As Riverdale’s second season began with an elaborate coma dream—from Fred, of all characters—it’s unfortunate we’re deprived of such an experience with Jughead. (He’s not dead. Neither is Fangs. Moving on.) Then again, season one Jughead already provided the audience with a classic Archie Comics-centered dream. In terms of deprivation though, we’re also prevented from seeing an epic rumble at dawn that completely decimates the Serpents (for a whole day) and somehow leads to peace between the Serpents/Northsiders... at least, according to a show of solidarity at Riverdale High.

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“Chapter Thirty-Five: Brave New World” hits a lot of story points to get things over with and move on for season three, but unlike the impressive story-burning of peak Vampire Diaries, it’s all a need to move on without actually putting in the work. Instead, this episode is defined by a series of “...and then this happens” vignettes perfect for GIF-ing purposes but not for an actual story (until season three begins). Truly, “Chapter Thirty-Four: Judgment Night” could’ve ended things on a high note, but instead, Riverdale ends by lingering on the season’s worst aspects and teasing that it will actually do more (for the characters who got less) next season.

  • Kevin/Moose kiss… and that’s all they’ve got.
  • Jughead’s Serpent King, with Betty as his Serpent Queen. The Serpent Dance wasn’t necessary.
  • Cheryl’s also a Serpent now, with her own custom jacket. Again, dance wasn’t required.
  • Josie’s back on her music, which she never quit.
  • Hermione’s the Mayor of Riverdale. All of her work as Crime Boss #2 comes to an end, because Crime Boss #1 says she has to be legit. This is apparent even before Hiram says that, because she returns to season one Hermione status by showing sportsmanship toward Fred.
  • Polly’s bringing a healer from the farm to help Alice cope. This is the most interesting development of the finale, but it’s not the focus.
  • Veronica owns Pop’s and is opening a speakeasy managed by FP. She got it by buying the Whyte Wyrm—the one place Hiram needed to officially own all the Southside—and trading it to Hiram—so now he owns all the Southside.
  • Hiram has his own Legion of Doom, and it almost makes this mob storyline’s existence worth it.
  • Hal is now the Hannibal to Betty’s Clarice.
  • Archie is student body president and—whoops—now he’s arrested. Maybe next season he (and Veronica) will learn not to spill his entire plan to the villain who owns half the town.

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Also, Jughead/Archie angrily eat ice cream, which is the most relatable moment of the entire series—other than Cheryl becoming her true self thanks to Jennifer Garner.

Here’s the thing: I want to accept Riverdale as the ridiculous show it is. Who doesn’t? It was easier in the first season, when the most problematic aspect was the failed Grundy storyline. But this season, there’s the combination of: Mobster Lodges and Mobster/Fascist Archie, Dark Betty (meaning Cam Girl Betty and Serpent Dance Betty, two of the lowest points of the series), the entire “Gangs Can Be Good” concept, Cheryl’s existence as a GIF and unhinged bisexual, and Kevin/Josie/Reggie getting scraps of storytelling. The general mystery of the Black Hood was hit or miss, but overall, it worked. As absurd as Riverdale is now, it’s not always in the fun way. Would that we could have KJ Apa dancing in every episode, but we apparently can’t.

In the season one finale, as Kevin suggested the possibility of a major drug problem (the least of the town’s worries) in Riverdale, it was Jughead who replied: “Kevin, relax. This isn’t The Wire.” After this season, Jughead telling anyone to relax seems like a lifetime ago. And now Riverdale is such a nightmare, it’s amazing to think there was a time that the idea of a cabal of adults conspiring to take over the town and take down teen adversaries wouldn’t even come to anyone’s mind. But as “Chapter Thirty-Five” makes clear, that’s apparently just the show now. That’s the hardest pill to swallow, as Riverdale takes the general “Parents Just Don’t Understand” concept (despite the original idea that the teens were mirroring their parents’ paths) and injects Bane venom into it.

