For this week’s review, let’s start at the end of “Chapter Seven: In a Lonely Place.” After focusing almost solely on the tumultuous relationship between Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and his father, FP (Skeet Ulrich), the episode takes a quick turn and tidies up some of the mess left in the wake of last week’s reveal that Polly (Tiera Skovbye), pregnant with Jason Blossom’s (Trevor Stines) baby, had escaped from The Sisters of Mercy and was perhaps on the run. A montage neatly wraps up a lot of the threads left dangling throughout the episode: FP and Jughead agree to keep trying to resurrect their relationship, Hermione (Marisol Nichols) takes the plunge and calls her husband to inform him about her business dealings, and Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) tells Polly that the Blossoms probably don’t have her best interests in mind and that she should go back into hiding. Then, we see Jason’s football jacket hanging inside FP’s trailer.
Laying out the beats of this montage up front is necessary because it really embodies what makes “In a Lonely Place” the first truly mediocre episode of the season so far. Early on, Riverdale has thrived by narrowing its narrative focus, the murder mystery at the heart of the Riverdale’s dread simply a lens through which to explore the insidious nature of many of the town’s residents. That’s led to one engaging episode after another, each one deepening our understanding of who these people are. We’re seven episodes in, and I already feel like I know these characters inside and out, including Archie (K.J. Apa), who has all the personality of a pair of abs attached to a clump of red yarn.
As much as the intense focus on character has been rewarding, “In a Lonely Place” suggests that it’s also starting to hinder the show’s pacing. Look, the deep dive on Jughead’s relationship with his father, and how intertwined it is with Fred Andrews (Luke Perry), is certainly appreciated. There’s a depth of emotion there that far surpasses many so-called “prestige” shows, and the moment in which Jughead realizes that leaving his father is perhaps best for both of them, followed by a comforting hug from Betty (Lili Reinhart), is a punch straight to the gut. Outside of that plot, though, there’s little to latch on to as the murder case flounders. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Riverdale using the murder of Jason Blossom to highlight other stories, but at some point it needs to be in its own spotlight, at least for a little while.
There’s a stagnancy to the murder plot setting in, and while it’s not detrimental to the overall story just yet, “In a Lonely Place” is the first episode that feels like nothing’s really moving forward. The entire, episodic story of Polly here involves Betty realizing that her parents have no intention of accepting Polly and her baby, and Cheryl basically saying the same about her family. There’s no new information there. I mean, we’re only one week removed from Grandma Blossom and a moment of elderly terror that’d give Michael Haneke goosebumps, so we already know that the Blossoms are a twisted bunch that’d do anything to protect their name. Drawing that out for yet another episode feels unnecessary. What’s worse is what it could signal: that Riverdale doesn’t quite have the thriller chops to deliver an impactful murder mystery.
In some ways, Riverdale, with its neo-noir influence, calls for a slow burn approach to its storytelling. At the same time, though, mysteries rely on a steady stream of new information and fresh conflict. Yes, Jason’s jacket hanging in FP’s trailer is a fun new twist, but it’s hardly enough to keep that story moving forward at a pace that leaves us eagerly awaiting next week’s episode. The awkward pacing is strange, too, because The CW has a long history of producing shows that delight in chewing through plot. The 100 stumbled out of the gate but then found its footing, hurtling towards a tremendous Season One finale after the third episode— and a well-placed knife in the side of a supposed main character—kicked the show into high gear. Similarly, The Vampire Diaries found that next level the second Stefan uttered “I’m a vampire” to Elena, and then never once let up, holding on to a remarkable pace across 22 episodes.
Embracing the rapid-fire pacing of The Vampire Diaries admittedly wouldn’t suit Riverdale, but there needs to be a happy medium. As it stands now, the show has proven itself to be a deep, emotional, character-focused work, but that doesn’t make up for the lackluster murder mystery. If we’re to be invested in the types of stories an episode like “In a Lonely Place” tells, where Polly and Jason’s relationship is central to what nearly every other character is doing, then Riverdale needs to dig a little deeper into how those characters fit into the fabric of this town. Yes, it’s fun to watch Cheryl Blossom appear from out of nowhere and insert herself into conversations, and a mid-forest face off between the Coopers and Blossoms is delightful, but those are fleeting moments. “In a Lonely Place” is the first episode of Riverdale that feels listless. Let’s hope it’s the last.
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.