Skip to main content

How ‘Riverdale' turns to ‘The X-Files’ in Season 5

Jughead in Season 5 of Riverdale
(Image credit: The CW)

This piece contains spoilers for Riverdale.

Murder and monsters have long been a Riverdale staple with enough bloodshed to make this one of the most dangerous fictional places in the US per capita. Even with the seven-year time jump, the crime rate continues to rise with missing person cases, arson, and the recent discovery of multiple dead bodies in a remote area. Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars were often referenced when discussing Riverdale’s 2017 debut, thanks (in part) to the murder of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) and the teens caught up in this mystery. It has been a veritable cocktail of pop culture references since the early days of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s CW take on the Archie comics. From high brow literary figures to ‘80s movies, nothing is off-limits in this stylized depiction of small-town America. 

The supernatural has been touched on — though sadly without a Chilling Adventures of Sabrina crossover — and in Season 5, the narrative is embracing elements that would lure Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) to this small town. The most curious aspect of this whole endeavor is how long it took for the series to dip its toe in The X-Files infused water. 

Returning to the town they grew up in has seen the now-20-somethings revert back to similar positions they held as teens. Yes, the former pupils are all now educators at the school they once attended, and most of them have more than one job — this isn’t too unlike the split between school and extracurriculars in the first four seasons. The school newspaper office doubled as an investigative space tracking down the Black Hood and infamous Gargoyle King. Long before Quantico or New York beckoned, Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) spent their time researching murders close to home. Time has shifted but this pair still fulfill these roles to some degree. Betty was initially taught techniques by her FBI Agent half-brother Charles (Wyatt Smith) before she discovered that he too was a killer. Putting this experience to good use, Betty is now an FBI trainee who is seemingly running a solo investigation into the disappearances along the Lonely Highway — which may or may not have something to do with the notorious Trash Bag Killer.

Betty in Season 5 of Riverdale

(Image credit: The CW)

It wouldn’t be Riverdale without a killer on the loose tormenting Betty and she has already come face-to-face with the notorious TBK. True crime references are just as prevalent to the narrative as pop culture, which has previously drawn on Zodiac and more obscure killers like the Axeman of New Orleans. TBK is a nod to the real-life BTK, but images of a tied-up Betty are also an overt wink to The Silence of the Lambs (which itself is loosely based on Ed Gein). Betty’s run through a secluded woodland in the episode that marked the seven-year time jump was also an homage to the iconic Clarice Starling's (Jodie Foster) introduction and this sequence leans into imagery (including the grey sweatshirt/white turtleneck combo) associated with Foster’s Oscar-winning turn.

A year after Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novel won the five major awards at the Oscars, The X-Files landed on Fox. Gillian Anderson would later go on to play a pivotal role in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal — as Hannibal’s therapist, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier — but the character that made her famous bears a striking resemblance to Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. From her haircut to the grey check suit, the physical similarities in the pilot are hard to ignore. Of course, FBI dress codes don’t leave much room for individuality (or sartorial flair) but this shared color palette and a similar pattern is not a coincidence. Betty pulled out a plaid grey jacket in “Fire in the Sky” to further illustrate the link and her dogged attitude toward finding this killer is as much Scully as it is Starling. The shot of a captured Betty that haunts her nightmares is also reminiscent of the (sadly) many times she was bound by a wanted suspect from Duane Barry to Donnie Pfaster. 

The X-Files monster of the week episodes ranges from terrifying serial killers (some with supernatural elements like Eugene Tooms) to unexplained phenomena causing harm. At the heart of the series (and Mulder’s obsession) is the quest to prove the existence of extra-terrestrials and how much the government has covered up. If Betty is fulfilling the Scully role, her ex Jughead is the Mulder of this story. In desperate need of a new book idea, Jughead has turned his gaze back to the town that led to the success of his debut novel "The Outcast."

Researching the far-fetched Mothmen stories, he stumbles upon a newspaper report from 50 years prior about an unexplained flying object, and Pop (Alvin Sanders) is quoted as an eyewitness. The newly-retired Pop recounts the night the lights came, which started off like any other; then the power shut off, the jukebox sprung to life, and they were bathed in a glorious golden beam. “Part of me wished the lights would come back,” he wistfully remarks. Theories range from aliens to a military testing site nearby before he comments that Nana Rose Blossom (Barbara Wallace) was also there. “Nana Rose, why has no one heard about this before?” Jughead later asks. Considering how much digging Jughead has done about Riverdale’s past (and that it made the front page), it is a tad convenient this is the first time aliens have been brought up. In a town with this many monsters, it might be hard to recall all of them.  

Riverdale Season 5

(Image credit: The CW)

Nana Rose remembers it well and also has an extra colorful follow-up to the story as she claims she found “a hideously misshapen body” among the maple trees. Jughead and Tabitha (Erinn Westbrook) are dubious about Nana’s claim (including an alien autopsy) but she comes through with a barrel containing what appears to be extra-terrestrial remains. And while The X-Files is never mentioned, Tabitha does cite The Twilight Zone if you are wondering what the overall mood is. Jughead says he will keep watch over the corpse until anthropological professor Dr. Whitley (Anita Wittenberg) can take a look, but Pop’s Diner is visited at night by the same beings from 50 years ago. Everything Pop and Nana witnessed — including the same Johnny Matthis song playing on the jukebox — also happens to Jughead and he claims to have lost time. The latter is an X-Files staple and central to its pilot episode (lucky for Jughead the driving rain is absent). 

As with The X-Files, human and supernatural explanations overlap, and Jughead’s experience is informed by his slow spiral that began with an excess-driven lifestyle in New York. He tells Tabitha that he also lost time in the city, which seems more blackout than alien caused. “Truth or repression,” Dr. Whitley explains is typically behind a person’s experience with a UFO, and Jughead is leaning toward the latter. At the key party that is straight out of The Ice Storm, he is so wasted he can barely stand — let alone anything else. Considering all the darkness (including a life-threatening head injury) he experienced in Riverdale as a teen, it is hardly surprising it is catching up now. Despite spending very little time with Betty since his return, the two are following a similar trajectory. The main difference is Jughead is seeing aliens during daylight hours, whereas Betty is having TBK nightmares when she sleeps. Considering Riverdale started out with a narrative that drew nods to Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars, it makes sense that this far down the road The X-Files would come into view. Jughead and Betty are not Mulder and Scully, but they could definitely take a few lessons from this pair to find out if the truth is out there.