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‘Riverdale’ Flashes Forward to a Grim Future of Broken Hearts and Dreams, as Was Probably Inevitable

"Purgatorio" basically resets the show, but not so much that it's unrecognizable.

Riverdale -- “Chapter Eighty: Purgatorio” --
Dean Buscher/THE CW

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Purgatorio,” the fourth episode of Season 5 of “Riverdale.”

The most consistent feature of “Glee” throughout its six seasons was a hyper speed recap of previous events that played at the beginning of every episode. Every week, the list of “what you missed on ‘Glee’!” got longer and more headspinningly ridiculous as the show itself became more overtly bizarre. If you missed a single chapter, it seemed you might lose track of what was happening on the show entirely. And if you decided to drop back in after a couple seasons away … well, forget it. In fact, “Glee” became so notoriously over the top that now, six years after its series finale, there’s a thriving subgenre of TikToks devoted to people reacting to its wild plot twists.

When I think of “Riverdale,” created by “Glee” alum Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, I’m forcefully reminded of that exact brand of confusion. The darker noir cousin of “Glee,” “Riverdale” has embraced soap opera style melodrama from the start, throwing its plucky — if weirdly solemn — teens into life-threatening scenarios every week. One minute, Archie (KJ Apa) and friends are talking about the school dance, the next, they’re running from a bloodthirsty serial killer. I watched “Riverdale” faithfully for a season, and then sporadically — and every time I came back, it felt like an entirely different show. A “Dungeons & Dragons”-style game haunting the town like a malevolent ghost? Sure. A teenager opening a speakeasy and boutique line of rum to compete with her mobster dad? Absolutely. Chad Michael Murray heading up a cult before launching himself into the sky out of an Evel Knievel cannon? Why not! The sky’s the limit on “Riverdale,” so long as you don’t want anything to look as Technicolor as the comics that inspired it. (Though, to be fair, the comics have definitely had plots just as bizarre as the show.)

So when I learned that “Riverdale” would be following up its characters graduating high school with a seven(!)-year jump into the future, I knew I had to watch it, even though I might have no idea what was going on. For one, jumping ahead that far is a big and admirable swing for the series to take, especially since high-school shows rarely stick the landing when trying to transition the narrative out of high school. For another, the trailer promised Archie fighting a war on a football field, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) as a published author, Betty (Lili Reinhart) as a hardened FBI agent and Veronica (Camila Mendes) married to a stockbroker named — this is true — “Chadwick Gekko” (Chris Mason). Whatever madness was going on, I had to be a part of it. When it comes to teen dramas, to paraphrase Marie Kondo, I well and truly love mess.

And yet, against all odds and precedent, “Purgatorio” is a relatively measured episode (by “Riverdale” standards, anyway). It essentially acts as a pilot for what the series will be going forward, with Archie returning to Riverdale from some unidentified war in ‘40s-style fatigues (thus matching the show’s preferred aesthetic) to take in just how badly things have gone for his hometown since they graduated. (The trailer’s football field battle was, unfortunately, a dream.) He goes to the aforementioned speakeasy and runs into Toni (Vanessa Morgan), now pregnant and running the joint while singing in its marquee show. As they catch up, the episode travels around to see the rest of the gang, which ends up feeling like a particularly depressing version of “This Is Your Life!” Jughead’s stalled out after one successful book, and is now spending most of his time drinking and dodging debt collectors. Veronica’s taken a step back from being the self-proclaimed “The She-Wolf of Wall Street” to be bored at a jewelry store counter. And Betty, always the character carrying the most trauma on her shoulders, is doing everything she can to stop thinking about the two weeks she spent in a new serial killer’s lair — a sentence that would be extremely jarring if Betty’s extracurricular of choice hadn’t been tracking down serial killers. Back in Riverdale, Veronica’s father Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) and his gang, including Archie’s former football buddy Reggie (Charles Melton), have essentially gutted the town for profit. Meanwhile, Toni’s ex Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch), convinced she’s cursed, is sadly swanning about her family mansion in a series of red lace dresses while tending to her infirm grandmother, also known as pulling a gay “Grey Gardens.”

Many fans will undoubtedly find reasons to hate everything about these new updates, particularly those who are invested in the suddenly dead romances between Betty and Jughead, Veronica and Archie, and Cheryl and Toni. But there’s also probably enough intrigue to keep them invested in finding out whether or not these huge changes are for good. (The good money, from where I’m standing, will bet on everyone getting back together by season’s end.) It’s also promising, and more than a little pointed, that Archie insists at the end of the episode that Toni sit down at the diner booth alongside him, Veronica, Betty and Jughead, thus bringing her more firmly into the fold rather than relegating her back to the sidelines.

Even though it’s basically resetting the entire show, “Purgatorio” doesn’t have a whole lot of fun with it. Instead, it turns the show’s typically grim vibe up to 11 alongside its characters’ palpable unhappiness. The only line that made me laugh at all was Chadwick’s stern reminder to Veronica about the time “our helicopter went down on the way to Martha’s Vineyard,” as if “Martha’s Vineyard” was just as important a detail as “our helicopter went down.” The wildest part of the episode is the revelation that the show is only now taking place in 2021, meaning that the rest of “Riverdale” apparently took place in the early 2010s. (“How,” you ask? Who knows!) “Purgatorio” isn’t here to party; it’s here to remind everyone that “Riverdale” has always fancied itself a pitch black noir above all else.

In retrospect, though, this is about what I should’ve expected. While “Riverdale” has had more than its share of hyperbolic storylines, its first instinct is to take them all very, very seriously. The combination of absurdity, solemnity and gothic grandeur that “Purgatorio” runs on has always formed the backbone of “Riverdale.” Flashing forward wasn’t going to change that. If anything, aging the characters up to being full adults only made the show a more concentrated version of itself that’s freer than ever to dig into its seedy underbelly.