Graphic: Katie Yu (The CW)

There’s a point in “Chapter Thirty-One: A Night To Remember” when I realized Riverdale is basically the Popular season one finale. I’m not just talking about the elaborate musical number—though that is what triggered this comparison—but more the fact that Riverdale approaches everything it does like a gratuitous sweeps extravaganza. The only difference is, Riverdale’s version isn’t really a satire, even when it’s laughable. It’s almost frustratingly straightforward, even. Gratuitous nudity (worth it for the ridiculous image of Archie doing shirtless push-ups while reading his script), musical numbers, fan service. Someone even dies! None of these are even relegated to this particular episode.

That same connection can be made between Popular and another Ryan Murphy show I’ve compared current Riverdale to: Glee.

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It’s no secret Riverdale’s recent need to shoehorn musical numbers into episodes and scenes that don’t require them made the idea of an 11-song musical episode a terrifying one. Glee at least had reasons to constantly have musical numbers, and Riverdale can barely get its standard storytelling process in order. So I had the terrible feeling “Chapter Thirty-One” would be Riverdale’s version of “The Rocky Horror Glee Show.” It absolutely is, but it’s “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” if it were good.

There are still problems with “Chapter Thirty-One,” both on the actual music side of things and concepts within the basic episode premise. But in the pantheon of television musical episodes—where “Once More With Feeling” is the pinnacle—Riverdale is a solid entry. “Chapter Thirty-One” goes Glee’s predominant route of using covers to move the story and characters along, and while it’s all a very surface level situation, it does mostly work. Really, by the time “A Night We’ll Never Forget” rolls along, the audience kind of just has to accept that not everything is going to have a deeper meaning. Sometimes things are just as simple as tonight being the night.

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In the grand scheme of Riverdale, it’s both a refreshing step away from the weak weight of this season and a good continuation. Some might question how Riverdale can convincingly do a musical, since it doesn’t relegate the numbers to just rehearsal or opening night. But I’d argue a musical episode makes sense, as Riverdale’s major strength is how easily it can change genres at the drop of the hat. It’s why I’d still buy it if they just blew everything up and went full Afterlife With Archie. Riverdale can be a mini-gangster movie when it wants, it can be a classic horror send-up—it can technically change its genre every week. That’s never been the show’s problem. As this episode goes on, the musical aspect feels like a normal thing that happens on this show. That’s not an easy task, yet Riverdale makes it seem effortless. The biggest storyline problem with going for a musical is that Riverdale has done so much shallow and messy character work lately that it’s almost a miracle any of the Carrie: The Musical songs can work at all within the show’s context.

This episode also confirms what we already kind of knew: Lili Reinhart and Ashleigh Murray are the best singers on this show. But that doesn’t really matter, as their musical characters are both chosen for them as an applicable proxy and as a character in service of another, respectively. (There are two reasons Josie isn’t the lead, and the first one is so she can have a musical number with Cheryl and forgive her pretty weak apology.)

Kevin: “Am I directing a train wreck?”

A major problem with “Chapter Thirty-One”—and one you have to remove from your head in order for the episodes to even get to its conclusion—is that, while the audience can understand the show choosing the character casting based on archetypes, within the show itself, Kevin’s directorial vision is actually terrible. There are no auditions, meaning Riverdale immediately deprives us all of the teen genre trope of auditorium/gymnasium montages. Instead, Kevin—and Riverdale needs a special place in maple syrup Hell for keeping him from actually being in the musical—is arguably goes around to people saying things like “You’re awful. Want to be in the musical?” (Chuck, Veronica) or “You’re Betty’s mom and I don’t care how this affects her. Want to be in the musical?” (Alice).

