“Riverdale” Season Finale 4 Recap: The Darkness Within

Another season of Riverdale comes to a close. We started with murder cults, lingered in the middle on a literary death society, and now end here with a town voyeur turned auteur: a shadowy villain who has been quietly filming unsettlingly long footage of people’s houses while they sleep but who harshly pivots to making low-budg reenactments of the townspeople’s worst traumas. The wannabe filmmaker already recreated Jughead’s near-death and Jason Blossom’s actual death. Jughead spells it out for us: This nefarious being wants to blur the line between fact and fiction. And in its season finale, Riverdale indeed plays around with fiction and reality, expertly blending the show’s campier, silly horror side with its more violent and genuinely frightening side.

I gotta say, Riverdale has made for pretty perfect pandemic viewing. The increasingly chaotic and surreal vibe of this show is, for me, an absolute escape. THIS IS A PLACE THAT TRANSCENDS TEMPERATURE. Nothing makes sense on Riverdale, and I love that for it. Remember in season three when Hiram placed the whole town on forced quarantine? Did Riverdale predict the future? Is Riverdale the only show that knows exactly how disorienting and unstable life is? I know a lot of people are rewatching like Mad Men or whatever right now, but I humbly suggest a Rivedale rewatch.

For once, the kids seem almost like regular high school teens for the first stretch of the finale. Upset with Mr. Honey for canceling senior prom and all the other ways he has stifled their fun all year, they hatch a plan for a classic senior prank to mess with him. Along the way, something darker brews beneath the surface though. Namely: Betty repeatedly, casually suggesting that they kill Mr. Honey. Jughead decides to take that premise and run with it, writing a story called “Killing Mr. Honey” so he can get into Iowa for creative writing. The episode flits between the fantastical world of Jughead’s story—a prank gone too far—and real life, where the teens deal with the usual teen dramas of senior year. Over the course of the episode, the transitions become smoother, intentionally blurring lines. It works very well! A horror story within a horror story! Riverdale crafts a world supposedly darker and more exaggerated than its actual narrative, which is already VERY DARK AND EXAGGERATED! It’s a beautiful mind-fuck.

The world of Jughead’s story is meant to be darker than reality. He worries it might be too dark, but Betty assures him it’s just right. Jughead’s strange mix of autofiction and horror actually makes for a pretty good story indeed, and it allows Riverdale to play with genre and also unearth the darkness in its characters actual lives as told by these fictionalized specters of them. It’s easy to believe that a simple prank would go too far in the realm of this world. This is a town where a simple roleplaying game turned into a towns-spanning conspiracy involving drugs, death, and brainwashing. Darkness does exist in all of these characters, because darkness has been sowed in them by years of town trauma that has become increasingly more violent and over-the-top.

“Who here has experience getting rid of a dead body?” a character asks in Jughead’s story, and Betty, Veronica, Archie, Jughead, and Cheryl all raise their hands, leaving Reggie to remark that he apparently is the only one who hasn’t had this special little experience. There are a lot of fun but also unnerving meta moments like this in Jughead’s story. It’s true: ALL OF THESE CHARACTERS HAVE HIDDEN BODIES. Cheryl kept a corpse in her chapel for WEEKS. Betty rolled up a body in a rug with her mother one time!

Speaking of Alice Cooper hiding a body (tbt!), the absolute best shot of this episode happens in the reality timeline when Alice, Mary, Hermione, Hiram, FP, sheriff Keller, and NANA ROSE? all march into the high school in slow-motion to be like WE the PARENTS of RIVERDALE cannot STAND FOR YOU TO CANCEL PROM!!!!!!! It is a moment that definitely requires a heavy dose of disbelief suspension. These parents are pretty much the reason why their kids have a whole slew of issues. But I guess they’ve decided to do something positive for their kids by wielding their individual skills against Honey to get prom reinstated (Hiram’s all I have POLITICAL power and Mary’s all I’ll SUE you and Alice is all I WILL EXPOSE YOU on the NEWS and FP is all I guess I’ll BEAT YOU UP). The parents even throw a whole ass party for their kids to celebrate them getting into college. Again, I’m not sure when these parents suddenly became invested in their kids’ lives in a healthy and not toxic way, but you know what? I’ll let it slide.

Because there truly is something masterful about the way the finale weaves fact and fiction. Jughead’s story and the reality timeline are in playful conversation with one another. And in the end, it’s the reality that goes so much darker than Jughead’s fiction. Mr. Honey says that he received a tape from the voyeur that shows the halls of the school and uses that as a new reason to cancel prom all over again. It’s never really clear why he is so dead-set on canceling prom, but Mr. Honey is basically an exaggerated version of a high school principal stocktype. He’s tyrannical for no reason…from the kids’ perspective. Jughead ruminates on potential motives without landing on anything definitively.

The office secretary Miss Bell “well actuallys” the entire group when she points out all the good things he did as a principal for the student body, and suddenly things come into focus. Maybe Mr. Honey—while not perfect—was not the villainous, vengeful mastermind the teens perceived him as. Maybe because of the ways they’ve all been conditioned to assume the worst. In a town riddled with murderers and death cults, it’s probably pretty hard to suss out who is an actual threat and who is maybe just a little bit of a nuisance.

It turns out Mr. Honey made the footage himself. Betty spots him in the reflection in the video, so his filmmaking skills leave a lot to be desired! He is, after all, NOT the voyeur-auteur who has been slow-burn terrorizing the town. But he does become the first real victim. Jughead and Betty are lured to a cabin to watch a new tape of people wearing masks of the teens’ faces all stabbing the actual Mr. Honey to death. A much more fucked-up version of Jughead’s tale becomes the reality.

“In this town, we’re all monsters,” Jughead says in his story. It’s a more clear-cut rendering of a complicated truth. I mean in real life, these kids faked their own friend’s death to prove a point. They might not be the monsters they are in the story, but the darkness in their reality is undeniable and deep-rooted. Jughead rewrites his story so that the kids save Mr. Honey, but in real life, they cannot. Someone else is writing the story in their real lives. And Riverdale ends its season on that sinister reveal.

Riverdale pretty much doubles its darkness every season, and the note this finale strikes is basically “oh y’all aren’t even ready for how messed up this will get.” We literally end on avatars of all the main characters stabbing someone to death. It is disorienting and disturbing and so extreme. But I’ve said it all along: Riverdale is best at its most deranged.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Las Vegas. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 222 articles for us.

2 Comments

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.