Jason Blossom’s murder might have been the event that sent the town of Riverdale into a very public spiral, but for all its purported importance to this town’s shift in perspective, the murder itself has hardly been central to Riverdale the show. Sure, clues have been dropped and certain secrets have been revealed because of the investigation, but the writers aren’t exactly going out of their way to focus solely on who killed Jason (Trevor Stines). I mean, “Chapter Five: Heart of Darkness” is the fifth episode of the season, and we’re just now getting to his memorial service.
It’s an interesting choice, delaying the memorial service until now. Such a tactic has the potential to derail the pacing of the season, and yet Riverdale has managed to use that time to flesh out the town, and that makes tonight’s episode all the more impactful. If Jason’s memorial service had taken place earlier in the season, we could have been left wondering about the intentions of just about everyone in attendance. Now, five episodes in, and with a more thorough understanding of who these people are and how they contribute to Riverdale’s unique, self-destructive dynamic, the memorial service serves not as a peek at the mysterious citizens of Riverdale, but rather a bright spotlight shining directly on their lies, secrets and shady motivations.
In other words, “Heart of Darkness” uses the memorial to dig further into the generational violence that plagues Riverdale. The people living there can chalk up Riverdale’s descent into murder as some sort of unpredictable savagery all they want, but the truth of the matter is, violence has always been in Riverdale’s soil; they’re just now reckoning with it in a more public fashion. Jason’s murder is opening age-old wounds. When Jason’s father, Clifford (Barclay Hope), confronts Betty’s father, Hal (Lochlyn Munro), at the memorial service, Betty (Lili Reinhart) looks on, trying to parse out the meaning behind their tense body language. Eventually, back at home, she gets her father to fess up about their family’s shared history with the Blossoms. Apparently, Hal’s grandfather was partnered with Clifford’s grandfather in a hugely profitable maple syrup business, the likes of which helped Riverdale grow into a formidable small town. Then, when Clifford’s grandfather got greedy, he murdered his partner in cold blood.
Furthermore, Hal reveals that the reason Polly was sent away was because he found her trying to kill herself after she had a devastating argument with Jason. The story of the Blossoms and Coopers is one of violence that manifests itself anew in every generation: Alice’s (Mädchen Amick) hatred of Penelope (Nathalie Boltt) is the product of decades of tension between the families. Jason Blossom and his dealings with Polly—they were engaged, he was selling drugs, but who knows what’s really true—are just the latest in a line of self-inflicted scandals, of a family reading corruption and moral degradation into potentially harmless puppy love. The history of their family feud encompasses everyone—the sins of the father and all that.
Riverdale drives the theme of generational violence home by packing “Heart of Darkness” with images of the past. They’re everywhere, haunting every single corner of Riverdale and finding their way into the thoughts and dreams of its citizens. At the memorial, Cheryl wears the very same dress she did on the day she last saw Jason, hoping that by doing so she can somehow rectify past mistakes. “We all failed you,” she weeps, Jason and Polly victims of circumstance, of being born into a feud that they had no part in creating. Then there’s Betty, who hears the voice of her sister, the seeming echoes of a waking nightmare, only to be confronted with the image of her father watching a home video of Polly at a younger, more innocent age. Then, in the episode’s most inspired and delightful flourish, the past literally wheels itself into sight. The terrifying Grandma Blossom reveals herself from a dark corner, shedding some light on the fraught relationship between the Blossoms and Coopers, peeling back the layers so that Betty, forever “protected”—a word that adults use to justify lying—by her parents, can see just how toxic everything is. “The horror, the horror,” Jughead amusingly whispers, in reference to the episode’s title.
Then there’s Archie (K.J. Apa), who seems to be immune to just about every single bad thing in this town. If much of Riverdale is doing a tremendous job of navigating the moral and familial intricacies of these people, Archie’s arc is the exception. Stacked next to the trauma and crises of identity plaguing the Coopers, Lodges and Blossoms, Archie’s angst over whether to pursue music or football seems rather frivolous. It’s as if Archie is operating within a different show, blind to the problems around him and focused solely on himself. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some charm to his story, as his possibly blooming romance with Val (Hayley Law) hits all the right notes, but it does mean that Archie is, by far, the least compelling character of the season to date.
But that’s okay, because Riverdale has more than its fair share of intriguing characters, many of whom contain complexities that likely haven’t even been revealed yet. These kids are more than just “the sad Breakfast Club,” they’re kids who are suddenly growing up and reckoning with the fact that their parents, and the older generation of people around them, are individuals with their own flaws and secrets. That’s a huge moment in any child’s growth, but it’s hitting the Riverdale kids hard, a feeling accentuated by Jason’s murder. The feuds and secrets run deep in this town, and “Heart of Darkness” makes it feel like Riverdale is just getting started with the excavation.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.