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I try to point out the most egregious line deliveries on this show, but I would never say,“so-and-so is an aggressively bad actor,” unless it needs to be said. For the most part, Riverdale plays to everyone’s strengths on that front. KJ Apa’s arguably the weakest actor in the cast, but a lot of that boils down to having only four things to do: strip, sing, Make Riverdale Great Again, and Veronica. Apa could be the best actor on the cast, and we wouldn’t know it if he’s still the same character with the same weak writing. But the reason I bring up not really calling the acting out—on a show where the biggest hurdle is actors just selling the insanity—is that, with an episode like this, I can’t do the same when it comes to the singing. For example, we haven’t heard Archie sing in quite a while, but after hearing him in this episode, let’s hope we never do again.

Apa deserves endless props for his enthusiasm during the choreography (focus on him in group numbers if you didn’t notice), but it’s not like the writers turn the Archie/Betty love ballad into a Betty/Veronica (their harmonies in this episode are lovely, by the way) love ballad accidentally. Just like it’s not just a random choice that Archie ends up selling some of his music stuff to buy a scrapyard car. A musical episode is a necessary evil for this character to sing, but the show has acknowledged the weakness of Archie and music since season one, when his friends finally told him his music sucks. (Even Apa’s gone on the record re: Archie’s taste in music and general musical ability sucks.)

Then there’s the Cheryl as Carrie, which I’ve been questioning for awhile. In terms of Riverdale itself, it has to be Cheryl—and then the even more head-scratching Midge—for story purposes outside of the idea of Cheryl actually being the best for the part (and even outside of being the most Carrie-like in terms of emotional abuse). But while Cheryl’s upset that Josie keeps openly scoffing about her not having the range, the thing is: Cheryl (and Madelaine Petsch, sadly) doesn’t. Cheryl’s “undeniable” show-stopping solo to prove to Josie “once and for all” doesn’t do anything to prove Josie’s “tone-deaf” cough wrong. In fact, it feels almost mean that Kevin calls it “undeniable” instead of anything truly synonymous with “good.” I talked to Dial M For Maple’s Cameron Scheetz about this, and he helped me see these musical numbers in a different light. His way was of seeing it was, “kind of like on SNL where basically every cast member can hold a note if they need to for a sketch.” I’d say that’s a better way to approach this than my initial notes included: “Lea Michele is rolling in her grave right now.”

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Because this musical episode is centered on a musical (and not all just singing out of that context), it does get frustrating that the choices for roles don’t actually treat it as such. (Because the episode even addresses the fact that Ethel actually makes perfect Carrie. But she can’t be.) However, the best lampshading of the whole “casting for plot purposes” happens when Midge becomes Carrie, as her big rehearsal musical number is literally one where she just speaks while Alice sings.

However, this episode does work in showing Cheryl’s true connection to Carrie White once it manages to get her out of the role of Carrie White. It’s a good episode in terms of getting Cheryl’s inner strength back and finally standing up to Penelope—and saving precious Nana Rose—by having her channel that Carrie-ness (as the Afterlife With Archie version of Cheryl did with Blaze) at the end.

The one thing that falls flat (outside of her singing) though is when Cheryl tells Toni, “I just wanted to prove to everyone that I’m me.” As much as Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa says Riverdale is getting back to basics and focusing on Riverdale High, Riverdale drops the ball in helping us understand the Riverdale High ecosystem outside of characters we know. Like how Veronica thinks people will like her and not think she’s power hungry like her parents if becomes class president. It’s actually impossible to pinpoint a time when Cheryl was ever portrayed as a point of gossip or ridicule from the student body. The only person who treats Cheryl any different is Josie, and she has a good reason. We’ve seen Reggie (and others) openly insult Veronica and the entire, very public Lodge scandal; no one ever says anything about the Blossom family, even with Clifford killing Jason and Penelope’s pretty open escort situation. People still do whatever Cheryl wants them to, right?

