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Credit: The CW 

Has Riverdale lost the plot or is this the best season yet?

Contributed by
May 15, 2019

“Riverdale is broken.”

Hiram Lodge made this declaration in the penultimate episode of Riverdale’s third season, suggesting the only way to save the town is for him to buy it. The drugs and gangs are a result of his dodgy dealings, and he is the architect of this particular downfall. But does this assertion also apply to the many narrative plates currently spinning on the CW show — or is this the season in which Riverdale deftly balances horror and soap elements, unleashing its full potential?

Jason Blossom’s murder was the big mystery that introduced us to the updated world of Archie Andrews. Based on the iconic comics, this Archie had dreams of becoming a musician, his next-door neighbor bestie had a crush on him, and he was sleeping with his teacher. Since that grim discovery in Sweetwater River, there has been much blood spilled in this small town. It's been a long time since anyone could describe this particular destination as having anything related to “pep” — unless you count cheer squads performing at a jailhouse football game.

Gang warfare aided by the rampant drug trade, teen vigilantes, a cult, and not one, but two, serial killers are just some of the many everyday antics the teens living in Riverdale have encountered. The list of major incidents in last week’s penultimate episode is enough to raise eyebrows, but wild plotlines are a Riverdale signature.

Spoilers for Riverdale ahead.

Riverdale

Credit: The CW 

Archie’s murder trial in the Season 3 premiere was so stylized that it took me five minutes to realize it wasn’t an extended dream sequence. It ended with him taking a plea bargain, landing Archie in the hilariously titled Leopold & Loeb Juvenile Detention Center — the name references two IRL infamous killers. It was here, he found out, that a path to becoming a boxer makes more sense than becoming the next Ed Sheeran. These were not Folsom Prison Blues, as his experience was much more Fight Club due to the illegal betting side business — not to mention the warden who looked like he stepped off the set of Shawshank Redemption.

After a daring escape — aided by blonde wig-wearing Veronica and their friends — Archie fled his hometown, and four episodes later he was attacked by a grizzly bear. Just the standard Riverdale shenanigans. The line between ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining isn't always well-defined, but Archie and co. are doing a good job at straddling this (as well as each other).

Riverdale has never purported to be an accurate reflection of adolescent life or a regular U.S. town — the weather doesn't even make sense — but with each passing year, the writers manage to outdo themselves for how much these teens (and their parents) endure.

In the last episode alone, Betty discovered the cult-like Farm is actually harvesting organs from its members to sell on the black market, Betty’s serial killer father is back wreaking havoc after faking his own death, and Veronica betrayed her father by selling him out to the FBI. The latter plan included Archie boxing against his ex-girlfriend's dad, aka the man who got Archie imprisoned (and attempted to kill him) and who Archie almost murdered. Freud would have a field day with these dynamics. Penultimate episodes tend to have a lot going on, but this is a pretty standard week for Riverdale.

Riverdale

Credit: The CW 

At the start of its first season, Riverdale positioned itself as Twin Peaks meets Veronica Mars, a stylized version of the world we live in in which teens play investigative detectives while also dealing with everyday romantic dramas. Love triangles are still integral — thankfully, teachers are no longer involved — but the danger levels are higher than they have ever been. Veronica is constantly at odds with her father, Archie survived prison but still has plenty of fights ahead of him, Jughead aids his father F.P. Jones in his sheriff work while going up against his criminal mastermind mother, and Cheryl Blossom escaped her mother’s toxic clutches but is now trapped in another nightmare scenario. Betty has spent most of this season trying to save her family and friends from the cult they are embroiled in.

Somehow, they still have time for homework, prom, and partaking in the school musical production. College was touched upon in a Cheryl and Toni Topaz storyline, but an extended arc focusing on this next step is unlikely (Gilmore Girls this is not). Who knows whether they will make it out of this town alive? However, they will have a hell of a lot to write about in their admissions essays.

Jokes about them doing something as regular as prom were made (the Riverdale writers are certainly self-aware), but even this ended tragically with the return of the Black Hood, who appears to be teaming up with the Gargoyle King. I have somehow got this far without mentioning Gryphons & Gargoyles by name, which underscores just how stacked Season 3 is. The role-playing game is this universe’s version of Dungeons & Dragons, but deadlier.

