Riverdale is once again the best show on TV. For a series that has swerved from one wild sequence to the next, Rivervale — the five-episode alternate universe spinoff show, airing now — feels particularly audacious, introducing a new horror concept each episode with little to no narrative throughline otherwise.
So far, we’ve had cameos from the Midsommar cult, La Llorona, the Devil himself, and even Sabrina the teenage witch, now returned from the dead (or, at least, alive). In another show, all of that might threaten to swallow the narrative whole. But in Riverdale it’s just another Tuesday.
So far this season, characters have died; cars were haunted by ex-predators; pregnancies came and went; and, apparently, an immortal (more on that in a second) was just one of the core cast. As the five-episode run starts to come to its close, we’re left reflecting on what we hope will come back with us to the regular world of Riverdale, and what should forever stay in the realm of Rivervale.
[Ed. Note: This discussion contains spoilers (insofar as one can spoil the thrills of Riverdale) for the four episodes of Rivervale that have aired so far.]
Zosha: I think a good place to start this is where you were on Riverdale coming into Rivervale. I, personally, will be riding with Riverdale like the end of Dr. Strangelove, which is to say, to either of our inevitable conclusions in this world. It is fearless just as often as it is nonsensical, which means it is often my favorite thing on TV. And ultimately the thing I’m most afraid of is that it will one day bore me. How about you two — what’s your relationship with Riverdale been like?
Petrana: I watched the first season of Riverdale and enjoyed it a lot, but I dropped off around the second season because it just felt … like too much. I think at that point it had not yet reached the level of WTF that we know and love today and was still somewhat serious (kinda???), so I dropped it and only absorbed it via pop culture osmosis. I heard increasingly unbelievable things: Betty had a serial killer gene? There was a drug called jingle jangle? Archie fought a bear? Cheryl was trying to ascend to sainthood by faking stigmata?
The promise of a Sabrina crossover is what drew me back in for these few episodes — I love supernatural stuff, so I was pleasantly surprised with how fun “Riverdale, but with paranormal elements!” ended up being.
Joshua: What’s one step down from “ride-or-die”? That’s me and Riverdale. I was all-in on Day One, but around season 4 my devotion petered out a bit and I started admiring Riverdale at a distance, occasionally dropping in for the odd musical episode or when I caught wind that there were murderers afoot wearing the faces of these characters’ classic Archie Comics counterparts. I’m a “ride-with-a-reasonable-amount, at a responsible hour” fan. That said, this Rivervale kick the show started season 6 with? J’adore. I do not want it to end.
How about you two? Is it going to be hard for you to go back to regular old Riverdale once our spooky sojourn in Rivervale comes to an end?
Petrana: I don’t want it to end at all! Weirdly enough, Rivervale is hitting a specific niche of TV I didn’t realize I was missing: episodic, paranormal segments, where each subsequent episode has little-to-nothing to do with the previous, but still carries on a similar thread. In this case, it’s the fact that it all takes place in the same town, with the same characters. They’ve really leaned into the Twilight Zone of it all, with Jughead taking on the Rod Serling character. Each new episode has introduced some incredibly powerful and destructive plot element — the third one was basically about an impending battle between angels and demons taking place at Pop’s Diner?! — only to just completely vanish in the next episode. Characters even die and no one really comments on how or where they go. Nothing is real, which means everything can be real! How can we even come back from that?
Zosha: I am much more pleasantly surprised by it than I thought I would be! I’m all in on Riverdale, but at first this chunk of the show seemed engineered solely to bring in the magical world of Sabrina that I was skeptical; I always thought that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina felt wobbly, where Riverdale was almost brazenly stable because the rules of fantasy demand more clear-cut guardrails, while soaps could color outside the lines a bit. Introducing supernatural elements seemed like maybe the one thing that could pierce Riverdale’s teflon armor.
But I really should’ve given this show more credit. While I’m not so in love with how fast the show drops its plotlines — I wish there was a little more connective tissue between the plot points, if only because the show has earned the ability to address just how batshit it is that this town has now lost several loved ones (to become a ritual sacrifice, or a supernatural entity) or is wary but not surprised at all the supernatural developments. I love when Riverdale threads the needle on self-awareness and absolute Galaxy Brain-developments.
Perhaps most bizarrely is how extraneous Sabrina’s whole thing ended up being for this season. She came in for five minutes of screen time, and one of the most confusing reveals in the show’s history, and that was it!
Petrana: My biggest question going into this was “how is Sabrina alive?” and they just … really handwaved it and didn’t answer it at all! She literally just goes “I was dead once,” and then comes in to do some magic spell with Cheryl. Actress Kiernan Shipka weighed in and basically just said, “It’s very unlike Sabrina to just kind of chill in the Sweet Hereafter. I think she would get bored,” which, like, okay go off queen?? But still, she comes in for five minutes because she somehow knows Cheryl.
