Riverdale season 3 episode 16 review: Big Fun

Riverdale High stages Heathers: The Musical and a new threat to our characters emerges. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

3.16 Big Fun

“When did our lives go from worrying who’s going to sit next to us on the bus to drug lord mothers?”

If Riverdale is about anything (and really, three seasons in that’s still up for debate), it is a rumination on the loss of innocence. I realise that this is a grandiose thing to declare about a series that features random bear attacks and Pop Rocks-addicted gamers, but you have to look back upon the source material for evidence supporting this theory.

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While adored by its readers, Archie Comics never had the pop culture currency of a say Superman or Spider-Man. These were reliable stories about carefree fun and love and the freedom that comes with being young. As such, the Archie Comics were a form of time travel back into an America that never truly existed, one where society’s problems could all be solved with a milkshake split three ways. Safe reading about characters who never, ever changed. Then something unexpected happened to the Archie company about a decade ago: It began reflecting real life… and the complexities that it possesses. From introducing its first LGBT character in the form of Kevin Keller to telling tales of courage and sacrifice (first in the Life With Archie: The Married Life series and most recently in the Archie 1941 title), Archie threatened to implode nearly 80 years of breeziness by letting shards of reality puncture its storytelling.

As a result, Archie Comics began doing some of the best work they’ve ever done, and without these sorts of stories we wouldn’t even be discussing a Riverdale series.

So here we are now, nearing the end of the third season of a show whose mission statement is Archie meets David Lynch, and Jughead poses the above question that is really just a meta statement on the underlying theme of the show of which he is the very narrator. There reaches a point in all of our lives when childhood leaves and we find ourselves reluctantly or willingly ‘adulting’. It’s not a light switch turning off nor a calendar page turning but an accumulation of loss and learning that happens for people at different points. Yet there’s still this longing sometimes, even when we’re in the eye of the teenage storm, where we want things to be easier.

At one point in this latest episode, which sees Riverdale High mounting a production of Heathers: The Musical (based on the 1989 cult favourite starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater), Archie muses “high school may never end.” It’s a fantastically self-aware line that indicates for the character of Archie Andrews, he is doomed (blessed?) to be in high school forever. This line is taken from a reprise of the musical’s ballad “Seventeen”, a soaring number in which kids grappling with issues like death an alienation just want to be able to stave off adulthood and enjoy their age and the last gasps of childhood. If only for a minute.

Initially, I was hesitant upon hearing the news that Riverdale was doing another musical. After all, how could they possibly follow-up last year’s Carrie-themed episode? (One I still consider the series’ best instalment). This concern was misguided however, the music of Heathers is a perfect fit with the alienation currently being felt by Archie, Veronica, Jughead, etc. There’s likely to be some criticism that episode writer Tessa Leigh Williams allowed the show’s lyrics to do the emotional heavy lifting here, but I actually think that having to mash-up the ongoing Riverdale storylines with the showtunes in a way that doesn’t feel forced was a Herculean task… and one that was accomplished seamlessly.

From the Choni showcase of “Candy Store” to the ridiculousness of “Big Fun” straight through to the emotional ensemble finale of the reprise of “Seventeen,” this episode allowed both Westerberg and Riverdale Highs to merge into a strange new being that aimed to make a statement that, yeah, it sucks being a teenager. It’s not Perks Of Being A Wallflower-esque profundity, but this is also a show where Jingle Jangle exists and just tonight a character claimed ownership of the colour red, so take what you can get.

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As much fun as the musical numbers were – and let’s address how great the choreography was here, light years beyond the often static movement of last year’s Carrie performances – this episode provided some much needed plot forwarding. In my review last week, I stated how I hoped that this new musical episode would take a cue from what happened last year and have the production be a launching pad for the events that will lead to the season finale on May 15th. This happened and then some. 

The developments. First up, there’s Archie and Josie. Is anyone really invested in this coupling? Even if he and Veronica weren’t ‘endgame’ in the writers’ eyes, we know that Josie’s time in Riverdale is limited if Katy Keene gets a series order. I’m not going to complain too much about the wheel-spinning here though, because at least both KJ Apa and Ashleigh Murray are getting some screentime.

Next comes Veronica, whose parents have finally separated after Hiram learned that Hermione sold his drugs out from under him while he was in the hospital. The Lodges staying together more than strained credibility, and they have both strayed from each other, so breaking them up is a reasonable thing to do… even if it will only be temporary.

The most fan-baiting moment in the series to date occurred when Jughead broke into song tonight. Even if the sight of a crooning Cole Sprouse didn’t ignite Twitter, Jug still got some character development in when he decided to torch his childhood trailer in order to prevent his mother’s burgeoning drug empire by going any further. Yes, having him in the final number was a contrivance to get him on stage, but I’ll allow it for the sheer befuddlement of that last scene. More on that in a paragraph…

Then there’s Cheryl and Toni. Not so much a couple as a sentient meme, these two split apart only for the purpose of creating some faux tension and crafting the weird thwarted threeway between Toni, Sweet Pea, and Peaches N Cream (Bernadette Beck) during the “Dead Girl Walking” number. I’d be way more cynical about the treatment of Choni here if not for the fantastic scene in which Toni asks Cheryl what love was like in her family and gets a devastating, and uncharacteristically subdued, response. With their troubles behind them, they will likely utilize their strength to face whatever comes their way next (i.e. The Farm).

Yes friends, The Farm has finally become a full-blooded thing on this show, albeit it in typically obtuse Riverdale fashion. As our leads complete their reprise of “Seventeen,” the audience doesn’t react until Edgar Evernever (Chad Michael Murray) stands up and begins a strange rythmic applause. Other Farmies, clad in white, stand up and follow his lead. The remainder of the audience, including the Joneses and Lodges, just kind of sit there transfixed.

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What does this all mean other than that The Farm is making its move? I have no idea what the hell they’re up to, but next week can’t come quickly enough.

Read Chris’ review of the previous episode, American Dreams, here.