Ahhhh, yes, Riverdale. The show I used to recap here at Autostraddle but fell off of — not because I’d grown tired of its increasingly absurd antics but rather because life simply got in the way, and falling behind on Riverdale and then attempting to catch up is a Herculean task. Many people have given up on Riverdale, and I get it. If you came for a teen melodrama initially touted as “like if the Archie comics were horny,” then perhaps you did not wish to stay for increasingly chaotic supernatural horror show featuring alternate timelines, witches, superpowers, ghosts, possessions, cannibalism, and resurrections. I, however, deeply admire Riverdale‘s persistent ability to outdo itself, to literally drop a bomb on its main characters and say: “You know what? Everything you thought you knew is over, time for a new show entirely.” It’s almost like an anthology series but also isn’t, has somehow managed to invent its own constantly mutating format that I can’t even think of a name for. Perhaps future series that attempt such feats will be referred to as Riverdalian.
In any case, Riverdale has now entered its seventh and final season. Before we delve into the specific ways it has managed to reinvent itself for this last chapter, here is a very incomplete but informative list of reminders of things that occurred in season six, just for fun:
- For a five-episode arc, the characters ended up in Rivervale, a pocket universe where several key details about relationships, circumstances, and characters were suddenly new.
- For example: Everyone developed superpowers! Betty Cooper could suddenly, like a lot of white lesbians in specific parts of Los Angeles claim to do, see people’s auras. Archie had superhuman strength. Veronica could kiss people to death. Cheryl Blossom became a full-on witch with pyrokinetic abilities. Jughead could read minds.
- Reggie sold Veronica’s soul to the devil in exchange for the prosperity of their speakeasy casino Babylonium, but then Veronica reversed the deal and sold Reggie to the devil, and he was promptly dragged to hell.
- Cheryl Blossom was possessed by her ancestor Abigail, also a witch, and sought vengence on the descendants of the townspeople who murdered her.
- Rivervale eventually merged with Riverdale in a process that remains confusing to me but also eventually results in Jughead needing to become a “living battery” for the town of Rivervale by generating new stories on his typewriter in perpetuity so that the pocket universe no longer needs to pull from the main universe — or something.
- Tabitha Tate was determined to be the guardian angel of Riverdale.
- A giant, apocalyptic comet headed to Riverdale, and Cheryl attempted to use her phoenixy powers to melt it, which is what brings us to…
SEASON SEVEN. Following the cataclysmic comet, the characters of Riverdale wake up…in the 1950s. Not only have they time-traveled, but they have also gone backwards in age. Remember that seven-year time jump in season five that brought them all into their mid-twenties? WELL FORGET ABOUT IT. They’re juniors in high school again, and things look and feel a lot like season one — except for the crucial difference of being set in the 50s. The only person who remembers their lives before is Jughead, naturally, because Jughead is always the paradox in these Riverdale situations. There was a whole episode about it, “The Jughead Paradox,” the series’s 100th episode last year.
In yet a new timeline for Riverdale, Betty is dating Kevin Keller, a closeted crooner. Archie has a crush on the new girl Veronica, sent to live here by her famous Hollywood actor parents because she was tangentially involved in the car crash THAT KILLED JAMES DEAN and they want to keep her name out of the papers. But Archie’s got competition in Julian Blossom, also hot for Veronica. He is a new twin for Cheryl Blossom and is different than Jason Blossom, the character whose death began this series oh so long ago. Toni Topaz is a student activist organizing students of color at the newly integrated Riverdale High. Lots of familiar faces return, including Ethel Muggs, Dilton Doiley, and other names that sound like I’m making them up off the top of my head but are real characters on this real show that I love so dearly. It is unclear if anyone has superpowers.
However, some semblance of the supernatural indeed exists, given the time-travel of it all. There are two version of Tabitha, one who belongs to this timeline and one who is the town’s guardian angel, seemingly able to move between timelines and universes. At the end of the season seven premiere, she informs Jughead that the plan to melt the comet did not work, causing an extinction-level event. The only way she could save everyone was to stuff them in this different timeline, but she thinks they’ll eventually, maybe be able to merge back into the original universe and not just restore Riverdale but make it a better place than it was before. But in order to do so, she first needs to wipe Jughead’s memory so that he too does not remember where he came from and thinks he’s just a regular degular dude with a crown in the 1950s.
The season premiere weaves in actual historical events to mixed results, including the aforementioned James Dean detail of Veronica’s new backstory. But more seriously, the episode is set in 1955, shortly after the murder of Emmett Till. Toni returns to Riverdale from Mississippi after having attended the trial, hoping to publish her coverage of it in the student paper the Blue & Gold. (Side note: I remain confused on where Riverdale is set, but I thought it was…New York? Or is it just an everytown that could be plopped anywhere in like the northeast U.S.? It does also sometimes give off Midwest vibes.) Betty is on board to publish, but the school administration shuts her down. So do her parents, who run the local radio station but who fear they’ll lose their top sponsor — Blossom Maple Syrup — if they report on racism. Eventually, Betty and Toni team up to convince Cheryl to read the real Langston Hughes poem “Mississippi—1955” about Emmett Till’s murder.
