Even at its lowest points, there’s always something to appreciate about Riverdale. Even after a sophomore slump, there’s still a reason to long for the show during hiatus. And an episode like “Chapter Thirty-Six: Labor Day” explains why that is: It’s because Riverdale is the type of show where things like a murder trial, gang infiltration, a Slender Man proxy, a pool party, and a cult—all in one episode—somehow make for a “safe” episode. Not too dark, not too out of left field (for this show), and thankfully, no singing.

“Chapter Thirty-Six” has so many things happening—all with different tones—and not only do they mostly work in harmony with each other, they make for a solid and proper reentry into the series after the show’s second season. And since that season certainly did “too much,” it’s impressive to see a list of things that, on paper, are also “too much” work so much better. So far, at least.

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Funnily enough, it appears the key to this success is in grounding all of these over-the-top situations more in terms of character than in terms of what could be considered the “edgiest” or “darkest” moment. Sure, edginess and darkness exist in this episode’s Gargoyle King and cult plots, but in the case of the latter, they are far from the driving force. For the former, Riverdale is a mystery show—on top of all its other genres—and “the mystery of the Gargoyle King” could be just the absurd move this show needs post-Black Hood. What I can say at this point is that its small part of this episode captures that horror spirit Riverdale excels at but has yet to completely lean into (with the exception of last season’s “Chapter Twenty”).

This is an episode that bangs the coming-of-age, end of innocence drum hard in the lead-up to Archie ending up in juvenile detention. However, considering how much that’s been a theme of Riverdale since the first season—with Jason Blossom’s death as the end of supposed innocence in Riverdale—and how season two aggressively removed any sense of innocence from its core four—to the detriment of those characters on multiple levels—this episode’s focus on that theme alternates between making sense and not working as well as it possibly could. The shot of the “CAUTION | NO SWIMMING AFTER LABOR DAY” sign falls more into the realm of “not working,” while less-pointed moments like Archie/Jughead’s memories of the swimming hole work much better. But Kevin Sullivan’s direction in this episode—whether it’s handling that coming-of-age tale, tackling the ‘60s beach party genre, going full Southern legal drama, or turning the show into a Lynchian fever dream—is so on point that it serves as a reminder of why the show’s shortcomings stick out as much as they do. Sure, Riverdale technically paid homage to The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Reservoir Dogs very well last season (again, all in one episode, even) in the visual sense, but in terms of Riverdale’s actual material, that was a different story. Riverdale is so technically proficient when it comes to the visual aspects that when the narrative aspects come up short, it’s not pretty.

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Surprisingly, in terms of story, Riverdale deserves praise for its murder trial not ending up as tedious and drawn out as The Flash’s murder trial last season, even though it also has its wrongfully accused protagonist accepting a fate he doesn’t deserve. But part of what also works about this is that Riverdale finally acknowledges here that Archie (unlike Barry Allen) has done plenty of things that suggest he might.

As the court case began, I was actually worried about how the episode would handle things. Because while the audience knows Archie didn’t kill that kid at Shadow Lake, I wasn’t looking forward to the show whitewashing Archie’s behavior from season two. When the district attorney says Archie “has a history of violent behavior,” she’s right. Yes, he did start two masked vigilante groups. Yes, he did assault a kid with two broken legs (even though we know Nick St. Clair isn’t an “innocent boy”). And yes, he did go vandalizing the Southside and pull a gun on Sweet Pea. Being a jock and a musician doesn’t change any of that; in fact, those should’ve been outlets for his anger and fear.

Then Mary Andrews talks about how Archie “constantly puts the needs of others ahead of his own,” and we see the scene where he stayed up all night with his bat… which was more about his own issues about the Black Hood than his father’s safety. (Also, Archie spent a good part of last season calling Jughead “crazy” when it came to Hiram’s villainy, and now the entire Southside’s fucked.) Then she mentions Archie helping to solve Jason’s murder… and come on, he was more focused on his music. (The few times he tried to help, Betty and Jughead made excuses to keep him away. Kevin helped solve that murder more than Archie did.) She certainly has a point when it comes to Archie housing Southsiders and the ice-punching, but everything before that suggests Riverdale is going to sweep Archie’s troubles under the rug just to move on.

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But while Roberto Aguirre-Acasa’s script allows everyone else to say “let’s move on,” it makes sure that Archie refuses to let those troubles be swept under the rug. While Archie guilts himself perhaps too much for the murder—leading to the dream sequence with literal blood on his hands, because this is Riverdale—he, more importantly, takes responsibility for how the decisions he made last season led to some really bad things.

“I didn’t kill anyone. But I could’ve. I have to take responsibility for that.”

