The forces of good retake the town as Riverdale ties up a lackluster season

Are we ready for Old-Timey Mustachioed Jughead? (We are not ready.)

The forces of good retake the town as Riverdale ties up a lackluster season
Photo: The CW

Like Archie and the gang, our coverage returns to Riverdale after a long absence to find the town mostly the same, but worse. The back half of the show’s fifth season has shuffled through a handful of largely tedious mini-plots—Polly’s death and its aftermath, Veronica’s assorted non-starter business ventures, Cheryl Blossom’s screwloose ministry the most amusing among them—only to arrive at a narrative juncture not so unfamiliar for the cast of characters.

Archie’s still floating in and out of leadership positions in his campaign to reform the town, Jughead’s still bouncing from one creatively-inclined job to the other, and Betty’s still doing FBI things (now under the auspices of the actual FBI). Aside from Cheryl Blossom’s ever-progressing spiral into hysteria, everything’s right where we left it. It doesn’t feel right that we could all convene here after radio silence for seven episodes and get the impression that we haven’t missed anything.

But the stasis, disjointedness, and general lack of unhinged pizzazz that plagued this season’s early episodes have persisted and festered. The many plot developments dumped out all over this episode like the contents of a messy purse succeed only in giving the characters things to do, perhaps because such a large number of scenes find Archie coming up with things for characters to do.

He’s somehow the brains of the operation in the proposed revival of Riverdale under a mayor-free new form of government, by the people and for the people, legwork that has the tiresome obligatory vibe of a role-playing game’s side quests. He’s establishing yet another in a long series of fresh status quos that always turn out to be less radical than their momentous announcement would suggest. In his opening narration, Jughead muses that everyone’s surviving and no one’s thriving, a description of listless continuation that could apply to this series just as easily.

Cheryl Blossom spends much of the episode sequestered in her own little subterranean world, albeit a more colorful one than the dully functionary above-ground land where her peers are milling about. She’s down in the family palladium mines trying to excavate what she’s realized could be an extremely valuable birthright, when wouldn’t you know it, she happens upon a cache of human skeletal remains.

The chamber she’s broken into opens up a portal to the past—figuratively, to be clear, a distinction worth making with this show—and into a flashback, as her ancestor Abigail gets burned at the stake a few hundred years ago. Here’s the good stuff, starting with the old-timey Archie, mustachioed Jughead, and fancied-up Betty doubling in the roles of their forebears. It’s a promising direction for the next season to move in, the present having grown drab and repetitive.

Case in point: Archie’s latest revamp of the local government, which ultimately boils down to a council of four that he’s nonetheless chosen from a completely arbitrary station of authority. Tabitha, Toni Topaz, the newly sane Alice, and good ol’ uncle Frank will probably do a fine job managing the affairs of the still-solvent Riverdale, but the doubt remains that they’ll be any sturdier a defense against the neverending threats from Hiram.

And as the explosive final moments confirm, they will not. This illogic extends to Jughead and his involvement in the area’s newspaper scene, which begins with him firebombing the offices of propaganda rag The Lodge-Ledger and ends with him founding rival outfit The Riverdale Choice. Never mind that it’s bad journalistic practice to commit arson on any publication’s headquarters as a rule of thumb; it’s rich of him to claim that he’s going to “report truthfully, without bias” when an extremely partisan act began this paper’s existence.

Veronica is still at it in her life’s two great passions: making money and besting her darling daddy. She makes a bid to do both this week, balancing half-baked plans for a brand-spanking-new casino in a resurgent Riverdale with a final coup de grace for Hiram. Her umpteenth attempt to create a chic hotspot in their small town, the various bars and nightclubs and secret cabarets having petered out, doesn’t appear to differ from the many other business plans she’s tried before. Even her link-up with Reggie has a staleness to it, low on the passion that used to make her dalliances with loverboy Archie pop.

The big hook for next season rests on the ages-old curse invoked by Cheryl Blossom in an unwitting roleplay of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, now rumbling from its dormancy to afflict Jughead, Betty, and Archie. Hopefully, a dose of the supernatural will perk things up, because the melodramatics and soap-opera turns don’t have the heightened tone that can make those devices work in context. With season six already in the works, the “five-episode event” premiere beginning in a little more than a month for whatever reason, they’ll get all the time to course-correct that they need. But if they were going to, wouldn’t they have done so by now? It’s the grim question a flagging TV viewer asks themselves right before they decide to detach from a show for good.

Stray observations:

  • Jughead’s offhanded line about the importance of the press’ unique freedoms in the face of reality-warping dictators feels like a pointed remark coming from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose 77-year-old father Francisco currently sits as a political prisoner in Nicaragua’s infamous Nuevo Chipote facility for speaking out against President Daniel Ortega’s regime. It’s the sort of grave injustice that Jughead would protest, if it existed in the universe of Riverdale. Which, who knows, maybe it will! It’s only a matter of time until the writers work their way to self-insert fan-fiction.
  • The former Salem Witch Museum tour guide in me wants to point out that suspected witches were never burned in the United States, only hanged or, in one instance, pressed to death. But the current-day normal, easygoing person in me wants to let this go and have a good time.
  • No standout lines in this episode, as sorry a bellwether of how far standards have fallen as you’re likely to find. Kevin offhandedly muttering “I’ve never seen tires changed so fast” wasn’t half bad. Here’s hoping he can make it on Broadway. Tough business.
  • Nice touch that in Retirement Mode, Pop Tate has a fuzzy beard and rocks a Hawaiian shirt. He’s earned some time to himself, which makes his offer to come help fix everything even lamer than an overly convenient deus ex machina—it’s a raw deal for one of the most cherished, taken-for-granted characters.

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