On the one hand, I’m glad Riverdale isn’t shying away from certain political realities of 1955. I do believe if you’re choosing to set a story in a specific time, it should feel grounded in that time and not overtly romanticize or soften the edges of it — even in the scope of a series that employs fantasy, supernatural, and sci-fi elements. On the other hand, to attempt to address such a serious real piece of violently racist American history in the scope of a campy, absurdist show is, well, an odd move. I don’t feel like the seriousness of it is downplayed per se; it isn’t just a fleeting mention but threaded into an entire central storyline of the episode. But it is, to say the least, much more than Riverdale can chew. Last season’s episode “Angels in America”, which saw Tabitha traveling through time, similarly took on historical events and contexts pertaining to racism in America, and while it was uneven, it worked much better, directly acknowledging that a Black character’s time-travel journey through American history would not be the same as a white character’s. By the end of the season seven premiere, Jughead wonders if he even wants to return to the future; maybe here is better. But of course, it’s easy for him to say that — he’s white and straight. Riverdale does, at least, seem aware of this tension held by its new setting. The 1950s were sock-hopping fun for only a specific group of people.
I’m left wondering why Riverdale chose this particular story as its way of exploring race relations in 1955 since it is not (as far as I’ve ever been able to deduce) set anywhere near Mississippi or the American South. Was it all in service of incorporating the Langston Hughes poem? Is it just because the writers assumed most viewers would be familiar with Emmett Till and the sham trial that acquitted his murderers? I’m left with more questions than answers, which is par for the course with Riverdale, but it’s rather frustrating in this context, because ultimately it also just feels like the show placing Betty and other white characters on a pedestal for being Good White People. I don’t wish for Riverdale to ignore issues of race in its new time period, but it’s hard not to see this plotline as performative rather than meaningful issue-driven storytelling. No one’s necessarily acting out of character. I believe the Coopers and the Blossoms would be on the wrong side of history (and that Cheryl would, slowly, start to push back against her family). Toni’s role as a student activist advocating for students of color at the high school does indeed track with her previous characterization as someone who fought for the Southside Serpents to be treated equally when they joined Riverdale High. But while characters’ motivations are easy to track here, it still feels like we’ve veered into territory Riverdale has difficulty navigating in a cogent way.
Also, in both of the episodes of this season that have aired so far, it’s clear Riverdale has pushed Kevin Keller and Cheryl Blossom right on back into the closet. This is made the most explicit for Kevin, who is very distant with his girlfriend Betty and has eyes for another guy at school. Cheryl, meanwhile, seems to be overcompensating by leaning into puritanical thought and behavior, all the while longing to be able to freely dance with Toni at the sock hop the second episode hinges on. Again, I’m not totally sure what Riverdale is doing here. While it certainly does seem realistic for the time period that Kevin and Cheryl wouldn’t be fully out and proud at school, re-closeting them is frustrating from a viewing experience, because we’ve already done this with them, especially with Cheryl, who seems to not just be closeted to the world but also to herself, which is exactly how things played out the first time around in present day, too! Riverdale shifts the context by applying 1950s-specific homophobia to Cheryl’s arc, but wouldn’t it be much more interesting if there were an actual character-based shift? What if Cheryl did know she’s gay and was secretly dating in the 1950s — a dangerous thing to do but still something that did indeed occur. What if Cheryl and Kevin went to an underground gay bar together?! Retelling their coming out stories but strapping them with mid-century homophobia just isn’t all that compelling to watch — at least not yet. I suppose I’d be more upset if they were straight in this new timeline, but this almost feels just as boring as that!
We’re only two episodes in, so I’m hoping that while Riverdale blessedly continues to go off the rails, it at least rights its course in terms of some of these early missteps that take me out of the story too much. A blend of camp and grounded storytelling is welcome, but I think the balance is off at the moment. Making the characters return to high school indeed feels like a fitting “the end is the beginning” premise. Plopping them in the 1950s seems like primarily an aesthetic choice rather than a narrative or thematic one, and that’s fine, especially on a show like this that makes a lot of aesthetic choices and leans into camp. The costumes are indeed magnificent. Time travel is complicated and should thusly be treated as complicated. I’ve always thought that when it comes to time-traveling shows which can sometimes oversimplify history or ignore it completely. But Riverdale isn’t just juggling a lot with this new premise; it’s juggling while trying to do backflips at the same time, and it’s only landing some of them.
I won’t be recapping this final season, but I’ll try to drop in any time there’s a particular queer episode and will also weigh in for the series finale.