If you told someone who only watched the pilot of The CW’s Riverdale five years ago (which, at the time, was merely a darker, more murderous adaptation of Archie Comics and its characters) that its Season 6 finale ends with Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) using the combined powers of her friends to melt a comet headed straight for Riverdale, I don’t think they would believe you. But that unbelievable madness and magic, all of which came to a head in Riverdale’s bonkers and stellar sixth season, is what makes this show so special and truly stand out as the last of its kind.
While most teen dramas being made today suffer from truncated 10-episode seasons and harsher judgment due to the prestige associated with streaming, that was not always the case. Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Teen Wolf, and the like were able to thrive in their ridiculousness, embracing the inherent soapy nature of long-form teenage storytelling. Riverdale remains the sole teen show still airing to successfully follow in the footsteps of its elders, to its incredible success. In the show’s sixth season, Riverdale began with a five-episode event titled Rivervale, in which a bomb explosion split the Riverdale universe into two separate pieces. In the more perverted town of Rivervale, Cheryl killed Archie (KJ Apa) in the very first episode, kicking off an event filled with bloodshed, drama, and multiversal madness.
After the Rivervale event, it became clear very quickly that the Riverdale we returned to was not the same one we left at the end of Season 5. For starters, every character on Riverdale gained supernatural abilities, with Archie becoming invulnerable, Betty (Lili Reinhart) being able to see auras, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) being able to read minds, Cheryl becoming a pyrokinetic, Veronica (Camila Mendes) producing poison with her body, and Tabitha (Erin Westbrook) being able to time travel. Riverdale leaning into the supernatural elements of the series that have been present from the beginning (yet remained unfortunately unexplored), allowed Season 6 to be its most enjoyable. Like a car crash, it was impossible to look away.
In the finale, it’s revealed that a comet is heading straight for Riverdale, and the season-long villain Percival Pickens has trapped them within the borders of the town with a spell. In order to break the spell and stop the comet, the Superteens try just about everything. This includes (but is not limited to) Cheryl and Toni being possessed by their ancestors Abigail Blossom and Thomasina Topaz so they could reconnect one last time to motivate Abigail to help them drop the barrier, and Veronica absorbing the powers of her friends through her poison powers and transferring them to Cheryl through a definitely not queerbaiting kiss. All of which ends with Cheryl successfully destroying the comet (while the entire cast sings a song, naturally), but leaves the audience with one final cliffhanger: Riverdale has been thrust into the past—1955 specifically—and all our favorite Riverdaliens are now teenagers once again. And of course, Jughead is the only one who remembers anything of their old lives.
In spite of the madness, the finale’s quieter moments allowed the heart of the series to truly come through, which is all an audience could ask for to offset the incredible and oft unbelievable stakes. Jughead and Tabitha used Tabitha’s time-travel powers to speed through their lives together, experiencing having children and growing old together in the span of a single minute. Betty proposed to Archie after turning down his own proposal earlier in the episode, deciding she wants to spend her life by his side. Cheryl experiences an incredibly wholesome breakup with her short-term girlfriend Heather. Veronica confides in Reggie that she wants to be single and grow on her own terms, committing to a friendship with him. In the end, that’s what these bananas teen dramas are all about: in spite of jumping the shark, the audience’s relationship to the characters transcends format and theme, cementing an unbreakable bond.
The embrace of the more ridiculous storylines introduced throughout Riverdale’s sixth season makes it nearly unrecognizable from the show it started as, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s always a challenge for a teen show to grow with its audience (and its actors), as time-jumps often mark the beginning of the end. For Riverdale, though, its mid-season time-jump during Season 5 felt like a new beginning, and this latest twist is no different. Its reverse time-jump is a campy subversion of teen drama expectations, thrusting its characters into the past, while also putting its actors back into their teenage roles. The series is simultaneously poking fun at “comic accuracy” (Season 7 will be its most comic-accurate yet), while also lampooning its own genre, with a clear amount of adoration and respect.
The respect for that TV genre is clear in the ways Riverdale utilizes both the expectations and the increasingly rare form of the medium they still have the opportunity to use. The reality is that this type of long-form storytelling, which allowed Riverdale to dedicate five whole episodes at the beginning of its season to an entire alternate universe (which payed off in spades by the finale), would not have been possible for a streaming show, and the long-bonkers teen genre is suffering for it. Television used to be a medium of unparalleled length, with a night-and-day difference to the limitations of film. Now, TV is more like film than ever before, where expansive plots and long-form storytelling are traded in for higher production value, ultimately squeezing the uniqueness out of television in favor of cinema-cosplay.
The ability to tell not only a season-long story, but also many other, smaller stories within an elongated season is a privilege today, one that Riverdale has yet to squander. However, The CW’s sale to media company Nexstar and its resulting uncertain future has claimed its latest victim in Riverdale, as its upcoming seventh season will be its last. The impending series finale marks the true end to the classic teen dramas we all knew and loved. In many ways, The CW was the last remaining pillar of the pre-streaming era, and its demise begs the question: What else will fall as a result of the overabundance of content?
With so much still left to discover about the wacky and wonderful world of Riverdale (Will the gang ever get their memories back? Will they stay in the ‘50s forever?), it’s bittersweet to anticipate the last season of this show, as it feels so much bigger than just this one bonkers teen drama that we’ll be losing. As we prepare to say goodbye to Riverdale, a show that gave us the epic highs and lows of high school football and an unnecessary musical number at least every two episodes, we also say goodbye to the style of television that was untouched by streaming and adored by audiences, one that we may never get back.
Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in Chicago. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale you can follow her @annagovert.
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