Ah, yes, there is no show like Riverdale.
What other show would give us a slow-motion sequence of a mother and daughter emerging from a motel room where they just escaped a hostage situation at the hands of a cult—the daughter wearing, crucially in my opinion, a beret—and heading off on their way to stop Chad Michael Murray from launching his homemade rocket into the sky and killing a bunch of his followers?
As a TV critic coming up on the year 2020, I’ve been forced to think of and rank the best television shows of the decade, and you better believe I count Riverdale among them. The show’s, uh, definite singularity wouldn’t be enough to make it a contender on its own though. Sometimes it does feel like I love Riverdale sheerly for its absurdity. But what consistently surprises and excites me about Riverdale is how much is happening beneath the absurdity. A daughter rescuing her mother from the tight grip of a local cult? Another daughter desperately crawling out from under the crimes of her parents? A son who just lost his father trying to make his community better instead of abandoning it? That’s serious shit! The characters on Riverdale look like perfectly rendered cartoons, but beneath the aesthetics, they’re flesh and blood. Riverdale stays doing The Most, but it also legitimately does a lot in terms of story, character development, and compelling themes.
The show has all the subtlety of a freak show. It’s horror-camp. It’s musical theater. And I absolutely mean all of those things as compliments.
So when Chad Michael Murray showed up wearing a spandex red-white-and-blue suit about to take off in a rocket, I was like, yep, sounds about right. And when Betty used her bobby pin to stop a literal bomb strapped to her sister from going off, I was like, yes, go off Betty! “Dog Day Afternoon” might be the wildest episode of Riverdale to date, owed entirely to the closing chapter of the Farm, which unfolds like a different genre from the rest of the episode entirely, but Riverdale has always confusingly but beautifully Frankensteined genres together.
Alice kills Chad Michael Murray, and Betty saves the day with a bobby pin. Jughead gets locked in a feud with the entitled bully at his new school, who uses psychological torture and short fiction as his weapons of choice—a bit different from the violent gangs he’s used to dealing with but every bit as dangerous. Archie decides he’s turning the boxing gym into a community center for the vulnerable youth of Riverdale. Veronica changes her name to Veronica Luna, sells off her mom’s decorative eggs to help Betty meet a ransom demand, and finds out that daddy still has the upperhand. Also, she thinks the only way to raise money is to use shirtless men. Toni discovers that her girlfriend has been talking to her brother’s preserved corpse as if he were still alive.
Now, a digression on Hiram Lodge. I tell my girlfriend all the time that she is NOT allowed to ask questions pertaining to “logic” when we are watching Riverdale. (She’s a librarian, so I think that’s difficult for her.) This is a town that does not have temperature, so the laws of physics, logic, and nature simply do not apply. But even I have a lot of questions about how Hiram Lodge is able to simply “come and go” from prison because he owns it. It’s not that I necessarily mind that this makes zero sense, but I hate this particular reveal because it completely sucks the stakes out of him being in prison in the first place? Hiram has always seemed like some clunky device that the writers can trot out whenever they need a villain, and neutralizing him by getting him locked up was actually an interesting plot development because of the way it forced Veronica to take control of her life and also left the town with an inevitable hole to fill in terms of power. If he can just COME AND GO from prison, then why does he stay there AT ALL?
There’s some excellent horror imagery throughout the episode: A living rat escapes Jason’s corpse, earning a classic Cheryl Blossom scream. An ominous VHS tape shows up on Betty and Jughead’s doorstep the second after they say they’re glad the nightmare’s over (never say you’re glad the nightmare’s over, because the nightmare is bound to continue the second you do! Horror 101). Even annoying Archie wielding his bat is a striking image.
And in the episode’s mashup of noir, action, and horror, there’s excellent character work, too. Moose reappears, desperate to make a new life for himself at Stonewall Prep in the wake of his father’s monstrous crimes, but Jughead can only protect his secret for so long. The past has a way of continually haunting the characters on Riverdale. Archie promises he’s going to turn over a new leaf with the gym, and yet he’s quick to pick that bat up again and resort to violence. Even if it’s supposedly in the name of protecting kids, it shows there’s still darkness and recklessness in Archie. Veronica helps her friends but often relies on light crimes and her family’s kingdom to do so. A name change signals a new beginning, but Riverdale rarely lets its characters escape their demons.
Also, according to Nana Rose, a secret triplet is probably about to show up. Do Cheryl and Jason have a long lost sibling? If so, I hope it’s one that Madelaine Petsch gets to play, because I’d love to see her Nina Dobrev it up.