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The show’s doubling down on its criminal underbelly also makes the “back to basics” promise re: Riverdale High stuff even more ridiculous. The most bizarre part of this episode is when characters inform others (and the audience) that they’re dropping out of the student council race that has been in the background since “Chapter Thirty-One: A Night To Remember.” Betty/Jughead mention it while Jughead’s in his hospital bed, just coming back from the brink of death… after discussing how much Betty wants to atone for the sins of her serial killer father. Veronica mentions it when she’s promising to focus on Fred’s mayoral campaign… even though said campaign is far from her only focus in this episode. (And even Fred’s son—who’s finally all in here—doesn’t do drop out for this reason.) Reggie drops out due to a post-“Chapter Thirty-Four” reflection, realizing he’s not fit to be “a leader of men” yet… even though student body president won’t require facing up to gang members who want to kill you. But who knows? Riverdale is weird. And Josie (his running mate) also drops out, because she’s a musician, not a politician… and no one’s ever been more than one thing, especially in high school, especially if you’re not in Riverdale’s core four. In theory, Josie/Reggie make the most sense to win—even if that means changing up the episode’s finish—because that creates an instant story for the characters next season. At least, when they’re not around, we could all just say, “They’re pushing for off campus lunch.” or something. Teen shows in general are always pretty bad about understanding school activities, but this election breaks new ground on that front.

Going back to the season one finale and its effect on this season, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa called Fred getting shot by the Black Hood Archie’s Bruce Wayne/Peter Parker moment. Fast-forwarding to now, that’s been a true insult to both Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker. The aftermath of that was not superhero Archie, not even a little: It was very much villain Archie. As this season ends with Archie still talking about making his damn bones—this time directing it toward Hiram—it’s supposed to be a “fuck yeah, hero Archie” moment. And Apa technically gets to do good work in that particular scene. But the combination of Archie telling Hiram he knows where the bodies are buried (the same tactic Veronica takes against her father here) instead of keeping things close to the vest and the lame blood pact knife stab deflates the entire moment that’s supposed to solidify Archie as a redeemed character. In wrestling terms, Riverdale is really Roman Reigns-ing Archie here, only the heel turn for Archie was actually the worst possible decision.

Surprisingly, “Chapter Thirty-One” really was a turning point for the season. Not only did it bring back the Black Hood to lead to the true reveal (and oust Sheriff Keller for his negligence), it was the first moment where Archie started to see Hiram for who he really is and Veronica started to come back from the dark side too. However, while Archie’s face turn came in the form of witnessing Hiram attempt to implode his family unit right in front of him, Veronica’s only came after she and Betty sang a love song to each other. So, technically, Veronica only returned to her anti-Lodge crime family self through a metaphorical moment; Archie had an actual plot. And now here, she gives her father even more power—while essentially being cut off—for sentimental value. While it’s worth admitting that Pop’s truly is the last safe space of Riverdale, if stopping Hiram is the priority of these characters (besides Betty, as her daddy issues are in another stratosphere), absolutely no one in the core four is doing a good job.

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Speaking of Betty’s daddy issues—even though the scene screams, “Let’s just do Silence Of The Lambs now”—it does mean a lot after this season of “darkness” that Betty’s reaction to Hal’s ranting is to confidently smile to herself as she walks away. It’s an integral moment that Lili Reinhart has to play, and that it’s not played with a sense of hesitation or worry on Betty’s part means a sense of closure, at least in terms of Betty’s fears that she will become like her father. (Honestly, if there’s anyone in the family we should worry about being susceptible to Hal, it’s Polly.) The thing about the Cooper household is that it simultaneously feels separate from everything and like the center of everything; while the Lodge household consumed so much of this season, things like the Black Hood’s fixation with Betty coupled with Betty’s established role as the detective of this show create that effect.

For all the problems with crime in Riverdale, there is something interesting in Hiram functioning as the town’s Lex Luthor, especially if the show frames the narrative as such, with Hiram truly believing he is the savior of the town. The problem with that—at least presentation-wise—is that we’ve now just had a season of over-the-top mob moss Hiram instead of the white collar criminal the first season hinted at. Hiram’s Legion of Doom makes things more interesting, though it really hinges on who’s part of it. Penny Peabody especially (and Malachai) brings out a different form of camp than the Blossoms or the Lodges—just like Polly’s cult ties to the farm. On the other hand, Penelope becoming “Madame Blossom” pushes harder on one of the worst seemingly useless stories of the season—and that’s not even acknowledging the Hal Cooper love affair of it all. And then we have Claudius, who is literally a Scooby-Doo villain, frustrated by Veronica “and her meddlesome friends.” Minetta doesn’t have anything going for him—yet—other than being such an obviously corrupt cop every character calls him out for being a corrupt cop.

