July 4 spells doom on Riverdale. The series begins with a July 4 tragedy: the death of Jason Blossom, initially thought to be an accidental drowning with shades of incest but later revealed to be a filicide with shades of incest. In its fourth season—often a transitional season for series centered on teens—Riverdale reaches back into its past and offers up a parallel holiday weekend tragedy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t difficult for the writers to come up with what that story would be, because behind the scenes, Riverdale suffered its own tragedy when Luke Perry died after a stroke last spring. “In Memoriam” is Riverdale’s tribute episode to Perry and his role as Fred Andrews on the show, but it’s also a way for the show to really regroup after the chaos of last season and refocus on what it is that makes this show more than just a murdery, sexy, off-the-rails romp.
Jughead eases us into season four with his dependably dramatic dialogue, and we’re treated to a few soft scenes between him and Betty and Archie and Veronica before the bomb drops. Archie gets a call that his father had pulled off the side of the road to help someone at night and was then killed in a hit-and-run. We learn later that Fred Andrews, ever the solemn hero, pushed the woman he was helping out of the way to save her. His last act was a truly heroic one, and it gives Archie a renewed sense of purpose, which always seems to be the thing that Archie is after.
In typical Riverdale form, there’s still some gratuity to the way it plays this tribute episode. Do we really need Josie singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral? Or for Shannen Doherty to recite THE ENTIRE LORD’S PRAYER while holding hands with the core four at the scene of the accident? Probably not. Episodes like this are, admittedly, very hard to do! It’s difficult enough to kill off a major character and have that death resonate meaningfully with the characters and viewers, but it’s even harder when there’s a real tragedy behind the narrative choice. Catastrophe recently contended with the mid-production death of Carrie Fisher, similarly playing tribute to her in its series finale. And who can forget Glee’s “The Quarterback” following Cory Monteith’s death?
There’s a thin line between emphasizing the seriousness of the story and becoming overly sentimental to the point of losing the threads of the story, and other than those couple of things I just mentioned, Riverdale mostly strikes the right balance here. Casting Doherty, who co-starred with Perry on 90210, doesn’t feel gimmicky but rather just sweet—a way to nod to the actor’s legacy beyond the show. And there’s an added layer to her presence here for anyone who, like me, is a huge Charmed fan, because Prue Halliwell’s death stands out as another significant character death that ultimately had a profound and ongoing impact on the other characters on the show.
Riverdale sometimes has a short-term memory issue (Veronica, for example, often forgets just how evil her parents are, only to be taught that lesson over and over), but when it comes to its biggest tragedies—like the death of Jason Blossom—the show grapples with the ripple effects in a way that feels real and foundational of the show’s premise. A whole fucking lot has happened on this show, but it’s all tied together by this central narrative of a small town contending with big events that touch everyone in varying but significant ways. The best scenes in “In Memoriam” are the ones that underscore that, like the one of all the teens sitting in lawn chairs outside Archie’s house, sharing their favorite memories of Fred. Nothing about that particular scene is gratuitous at all. It’s very real, very familiar, a rare quiet, grounded moment on a show that likes to be loud about its emotional beats (which is not a criticism; teen emotions are fucking loud).
A scene of the core four in a diner up at Cherry Creek after Betty and Veronica identify Fred’s body similarly harnesses the full weight of this tragedy without smashing the point too hard. Here these friends and lovers are, technically in a familiar place: a diner. But it isn’t Pop’s, and it isn’t quite right. They’re away from home, away from their regular lives. Once again, the town of Riverdale has been shattered by death. And in some ways, it’s more unsettling that this happened not at the hands of a hooded serial killer or an 11-foot-tall Gargoyle King but rather because a dumb teen boy stole his father’s truck and was reckless. Archie realizing that he could have easily have been that boy (and the underlying implied realization that his dad would have similarly done anything to protect him) is legitimately one of the most compelling character moments for Archie that there has ever been. It’s a rare display of self-awareness for the character, and it comes from a believable place.
An episode so steeped in grief demands visceral performances, and everyone delivers, but especially Hustlers star Lili Reinhart, which is likely how I’ll be referring to her henceforth. It’s impossible not to focus on her when Betty and Veronica identify the body more than Camila Mendes. Reinhart so often carries the emotional weight of some of the show’s heaviest moments.
Cheryl Blossom wants to stop a July 4 parade from happening, because she feels like it’s trampling on the memory of her brother. The other teens are dismissive, but Cheryl’s fear—that people have forgotten him and also forgotten her pain, leaving her alone—is a real, lasting symptom of grief. She is, of course, holding onto his memory in a not-so-healthy way, literally conversing with the corpse of her brother, which she keeps, rotting in her sunroom. Others often assume Cheryl to be self-centered (and sometimes she genuinely is!), but the second she learns of Fred’s death, she pivots from her anti-parade crusade to throwing a Welcome Home, Fred parade, because as she explains to Archie’s mom, she knows what it feels like to lose a family member, to feel that isolation.
Often, I am asked the innocent question: What is Riverdale about? I’ll make jokes sometimes about it being a show about evil nuns, bear attacks, a bow-wielding lesbian, a Sad Boi writer, a teenage daddy’s girl who runs a speakeasy for teens, a higher schooler who thinks she’s Nancy Drew, a redheaded jock whose interests change every five seconds, milkshakes, serial killers, and more. I’ve heard others call it something along the lines of “the teen murder show,” but I find that unsatisfactory because 1. The teens are not the murderers on this show; their parents are, and 2. That could refer to a whole slew of other shows (does anyone else watch Elite?).
I think the more accurate description of the show touches on a lot of what I’m talking about in this recap. Riverdale is about a small town ruptured by violence—often intentional, sometimes accidental. It’s about kids so desperately trying to claw their way away from the paths their parents set them on with their own actions. It’s about the darkness that lurks beneath a seemingly quaint community, and it’s about the labyrinth of evil that unfolds once that darkness is exposed.
Just like Jason Blossom’s murder continues to effect the show’s narrative in terms of both character and plot, Fred’s death touches every character in some way. It’s a somber tone to kick the season off with, but it’s necessary—not just because of Perry’s actual death but because it homes in on Riverdale’s emotional core. It’s a show about a town in a neverending state of crisis and how that shapes the people in it. Even at its most over-the-top, that setup makes Riverdale feel lived-in and tethered to some semblance of reality. I’m sure soon enough we’ll be going off-the-rails again, but like Cheryl, I always welcome the chaos.