“Life’s not an Agatha Christie novel, it’s a lot messier.” Riverdale’s “To Die For” starts with this EXTREMELY JUGHEAD quote from Jughead. Indeed, the saga of Jughead’s fate this season HAS been messier than an Agatha Christie novel, and that’s probably not a great thing. But alas, much like last week’s “How To Get Away With Murder,” “To Die For” crafts a fun and twisty thriller with such conviction that it’s easy to forget about some of the character inconsistencies and plot holes it took to get here.
The quote at the beginning also introduces us to “Murder In A Small Town,” a documentary that Alice Cooper is making about Jughead’s disappearance. It’s a great device within the episode, Alice’s footage breaking up scenes. I almost wish Riverdale just committed to the bit all the way with this and told the entire episode in documentary form, but the back and forth does work well and also allows us to work through the meticulous plotting of the fallout following Jughead’s “death.”
Which indeed involves Archie, Veronica, and Betty getting arrested by Jughead’s dad for Jughead’s murder! This is a play from Donna, one that Betty saw coming. They’re released when the murder weapon comes back and tests negative for blood (reminder: Betty swapped out the real one last episode). They’re eventually let go, but the tension between the friends and the Stonies persist, especially since Donna and Brett become convinced that Jughead isn’t really dead and that Betty orchestrated some elaborate fiction to pressure them. That would be wild, wouldn’t it? MORE ON THIS LATER.
Instead of being a plot contribution, Alice’s documentary functions more like an intimate look at the town’s history of violence, told through its residents. People like Nana Rose, Pop Tate, characters who are mostly set dressing for the town. “Riverdale is a town born in blood, and it’s bathed in it ever since,” Nana Rose says. She delivers it in her usual dramatic drawl, and it stabs right at the heart of this show, in which so many characters are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents, in which class tension and power hunger have created an ongoing cycle of violence. Yes, Riverdale dresses its darker parts up with a lot of camp and pep, but the darkness is unmistakably there and an important cornerstone for the
Toni and Cheryl appear as interview subjects in Alice’s interview, and it really underscores how loose of a grasp the writers have on these characters at the moment. It’s a good reminder that Toni did used to actually be close to Jughead, something that seems to have been dropped for a while. It also awkwardly reminds us that they did indeed hook up, which doesn’t really seem necessary in this context, especially when it shifts focus to Cheryl’s defensive reaction. Then Cheryl gives a callous answer as to how she feels about Jughead’s death…after earlier in the episode, when she tells Betty with great sincerity that she knows all too well what it’s like to lose one’s other half. Cheryl has always been a character of contradictions, but the attempts at blending her more serious “teen queen of tragedy” side with her sharp-tongued queen bitch side have been off lately. I love that Cheryl can be a lot of things at once, but lately she’s been more disjointed than complex.
In any case, Jughead isn’t dead lol. Betty, Veronica, and Archie — with the help of Charles, FP, Jellybean, Dr. Curdle Jr., and Mrs. Andrews — created an elaborate hoax. This helps explain the fact that they have seemed intermittently chill about the fact that their friend is dead. But for everyone other than those characters, this death was real. So the inconsistencies in Cheryl’s reaction to it still stand.
All episode, I was waiting for Riverdale to show its hand here. I didn’t see how it could convincingly pull off Jughead being alive. It does plant a pretty big clue that we’re watching isn’t all that meets the eye when Betty reads a passage from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” the Sherlock Holmes story that similarly messes with perception and reader/viewer expectations. Riverdale’s ruse sharply comes into focus once Archie and Betty kiss. It’s the first moment in the episode that feels distinctly wrong, a huge indicator that we’re being fucked with. (It also allows a pretty funny meta contemplation of the show’s ships from none other than Kevin Keller, who does often feel like a Riverdale fan within Riverdale’s universe.) But that kiss is the moment where things turn toward the uncanny, which does speak to the strength of the show’s writing when it comes to its central relationships. Betty and Jughead’s bond is so cemented that it seems fully demented that Betty would pivot to dating Archie in the wake of his death.
Alice’s documentary suddenly shifts to be about the hoax, a story of friendship and EXTREMELY DETAILED DECEPTION. Because boy do these kids commit to their plot! Riverdale IS ultimately pretty convincing in the way it unspools all this as a psychological war between the Stonies and Betty. But it also asks us to believe that Archie, Betty, and Veronica have all become supremely masterful actors/liars. Alice asks the important question, which essentially boils down to: WHY DO ALL THIS? And as it turns out, Betty did find a bloodied Jughead in the woods that night. She knew it would be difficult to point the finger at his assaulters given how masterful the Stonies have been at cover-ups, deception, and torturing Jughead with little consequence all school year. So yes, she crafted this elaborate fiction in order to pressure-cook the Stonies—Donna in particular.
Betty’s plan is, yes, a little deranged. Okay, a lot deranged. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors all to fuck with some rich kids. But these rich kids are truly demons. Lest we not forget them locking Jughead in an actual coffin that one time just for fun. Betty knows that to really win against these privileged ghouls she has to go all out. And watching her pull this all off is honestly breathtaking!!!!! I love how much Betty leans into all this, and her rivalry with Donna, who increasingly loses it over the course of the episode, is delicious. There is that shadowy darkness at the edges of “To Die For,” but it’s also having a whole lot of fun. Betty Cooper’s thirst for vengeance is unparalleled, and this whole story, while absurd, is exactly what draws me to Riverdale. A group of teens stage their friend’s death in order to freak out and expose a bunch of violent prep school bullies? That’s god-tier storytelling, and Riverdale is especially poised to pull it off.