This Riverdale review contains spoilers.
Riverdale Season 4 Episode 1
“His spirit and his memory lives on, in this town and in everyone he has ever met. Fred Andrews will always be a part of Riverdale.”
When a lead actor on a series dies, there is no easy way to address it on air. Shows ranging from Newsradio to The West Wing to The Sopranoshave dealt with the loss of a beloved actor with varying degrees of success. The old maxim that the show must go on is bitterly true, and when programs deal with real-life death it is often in awkward manner.
That is not the case for the season premiere of Riverdale season 4, which confronts the death of Luke Perry’s Fred Andrews head on. Although Perry died in March during the production of the series’ third season, the creative decision was made to not address it at the time. (When the gravity of the situation would have been lost among the Gargoyle King/Farm storylines). And so Fred was written as being away for work, while Archie and the gang dealt with their latest chaotic adventures.
But as the season 4 opens, life has returned largely back to normal in Riverdale. The Farm is gone, as is Gryphons and Gargoyles mania. Only Cheryl, still hanging out with the stolen corpse of her dead twin, is really behaving in a Riverdalean fashion. Our core four are preparing for summer fun, aware that the freedom of youth has slipped away from them and soon they will be off to college. But then with a single phone call, Archie is thrust into adulthood and there is no turning back. While helping a stranger change a tire on a road congested by traffic, Fred was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. The Andrews family, and all of Riverdale, are left to pick up the pieces.
In many ways, this is the most narratively straightforward episode of Riverdale to date. The installment sees Archie heading to nearby Cherry Creek to claim his father’s body and bring it home, then a funeral follows. But onto this threadbare frame showrunner/creator Roberto Aguirre Sacasa layers insight into true heroism and legacy that pay tribute to Perry and the soulful character he helped bring to life.
When I first heard that Shannen Doherty had been cast in this episode, I admit that my eyes rolled hard. So imagine my surprise when her meta-textured appearance as the woman who Perry sacrificed himself to save was a poignant, understated affair. Doherty’s casting allows her to act as surrogate for all of Perry’s fans and co-workers in a deeply affecting scene that allows the episode to breathe and recall what a talent Perry was.
The plot divergence in which Archie goes to get justice for his dad only to discover that the killer was a kid much like himself is a fascinating choice. We’ve already seen vengeance-seeking Archie plenty. Here he realizes that his own past decisions could have had a deadly outcome just as this child’s did, and that George Augustine was very much a Fred Andrews-type figure. Instead of letting his pain and desire for revenge eat him up, this recognition instead sends Archie on a path to live each day honoring Fred’s memory. Archie’s tendency to make mistakes is legendary at this point, but with something pure driving him, we will now see a version of Archie on the show that is totally new and full of possibilities.
Again, there’s no easy way to do a memorial episode, but this is the new gold-standard that should be referred to the next time other shows must deal with real world tragedy. Next week the madness will return, but for one episode at least, Riverdale was a place of grace.
– Even while grieving and holding her dead brother’s corpse hostage, Cheryl’s fashion choices remain totally on brand.
– We don’t know exactly where Riverdale is located. We’ve been given hints that its close proximity to Canada and New York City seem to indicate it is somewhere on the East Coast. But should we once again be asking WHEN is Riverdale? Because the world in which it is set is one where Mid-Americana diners and phone booths still are in existence. Kind of off topic here, but oh wow, the things Brian K. Vaughn could do with this show were he on the writing staff. Or David Lynch, as there’s super Blue Velvet vibes here.
– Taking a break from her Katy Keene duties, Ashleigh Murray reprises her role as Josie McCoy here in a nice little bit of Archieverse continuity.
– Since the Kevin Keller character regularly gets the least amount of screentime on this show, all season long I will be counting his lines. He gets approximately one sentence this episode remembering Fred, and that’s not nearly enough Kev.
– In an episode filled with devastating moments, Vegas quietly anticipating Fred’s return might be the most heartbreaking.
– Please take notice of how Riverdale utilizes whoosing sound effects whenever Cheryl makes a grand entrance. This is an absolutely magical choice on the part of the sound editors that I 100% support.
– A nice touch during Jughead’s eulogy was seeing the varied responses of Alice, Hiram and Hermione, all of whom have had very different relationships with Fred during the series.
– In the last shot of the episode, a Fred Heads pin can be glimpsed to the left of the picture of Archie and Fred.
– We get a moment to see Betty by her father’s grave, which was been vandalized with “The Black Hood burns in hell” graffiti. Archie is not the only lead character to have suffered the loss of a parent here, so it’s likely there will be grief bonding with Betty and Cheryl this season.
– The entire episode was masterfully directed by Gabriel Correa. Extra attention should be paid to Fred’s homecoming, in which the entire town comes out on the Fourth of July to pay their respects to their fallen son. Just a beautiful moment that honors both Luke Perry and the Fred Andrews character.
– Cheryl’s loyalty to Archie for saving her life is again illustrated here, not only in arranging the town-wide tribute to Fred but presumably paying for the fireworks show that rounds out this episode.
– Given the subject matter, this episode didn’t have much time for brevity, so the pick for this week’s snarkiest line goes to Jughead’s declaration that “if anyone is scared of bears, well, don’t be, because Archie’s been attacked like what, multiple times and still survived.” Frequent bear attacks were a regular feature of the 1970s Life with Archie comic, a book whose weirdness features the primordial DNA for Riverdale.