This review contains spoilers.
4.1 In Memoriam
“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 Sopranos have 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 programmes deal with real-life death it is often in awkward manner.
That is not the case for the season premiere of Riverdale season four, 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 season four 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 instalment 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 realises 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 honouring 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.