In last night’s Riverdale (which seems to be going by two different titles: “Judgement Night” and “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer”), Cheryl Blossom escapes the Black Hood’s axe, promptly throwing on a blood red hunting cape and archery set in the span of about five seconds and then shooting him square in the shoulder. And that’s just within the first minute.
The penultimate episode of season two is pure chaos laced with chilling horror tropes. It comprises several battles ultimately part of the same war, one largely orchestrated by Hiram Lodge in order to stoke the town with unrest that makes it easier for him to seize control. But in creating that unrest, Hiram has also sparked an implosion within his most trusted circle. The Lodge family is ripping at the seams.
Compared to the rest of the episode, the battle fought within the Lodge family is relatively quiet, subtle, more under-the-skin than the loud, explosive riots happening around Pembrooke. Veronica tries to convince her mother that she’s being used over and over and over again, kindling for Hiram’s fire. He rarely puts himself at risk, happily throwing Hermione into the line of fire for “the big picture” that he’s perpetually plotting. Hermione is unconvinced until proof of Veronica’s accusations comes quite literally bursting through the door of their penthouse in the form of a hulking, vengeful mobster. It’s Small Fry, the hilariously named son of Papa Poutine, who Hiram had killed earlier in the season. Hermione shoots him dead, and Hiram returns home high on the thrill of getting what he wanted with Jughead and Penny (more on that later) to find his wife and daughter despondent, unable to look him in the eye, unwilling to be his kindling.
There’s so much going on in this episode that it seems a little reckless to throw in this little Small Fry subplot, but as jam-packed as Riverdale is this week, it works. It’s dizzying and electrifying, evoking the very feeling that everyone in town seems to have all episode. What’s happening? Where is everyone? Those questions repeat to become the episode’s disorienting narrative pattern. And even though so much is happening at once, Riverdale doesn’t sacrifice the emotional weight of it all. The characters aren’t just going through the motions of chaos; they’re living in it, wrecked by its consequences.
Reggie didn’t shoot Fangs, but the Serpents initially think he did, so they decide to trash Riverdale High, led by a mourning, angry Sweet Pea. Archie, Kevin, and Moose feebly try to stop them but Principal Weatherbee gets the job done. When they learn that it was Midge’s mom who shot him, they redirect their anger toward the Klump house, but Jughead successfully wrangles his wounded snakes and gets them to the Whyte Wyrm only to get a call from none other than Penny Peabody, out for blood. (By the way, near the end of the episode, FP says Fangs is dead, but since that death doesn’t happen on-screen, I think it’s very possible that it’s just part of a ruse so that Fangs can lay low? Maybe? Am I being too hopeful? I liked Fangs!)
Oh, and rival gang the Ghoulies are back in town, looking like a bunch of 80s punks. They try to attack Pop’s, and Archie throws molotov cocktails out them that pretty much do nothing? But then Riverdale’s Dad Brigade — FP, Fred, and Sheriff Keller — save the diner. Their return, it turns out, is connected to Penny’s. She uses Toni to blackmail Jughead into meeting with her and gives her terms: The Serpents have to vacate the Southside so that Penny can run a drug operation there or they have to have a rumble with Ghoulies at dawn. SO MUCH IS HAPPENING!!!
Cheryl comes as Jughead’s backup and saves Toni with her bow, which is incredibly romantic, a beacon of light in this dark cauldron of chaos. It’s a killer episode for Cheryl, even though she isn’t in it much. But that hunting cape, the way she threatens the Black Hood in the beginning to run whilst he still can, the casual tone she has when she informs Betty that she’s going to TRACK THE BLACK HOOD THROUGH THE FOREST? Veronica compares Riverdale to Gotham after Hermione announces a $1 million bounty for the Black Hood’s head, and Cheryl indeed seems like a straight-up vigilante superhero throughout.
