay his welcome like Chic, whose plotline he essentially rehashes in hyperspeed. In, out, bing bang boom.
A considerably tougher pill to swallow comes from Jughead, whose brilliant plan to reunify his gang in the wake of Kurtz’s treachery is... making them collaborators for the cops? What kind of gang works for the cops?! They’d be junior cops, the exact opposite of a gang! Have they no principles? Will our beloved Riverdale be made into pro-cop propaganda on the very same week that a lavishly produced Air Force recruitment video sneaks into nationwide multiplexes in the guise of a feminism-forward populist theme park ride? Where has God gone?!
Anyway, Veronica’s back to running a casino. Because both she and the writers seem to have run out of ideas as to what Bonne Nuit is for and why it exists, she decides to goose profits by returning to the gambling game. It was a fun episode and her receipts were bloated, so both the character and the people pulling her strings line up behind this retcon. It suits Veronica well, allowing her to skim five percent off her debt twice over by alternately sweet-talking and muscling first her father, then Gladys Jones. As they get a little too comfortable soaking up her generosity, she lays down the law. Veronica’s a more satisfying character when she’s competent, and not setting large quantities of drugs on fire.
Speaking of things being set on fire! Betty would rather her mother did not sell their childhood home to free up cash for her cult, and chooses to express her disapproval the old-fashioned way, with arson. It’s a great capper after last week’s fizzle of a cliffhanger, and it returns Betty to the instability that made her so much fun during the first season. Dark Betty hasn’t reared her bob-wigged head just yet — let’s hold off on busting out the bustiers, for the moment — but like Veronica, Betty’s back in her strongest suit this week. Saddling Betty with the burden of being the only responsible one as her house falls into disarray has only slowed her down. Letting her lose it, palm hovering above a lit candle, is the Betty we know and love.
The rest of Betty’s doings this week get her back in Kevin’s orbit, who she greets with the self-aware “We haven’t checked in with each other lately.” This is a rather loopholish way of acknowledging how the writing staff has let him fall by the wayside, but they save some face by giving Kevin something better to do now that he’s back. His heel turn to a coal-walking quasi-villain under the sway of the Farm points him in a more interesting direction, a recurring phenomenon in this hour. So long as he’s blackmailing Betty, we’re listening.
“Chapter Forty-Nine” manages with skill and finesse the usual Riverdale issues of mounting a functional plot while maneuvering characters into pleasurable absurdities. After three years, the writers have gotten good at returning themselves to the track whenever they start to stall or threaten to jump it entirely. This is what they know. Soon, however, Riverdale will be a different show with a different set of challenges. There’s no stopping it and no going back. No matter how badly we wish otherwise.
- The CW didn’t provide critics with advance access to this episode’s online screener, so tonight, I watched Riverdale live on television for the very first time. This show works a lot better with pronounced act breaks, the few minutes of downtime letting a moment land and settle. This show also works a lot better when I get to watch commercials for Double Fault in Our Stars, pairing Cole Sprouse with my cherished Support the Girls star Haley Lu Richardson. They’re young! They’re hot for each other! And they’re both dying! Two tickets, please.
- “Is this a high school or a Roger Corman movie?” asks Jughead. Though we don’t stay in the space long enough to get a reaction shot, I like to imagine everyone in his direct vicinity either rolling their eyes, or ignoring him.
- Jughead also ribs two of his charges by calling them Heckle and Jeckle, alluding to the ‘40s cartoon about a pair of irritating yellow-billed magpies. In my younger days, my parents would refer to my sister and I as Heckle and Jeckle when we were being particularly annoying. It’s a great, mild, old-timey diss.
- Not a whole lot of action this week with Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz, apart from their glacial drift apart bound to culminate in next week’s episode, the synopsis of which teases that “Cheryl [Blossom] and Toni [Topaz] find themselves at a crossroads.” Could this be it for Choni? Will I ever write about either character without using their full name? On both counts, let the answer please be no.
- In case you forgot that Cheryl Blossom is a proud gay woman, she’s reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (you know, the book Carol was based on) in bed.
- The song performed by Gina Gershon as Gladys “Kind of Like the Joan Jett of Riverdale” Jones is “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a slinky song written for Nina Simone and further popularized by The Animals. The disco version from Santa Esmeralda, featured prominently in Kill Bill, is fun as well.
- Line of the night comes from Hiram’s boorish business associate, who shrugs off some manhandling from Reggie with “Cheekbones here is bouncing me?”