Riverdale’s Mothmen Saga Reveals the True Monsters Among Us

In its own twisted way, Riverdale is exploring the impact of grief and shared trauma.

Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones and Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper on Riverdale Season 5 Episode 17 - Chapter 93: Dance of Death
Photo: The CW

This Riverdale review contains spoilers.

Riverdale Season 5 Episode 17

“People believe what they want to believe.”

It’s no secret that Riverdale has trouble sticking the landing. With the notable exception of the debut season’s finale, each year has seen the resolution of its respective core mystery solved in an acceptable, yet not entirely satisfying manner. (Please don’t get me started on how things wrapped up with the Gargoyle King).

Alas, this trend has been broken by the latest episode “Dance of Death.” My initial impulse was to balk at how the series once again knocked on the door of allowing a supernatural denouement and ran away when it hit me, having the Truck Stop Killers be related to the Coopers/Blossoms — even tangentially — opens up creative possibilities for the show to try to tackle the impact of grief and generational trauma.

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No, seriously.

This isn’t exactly new ground for the series, which has attempted in its own hamfisted way to comment on issues of loss and mourning since the very first episode. With the notable exception of its tribute to Fred Andrews (which tragically was written as a result of Luke Perry’s untimely passing), Riverdale often misses the mark when it tries to be profound.

The most recent example of this are the fifth season’s plotlines about Archie’s ongoing struggles with PTSD and, although it’s mainly danced around, human trafficking with the Truck Stop Killers. There is so much worthwhile to be said about these issues, and in the latter’s case Big Sky handles the subject with respect. But occurring on a series in which characters perform divinations that transform water into maple syrup diminishes the huge weight of these subjects.

Truth be told, this is a problem in which Riverdale faces every time it attempts to mirror real life problems. Think about it this way, what if the series intended for its Jingle Jangle plot to be a serious commentary on the opioid epidemic instead of lightweight entertainment? That would feel wrong, yes? The writers should stick to the glorious bullshit that is Riverdale‘s bread and butter (inexplicable dance numbers, palladium hunts, anachronistic gangs, glamorege eggs, etc) instead of brushing up against reality too much.

Or, better still, using said bullshit to strengthen the characters and storytelling.

Simply put, if Riverdale is going to have the cojones to try to tackle real life issues, it must do so in a way that enlightens and entertains while being true to the show’s own bonkers aesthetic.

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Enter “Dance of Death.” A “Betty and Jughead solve a mystery” epic, this installment has the pair discovering that the Truck Stop Killers are actually an inbred offshoot of the Cooper/Blossom family. These murderous yokels embraced the Mothmen mythos to cover their tracks and scare off any potential investigators. And their plan worked, for a while. In the most Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? that this series has ever gotten, Jughead returns to talk to Old Man Dreyfus (John Prowse), in reality the ringleader of the murderous gang who just might have got away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling twentysomethings. It’s all so ridiculous that it takes your mind off of real-life horrors experienced by those society has thrown away that are handled with lip service here.

(A quick aside, the Starkweathers wearing Mothmen armor while attacking Jughead, Betty, Fangs, Tabitha and Toni was the coolest sequence this show has pulled off in ages).

As nice as it is to have stopped the Starkweathers, Betty still has no closure on her sister. So she asks Dreyfus about Polly’s fate. In a moment of humanity he draws her and map and as the episode closes, we see Betty and Alice in hysterics upon discovering Polly’s body in the trunk of a forgotten car in a junkyard. Their worst fears have come true.

With two episodes left this season, the core mystery has been resolved in a satisfying and (mostly) contrivance-free way. As much as I wish that bona fide alien Mothmen were flying around Riverdale, such flights of fantasy remain the domain of the Little Archie and Life with Archie comics — at least for now. With this show the future is anyone’s guess.

Next week’s episode includes performances of material from Next to Normal, the Tony-winning musical that deals with issues of mental health in a haunting way. Incorporating this material into the trauma currently being experienced by the Coopers is inspired. Whether or not it is a successful experiment remains to be seen, so join me back here next week when I’ll doubtlessly have more to say about Riverdale, the real world, and the tenuous storytelling that sometimes connects the two.

Riverdale Rundown

  • FYI: If you or anyone you know needs help, the National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.
  • Tabitha’s friend and former Chok’lit Shoppe employee Lynette “Squeaky” Fields is an obvious reference to Manson Family associate Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.
  • This episode was directed by Penelope Blossom herself, Nathalie Boltt.
  • R.I.P. Chad Gekko.
  • The contrivance of the week was how Archie was trapped in a mine fighting for his life and no one thought to call Betty or Jughead.
  • Veronica must have caught wind of Josie calling her dad a “little bitch” a few weeks back, as she does the same here.
  • Speaking of Hiram, it is clear that the writers have been making him into a “silly cartoon” of late. The reasoning? So he can come back more villainous than ever. (We see his transformation beginning when he torches the picture of his family). That combined with the fact that the October 6th finale is titled “Riverdale R.I.P.” indicates that his reign of evil might just be getting started. Sigh.
  • The Starkweather clan’s name is a reference to famed American serial killer Charles Starkweather. His actions were so appalling he was even name-checked in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
  • Archie doing his best Captain America impersonation by launching a trash can lid at Chad was amazing.
  • Where was Reggie at this episode?
  • Given the variety of fake products that inhabit this show’s universe, it is always strange when a real product placement (in this case, Chime) is featured.
  • This episode’s use of Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries during Veronica’s confrontation with Chad was inspired, if a tad cliched.
  • “Another brush with death to add to your ever-growing list” says Veronica to Archie, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
  • Any episode in which Dr. Curdle Jr. gets multiple scenes is a quality episode.
  • Britta Beach (Kyra Leroux) does not originate in the Archie comics, and I wish her coming out story had a bit more time to gestate, but its understandable why it didn’t. What with a million other plots serving main characters happening.
  • “This religion’s got a little too fringey, even for me,” declares ex-cult member Kevin Keller.
  • Fangs gets his leg caught in a bear trap and is home for supper. Sepsis must not exist in Riverdale.
  • This was a huge week for Riverdale shippers, with Varchie, Bughead, and Tangs (or is it Fhoni?) all getting some huge couples moments.
  • With Kevin leaving the Church of Jason, I again fear that his character will return to seedy hookups and/or being backburnered. Again, Casey Cott and the character both deserve better.
  • With Cheryl now able to harness the power of Mother Earth herself, will this series finally embrace supernatural happenings in an undeniable way? Archie’s ghost helpers in the mine can be written off as a manifestation of his PTSD. But isn’t it way more interesting if they were actual spirits? Gaia knows the neighboring Greendale is a haven for the otherworldly…