The town of Riverdale certainly could use a hero. Amid the riots, the bloodthirst, and the mass confusion, the Black Hood also reveals himself at last. Betty’s theory that her dad is the Black Hood is pretty much confirmed right away, when FP calls Betty and mentions that her father had been brought into the hospital (the suspense of Betty picking up the phone to an unknown caller only to have it be FP does seem like a subtle nod to Scream, no?). Betty goes there, is led to the CREEPIEST ROOM in the CREEPIEST HOSPITAL and finds a dead doctor. The Black Hood calls her up and tells her to come home, leaving little room for doubt that it isn’t Hal. Then he says the straight up scariest thing he has ever said: “I will slit your mother’s throat in the middle of the living room.” Again, it’s extremely Scream. Riverdale thrives by going full-throttle horror this week.
At home, Hal sits Alice and Betty down, a tiny red dot of blood flecking his shoulder where Cheryl hit him with her arrow. He shows them old home videos of him as a little boy, coached by his mother to manipulate Joseph Conway into identifying the wrong killer. Yep, the Black Hood conspiracy web comes into full focus: Hal’s grandfather murdered his brother and assumed the Cooper name as an alias. The Conways found out and blackmailed Hal’s father, so he killed them. Hal’s mom pretty much brainwashed him into thinking that what his father did was noble, feeding him lines about sinners and being good.
Riverdale doesn’t have to bend over backwards too much to sell Hal as the killer: It all tracks rather believably. It’s the perfect twist in that it’s believable and shocking all at once. The show does an outstanding job of fixating us in Betty’s perspective, in what this all means for her. Hal goes on about the darkness inside him and then accuses Betty of having the same darkness, something she has feared for a while. Alice and Betty eventually figure out that he’s planning a murder-suicide, but they pretty easily take him out, because these Cooper gals are toughass motherfuckers when called upon.
There’s still the unresolved issue of the copycat Black Hood, the one who fired shots during the debate. Hal cops to all the murders except that one (obviously, since we saw him with Betty during the shooting). And Black Hood Number 2 also makes an appearance in this superstuffed episode, attacking Archie and Fred in their home. This time, Fred’s wearing a bulletproof vest. Hal’s in custody, but there’s still a killer on the loose.
And my money is on Hiram Lodge having something to do with that. Killing Fred might be a little too on-the-nose for him (plus, there wouldn’t be a need for his “October Surprise” plan if Fred was dead). But it’s hard not to think that Hiram has played some role in the proliferation of murder in Riverdale. He’s the one paying Penny and the Ghoulies to go to war with the Serpents, something Jughead puts together just in the nick of time. Jughead’s solution? Making himself the sacrificial lamb.
Jughead knows that he’s the one Hiram really wants gone, not necessarily all of the Serpents. And he knows Penny and the Ghoulies want him dead, too. So he calls off the Serpents-Ghoulies showdown and turns it into a Jughead-Ghoulies showdown. His phone call to Betty before he heads for slaughter is genuinely heart-rending, especially because their paths never cross all episode. They have been out of touch, out of each other’s grasp, drowning in their own problems. The fact that his goodbye phone call comes in this moment has some serious gravity to it. None of the characters have time to breathe all episode, let alone check in with one another to make sure they’re okay.
What’s striking about this episode of Riverdale is how so much of the action and the key conversations between characters happen on-screen. Hardly anything is alluded to or hinted at: It’s all shown. That bold directness makes it such a thrilling, stressful episode, putting us in the same exact mindset of the characters. The show is explicit about Jughead’s sacrifice, showing at least a dozen Ghoulies beating the crap out of him. Now, I don’t think this show would kill off a character as central to the story as Jughead (who would narrate it?!), but the final scene, of FP holding his crumpled up, bloodied, and bruised son in his arms, is chillingly convincing in the moment. Even if Jughead does turn out to be alive (he’s gotta, right? Cole Sprouse is messing with us on Twitter, right?), the weight of that scene is indelible. Riverdale manages to pull off a supercharged, superstuffed episode without losing sight of its emotional core and its character development. Its chaos is deeply human, playing on character motivations that have been building all season.