I felt let down by that, even if I actually really liked the weirdness of that episode, where Cheryl plays three different Blossom women across three different time periods, who end up all being the same woman. She gets accused of being a communist, attempts to murder a man, and makes out with Thomasin Topaz (1800s Toni) and Bitsy (1950s Betty) — and then in modern day, transfers her soul into her dying Nana’s body so that … Nana Rose now inhabits Cheryl’s body? Unsure on how this affects the subsequent episode of Rivervale, but considering that none of them have remotely picked up on where they left off, maybe it doesn’t matter?
Joshua: I also do not have any idea how that worked. “Cheryl” a vessel for Abigail? I think? So is the character the same and just, full of 200 years of trivia? Or effectively a different person? Am I foolish for caring? Will any of this carry over back to Riverdale proper?
Riverdale exhibits a stubborn insistence to ensure that the show must go on at all costs, and I will always love it for that. Six seasons in, the show has no shortage of off-the-wall ideas to try, and few rules it won’t bend or break. Ultimately, this makes me wonder why I fell off to begin with — was it exhaustion? Do I want more rules, or less? Sorry to fill this response with rhetorical questions, but I’m trying to figure out if I like Rivervale because I am tired of Riverdale, or because it’s good at something that Riverdale proper hasn’t been in a little while now.
Zosha: Interestingly enough, I think one of the strangest points of Rivervale is that the shine wears off a little more with each episode. The first was just utterly eerie and bombastic with its reveal; the next a fun, spooky, and kind of sad meditation. But for an episode where a man gets axed to death, and Cheryl is playing three separate sorceresses, and there’s a Red Scare plotline, and two tragic queer love stories, and a cameo from a sister show, I was surprised at how dry the whole thing felt. It aired a little too closely to season 5, which went big but could never seem to wrangle the tone of the show into something that felt as exciting as it once did. Is it possible once you’ve known the epic highs and lows of high school football you can never feel pure joy again?
I don’t think so; as I mentioned before, every time someone gives up on Riverdale my love grows stronger. But I do wonder how to put the toothpaste back in the tube when this is all done. Riverdale season 5 left Betty and Archie in mortal danger (bomb under the bed), Veronica and Reggie looking to turn Riverdale into Big Business (sure), and Cheryl casting a curse on the town after discovering her ancestor was killed for witchcraft by everyone else’s ancestors. Aside from a cursory mention at the top of Rivervale, we’ve largely abandoned that, making it hard to sort out what will be coming back with us when we enter Jughead’s paradox next week.
It seems to me that Nana Rose might stay dead, but Archie and Toni certainly won’t (this five-episode series has been notably Archie-lite, presumably to give KJ Apa some paternity leave, but no matter how much people care about other ships it seems like we can’t write him off in a significant, non-ritual sacrifice way)? Whether the usual wild exploits will seem quite as hair-raising after a plunge of supernatural story telling I have no way to know at this point. It’s odd how quickly I’ve acclimated to Rivervale’s plotlines, even as I struggle to make sense of its history within the show. (If Riverdale was celebrating its 75th birthday in the first season, is Rivervale canonically older than Riverdale?)
Rivervale has invigorated the show in a fascinating, multifaceted way. In a sense, it feels like the closest any comic show is coming to actually emulating the comics. What we have here is a limited series AU, where everything is topsy-turvy as a means to highlight different parts of the characters we “know.” It’s wildly common in comic books, and even Archie Comics, where (despite his squeaky image) Archie has fought the Sharknado and Jughead has traveled through time. Maybe Riverdale will just have to start leaning into every single thing its comic legacy could possibly allow it to be. (Though ideally I hope for more creepy and bizarre mysteries, à la the Gargoyle King and even the twisty Prep School murders, whether its conclusion will satisfy me or not.)
Joshua: Yeah! Rivervale’s kinda-sorta anthology structure has made it feel more comic-book than Riverdale has in a while. Going off your point, Zosha, I think it’s because it pares these characters back to their essence: Archie wants to do the right thing (it gets him killed), Jughead is a writer, Betty a cop, Cheryl a … witch? And as goofy as that may be, you don’t have to square these essentials with whatever the season-long arc is doing. There’s no tension between writer Jughead and Southside Serpent Jughead. Veronica can become a pure woman of ambition, and not one that has to still plausibly side with Archie ideologically or romantically from time to time.
I think if Riverdale uses whatever shenanigans it needs to bring us back to the “normal” universe while also retaining this kind of focus, I’ll be okay. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss Rivervale.
Petrana: I do hope that this little Rivervale interlude allows for more brief adventures into speculative fiction. Riverdale has the template and ability to really embrace that and just go wild! The closest comparison I can think of is American Horror Story centering on a different story each season, while using the same actors and loosely being in the same world, but that’s not even comparable to what Riverdale just did. The fun part of Rivervale is that it used the preexisting characters and established relationships of Riverdale in order to totally switch genres and have some fun (so… maybe it’s more like the paintball episodes of Community? I digress).
I don’t know if I’ll return to Riverdale proper, but if Riverdale decides to do Afterlife with Archie or another wild swing outside of the soap opera genre, sign me up. More AUs for Archie and pals! And maybe next time KJ Apa will be alive for most of it.
Zosha: I just can’t believe we didn’t touch on the fact that they played a slowed-down acoustic cover of “Nightcall” not once but twice.