RVD304c_0360b

Credit: Dean Buscher/The CW

Solving Jason Blossom’s murder was the big mystery of the first season, the identity of the Black Hood took up a lot of Riverdale’s sophomore year, and now the Gargoyle King is wreaking havoc while keeping their real name a secret. The previous villains have been parents — Cliff Blossom and Hal Cooper — and considering they also played G&G in high school, this would naturally suggest one of them is controlling the game. Suspicion has fallen on them — including the obvious and already villainous Hiram Lodge — however, Jughead has since been told the real name of the Gargoyle King and it is a doozy.

Jason Blossom, the teen who was murdered and thus ruined the perfect town image, is now controlling everything. Of course, this sounds ridiculous, but Jughead digs up his grave to check. Lo and behold, his coffin is empty. This isn’t proof; rather, it suggests the person pulling the strings wants the audience and the characters to believe that Jason somehow cheated death. I would argue Riverdale is at its best when it is at its soapiest, and this is a pure soap opera plot twist.

Cheryl has claimed to have talked to her dead twin, thanks to Farm leader Edgar Evernever’s hypnosis therapy. In another penultimate episode reveal, Betty underwent the same treatment facing her inner Dark Betty, but really it was her sister wearing one of her lace collared sweaters. So it would also stand that someone is pretending to be Jason, but who? Is Edgar Evernever (the guy with the most made-up-sounding name), behind all of this?

Riverdale

Credit: The CW 

Riverdale is also at its most enjoyable when it leans heavily into true crime and horror narratives. One of the second season highlights before this plot went off the rails were the references to the Zodiac murders. There is the potential for the history to repeat, but so far the creepy True Detective and Blair Witch Project imagery in the woods coupled with the spooky nighttime high school corridor stalking moments is building tension. By combining horror with soap opera twistsRiverdale is doubling down on its best assets. 

Some of the reveals are easy to see coming, so when Hal Cooper was reported dead but with no body and only a hand to prove he was dead, it was easy to assume this was a fakeout. This assumption was correct as his self-inflicted amputation bought him some time so he could dramatically re-enter Betty’s life. Furthermore, he has also taken some sartorial tips from I Know What You Did Last Summer by gaining a hook for a hand, which he isn’t afraid to use. He camps it up by scraping it against whatever metal surface is nearby, earning those horror style points. Hal is no Hannibal Lecter, but this didn’t stop the show treating him as such.

Pop culture references litter every single episode, which is a Riverdale highlight as they are both of this time and extend beyond the last 10 years. In the most recent outing, the kids in the woods are referred to as both the Lost Boys and a Lord of the Flies gang and Veronica sang Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons” as Archie boxed against her father. The latter choice is on the nose, but this show has never claimed to be subtle. Archie's mom even referred to him and Veronica as “endgame,” which might be taking it too far on the self-aware front but Molly Ringwald’s line reading was so perfect in the ‘parent who has been reading up on teen-speak online’ that I can let that slide.

Riverdale

Credit: The CW

Aside from soapy and horror influences, the best episodes tend to be the ones that are the most stylized. Riverdale’s version of a Very Special Episode isn’t one that tells us that drugs are bad — don’t take Jingle Jangle or Fizzle Rocks, kids — instead, the high school musical performance provides a backdrop to try something different. Last year it was Carrie, this year: Heathers. It isn’t just murder and musicals, as one of the Season 3 highlights is the flashback episode with a twist. Going back to when their parents were at high school is fun, getting the actors who play the kids to play their parents is a genius move that paid off. It wasn’t a case of the younger cast simply mimicking their counterparts, they nailed the mannerisms, but also the essence of the actors they have worked with for three years.

When throwing this many plot ideas against the wall, not everything is going to stick and every time it returns to the dodgy Hiram Lodge dealings I find my eyelids getting heavy — the same can be said for the mayoral election last year. But on the whole, this season has managed to keep up with the ridiculous pace it set. This is pure escapist fantasy and while this volume of serial killers, drugs with kooky names, and infiltrating cults would raise red flags on most shows, somehow showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is managing to steer this ship toward chaotic good.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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