Archie saying that is the acknowledgment that the writers are aware Archie did genuinely bad things—not just “teenage mistakes”—last season and that Riverdale will hold its characters accountable when the time is right. (At least, to a point: Because if I’m correctly interpreting something from this episode, Jughead knew Betty was lying about her therapist and popping Adderall like candy, and he had no problem with that.) That’s an acknowledgment that never really existed during the second season, as Aguirre-Acasa would say one thing about the series’ problems and then double down on more.

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However, Riverdale somewhat does a disservice to KJ Apa in this episode, as it finally gives him something to work with, only to assume—understandably, based on what they’ve done to, for, and with the character the past two seasons—that the only way anyone will focus on his scenes and his struggle is if he’s shirtless. But if you are able to pay attention to anything besides that, this is exactly the episode Archie needs as a “hero” and Apa needs as a likable but often lost member of the cast.

The other major example of what one expects from this episode shifting into the much better reality is life at the Cooper house. Seeing Betty back on her meds and even going to therapy while a lurking Polly has apparently convinced Alice to go all in on the farm? That makes sense. But then the episode flips that expectation on its head when it reveals that Polly might be the most rational, lucid member of the family right now and that Betty has been lying about her therapist Dr. Glass’ existence (a true M. Night Shyamalan twist), forging prescriptions to abuse Adderall (which makes an earlier amusing exchange about her not remembering a childhood moment a red flag), and refusing to mention her Hal. Meaning that Polly and Alice have actually processed things, in their own cult way and making this more interesting than the black and white concept of “Betty—good. Polly—crazy.”

The confrontation also reveals that Tiera Skovbye might become the lowkey MVP of the series, as she’s fantastic as the post-institutionalization, post-pregnancy, final form version of Polly. Here, it makes sense why she was the queen of Riverdale High School and the older sister that Betty revered; we’ve only seen Polly as someone Betty feels bad for or looks down on. Skovbye is so good when Polly’s telling Betty who she really is and how she’s been living a lie for months that you almost forget Polly’s still very much in a cult. Until the end of the episode, that is, when Riverdale remembers it sometimes likes to go full Twin Peaks.

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“Chapter Thirty-Six” is a solid Riverdale season premiere, especially considering how much of a struggle it could have been to get through. In fact, this one episode does more to get “back to basics” than pretty much anything from the back half of season two.


Stray observations

  • The Bones Zone: I’m retiring Riverdale Roulette in favor of chronicling the body count in Riverdale. Archie has yet to make his bones—that could change in juvie—but it looks like the Gargoyle King has led to Dilton Doiley’s bones being made.
  • Josie and the Keller-cat: There have been three months of Kevin and Moose… sneaking around? Openly hanging out without Moose coming out? They’ve definitely not had sex yet. And Josie has been hooking up with Sweet Pea, but the hooking up ends when school begins. Because she needs to focus on her music… even though it would’ve made sense to focus on music during the three free months of summer. Also, Josie is pro-jury tampering.
  • Really, Toni and Cheryl rode motorcycles cross-country together? Really?
  • Archie getting tatted up makes sense, because he’ll need the protection. But that doesn’t change how the Serpents are the lamest gang, for many reasons—like Jughead being the “king”—but mostly for things like Cheryl’s archery and her “mood for some hell-raising.” And, you know, the cherry red jacket during a stealth mission.
  • What’s Ben’s deal? I didn’t think much of it when he was Ms. Grundy’s last teen boy, but then he maybe had something going with “Chic.” (And he worked at the concession stand at the drive-in.) He’s possibly even more peculiar than Dilton “I Stabbed Myself To Frame The Serpents & That Got Much Less Scrutiny Than You’d Expect” Doiley.
  • I don’t know why I was surprised by just how ‘60s beach party movie Riverdale chose to get for Cheryl’s pool party, but I was. The extras literally looked like they were at the Shrimp Shack, which is that Riverdale attention to visual detail in full force. (As it turns out, the true Psycho Beach Party was Riverdale all along.) And while the teens who love this show might not appreciate everyone sweating in the courthouse like it’s A Time To Kill now, hopefully this series makes it so one day they will.
  • Is Penny still a Bar-certified lawyer? Because her quality of life could be so much better than it is.
  • Martin Cummins stays mostly under the radar on this show, but he’s great when Archie’s officially sentenced. You see in that brief moment just how much Tom Keller understand the system he believed in didn’t just fail this kid, it betrayed him. No wonder he decides to do another hot Riverdale dad team-up.
  • Veronica’s brilliant plans: find the gun and plant it on someone (her dad?), jury tampering (she at least didn’t come up with it), ask to give character witness testimony after closing arguments have already happened.
  • The most affecting shot of this episode is when Vegas the dog sits by the front door after Archie and his parents leave. It’s more painful than the later shot of sad Vegas still waiting for Archie because you just know when Vegas sits that he’s going to be waiting forever.
  • The funniest moment of the episode is when 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Youngblood” plays as they’re at the swimming hole, with the lyrics “I‘m just a dead man walking tonight. Sorry, Archie.

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