At the top of the season finale of Riverdale, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) mentions that life “isn’t an Agatha Christie novel” while wrapping up the season-long narration. You’d be hard-pressed to believe that statement, though, considering that “Chapter Thirteen: The Sweet Hereafter” has as many twists and turns as any murder mystery the English novelist ever wrote. “The Sweet Hereafter” is in many ways a fitting end to the series’ first season. It has the chaos, emotion, and over-the-top melodrama—Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) and a candelabra make for quite the perfect pair—that’s made Riverdale a standout amongst newcomers in 2017. At the same time, it embodies many of the problems that have seeped into the show’s structure in the latter half of the season. With the duty of not only addressing the aftermath of the reveal that Clifford Blossom (Barclay Hope) was the one who killed Jason (Trevor Stines), but also setting up next season’s numerous plotlines, “The Sweet Hereafter” struggles to find the right balance.
The balance is off as soon as the episode begins, as a montage hastily moves time forward. Jughead’s narration, mixed in with a little bit of Alice Cooper (Mädchen Amick) and her newspaper article, informs us that Clifford Blossom was using the maple syrup business to mask his heroin dealing, bringing it in from Montreal and then selling it. As the montage rolls on and the scenes of domestic bliss pile up, the sense is that Riverdale has returned to normal. On the one hand, that’s part of the conflict that drives the episode; the return of normality is welcome amongst the adult population but, as always, the kids push against the complacency and blissful ignorance of their parents. On the other hand, it’s not exactly fresh territory for the show, and the sense of resetting the narrative comes at the cost of really exploring the repercussions of Clifford’s crime and subsequent suicide.
The problem isn’t the content of the episode, but rather the lack of focus. There’s just too much going on, and that means the legitimately great stuff suffers. For instance, Riverdale delivers a stirring sequence on par with last week’s big reveal when Archie, with the rest of the gang gathered behind him, saves Cheryl after she tries to drown herself under the ice of the Sweet Water River. The intensity of the scene emanates from the screen, from Cheryl’s sudden drop through the ice to Archie’s furious, bloody punches to break through the frozen barrier and save Cheryl. It’s equally heartbreaking and thrilling—but it’s also lost in a sea of other plotlines. Unfortunately, the overstuffed nature of the episode too often dulls the emotional impact of its individual scenes, meaning that Cheryl’s suicide attempt, and the effect it has on everyone involved, isn’t given the nuance it deserves. Instead, Cheryl is whisked away to the Lodge residence before returning home and burning down the Thornhill estate, another deliciously Gothic scene that doesn’t get the screen time it should.
In the span of a single episode Riverdale looks to cover Cheryl’s suicide attempt; F.P.’s (Skeet Ulrich) refusal to give up the names of his (allegedly innocent) Serpent brothers; Jughead’s potential move to the South Side with a foster family, another Cooper family secret; a 75th Anniversary Jubilee for the town, complete with the never-needed Archie (K.J. Apa) musical performance; tension rising between Fred (Luke Perry) and Hermione (Marisol Nichols) as she tries to buy him out before Hiram returns; and, of course, the ongoing relationship drama between Archie and Veronica (Camila Mendes) as well as Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead. There’s no way an hour-long drama can cover all of that sufficiently, and the result is that none of those storylines are given room to breathe. We’re barely through the Jubilee before Cheryl is burning the Blossom house down and Fred is getting shot at Pop’s.
Outside of the pacing issues that have plagued the series for most of its first season, “The Sweet Hereafter” is the kind of full throttle drama that leaves one wishing the second season would debut next week. For all of its issues, Riverdale is certainly confident in its breakneck pacing and soapy delights, and there’s something admirable (and highly addictive) about that. Its neon sheen, collection of beautiful people and willingness to push each and every storyline into increasingly absurd places has assured that every single episode leaves you craving the next.
The compelling nature of Riverdale is an important point to make because, if you only read the paragraphs above or look at the number grades, you’d assume that I only find occasional enjoyment in this show. That’s certainly not the case, as no other freshman show this year has had the emotional highs of this one. When Archie or Betty or whoever else begins to muse on the value of friendship and showing up to support those who support you, it’s not just empty sentimentality but rather a meaningful statement about the connections we make and how important they are. Riverdale is filled with people trying to make sense of their relationships, struggling to quantify the value they bring to each other’s lives, whether it’s Jughead and F.P. growing closer despite the circumstances, or Betty and Archie learning to (for now) forge their own path as supportive, loving partners rather than soul mates linked since childhood.
There’s no telling if that love and support will be able to stand up to Fred Andrews being shot, or if it will still be there as Jughead navigates the strange loyalty he feels to the Serpents. For now, though, these kids have gone through something traumatic and life-changing together, and have come out on the other side of it stronger. For now, they are Riverdale, a hopeful group of survivors looking to change the fortune of their town and their families.
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.