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Riverdale bids Luke Perry a proper farewell in a minimally ridiculous season premiere

Photo: The CW
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The timing of Luke Perry’s sudden passing earlier this year left Riverdale in an awkward holding pattern. Even in his tertiary capacity as Archie’s reliable dad Fred, Perry’s absence perceptibly hung over the episodes recorded after his death, as the fans patiently waited week by week for the writing staff to address the elephant in the room. (Or rather, not in the room.) The third season ended by deferring the fallout of his unscheduled departure to the post-hiatus fall, a practical and yet unsatisfying move that led to the craven track-covering device of sending Fred upstate for vague reasons to get killed in a hit-and-run. Clearing the logistical hurtle posed by Perry’s stroke, both in terms of narrative and production, was a messy undertaking. But what’s done is done, and now it’s time to grieve.

“In Memoriam” gives Perry the proper send-off we’ve been waiting for, complete with tearful embraces and semi-secular prayer and that thing where everyone sits in a circle exchanging their favorite memories of the deceased. The mourning all plays out with surprising sensitivity and delicacy, each scene finely calibrated. I’ll confess that I did have a slight sense of dread about this episode; saying goodbye to a loved one is somber business, and Riverdale tends to falter when it has to drop the scare quotes and put on a straight face. But Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and his staff chart out a nice middle ground, conceptualizing what this deeply silly show’s version of seriousness might look like.

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Tears get jerked, and not even in the manipulative easy-money fashion of shows that coast on the automatic pathos of losing someone forever. The show could have easily taken that route, because as much as Riverdale is about the joy and beauty of artifice, the sadness we feel at the notion of the death of Luke Perry — a real person, a person some of us have watched on screens small and large for the better part of three decades — is genuine. There’s a foundation of earnest emotion in the response of the viewers at home, and the same goes for the performances from the actors who’ve parted with one of their own. Enough about this episode is authentic that when the trademark absurdity resurfaces in the second act, it arrives as a comforting counterbalance.

For all the fond reminiscences of things we didn’t always see happen, some more convincingly delivered than others, Riverdale cannot help but be itself. It starts with classic pitter-patter between the youths, and Cheryl Blossom in a snit over the revival of the town’s revived 4th of July parade clearing the stormcloud of her brother’s death. Then the inevitable news comes, and at first, it’s hard not to laugh. We get a close-up of a stunned Archie as he hears that Fred’s dead, and the phone slips right out of his hands with an mmm-whatcha-say slow-mo gravitas. Later in the episode, once Archie’s ascertained the identity of the motorist responsible for the accident that claimed his father’s life, he hulks out and storms the guy’s house to pin him against a wall. (Improbably comforting to know that this momentous life event won’t cure Archie of his bone-deep, person-defining dumbness.) It’s goofy as hell, and yet that goofiness has an oil-and-water distinctness from the poignant core of the episode. It’s unobtrusive, welcome even, a respite from the hurt. Oh, it feels good to laugh.

Archie’s misguided revenge rampage, his impulsive mission to retrieve his father’s corpse from a storage chamber upstate, the flirty float-painting montage — it’s all a leavening agent for the difficult process of acceptance. Everyone misses Fred, the common sentiment being that he was a father to all those who needed one. When Jughead’s dad was getting drunk or Betty’s dad was doing murders, he was steadfast and caring and reliable and all that things that a man should be. He was good with his hands, he had an unwavering sense of right and wrong, and he knew how cars worked. We tend to lionize people after they go, but in this case, the show had completed all of that work long ahead of time. It really does feel like a giant has been felled, without false glorification.

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As the one with the most to lose, Archie’s bearing the brunt of the torment, haunted by an eerie dream of his deceased grandfather telling him that “everyone’s waiting.” (A phrase bringing to mind the title of Six Feet Under’s series finale, one of TV’s defining works on mortality.) He wrestles with survivor’s guilt in the belief that Fred never would have gotten in the car if it hadn’t been for him. Apa does some fine work shouldering the demands this episode places on his acting skills, outdoing both Skeet Ulrich and Molly Ringwald in the wooden exchange they share.

But even he can’t do anything about the episode’s one significant misstep, trying to wedge its dramatic fulcrum inside of its most ridiculous scene. Archie gets the culprit George Augustine right where he wants him, only for George’s teenage son to confess that he was the one behind the wheel at the critical moment. George was only protecting his kin, an instinct that Archie recognized and cherished in his own father. It’s a brutally contrived avenue to Archie’s revelation that he can only truly honor his father’s legacy by living as he would’ve lived, and that means rejecting the anger he carries in his heart. Whether this also means Archie will stop doing the dumbest possible thing in any given moment will be a more complex question to answer.

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But it’s an altogether successful hour, a solid re-entry into the unstable atmosphere of Riverdale, where unnamed dangers still wait to rear their nasty heads. For the time being, however, we’re left with warm and soft images to hold dear. The worn photo on which the episode fades out, the tableau of the dramatis personae curled up to watch a fireworks show and appreciate the years they’ve still got to live (or so they think) — these will stay with us, filed in the same mental folder as the good times we’ve shared elsewhere with Perry. He leaves behind a strong body of work, making his final film appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Riverdale belongs in the same company, as a fellow work that keenly understood the presence, authority, and warmth of the teen idol turned character actor. They understood Perry, the same thing his many fans will forever strive to attain.


Stray observations: 

- Welcome to Season 4, my ghoulies and gargoyles. Much has transpired since we last saw one another in May: Lili Reinhart butterfly-blossomed into a bona fide movie star and came out as a Joker apologist, Camila Mendes did an Onibaba rework along the US-Mexico border and became the picture of womanly health in an official capacity, while her costar/squeeze Charles Melton starred in his own vehicle informed by the tensions of immigration (albeit with more smooching). I have also grown, but clearly not out of my addiction to monitoring the Instagram accounts of my network-TV contemporaries.

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- The moving tune that sends Perry off to his final sleep is Arlo Guthrie’s “I’m Going Home,” one of the great death-songs of the American canon. It clinches the moment, and foretells another season full of big-ticket music licensing. Any bets? Mad Men’s biggest flex was dropping the needle on The Beatles — maybe Archie and Co. can get down to the Stones?

- During the scene that lines the whole town up along the street, Toni Topaz is seen holding a baby. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but whose baby is that? Is she just holding an infant because something about the image’s maternal air comes across as reassuring?

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- Whatever you thought the wildest thing about this kookoo-bananas dimension that is Riverdale might have been, you were wrong, because apparently Pop’s serves pancakes with a parsley garnish. This is, not to be hyperbolic or anything, but stark raving madness.

-Reggie: “Archie’s been attacked by a bear, what, multiple times? And still survived?” Archie: “Hey, I wear my scars proudly.” God, how I missed the dialogue on this glorious calamitous television program.

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