KJ Apa (left), Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, Cole Sprouse
Photo: Dean Buscher (The CW)
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Aaron Sorkin has this little habit of titling the first-season finale episodes on his various TV series “What Kind Of Day Has It Been?” He takes each stopping point as an opportunity to take stock, to look back at what’s come before and look ahead at what’s to come. Though Riverdale has shackled itself to obligations of plot, the writing staff embeds reflection of this nature beneath the story they’ve got to conclude in “Chapter Fifty-Seven.” 

The final scene in particular, which allows our central quartet to regroup at Pop’s with milkshakes after all this season’s various perils, fosters this feeling of summation. They’re all sharing a chuckle over the staggering volume of traumas they’ve had to deal with this year alone—the organ-purloining cult, not one but two masked homicidal lunatics, the revelation that their friend’s mom is a criminal mastermind, death in every direction as far as the eye can see—and vowing to return to normalcy. There are probably plenty of fans echoing these same sentiments, eager to get back to the routine of classes and crushes.

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Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has other plans. One gets the sense he’d think of a return to the stakes of season one as a devolution, that the show cannot go back to its brighter and simpler self. How else to explain the shocking flash-forward announcing that any hopes for high-school innocence have been severely misplaced? That coda, what would’ve been a “watercooler moment” if we still had watercoolers or monoculture to discuss around them, comes as a smack in the face to anyone hoping the show would break out of this season’s grim phase. Archie, Veronica, and Betty stand around a roaring bonfire in their underwear, burning their clothes, tossing the forebodingly-absent Jughead’s beanie in last. There’s a note of cruelty in the juxtaposition of what sure looks like an evil blood pact with the carefree happiness of the four characters back in their present. The kids are deluding themselves if they think they’ve only got to worry about pop quizzes from now on. So are we.

This scene suggests that the jam-packed insanity of “Chapter Fifty-Seven” will be the order of the day going forward, and we all better get used to it. Determined to end with a bang and not a whimper, the writing staff stuffs more intense showdowns that can be counted on one hand into their forty-two minutes. That’s not approximate language, either; this episode’s draining feeling can be attributed to the fact that six different scenes carried the flattening emotional weight to end the episode, but only one did. Mastermind Penelope Blossom has set up a sadistic scavenger hunt for her teen nemeses, heaping one life-changing horror on them after another. “A bunch of crazy shit happens” could fairly describe most Riverdale episodes, but they’ve all afforded reprieves from the solemnity that this episode does not—aside from an ill-timed makeout between a reunited Archie and Veronica, poison coursing through their veins. There’s no soft-pedaling allowed, not this week.

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Archie has to kill a bear-man! Jughead has to kill Chick! Betty has to kill her dad! Veronica has to kill herself (or so she thinks)! In a show that thrives on its own too-muchness, Aguirre-Sacasa and his writers may have finally devised a way to have too much too-much. The four life-or-death reckonings face each character with their innermost torment—the bear has been a recurring symbol of Archie’s capacity for violence in addition to giving him an excuse to say “Oh, crap, not again,” Jughead faces off against the embodiment of danger to Betty in the form of Chic, Veronica’s presumable guilt over bringing so much peril to Riverdale dissolves when she tries to take a russian roulette bullet for her chums, and Betty faces her own dark side through her father. It all makes sense on paper, but that’s just the problem. These scenes are more fun to discuss than watch, the usual camp value spoiled by a seriousness of tone.

Two teenagers now owning significant chunks of property in Riverdale makes perfect sense within the show’s loopy internal logic, as does a scene opening on a craniotomy. We’ve been trained not to bat an eye at this over the past three years, but we have no idea what to do when this show demands we take its emotional stakes seriously. It’s little wonder that the episode’s best scene also happens to be its silliest, in which the mini archer-army of the Pretty Poisons arrive just in time to beat back the Gargoyle menace. Of course nobody’s going to die here (a phenomenon I’ve learned is known as “plot armor”), but that’s not even a concern when we’re just having fun joining this show for the ride. In the event that the writing suddenly insists that these homicides will be much more upsetting than the previous, lower-stakes homicides, the about-face cracks.

