Two days ago, on his Instagram account, Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa announced that this week’s episode was the last that Luke Perry shot prior to his shocking passing. (Cast members Madelaine Petsch, Gina Gershon, and Ashleigh Murray all dutifully responded with broken-heart emojis.) The rational TV viewer may then assume that this would accordingly be the last episode in which Perry and his character Fred Andrews appear. Anyone involved enough to have gotten wind of the news prior to tonight’s broadcast, which must be most of the people still aboard this crazy train, spent this hour with a queasy sense of anticipation. Time to say a difficult goodbye.
First, however, we’ll have to bid a fond farewell to Josie. She’s ready to head out and see the world on tour with her dad, playing gigs in Spin-Off Junction and Backdoor Pilotville. That’s all fine, everyone saw that one coming, the last few scripts have maneuvered her into this position. Heartfelt farewell with Archie, moving on. “Chapter Fifty-Four” then sets up another scene of sweet-sorrow parting, this time between a parent and child, except that it’s Gladys Jones making an exit. She’s done enough damage and been exposed for it — plus, Gina Gershon’s contract has to be up — and she figures it’s high time to reinvent herself somewhere else. The emotional beat we’ve been primed to expect has been spent, so maybe a big last-minute cliffhanger is in store?
Indeed, the final lines of dialogue bring the sudden and unexpected news of a force-majeure accident claiming the life of a character’s parent. And for the third time, it’s somehow not Fred Andrews. Not knowing what else to do with him after sticking him in a maximum-security facility to play Hannibal Lecter every now and then, the show disposes of Hal Cooper abruptly and unceremoniously. The question of Fred’s departure will have to wait another week, and even without Aguirre-Sacasa’s extra-textual tease, we can feel its absence among the rest of the familial disassembling. This omission is only made all the more glaring by what appears to be Perry’s final scene, in which he dispenses one of the pearls of wisdom that give him the sage aura of either a ghost or angel.
But this episode falters only in what it chooses not to do, and not in what it does. Once or twice per season, absolutely everything works, each thread of plot joined in a unified fever pitch from which nobody gets left out. “Chapter Fifty-Four” has no weak link, no slack, no relenting moments in which we’re allowed to catch our breath. Its insanity churns onward without stopping, right up to that final reveal. That’s right, folks: sweeps is back again.
Imperiled children motivate both Betty and Jughead, separated once again by discrete dangers. She wants to free her sister’s infant twins from the clutches of The Farm, which requires the assistance of her woman-on-the-inside Toni Topaz. Or so she thought! The twist that the double agent has gone triple agent comes as zero surprise, this exact same thing happened with Cheryl Blossom, but the inevitability doesn’t spoil the beat. The non-surprise that she’s one of them meshes perfectly with the Tod Browning vibe at The Farm. The unison chanting of “JOIN US” comes straight out of Freaks’ clarion call of “GOOBLE GOBBLE, ONE OF US,” suggesting a new register of weirdness more closely acquainted to early exploitation flicks than soap opera.
The revelations get increasingly twisted as each scene ticks by. Evelyn Evernever has been seventeen years old for the past decade, bopping from school to school and luring teen victims all along the way. She’s not even his daughter; their relationship is a lot more [tugs on collar] intimate than that. The Farm storyline hasn’t always had the spice that a good death cult narrative ought to, but the events of this episode ratchet up the stakes until Betty’s sprinting back to her car with a brainwashed mob in hot pursuit.
Jughead’s not much better off, sent on a demented LARP quest with his parents by Kurtz in order to save Jellybean’s life. Their portion of the hour gets off with a shot, as the soon-to-be-missed Gershon screams “WHERE THE HELL IS MY DAUGHTER,” her performance conveying the all-caps. The quest is pretty straightforward, your standard “Misrlou-set, Pulp Fiction-aping diner robbery segueing into a full-on sai fight between The Gersh and a resurrected Penny Peabody” situation. The blade-to-blade combat scene immediately asserts itself as one of the greatest the series has ever yielded, right up there with the coitus-interruptus montage from earlier this season. Whatever we did to deserve Gina Gershon snapping a woman’s elbow inside out like a punk Elektra, it cannot have possibly been enough.
Gershon domination notwithstanding, Jughead has a fine showing this week as well. I wouldn’t have pegged Cole Sprouse for having the makings of an action-hero type, but he’s comported himself well in the many raids of this season. Same goes for the stickup at Pop’s, flecked as it is with shotgun spray. When the shit goes down, Sprouse keeps the urgency high, as with his brute-force breakout from the locker that could have been his tomb.
Archie and Veronica come under fire due to Elio’s machinations, pinning Ronson’s death on Archie “The Reaper” Andrews. The emotional backbone of the episode comes from Archie’s labors to earn the forgiveness of his late opponent’s family, as absurd as anything else but sincerely affecting from scene to scene. And even while K.J. Apa acts the episode into more sober territory, the feast of frame-job scandal puts this on par with the more outré slices of this episode.
“Now do you see why I need to get the hell out of this town?” cries Josie to her father after the latest hell has broken out at the Bonne Nuit. It’s a reasonable reaction to a town that has once again spiraled into many-fronted chaos, with zombie-like cult members and knife-wielding cyclopes running amok through a wild mash-up of genre and tone. Archie and Veronica remain tethered closest to Earth — they’ve only got crooked boxing promoters and trumped-up drug charges to deal with — and they still can’t escape the lunacy in the air. As we head into the home stretch of this season, things will not settle down. May sweeps continue to sweep ever onward, further into the breach of madness.
- My understanding of this show’s production schedule grows sharper with every passing week. Veronica mentions her plans to “dog-walk” a nemesis of hers, a line clearly inspired by rapper Cardi B’s threat to do just that to conservative tantrum-haver Tomi Lahren. That incident would have trickled through the writing process approximately twelve weeks ago, which pretty much jibes with my theory from last week’s coverage that a ten-week delay separates shooting from broadcast. (Eight weeks separate Perry’s passing from this episode. It’s not a perfect system.) I don’t know what to do with this knowledge, other than attempt to predict what will happen based on reverse-chronology. Next week: Us references?
- I find it deeply charming when F.P. calls Jughead “boy,” though I’m not sure why. Gives them a fun old-timey Deep South energy that has no place in the Pacific Northwest, I guess?
- As if it wasn’t already abundantly clear that The Farm is up to no good, to really vacuum-seal in the evil, they’re also revealed to be anti-vaxxers.
- With Cheryl Blossom largely sidelined this week, she bequeaths the responsibility of the One-Liner of the Week to her girlfriend. Quoth Toni Topaz: “You know what they say: it takes a village to mercy-kidnap a child.”
- That’s two consecutive episodes with pivotal conversations taking place in steam rooms! Can we keep the streak going to a clean turkey?