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Riverdale reaches another turning point, a fork stuck in the road

Illustration for article titled Riverdale reaches another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Photo: The CW
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After everything, all the serial killers and cults and furtive bang seshes in the sex bunker, that this was the only way it could end. Though “end” is more like “an especially momentous juncture of the middle,” as the whole gang will be back next week, albeit with six years having passed in a flash. And by “this,” I of course mean Archie delivering an agonizingly sincere cover of Green Day’s graduation day staple “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” to no one in particular.

It’s time to move up and out, not just for the kids on the precipice of an adulthood that will demand far more maturity of them than mere college. Everyone has picked up on the sense of ceremony in the air, the reason season finales (or woulda-been finales) orient themselves around events with built-in gravitas, like weddings or births. The grown-ups can also see change coursing through the town, and even if they may not be completing another year at Riverdale High, they feel compelled to start something new and evolve along with them. Archie’s so desperate to feel like he’s not going to spend the next year in a holding pattern that he’s willing to resort to extreme measures placing him in harm’s way, right where he likes it.

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He commands the most substantive emotional arc of the hour, as the inept student comes to grips with the news that summer school will not be sufficient to earn him a diploma, and that he will have to repeat senior year. It’s Archie’s worst nightmare, a lack of prospects for higher education turning into a complete elimination of any future for another twelve months. We can practically see a pit forming in his stomach, a sharp actorly flourish from the usually blunt-edged K.J. Apa, as Jughead suggests a reunion in one year’s time and Archie realizes he’ll have nothing to share with his ambitious, adventurous friends. The well-meaning galoot has always regarded military service as a serviceable plan B, and when the excavated time capsule from the class of 45 includes a photo of four Army buddies, it doesn’t take long for their ghostly apparitions to get him moseying on up to the local recruiter’s table. Aside from the risk of mortality and the complicity in America’s campaign of imperialist destabilization abroad, it may not be the worst move for him. At this point, it’s the fastest way for this constant fuckup to find purpose and earn a little respect.

While his friends express due concern, Veronica’s the one who puts up the biggest fight, in part because she and her man haven’t quite gotten closure. The one-for-the-road hookup can only do so much to smooth things over between them, requiring an additional last-minute dash to the bus stop for a properly cinematic goodbye. While it ain’t the end of Casablanca, that’s the heartstring-yanking register the scene has been pitched at, and the Riverdale version of that devastating lip-lock succeeds just fine on its own terms. With the deed to Pop’s signed over to its rightful and grateful owner, Veronica goes off to spend some quality time “with my mom and Andy Cohen in the Hamptons” before starting freshman year in the fall.

While scheduled to do the same at Highsmith in the coming semester, Cheryl Blossom plots a change of course after discovering that her “hothouse flower” of a Mumsy plans on turning herself in for the laundry list of felonies she’s committed over the past few years. In a noble sacrificeso noble that one wonders why she’d make it, aside from mechanics of the plotCheryl Blossom decides to put off college, torpedo her relationship with Toni Topaz, and stick around to restore the good reputation of the Blossom name. Dropping out to cultivate your empire casts her in a very Mark Zuckerberg light; she’s sure to wield a great deal of power once we rejoin her in the distant future.

With “Varchie” vanquished and “Choni” choked out, “Bughead” is the only relationship left to dissolve so that everyone may be freed up for their next phase in life. As long as she comes clean about her smooch with Archie a few weeks earlier, their breakup can be accomplished easily enough. She does, and it is. Just like that, the central pillar holding up this show has been leveled, if only so that it can be re-erected with a restarted courtship in the world of tomorrow. Jughead’s whole life has been blown up, with his dad and little sister leaving the show in a seemingly permanent capacity for the friendlier greens of Toledo. (Skeet Ulrich has been reported to have grown “creatively bored” by his work on the series.) While he’ll be busied during the coming days with classes, he’s got nothing to come back to except the group hang at Pop’s that time next year. That no one shows up lands as a genuinely bruising moment, the camaraderie between these kids a foundation for the show that it has now pulled out from beneath us.

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This episode wisely leaves room for one last chill in the school’s common area, a reminder of how much time we’ve spent with these people in this space, and the rich bond we’ve formed with it. (Likewise, we get a farewell peek at the sex bunker while Jughead crashes there between homes.) They’re leaving their youth behind and we’re going with them, entering an uncertain new age undoubtedly distanced from the milieu of teens and academia that has thus far defined this show. No one knows what this show will look like as soon as next week, and for once, we viewers can share in the uncertainty that the grads feel instead of watching them improbably stick together, as in Gossip Girl. Betty’s commencement address articulates Gen Z’s despair about being forced to live in an era characterized by relentless life-claiming crisis, but her unease works more broadly than that as well. Everything’s going to be wiped away and redrawn from scratch, and for real this time. No retcons here. This could be the death of the show or the beginning of its revitalization. I have no idea, and I can’t wait to find out.


Stray observations:

  • I am fascinated by Veronica’s exhortation to Archie of “You do know there’s a war going on, right?” Which war is she referring to? Because we’re in, like, a bunch of them. In the Archieverse, are American troops being deployed to an invented international conflict? My hope is yes, and that we will get flashback scenes of our boy’s undoubtedly traumatizing experiences on the front. Nothing quite like camp homoeroticism mixed with Army aesthetics!
  • For a school with a much-discussed hoodlumism problem, you’d think Riverdale High wouldn’t pay tribute to the student body’s many organized gangs in the pages of their yearbook. But you would be wrong!
  • Penelope emerging from some nearby shrubbery to accost her daughter sneaks in a delightful stroke visual comedy to an episode with a stonier face than usual.
  • Naturally, Cheryl Blossom must walk at graduation in a blinding red gown while the rest of her classmates wear the school color of blue. I enjoy imagining all the parents unfamiliar with her HBIC status asking around about why one girl who wasn’t even the valedictorian wore a different color, and students trying in vain to explain how Cheryl Blossom works.
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