Here we are, folks, one week away from Riverdale’s Season Three finale. And what have we learned this season?
There was a roleplaying tabletop game invented by traumatized children to cope with their trauma that was then co-opted by a bunch of evil nuns and used to manipulate them… and then co-opted again by drug kingpins as a way to peddle coked-up pop rocks.
There was a costumed serial killer using the game to control the town. This is in addition, of course, to the other town serial killer, Betty Cooper’s father, who is on the loose again and now has a hooked hand because he needed to trick people into thinking he was dead before returning to terrorize everyone… as part of a lifelong moralistic mission to cleanse impurity?
There was a very convenient underground bunker that served many purposes.
There was a never-ending death match between an adult man (Hiram Lodge) and his teen daughter’s teen boyfriend (Archie Andrews).
There was a cult that came into town called the Farm, luring broken people in with promises of safety and community. It turned out to be a literal …organ farm… led by Chad Michael Murray.
There was a bear attack.
There were so many gangs. Gangs birthed new gangs. You have the Ghoulies, the gang that deals fizzle rocks and plays G&G and revels in chaos. You have the Jughead Jones-led Serpents, who are deputized now, so they are the literal cops. You have the Gargoyles, who are the Ghoulies in costume /slash/ Hiram’s henchmen? You have the Pretty Poisons, who are lesbians in leather.
There was an underground fight club. There was an underground speakeasy run by teens. There was an underground brothel.
What have we learned this season? That there truly are no limits to Riverdale’s absurd fever dream of a narrative. Every time the show pushes itself to the outermost limits of rationality, it somehow goes even farther. Am I mad about it? Most of the time, no! It’s only when character inconsistencies happen that I can’t quite swallow the chaos. But a bow-wielding lesbian, two serial killers in cahoots, a dangerous cult, and teen detectives? Hell, yes. Sign me up.
Season Three has perhaps been an exercise in just how far Riverdale can go, and if you had to jump off this train, I don’t necessarily blame you. But there’s still a lot to love about this show, and distinctly queer camp is increasingly part of its very DNA. Riverdale is the gothic-glam horror soap that just keeps on outdoing itself.
In this penultimate episode of the season, we learn about the true nature of the Farm. Edgar uses hypnosis to break down his followers, to trick them into seeing things, like when Betty sees her sister Polly and thinks it’s her darker half. We also learn that Jason Blossom is the Gargoyle King? That’s the latest bit of intel Jughead digs up, and then he literally digs up an empty grave where Jason’s body is supposed to be.
Thanks, I hate it. Jason’s death is literally the entire hook of the first season of this show on a plot and emotional level. Now, I have watched genre television for long enough to know that people come back from the dead (or never really died in the first place) all the time. It’s the surest way to cataclysmically shock viewers (and characters!). Sometimes, it works (hello, Alias). Other times, it’s a cheap stunt that loses steam quickly and also retroactively sucks some of the stakes out of what their death really means for the show and its characters. Season One of Riverdale is still a perfect vessel of teen drama (though not nearly as gay as it would later become). I don’t necessarily think that the possibility that Jason is alive completely undoes that, but it is the kind of twist that just seems to be for twist’s sake. Jason is only an interesting Gargoyle King insofar as it’s technically unexpected.
Archie Andrews continues to seemingly exist on just a different show entirely, and that schism in particular has made the back half of this season frustrating to watch. He teams up with Veronica to finally bring down Hiram once and for all, which leads to an absurd – and frankly very good sequence – of Hiram and Archie in the boxing ring while Veronica literally sings “Daddy Lessons.” It’s these on-the-nose, over-the-top Riverdale moments that I live for. There are, truly, several incredible sequences throughout the episode, like the very classic horror scene of the Black Hood attacking Jughead, Evelyn, and the little boy in the bus.
But the standout moment, unsurprisingly, comes at the end of the episode, when Betty, Cheryl, and Toni team up to break the fuck out of the Farm. It reminisces of when Toni had to break Cheryl out of the Sisters Of Quiet Mercy, but is somehow even more terrifying this time. Cheryl doesn’t make it out, begs Toni to leave her behind so she can save herself. It’s brutal, and Vanessa Morgan and Madelaine Petsch finally get to do something weightier than their scenes in the rest of the episode. Cheryl and Betty end up left behind, prisoners of the Farm and about to be poked and prodded.
The tapestry of horror tropes and subgenres employed throughout the penultimate episode are dizzying, and yet it works. A hook-handed masked serial killer, mysterious medical experimentation, hypnosis hallucinations, sisters tormenting sisters, and increasingly murderous game with life-or-death consequences – it’s a hodgepodge of horror, dressed up in campy, gory, stylized aesthetics that make for great visual storytelling. Yes, Riverdale is a disaster, but it’s a beautiful one.