The advertising for this season of Riverdale has made no attempt to pussyfoot around the gigantic countdown clock hanging over everyone’s head, instead using the shrinking number of episodes until the much-touted time-jump as a selling point. We have been made well aware that everything springs forward at the end of episode three, the natural inter-season breaking point bumped back a few weeks due to COVID-related restrictions. This knowledge colors much of what happens in “Chapter Seventy-Eight,” which muddles through the work of getting the show’s most tedious ducks all in a row before we hurtle into the future. The haste with which mysteries must be solved and closure must be reached short-changes the elaborate groundwork of plot already laid, and more to the point, makes their attendant catharses unconvincing and inadequate. One gets the impression that things are being moved out of the way for no other reason than to clear a path.
Archie, for instance, seems to have drawn up a to-do list for the week consisting of “1. process Dad’s death” and “2. emotionally mature,” two big undertakings he deals with promptly and tidily. Setting aside the fact that nothing on this show has been quite so reliably inert over the years as K.J. Apa trying to perform profundity, even the most capable thespian would have trouble selling the prescriptive, prosaic way he goes about searching his soul. Within his fraction of a fortyish-minute episode, he finds time to wrestle with his guilt over the recent smooch with Betty, learn that the young man at the wheel of the car that took his father’s life is now being tried as an adult, weigh whether or not to show this boy mercy by writing the judge a letter in support of him, fight a physical manifestation of his own potential dark future, come out the other side a transformed man. An entire season’s arc has been condensed to a single episode, and while this usually makes for an enthralling runaway-train energy when applied to the soapier plot points, it’s no way to unload character development.
Archie rushes through his scenes, though it might be more accurate to say he’s rushed through them. The invisible hand of the writers grabs him by the shoulder and leads him around more perceptibly than usual, getting him set and prepped for whatever last gasp next week holds. Characters materialize in his scenes from nothingness; both Hiram (come to put Archie in a chokehold for dishonoring his daughter) and the returning Uncle Frank (here to show Archie the hardened, isolated existence that awaits him on his current path) appear so abruptly and serve their purposes with such an unnatural functionality that it’s a surprise when neither scene turns out to be a dream. That out-of-nowhere element gives way to drab predictability as Archie goes through the clichés of grief, ultimately depositing him at Dad’s grave for a moment of release. After coming to terms with the hole Fred’s death left in his life, I half-expected Archie to slap his hands together and say, “Alright, well, that’s that!”
The over-tidiness in a show that thrives on messiness also extends to the latest developments in Veronica’s life, as she and her parents all sort themselves out. When she’s menaced by a few lowlifes and Hermosa steps in to save the day by murdering all three of them in cold blood, we seem to be well on our way to chaos. But then it all falls into place; Hiram will retreat to the litigation-safe Cayman Islands, Hermione will head back to New York and engineer a new beginning for herself as a Real Housewife with pal Andy Cohen (please let the first time-jump episode include a show-within-a-show excerpt of this), and Veronica will take over the family business with Hermosa. But because all Hiram needs to do business are his “fists and a gun,” the girls enact a comically simple two-step plan to stage a hostile takeover — step one, get Hiram beaten up, step two, refuse to help him, which is really one step and one absence of a step — and it all goes off without a hitch. Bing, bang, boom, ready for graduation.
Things also work out almost too well for Cheryl Blossom, who just wants to shore up her business interests before graduation (and the temporal leap everyone seems to realize is coming). The trouble, as she learns on a family Zoom call playfully nodding to the pandemic this show has wisely and mercifully refused to acknowledge, is that her more distant relatives have no intention of cooperating with her proposed restructuring. But this is also solved easily enough, when Mumsy simply poisons everyone standing in her daughter’s way, which Cheryl Blossom takes in surprising stride. As much as I love when characters emerge from behind swinging false walls, the distracting implausibility Penelope adds to the proceedings serving only to make them more contained and comprehensible — two virtues incompatible with this series.
Betty and Jughead have the most loose ends to tie up, a whole complicated serial-murder investigation in need of a nice tight ribbon. The writers know they owe the viewership answers about who the Auteur is and how they’ve managed to pull off their many, varied crimes, and what they come up with manages to be both too obvious and too far-fetched. Commenters last week theorized that Charles, what with his access to surveillance equipment and personal investment in Betty’s life and professed psychotic gene, was probably behind the Auteur’s dark deeds (now including the slayings of the prepsters from last season), and they were right. But he had accomplices in both the jailbird Chic and little Jellybean, under the apparent impression that employing her friends to stage a series of mock snuff films would be the most prudent, effective way to keep her beloved brother from leaving her for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For undergrad, it seems.
Jellybean’s last-ditch attempt is up there with The Lodge and The Book of Henry in the recent pantheon of stupid kid-brained schemes with implications so dark they enter the realm of the ridiculous. But she fits right in with an episode willing to dispose of rationality or the imperative to entertain if it means getting all of the plot-work done in time for the big shebang next week. One hopes that with all this squared away, the final hour in the high school era will be freed up for a looser and more spontaneous mood, this week bearing the burden best kept away from the quasi-finale. Even if that’s the case, however, getting to this point shouldn’t have felt like work to be completed. That’s the precise opposite of what the pleasure generator Riverdale is supposed to feel like.
- “I have to take out the trash, Hermosa, and you’re lucky that doesn’t include you.” They may only be half-related, but Veronica’s definitely got the juvenile I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I antagonizing between siblings down pat.
- “Your astrological sign might be the scorpion, but in fact, you’re like a dog.” That’s okay, Veronica, they can’t all be zingers. We all have off weeks.
- Dig the upright bass music, lovely faux-Angelo Badalamenti.