The biggest problem with this season is that doesn’t learn from its mistakes, no matter how many promises that it has. I say this understanding there’s a turnaround difference between a show when it’s written and when it airs. But consider the rhetoric from the showrunner after the first half was poorly-received, and then look at how much it doubled down on the “edgy” and “dark” instead of that lip service “back to basics.” Instead of explaining the Serpents (from the dangerous to the charitable to the backwards to the who-even-knows to the oppressed), everyone just becomes a Serpent. Instead of pulling back on the organized crime stuff, everyone ends up in organized crime. Archie and Veronica may be “redeemed” in the show’s eyes, but for the former, his “manipulation” (which he confronts Hiram about) ignores his free will—and the fact he also joined Hiram because he wanted his girlfriend’s dad to like him. For the latter, it ignores that she knew her dad wanted to take over the Southside and didn’t care until she sang a love song with Betty (who was lucky enough to have her worst storylines written out with no more mention). And a season with a terrible serial killer ends with “death” meaning absolutely nothing for two characters.

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To top it all off, Archie (who looks the happiest he’s ever been in the final scene) ends up arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, all tied back to an episode where the core four were at their worst. This season ends with the core four as friends again, but after this mediocre season, it’s hard to truly see as a win. At least it has time now to recharge.

Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: The O.C. season two is something I think was unfairly maligned at the time. It wound up progressively removing its (relatively likable, honestly) “New Era” characters (including Olivia Wilde as the best recurring cast member outside of Samaire Armstrong and Chris Pratt) because of fan reaction. Seriously, there was even a photo shoot with Wilde, Michael Cassidy, etc. that suggested they would be sticking around. But, you know—your original core four.
  • Josie and the Keller-cat: Josie sings the National Anthem and makes me hope Riverdale never tackles kneeling. Also, let’s see if Kevin/Moose kissing will finally lead to a real story, three seasons in, as opposed to just a shoe-horned in moment. Also, the whole town thinks Minetta/Hiram are to thank for saving the day during the riots, meaning Kevin kept the hot dads picture to himself and didn’t post it anywhere it might matter.
  • I cut out a lot I wanted to address overall (and still technically overwrote, thanks to these observations), but I will direct you to my Twitter for bonus content later as well as the new episode of the Dial M For Maple podcast, where Cameron Scheetz and I discuss things I didn’t want to double book (and still kind of did) in this review.
  • I mention this (and a lot more) on the Dial M For Maple episode for this finale, but the Fred/Betty scene is such a little but important moment. It also highlights how Luke Perry approaches his scenes with the teens differently from every other adult on this show, because he actually plays it as a wise adult/innocent teen dynamic.
  • There is nothing more delightful than Ethel’s poster, especially when it takes background and center in the bizarre Veronica/Cheryl restroom scene. Also, now that Archie’s in jail, does this make Ethel student body president now? Because if so: The vision board worked, baby! (Yes, I know the vision board never actually existed, but the vision board is now Ethel’s legacy in my mind.)
  • Is Weatherbee going to let Jughead publish his Hiram Lodge article now? I mean, the problem Weatherbee stated was that it’s an “attack” on a student’s parent, but since said student will now have no issue with it, can corroborate it, and will probably provide more evidence for it, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be published now. What’s Hiram going to do, kill Jughead? He already failed at that.
  • Jughead (v.o.): “It was a foolish question, asked between two young people in love. But it didn’t matter. For it would soon be overshadowed by the next day’s cataclysmic events.” There is no way Aguirre-Sacasa doesn’t intentionally write Jughead’s voiceovers as the most pretentious teenage writing. It’s a good thing Jughead is apparently the best gang member ever, because he was going to have a rude awakening as a writer. (He might actually be a worse writer than Dawson Leery was a filmmaker.)
  • Remember when Reggie was a Jingle Jangle dealer? That actually happened this season, as that was our initial baseline for the difference between New Reggie and Old Reggie.
  • I both love and hate Archie giving Hiram the, “Yeah, I’m still having sex with your daughter under your roof” comment. It’s such a dumb snarky teenager thing to say, but at the same time, that’s apparently the only way to get through to Hiram’s weird teenager mindset. That and amateur wrestling, I guess.

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