When a TV show starts to grow cognizant that it’s losing steam and/or viewers, the writers are liable to take any number of drastic measures to reinvigorate their work through its stagnation. Some of these are bound to backfire and underscore the flop-sweaty desperation to keep things fresh, such as the common last-ditch effort of introducing a new main character, a gambit usually landing closer to Cousin Oliver (irritating, unwelcome, a sign of decline) than Leon Black (a powerful force of singlehanded rejuvenation).
Early advertisements have confirmed that Riverdale will do just this by integrating an orphaned Sabrina Spellman, her solo series now canceled, into the more successful flagship of the Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa-verse. Her arrival will prompt a full overhaul of whatever internal logic still remains in Riverdale, as magic will become real and the show will relinquish its last pinky-fingered grip on reality in a paradigm shift that could go one way or the other.
What does work is the other major creative risk of this season, frontloaded in this week’s premiere, a reinvention so reckless and thrilling and partially-thought-through that the show comes to feel like its old self again. As explained by Jughead, his usual Rod Serling impression now blossomed into a full-on cosplay complete with fourth wall breakages, we’re no longer in the town of Riverdale. We’re one dimension over in Rivervale, with a V, where things are mostly the same.
The alterations made—to character dynamics, to external threats, to internal motivations—are slight enough that a beautiful simplicity starts to emerge from these authorial choices. The writing staff has contrived a circumstance under which they no longer have to worry about continuity or reason, where the only rationale for anyone’s behavior can be “this is just how things are now.” They’re free to make whatever tweaks they please. The Gordian knot lies sliced in half.
It helps that this episode puts the wiggle room it’s loosened up for itself to good use, cuing up a promising season-long arc while breaking several characters out of their ruts. Though she spends much of it lurking in the margins, Cheryl Blossom owns this hour, and not just in the full-force return of her weirdly baroque quippery. (“We will make a stew from its meat, a pelt from its hide, and a paste from its hooves,” she declares upon finding a slain deer in the woods by her home.) She flits from scene to scene and plot to plot, doing little occult favors for her former friends to solve the problems she may or may not be causing, tallying up some debts to be paid in the hallucinatory grand finale. It’s a clever structure leading to a satisfying payoff, two pleasures in rather short supply on this show as of late.
Everyone’s personal struggles lead them to owe Cheryl Blossom, her spells and potions most magical in the sense of being an all-purpose plot device. Toni and Fangs can’t hold it together because their colicky baby won’t stop screaming? Betty discovers that she’s infertile? Jughead and Tabitha almost definitely live in a haunted house? Nothing that can’t be solved with some witchcraft in the Pagan “old ways” sense, an agreeable pivot to folk horror that culminates in the final scene’s unshy homage to Midsommar. Cheryl Blossom and her miniature squadron of archer minions have big plans for the sovereign territory of Thornhill, linked in some way to the maple dripping from every scene, from the ill-fated sapling planting program to the myth of the Maple Maiden to the festival giving us the magnificent header image atop this article.
The couple stuff doesn’t do too much to slow down a rollicking episode, possibly due to its liberal use of sex scenes. (In Veronica and Reggie’s case, atop a pile of money, the realization of a long-held fantasy for her.) Though the sense of narrative advancement comes more from the meaningful reversal of positioning from the opening to conclusion.
We find Betty and Archie in bed, their incineration by bomb nothing but a faint dream, making plans for parenthood despite shrugging off marriage because “everyone we know who’s married is either divorced or dead”; by the climax, she’ll be round with fetus and he’ll be short one heart.
Veronica and Reggie present as Rivervale’s preeminent power couple, only to break apart when Veronica makes it clear she doesn’t take him as seriously as he’d like. Even Frank and Alice have finally stopped beating around the bush and confessed their mutual attraction.
“Chapter Ninety-Six” kicks off what has been promoted as a “five-episode event” set to open this season, which will ostensibly have more episodes after these first five, posing the question of how this differs from every other broadcast schedule. My guess is that this is just a confusing way of teasing the fact that this “Rivervale” arc will be contained to these five weeks, after which point we’ll return to Riverdale-with-a-D, the ramifications from one universe over carried with us or left there. For the time being, however, things feel fun and spontaneous again. There’s a bracing sort of liberation in a show’s realization that it’s free to declare the only rule is that there are no rules.
- Finding his cereal bristling with cockroaches, Jughead mutters, “Shades of Creepshow”—he’s referring to George A. Romero’s 1982 anthology collaboration with Stephen King, in particular the segment titled “They’re Creeping Up On You!” E.G. Marshall of Twelve Angry Men plays a cruel CEO germaphobe horrified to find that bugs have penetrated his hermetically sealed apartment, right down to the cereal boxes.
- Speaking of Jughead, Cole Sprouse wears the pressed-hair ‘50s smarm of Serling well, cracking just the right grin when he remarks of Veronica and Reggie tandem exercising, “Exhausting, aren’t they?”
- “All that was once fecund is now barren,” says Cheryl Blossom, in what’s not only the first time I’ve heard the word “fecund” used on TV, but the first time I have ever heard it uttered aloud.
- I would enjoy watching both Archie and Jughead consume upwards of one hundred pancakes. They both seem to take an unthinkable quantity of pan-fried dough pretty well, considering that a fraction of that experience reduced our pal Forrest MacNeil to an embittered, existentially gutted shell of his former self.