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After the seven-year time jump, ‘Riverdale’ is still a pop culture paradise

The cast of Riverdale after the time-jump.
(Image credit: The CW )

This piece contains spoilers for Riverdale.

At a glance, The Silence of the Lambs, Uncut Gems, and Saving Private Ryan don’t have too much in common, but they are visual touchstones in this week’s time-jumping Riverdale. The CW series casts a wide net when paying homage to the movies, musicals, TV, and novels that have shaped pop culture. Remember this is the Archie comics adaptation that introduced Veronica (Camile Mendes) with a Truman Capote mash-up in the pilot: "I'm Breakfast at Tiffany's, but this place is strictly In Cold Blood.” 

The first three episodes of Season 5 wrapped up several long-running storylines that were originally slated for the previous season (production was shut down due to COVID-19) and “Purgatorio” seven-year leap into the future has not forgotten what makes this show an escapist joy.  Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s series is still caught in a time warp, in which iPhones and a mid-century aesthetic co-exist. Leaving high school and skipping college has been breathed new life into the wacky antics without sacrificing its core sensibility.

Bringing the gang back together and filling in the seven-year gap is the purpose of this much-hyped episode and Riverdale is far from the first series to hit a narrative reset. Bypassing several years is not confined to one genre and notable TV examples of this method include Alias, The Americans, Desperate Housewives, and Parks and Recreation. The reason for this future propelling flex varies from delivering a jaw-dropping cliffhanger to taking a tension-building shortcut. Unmoored from space and time, Riverdale does not have to concern itself by mentioning what year it is in but does offer up the vague date as 2021 meaning this is what our alt-universe without a pandemic looks like. College is an awkward phase for teen shows to navigate that either spread characters across the country or requires a fictitious local institution —  see University of California, Sunnydale. The 20-something actors will now play nearer their age, putting an end to storylines that were problematic when factoring in the adolescence of it all. Most of the arcs are still fever dream levels but at least it is an adult tracking down a serial killer rather than a high schooler.   

It is impossible to name every out-there plot from the previous 79 episodes, but highlights include multiple serial killers cribbing from the likes of the Zodiac killer, death by a bear (that was Archie, by the way), an illegal prison-set fight club, organ harvesters masquerading as a cult, and a teen-operated speakeasy. Archie was sent to the Leopold and Loeb Juvenile Detention Center, which is a true crime deep cut that is still my personal favorite Riverdale reference. A veritable pop culture-palooza, you would think the writers would have run out of things to pay homage to, but “Purgatorio” proves this is far from the case. Diving back as far as the 14th century, the title of this episode comes from the second part of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Considering the FBI thread (featuring her serial killer brother), it is not surprising that an overt nod to Clarice Starling is a big part of Betty’s (Lili Reinhart) reintroduction. The Quantico woodland backdrop ticks the Jodie Foster boxes, but Riverdale costume designer Rebekka Sørensen-Kjelstrup also nails the white turtleneck paired with an FBI emblazoned sweatshirt — the only thing missing is an elevator ride surrounded by tall men. In true Betty tradition, she got a little too close to the killer and spent two weeks in captivity resembling Buffalo Bill’s (Ted Levine) hideout. The Trash Bag Killer (or TBK for short) remains at large and no doubt the town of Riverdale is in his sights. The foreboding final scene on the so-called “Lonely Highway” could be his big entrance or simply a nod to the lawlessness, which has gripped a town lacking any pep. Multiple killers might be a stretch for most shows but this is the norm for what must be the most dangerous fictional place in the United States. Betty’s hope-filled graduation speech has certainly not panned out and thanks to Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos), Riverdale has descended further into the darkness.  

Kicking off the episode with the biggest “huh?” raised from the teaser, it is revealed the Riverdale Bulldogs football pitch WWII battlefield makeover is a dream.  However, it is unclear what war Archie (KJ Apa) went off to fight when he enlisted after “Graduation” but the uniform and military props suggest he has stepped back in time. Sporting a new shorter ‘do, a recruiting assignment sends the army sergeant back to his hometown, and it is no surprise his first stop is Pop’s Diner. Here, he serves as the audience entry because he is equally clueless about Hiram’s takeover — of all the logic-bending, I find it hardest to buy that Archie has no clue that his house is filled with Ghoulies as the unnamed “renters.” Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan) serves as Archie’s (and our) tour guide while also offering an update on Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) who is taking curse lifestyle advice from Sarah Lockwood Winchester. Toni knows the Helen Mirren movie this real-life story is based on before Cheryl fills in the blanks. Again, Riverdale mixes obvious and under-the-radar pop culture references — see Archie’s war movie style journey — with Cheryl finding purpose in a niche mystery.

The cast of 'Riverdale'

(Image credit: The CW)

For all the escapist pleasure offered, the troubling pattern of racial inequality in shows like Riverdale was raised during the Black Lives Matter protests last year when Morgan posted this statement across her social media accounts

“Tired of how black people are portrayed in Media, tired of us being portrayed as thugs, dangerous or angry scary people. Tired of us also being used as sidekick non dimensional characters to our white leads. Or only used in the ads for diversity but not actually in the show.”

Showrunner Aguirre-Sacasa responded, “We will do better to honor her and the character she plays. As well as all of our actors and characters of color.” 

It is too early to tell if the writers will no longer sideline characters like Toni, but she is given a literal seat at the diner table in “Purgatorio” and brought into the fold. This step is a welcome one and Toni Topaz and Vanessa Morgan deserve more than girlfriend status.

Toni has taken over La Bonne Nuit upon returning to Riverdale after college — she is also the high school counselor — and while Hiram is still the big bad, Veronica has been living it up in New York where she is now married to Chad (Chris Mason), a smooth talker with shades of her father. The much-discussed “accident” is a mystery that is quickly solved, which was a helicopter crash on their way to “Marcia’s Vineyard” (no, that is not a typo). The pair worked together in the stock market where Veronica earned the nickname, "She-Wolf of Wall Street." Visiting her mom on the set of Real Housewives (another of my personal favorite story developments), she is made aware of Chad’s Hiram-like qualities. Oh, and Veronica is essentially Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems but with less bad decision-making. This paragraph alone helps explain why I am still very much on the Riverdale train because no other show would pair the Safdie Brothers with Andy Cohen. 

However, my biggest gripe comes courtesy of the Lacy’s department store mention and I am still bitter that Katy Keene was canceled by the CW. Meanwhile, downtown in the East Village’s Alphabet City Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) beatnik dream has turned into a writer’s block nightmare — he also didn’t get that New Yorker staff writer job. 

The four formerly tight friends face various challenges and a return to Riverdale might elevate some of the pressure. Sure, this town is a nightmare come to life but Archie’s dream to wrestle control from Hiram will distract from the problems mounting in their adult lives. This distraction element and the lack of pandemic coverage is one reason to tune in — before COVID-19 it also served this purpose. Given the fever dream heights previous seasons reached, shifting the timeline forward so the characters are in their mid-20s opens up avenues. The town might be lacking pep, but Riverdale is never without sublime (and ridiculous) cultural zingers — in the past, present, or future.