As its title suggests, Riverdale’s “The Midnight Club” puts a dark spin on The Breakfast Club, telling the tale of a group of misfits and unlikely friends who bond in detention… and then form a cult around an evil roleplaying game that results in the murder of their principal. Riverdale goes hard on its ’80s tribute episode: The soundtrack is full of ’80s hits, there are references to the pop culture of the time throughout, even the title card playfully nods to the decade. It’s fun and extra in the same way the musical episode was. But it’s also full of compelling character moments, grounding the campy Griffins & Gargoyles storyline in genuinely meaningful ways.
Told mostly in flashback with narration from present-day Alice Cooper, “The Midnight Club” brilliantly casts the main characters as younger versions of their parents. Lili Reinhart plays an angsty, leather-clad Alice; Cole Sprouse plays a shockingly straight edge FP; KJ Apa plays heartthrob musician-athlete Fred; Camila Mendes plays a subdued Hermione on the brink of rebellion; Madelaine Petsch plays uptight teacher’s pet Penelope; Ashleigh Murray plays the ambitious Sierra. Reinhart, Sprouse, and Apa impress in particular, so perfectly mimicking the physicality of their older counterparts that it’s uncanny.
Riverdale gets a lot of mileage the dramatic irony here, letting us glimpse at what these kids thought their future held when we know full well where they end up. Young Sierra scoffs at the idea of being the mayor of Riverdale. They all seem to want out of the town, and it’s heartbreaking to think that none of them make it out other than Hermione, who isn’t even gone for long.
There are a few surprises sprinkled in, like the fact that Alice and Fred kissed once. Penelope Blossom’s backstory is even darker than I imagined. She was orphaned and raised by the Sisters of Quiet Mercy until one day the Blossom family came looking for redheaded children, adopted her, and raised her as Clifford’s sibling WHILE ALSO GROOMING HER TO EVENTUALLY BE HIS WIFE? Yup, the incest motif is back on Riverdale.
The addictive nature of Griffins & Gargoyles feels like something ripped straight out of an ’80s horror movie, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s such a ridiculous storyline in a delightful way. In the present day, Mayor Hermione actually has to ban the game town wide to get kids to stop playing.
But in the past, the group of unlikely pals who eventually become the titular Midnight Club becomes quietly obsessed with the game. They’re all drawn to the escapism of the game for their own reasons, the allure of pretending to be someone else speaking to each of them on a personal level. Riverdale contextualizes their addiction to the game with strong character development, fleshing out parts of these characters’ pasts that we haven’t seen before or that have only been hinted at. Reinhart, as usual, acts circles around everyone, her portrayal of young Alice simmering.
The emotional storytelling in “The Midnight Club” grounds it, gives real stakes to the game. There are already little signs that Hermione craves power. FP wants to change his life and get away from his abusive father and the gang. Alice, who learns she’s pregnant at the beginning of the episode, struggles with her identity, too, feels that she always has something to prove, puts up so many walls. Fred’s narrative most closely parallels his future kid’s. Like Archie, he puts so much pressure on himself to be a good son and to take care of his dad, who later dies while the club is playing the game one night.
And, of course, there’s also just some ridiculous Riverdale fun to be had. There’s an impromptu concert by “The Fred Heads” for absolutely no reason. The teens get fucked up on a precursor to Jingle Jangle called Fizzle Rocks. There’s a callback to one of the most iconic Cheryl Blossom lines from the pilot, a young Penelope remarking that she’s in the mood for a little chaos with a little shrug. Everyone looks amazing in their ’80s getups.
It also wouldn’t be Riverdale without some good ol’ fashioned murder. For all the bright ’80s glam of the episode, it’s also very dark. “The Midnight Club” lives in Riverdale’s sweetspot, blending camp, horror, and high school drama. It’s John Hughes meets Wes Craven. The Gargoyle King appears, but only Alice sees. Riverdale often explores the idea that this town goes through repeated patterns of darkness. This game killed someone before, and it’s killing people again.
Back in the present, we end on a truly terrifying image, Betty rushing to find Jughead and fill him in on everything Alice just told her only to find that he, Sweet Pea, Cheryl, Toni, and Fangs have already been lost to the game. Riverdale has tapped into something very dark and very real with Griffins & Gargoyles: We all, on some level, want to escape our lives.