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Now the smartest choice this episode makes musical-wise is not having Jughead sing, because little old weirdo Jughead singing would make far less sense than just about anything that’s ever happened on this show. But his role as the videographer unfortunately works less than you would expect, given his typical observer (there’s no voice-over this week because of this) status. The videographer thing is another one of those episode plot points that truly makes sense at the end: You need that final frenzied high school crowd footage at the end to fully bring the whole Carrie together. And to put some real terror into the audience for Black Hood 2: Jingle Jangle Boogaloo. But Jughead goes so far past “weirdo” and into creep territory as he films everyone for the documentary. And that’s not even mentioning the moments where the characters voluntarily tell him things that either have no bearing on the documentary (Archie’s confession of darkness) or should be told to Sheriff Keller (the possible Black Hood letters).

Betty: “You are the literal embodiment of Chris. Never has a role been so perfectly cast. … I mean, think about it. Spoiled rich girl? Check. Major daddy issues? Check. Bad to the bone? Trying to control everyone around her, including her boyfriend and best friend? Check, check, check.”

The funniest thing about Archie trying to defend Veronica to Betty (another scene that Jughead shouldn’t record) is that Veronica immediately follows Betty’s apology with what amounts to “nah, you were right.” Betty still apologizes to Veronica, but she was right. She just said it all in a way that was chillingly mean girl of her. But taking the villain Veronica/Archie storyline onto a smaller scale in this episode—the biggest crime Archie commits here is his spoiled brat reactions to Fred about the Firebird—is a good choice, especially since it prevents that storyline from overtaking this episode too. It also makes Hiram come across like a weirdly catty grown man, when you watch the way he transparently (to the point Archie gets what he’s doing) messes with Archie and Fred’s relationship. It makes sense why all the other mobsters think they can so easily step to him.

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And now for the grand finale. The best part of the dead Midge/Black Hood returns reveal is how slow everyone is to process what’s actually happening. Jughead makes an insincere comment at first about dead Midge not being “part of the show,” but once he actually realizes it’s not just some stupid prank, he’s understandably shaken up as he tries to figure out what’s going on. Cheryl is the first one to really notice, a nice touch after her recent rebirth. But it’s not until Alice turns around and gives a proper scream queen reaction that the audience all runs for their lives.

The Black Hood is (unsurprisingly) back in the game, and this time, he’s actually living up to the promise of “Chapter Twenty.” Midge is first, and Moose is probably next. (The fact that neither will be missed is a discussion for a different Riverdale review.) It also means I’m still able to hold on to my “Hal Cooper=Black Hood” theory: This week, I’ll say that Hal tried to use threats to get Cheryl to drop out (for Penelope, his true love) and then won double when Kevin made the ridiculous choice to have Midge understudy. Tonight truly was the night.

Stray observations

  • Riverdale Roulette: I’ll go with the less murderous version of this episode, Felicity’s “Docuventary.”
  • Or maybe the Black Hood is FP, since he left the auditorium in such a huff. Way to not question your dad storming off, Jug. And way to send Alice back into Hal’s arms, FP.
  • Kevin: “Just like the Sissy Spacek movie.” First of all, how dare you? Second of all, Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa co-wrote the 2013 version of Carrie starring Chloë Grace Moretz.
  • Thanks for giving Chuck your blessing on behalf of everyone, Veronica. Ethel (lol her vision board) should probably have a say in that too, though. It’s also amazing that—after allowing Chuck to have that very human confessional for the documentary—the only evidence we really see that he’s gotten better is that he’s not a sleaze to Veronica during or after “The World According To Chris.” I will at least praise the show for realizing Chuck and his redemption arc make more sense in this episode than Reggie.
  • Cheryl (to Toni): “I’m not the same girl who burned down Thornhill and cut off [Penelope’s] oxygen.”
    Toni: *does not ghost Cheryl* I need a ride or die like Toni Topaz.
  • Fangs becomes an icon in this episode: showing up to rehearsal late (and loudly scooting his chair into the circle), putting his hand on Kevin’s shoulder to comfort him (and Kevin swatting it away), drinking Kevin’s tea. Of course, the moment that will get lost in all this is when Jughead walks in on Fangs and Midge. What were they up to? And why does Moose seemingly storm through Jughead’s shot angrily less than a minute after that?

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