Cheryl Blossom, everyone’s favorite fiery arson-archer, makes her entrance into Riverdale’s third season by strutting into Pop’s Diner in her new red Serpents leather jacket with just-a-bra-no-shirt underneath — in slow-motion, of course, and scored by Willa J’s “Like It Or Not” — and letting everyone know that she spent the summer riding motorcycles cross-country with her girlfriend Toni Topaz and also informing everyone that she’s “in the mood for hell-raising.” Ah, yes. Cheryl Blossom is back. Riverdale is back. Let the beautiful chaos begin.
And the season three premiere—taking place over Labor Day weekend after what most of the characters agree was the worst summer ever—certainly does not hold back on the chaos front. We jump right on into the trial of Archie Andrews, who has been wrongfully charged with the murder of Cassidy Bullock, who was shot by Hiram Lodge’s henchman last season. Archie’s mom is representing him (sure!), and there’s pretty much no case, but Hiram’s powerful, and the town of Riverdale as a whole doesn’t really seem to abide by rules or logic. So Archie’s pretty sure he’s going to jail (and also believes that he should be punished for the bad things he did do last year, like, supporting a fucking for-profit prison and starting two vigilante groups of blood-thirsty teen boys in the name of “justice”). All he wants is one last fun weekend with his friends.
Ever the poised and loyal girlfriend, Veronica Lodge seems certain that justice will prevail or, at least, that she’ll be able to convince her father to help Archie. In a brutal scene, Hermione basically outright says that Veronica’s safe from Hiram solely because she’s his daughter and that as his wife, she isn’t so lucky. She literally calls herself a prisoner, and it’s all very devastating, but also kind of a confusing rewriting of Hermione’s role in all this? The Hermione-Hiram dynamic has always been a bit inconsistent. Is she his equal? Do they do their evil side-by-side? Wasn’t it even suggested at one point that she was the one calling the shots? I seem to remember a dramatic reveal at the edge of a cliff last season.
In any case, this premiere rather explicitly asserts that none of that is the case, that Hiram has control over Hermione and that she desperately does want to get out. Hiram also makes it clear that he’s punishing Veronica for stepping out of line. She assumed he was framing Archie to punish him, but the truth is a lot darker. In his quest to maintain power, Hiram has his own family in his grip.
Over in the Cooper household, Polly and Alice have gone full farm cult as a way to deal with the fact that Hal was a serial killer. Alice keeps going on and on about some guy named Edgar, who has healed them, who thinks Betty should destroy all her old journals in order to move forward. Edgar Evernever (yes, that is his real name, I just looked it up) frankly sounds like an idiot, and I’m worried about Alice!!!!
Betty isn’t doing much better than her mom and sister on the whole oh-shit-dad’s-a-deranged-murderer front. She’s apparently pretending to be in therapy and forging prescriptions for Adderall. When Betty, Jughead, Veronica, and Archie go off to a romantic, nostalgic night at the swimming hole, Betty opens up a bit to Jug to ask if she should maybe actually be in therapy and reevaluate her meds situation. Um, yes! You should definitely be in therapy, Betty! You all should! If all this is building to a Betty storyline about mental health, I’m all the way on board.
Betty’s also queen of the Serpents now, because Jughead is still — for some reason — the de facto leader of the Southside Serpents, who have lost control of the Southside entirely to the Ghoulies. One thing I love about Riverdale is how even though it’s decidedly darker than its original source material, it occasionally winks to those wholesome comics with storylines such as the Ghoulies stealing… the Southside Serpents’ dog. When Fangs first reported the news that Hot Dog was being held hostage by the Ghoulies, I had a moment where I was like “who is Hot Dog again,” because to be fair, Hot Dog very reasonably sounds like it could be the name of a member of the Southside Serpents, a gang that includes people with names like Sweet Pea, Tall Boy, and Jughead. But nope! It’s their dog, who apparently went missing after riot night and no one noticed all summer, but now they have to save! the! dog! The Ghoulies love violence and selling drugs and fucking shit up, but their evil plan to lure Jughead and the Serpents back into their territory was… to kidnap a dog.
And Jughead of course takes the bait but brings reinforcements. When things go south, Cheryl fires an arrow into a Ghoulie. Penny Peabody is about to start another riot when Jughead tells Cheryl to aim another arrow between her eyes, threatening Penny with three very special words: “Cheryl. Never. Misses.”
Even though Cheryl saves the day and also makes that grand entrance earlier on, there isn’t much for her and Toni to do, which is an upsetting continuation of things from last season. Riverdale has a lot of characters, and Cheryl and Toni often get relegated to the side. Even at the pool party — which is literally Cheryl’s party! — they’re on the perimeter instead of in the action. And then Cheryl starts to open up to her girlfriend about her suicide attempt for the first time, and things suddenly become about Archie? It’s a weirdly diluted moment that just reiterates that Cheryl and Toni are peripheral characters who often act as devices in other characters’ storylines and rarely get stories of their own.
Riverdale doesn’t need to shift its focus from the core four too much, but opening up its world to delve into other characters more has worked well in the past. Cheryl started out on the show as seeming like she’d just be a bit character, something fun for the show to trot out a la her diner entrance. But after the first few episodes in season one, it became clear she was much more than that, and her arc over the course of the series has been as complex and emotional as Betty’s, so to see her relegated back into this just-here-for-entertainment position is a little disappointing.
In the end, Archie takes a plea deal that places him in a juvenile detention center rather than prison. He heads there, equipped with a Serpents tattoo that FP gave him for protection (lol). But Archie going away is, as it turns out, a pretty small development compared to the other stuff the season three premiere packs into its final few minutes. There might be a satanic cult in town?! Jughead finds Ben and Dilton Doiley — who ominously warns of a Gargoyle King earlier in the episode — hunched over in front of a creepy altar, symbols carved in their backs. Riverdale seems determined to top the Black Hood in terms of the wickedness permeating the town.
It’s unclear yet whether this terrifying shrine in the woods has anything to do with what happens to Betty at episode’s end. She walks out to her backyard to find the farm cult performing some sort of ritual involving Polly’s twins. Alice and Polly look like they’re about to drop the babies into a fire, but then the babies HOVER IN THE AIR, which likely is just in Betty’s head, but it’s still very alarming. And Betty collapses in a seizure. Riverdale really is going all out with the horror this season, and whenever this show ventures into campy horror territory, it has huge payoff. Horror/camp provide a strong thematic foundation for the show. If the premiere is any indication, season three is going to be a hot mess of campy thrills, and that’s exactly the lane Riverdale should be in.
But I still maintain that every character should be in therapy!!!!!