This review contains spoilers.
3.22 Survive The Night
“May the final quest begin.”
With three seasons now come and gone, Riverdale remains an anomaly in this age of prestige television. A series packed with the sort of authentic camp that last week’s Met Gala could only dream of, this remains a unique show where with parents lament about whether or not their child’s relationship is “endgame” at the same time their town is being overrun with murderous LARPers. There are often so many tonal shifts per episode that it’s hard not to get narrative whiplash. It is, as they say, a scene.
But isn’t that also the charm of Riverdale? For this is a show that has, and always will, be a ridiculous creation. A dark re-envisioning of a comic book franchise that was long ago (and wrongly) dismissed as being lightweight and forgettable seems like such a goofy idea that a parody of this very concept existed before the series even did. Any such creative endeavour was bound to be marred by plot developments that were contrived at best, nonsensical at worst.
Yet the key to getting on board with this series was hiding in plain sight all along. Back in the film-noir inspired The Red Dahlia episode, Veronica summed up perfectly why it’s best for viewers to just go along with the logistical leaps in logic needed to enjoy the series by saying “forget it Jug, it’s Riverdale.” Bear in mind that a huge portion of the CW’s demographic probably never saw Chinatown, but this is another moot point. You see, this wasn’t a clever reference, but a mission statement. Riverdale is a show that will always be critic-proof as its audience is now so deeply invested in the characters (uneven though they may be, sometimes scene to scene) that it ultimately doesn’t matter to the hardcore fans who are more concerned with ships than consistency.
Insert thinkpiece about if shipping trumps story here.
This season has been wildly uneven, with the past couple of episodes making some truly welcome course-correcting. First and foremost, Archie, ever the cipher, has finally been folded into the main action of the series in a way that almost feels organic. (Even if it did require some plotting acrobatics to do so). If the flash forward is any indication, he will finally be deep in the shit alongside Betty, Jughead, and Veronica in next season’s main storyline.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Gryphons & Gargoyles plotline has dragged out far too long, but this is more of an issue with Riverdale having 22 episodes to fill with story when a shorter season would be more satisfying. But the big conclusion that Penelope Blossom was pulling the Gargoyle King’s strings made narrative sense and was consistent with what we know about her. Indeed, she has been driven mad by the loss of her son and still coping with her unresolved childhood trauma.
Penelope tells the core four that her G&G insanity was caused by a desire to “take my revenge on a town that allowed me to be sold as a child bride to the Blossoms.” Unfortunately, Riverdale isn’t nuanced enough a series to adequately explore how small towns turn a blind eye to abuse, so instead of a thoughtful rumination on this issue we get an elaborate spin on The Most Dangerous Game that comes complete with gunplay and poisoning.
Yet, with Veronica’s aforementioned declaration again ringing in my ear, this all seems to make weird sense for Penelope’s character. She has always been unhinged due to the horrors she suffered as a child. This combined with the loss of Jason Blossom sent her on a spiral of insanity that causes her to revive a game from her twisted childhood in an attempt to get revenge aginst those she percieves as having wronged her by murdering their children. It’s all very Freddy Krueger by way of One Tree Hill, but damn if the developments here don’t track with Penelope’s story.
Hal and Chic are lost souls themselves, which is why they find themselves spun in her web. The latter is the more pathetic of the two, getting G&G iconography tattooed on his back and posing as Jason to recieve the closest approximation of love that he has ever experienced. “Who doesn’t want blood sacrifices made in their name?” he asks Jughead, as if it is the most normal question in the world. Chic was gone before we ever met him, a vessel just looking to be filled with the crazed acceptance Penelope promised.
The Black Hood is revived because Hal doesn’t know how to process anything other than the darkness that has come to define him. His only interest is perserving the Hood’s legacy by encouraging Betty to kill him in order to embrace the serial killer potential that she harbours. (Again, this is a silly/glorious show). Hal doesn’t even see Betty as his daughter anymore, but as a tool to spread evil and chaos. He is toxic masculinity personified, and is, in Penelope’s eyes, even a failure at achieving this. She shoots him in the head at point blank range, ending both Hal and the Black Hood’s lives of evil in the process. It’s a shocking scene that was shocking in its brutality and heightened by Lili Reinhart’s intense portrayal of helplessness. A takeaway: Betty will never allow herself to become like her father, whom she loves, loathes and now, mourns, equally.
Much less effective was the last-minute revelation that Alice is helping the FBI investigate The Farm. (For this is a series in which law enforcement officials would get nothing accomplished without the help of unqualified locals). I want to go back and rewatch the last couple of episodes to see if the seeds to this twist were planted previously, because other than Alice’s explanation that she’s been talking with Charles, it seems like a major contrivance that came out of nowhere. The bright side of all of this is that it will give Betty a family member to confide in now that Hal is gone and Alice and Polly have vanished with The Farm.
Then there’s the Cheryl problem. We live in a time when mental illness is still extremely stigmatised despite its prevalence in society. Riverdale is hardly an issue-based show like the problematic 13 Reasons Why, yet its treatment of the subject leaves a lot to be desired given the series’ demographic. Last season, Cheryl’s obsession with and subsequent stalking of Josie was introduced and resolved without any real exploration of this topic. In a show that regularly features “crazy” (an irksome term itself) characters, there’s an opportunity for the writers and producers to really explore mental illness in a thoughtful way a la its progressive takes on other contemporary issues. Especially given how popular the Cheryl Blossom character is. She and the viewers deserve better.
As the episode ends, Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica are seen just enjoying teen life at Pop’s. They make a vow to have the best senior year ever, with their optimism immediately undercut by a flash forward in which Jughead is missing, they are all coated in blood, and Betty convinces them to all cover up some unnamed but apparently heinous crime. Thus ends another confounding and satisfying season of Riverdale. Congratulations, you have ascended.