In the realm of fictional towns, the one created for the world of Archie Comics probably seems the least likely to harbor a darker foundation.
Riverdale has a reputation for being “the town with pep,” an idyllic suburb where the biggest hot spot is the local diner. Football tryouts, pep rallies, school dances, dates at the drive-in: They’re all touchstones of small-town life, but digging a little deeper to unearth some of the more complex (and, dare I say it, grittier) aspects of life in Riverdale has led to some of its most riveting storylines -- first within the realm of Archie Comics, and now on the small-screen reimagining currently airing on The CW.
The potential for darker narratives is something that’s already been toyed with, to an extent, in Archie Comics -- and long before the idea for Riverdale came along. In fact, the Archie franchise had already acquired a reputation for going “full dark, no stars” as early as the mid-'90s, when crossover comics such as The Punisher Meets Archie saw the antagonistic vigilante land in Riverdale hot on the heels of a suspected drug dealer -- one who just so happened to look like a certain hapless redhead. Fortunately, Archie’s clash with Frank Castle didn’t end violently, but the match-up would pave the way for more moodier takes on the characters of the franchise -- like Afterlife With Archie, which takes place against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, and Archie vs. Predator, a darkly humorous story which went so far as to kill off most of the Riverdale gang before wrapping up.
Even with that in mind, longtime Archie Comics fans were still somewhat wary when the first teasers for Riverdale started rolling out prior to the series premiere on January 26. Early critical reviews drew comparisons between the show’s gloomier look and other past offerings set in foggy forest-adjacent town, like Twin Peaks, and the first season’s prime story arc definitely drew some inspiration from the classic whodunit of “who killed Laura Palmer?” This time around, however, the mystery didn’t revolve around a dead girl -- but rather a dead boy. The murder of Jason Blossom that introduced the new series would continue to play out throughout the course of Season 1, eventually wrapping up when it was revealed Jason had actually been killed by his own father as part of a cover-up for his thriving underground drug business.
Murder and drugs don’t necessarily seem like obvious fare for Riverdale, but if there’s one thing that can be inferred from the continued success of the source material it’s that these characters don’t just survive in these less-than-optimistic stories; they thrive. And Riverdale’s executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, as well as its writers, hasn't found any trouble in topping the thrill of Season 1’s main murder mystery. In fact, they’re doubling down on what makes the show great, riveting and delightfully campy all in the same breath. Any horror aficionado will tell you that a successful sequel in the vein of the genre has got to up the body count -- but it’s how Riverdale’s writing staff are choosing to go about it that’s particularly intriguing.
Even if you’re not well versed in true crime, it’s likely you’ve heard of the infamous Zodiac killer, who operated in several California cities in the late '60s and early '70s and murdered a confirmed number of five people. (In letters mailed to local newspapers and police, he claimed to have killed up to 37 individuals.) While his real identity has never been uncovered, the case on him was reactivated back in 2007 -- coincidentally, the same time that director David Fincher released his feature-length thriller Zodiac, largely based on writings surrounding the murders and ensuing case. The film propelled the mystery of Zodiac back into the public consciousness, and provided several searing visuals of the proven killings -- chief among them the scene where an unidentified Zodiac shoots two teenagers in a car parked at a lovers’ lane.
One can easily note resemblances between Zodiac’s opener and the closer of Riverdale’s Chapter Fifteen, in which Moose Mason and Midge Klump are shot in a parked car by a masked man - the same disguised killer that had earlier shot Archie’s dad Fred in the local diner and then murdered former Riverdale High teacher Miss Grundy. Although only one of the later-dubbed Black Hood’s victims (Grundy) has died so far, he’s claimed responsibility for all of them via anonymous mail sent to the town’s resident journalist, Alice Cooper. In essence, Riverdale is making the decision to go full Zodiac this season.
Aguirre-Sacasa has specifically invoked Zodiac as inspiration and influence on the overall story, admitting in an interview that he wanted to explore “what it's like to live in the icy grip of a serial killer” for Riverdale’s residents. Since we’re only a few episodes in, there’s no telling how many more times season two of Riverdale will evoke comparisons to the Zodiac murders - but as we look ahead there are undeniable parallels that will likely inform how part of the remaining season plays out. There’s the aforementioned (attempted) murder of Moose and Midge in the parked car, the anonymous letters mailed to the town’s lone journalist. A promo trailer for this week's episode even features a logo that bears an uncanny resemblance to the symbol used by Zodiac to sign all of his letters.
If Riverdale takes all of its cues from the Zodiac murders, then the season could end on something of a cliffhanger; part of the Zodiac killer’s infamy is the fact that he was never actually apprehended. The longer the Black Hood continues his murderous spree without getting caught, however, the bigger potential there is for more of Riverdale’s characters to be drawn into his web. Like her mom Alice, Betty appears to be finding herself on the receiving end of some of the Black Hood’s correspondence since she works as a journalist for the high school’s newspaper.
The show has other foreboding subplots for characters to contend with too - Veronica’s parents both appear to be more duplicitous as their preceding reputation, and there’s still that issue of Betty’s sister carrying twin babies that are technically the product of incest. But the Black Hood arc will more than likely dominate the rest - and rightly so, because it doesn't only signal that Riverdale can succeed by going dark and gritty. It proves that characters with a long and storied history can be reinvented at any time, and the show is that much better because of it.