But even if Riverdale stumbles in its attempt to break into a sprint—things get dangerously American Horror Story here, though Cheryl Blossom buddying up with her brother’s desiccated corpse is delectable stuff—it’s only a matter of time until the show gets back on its feet. Mama Jones will be around for some time to come, as long as the writers forestall Fred’s death, and she’s shipping her own son. Charles has reentered the Cooper family’s universe, tangling up the family trees and priming the show for a decidedly different dynamic between Betty and Jughead next year. Not to mention Alice’s new partnership with the FBI, another thread with plenty of potential in season three.

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But the heart and soul of this show live inside Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. The final scene leaves a sour taste, mocking the kind of high schooler melodrama that initially launched this show into hit territory. This season’s high points have come when the show most closely resembles its former self; testing anxiety, school plays, prom night. Getting away from that could be a slippery slope, giving writers the wrong idea about what it means to top yourself. That’s the constant mandate on buzzy TV shows, to come back bigger and darker and more intense every year. But this isn’t Riverdale’s criterion. For this show, outdoing the previous year doesn’t require more cliffhangers, or grislier gore.

Balance has been the name of the game from season one, as the show figured out how much it wanted to be Twin Peaks versus how much it wanted to be An Invitation to Love. The third season has learned more towards the former (though it’s drifted towards True Detective from Lynch country), and it looks like the fourth season will continue the trend. Maybe it’s just that these plotlines have largely kept the main characters away from one another, but they’re dragging the vibe down. Even when this season has gotten bleak, it’s tried to maintain a sense of levity; just look at the big organ-harvest reveal. Having a good time is what Riverdale’s all about, and losing touch with that represents the greatest threat to the show’s continued success. Loosen up, everyone! The killers have been disposed of, it’s summertime, and a new school year’s coming up. They tell students starting senior year to savor every moment, because it’ll be over before they know it. I’d give that same advice to the cast of Riverdale: cherish every moment in which you get to be flawed, accessible, likable kids. It’s only a matter of time until it’s back to the blood.

Stray observations

  • Another banner week for Cheryl Blossom one-liners, our gal now fully freed from the sway The Farm had been holding over her. The specific tone of Riverdale sometimes makes it difficult to tell whether the youngest cast members are actually skilled performers or merely extremely well-suited to these roles; I was officially sold on Madelaine Petsch as a bona fide Good Actress when Cheryl Blossom assumed a power stance and told Kevin and Moose, “Save those eyes for the bedroom, boys, we’re getting out of this house of the devil.” Then, any doubts that may have lingered were permanently banished with her scream of, “KEVIN’S FATHER IS A LAWMAN, HE WON’T ABIDE HIS SON LIVING IN THE TENTH CIRCLE OF HELL!” Someone get this girl a movie vehicle. And, god, let it be better than F The Prom.
  • Penelope’s line about Riverdale being “a hideous and cruel place, twisted and cursed” reminded me of an excellent essay that ran on this very web site back during the Mad Men days. Like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Riverdale destroys the people who stay there too long. They’re both toxic environments in which the hostile atmosphere of violence and malevolence cannot sustain kindness or goodness.
  • How many teens heard Cheryl Blossom mention Patty Hearst and started googling? If they start reading Symbionese Liberation Army literature and get radicalized, will we hold Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa responsible? Militant teens, sound off in the comments!
  • Is there a clause in Mark Consuelos’ contract dictating a minimum number of scenes in which he will appear shirtless? His pecs look like they’d crack my skull open if I tried to headbutt them.
  • And that’s a wrap on season three of Hot Archie Who Fucks! It’s been a real privilege to go on this journey with you all, fraught as it’s been with bloodshed and poor real-estate decisions. This is such a strange and wonderful show, and I think I’m not alone when I say that though Riverdale can frustrate me, I love it very dearly. It is my sincerest hope that I’ll see you all here again in the fall for senior year, and for this show’s attempt to Gossip Girl its graduating characters into all remaining within the same radius. Take care over the summer, and just say no to Fizzle Rocks.

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