Don’t you hate when you’re a teen and your teen friend’s murderous mother traps you in a dining room underneath her maple farmhouse to tell you all about her diabolical plan to destroy your hometown and accuses you of terrible sins that you must pay penance for in the form of an overnight game of life-or-death challenges in the woods?
That’s what happens to the core four teens in Riverdale’s absolutely bonkers third season finale, and let me tell you, it is a ride. The first act of the finale gets a little too bogged down in overwrought plot explanations. You know the part at the end of a story where the villain reveals themselves and explains all of their motives and how they were able to pull it off in painstaking detail? That’s what happens here, and it’s a little tedious, Penelope Blossom literally telling the characters, and us, exactly what the fuck is up.
At the same time, the character work actually all lines up pretty well. I’m more sold on Penelope Blossom’s motivations and psychological underpinnings than I was with Hal Cooper when it was first revealed he was the Black Hood last season. She first turned on the town of Riverdale when people turned a blind eye to the Blossom family literally scooping her out of an orphanage and marrying her off to Clifford as an actual child. But even more compelling is how the traumatic loss of Jason informs her behavior. She lost a child in a truly chilling way. The entire town at this point has literally seen her husband shoot Jason in the head on video, and as she explains to the teens, no one was there for her. No one reached out. The town once again turned a blind eye instead of dealing with these demons.
It’s an effective reveal in that it’s both obvious and not obvious at the same time. It’s a little surprising insofar as Penelope hasn’t really been at the forefront of the narrative this season. She has been one of the side villains this season, with Hal and Hiram the more overt demons. But she also is believable as the mastermind behind the Gargoyle King and the Black Hood’s unification. She was, after all, the original game master for the original Midnight Club.
Penelope’s arc strikes the right balance of contextualizing a lot of the horrible things she has done without absolving her. She’s a much more interesting villain than either Hal (driven merely by moralistic, black-and-white philosophy) and Hiram (driven by power and money). So yes, while all the pontificating and explaining in the first stretch of the episode becomes a bit boring, it’s at least convincing. Riverdale doesn’t end up having to choose between plot and character, instead marrying the two surprisingly well in this finale. Her monologue manages to reach back all the way into season one, unifying a lot of the chaos that has befallen this town as neatly as possible. There are cracks to be sure. But does Riverdale end up executing its long-term storytelling about family and the fight for power and control better than the final season of Game Of Thrones is doing? MAYBE SO!!!!!
Thankfully, Jason Blossom is indeed still dead, though his body has been dug up and mangled into Frankenstein’s monster by cult leader Chad Michael Murray. Instead, Chic has been parading around as a disciple of Hal in dyed red hair, Penelope pretending that he’s her dead son (yikes!). It’s a fun reveal — one that technically has some shock value to it without it being too much of a stretch. It also adds some more complexity to Betty’s arc; she has been torturing herself a bit thinking that she delivered Chic to be slaughtered. The reality, though different, is still pretty bad! She had a hand in creating another serial killer for the town. Betty proves later on in the episode that she is not a killer like her father, but she’s indelibly tethered to some of the town’s worst demons, and she has played a passive role in some of their evil despite her desperate attempts to sever herself from the bad blood in her family.
And then with all the reveals out of the way, we get to the fun shit: the ultimate game of G&G in the woods. Penelope’s challenges push and pull the core four to their limits. The action and life-or-death stakes are thrilling, but it’s really the way that the relationship dynamics play out that make this so captivating. Betty, Veronica, Archie, and Jughead all love each other deeply, all have their own distinct interpersonal dynamics with one another. Connecting Veronica and Betty’s lethal game of spin the bottle back to the pilot works well. There’s never any doubt that any of them will fail at their challenges, yet the stakes still remain high thanks to good performances and the emotional weight of what they’re put through.
Sadly, because of the focus on this G&G game, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with the Farm and on Toni’s rescue mission. But fear not, Toni and Alice do indeed help save Cheryl, and I’m loving how often Toni and Cheryl take turns playing each other’s knight in shining armor. Also Madelaine Petsch’s scream in this episode is one of the best horror screams I’ve seen in a long time.
In other news, Betty and Jughead’s shared half-brother Charles is indeed alive and…an FBI agent. Alice is an FBI informant! Which does make me retroactively feel a lot better about what has happened with Alice’s character this season. The fact that it was all an act and that she wasn’t actually brainwashed into a completely new character is much better and hopefully foretells some good Alice material next season.
And on the subject of next season: that time jump!!!!! Riverdale has never used a device like that before, which makes it all the more invigorating. (It also reiterates how a show that over-relies on that kind of flash-forward device like How To Get Away With Murder becomes dull in its overuse — SORRY!) It’s dark, twisted, and so perfectly juxtaposed with the wholesome image of the four drinking milkshakes at Pop’s. On Riverdale, there’s always chaos just around the corner.