Friday, February 26, 2021

‘Riverdale’ Graduates High School With a Look to the Past, and a Leap to the Future

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Riverdale

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Written by Riverdale showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and directed by series mainstay Gabriel Correa, “Chapter Seventy-Nine: Graduation” is a surprising, poignant hour. Surprising, because it almost entirely eschews the dark mysteries that have been the show’s bread and butter since 2017. And surprising, too, because the much ballyhooed time jump seven years into the “future” is predicated more on a quiet, emotional climax than a jaw dropping, shocking moment.

It’s an episode that works, as the best Aguirre-Sacasa episodes do, as a reassessment of what the show means both to the characters and the audience, and what these iconic Archie Comics characters mean for the world. But more than anything, without being a series finale, it wraps up four plus seasons of storytelling, answering the essential question that has plagued the show since the very first episode: will real world darkness beat out the purity of small town America?

At least in terms of Riverdale Book One, if we want to call it that, the answer is a bit of a détente.

Spoilers for Riverdale Season 5, Episode 3 “Chapter Seventy-Nine: Graduation” past this point.

The episode announces its intentions right from the very first shot: an aerial view of the Town With Pep, as Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) narrates; starting exactly the same way as the pilot “The River’s Edge” began four years ago on January 26, 2017.

More on that later.

Throughout “Graduation,” the characters flash back to scenes from the previous four seasons (the episode was initially supposed to be the Season 4 finale, but got pushed due to COVID). It’s a neat, simple device that accomplishes a number of purposes. First, it tweaks the heartstrings of fans, seeing how the actors in the show have grown along with the characters.

Second, and more importantly, it gives the characters something to contrast with where they end up post-graduation.

Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), for example, seeing the horror-show that is her and her family’s legacy, puts on the ol’ spider brooch and decides to not head to college. Instead, she all but breaks up with her girlfriend Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan), though swears she’ll never say those words, moves back into Thornhill — the mansion she burned down in Season 1 — with her grandmother and vows to restore the Blossom name. Given that Petsch has used the word “recluse” to describe her state seven years later, results may have varied.

Photo: The CW

Archie’s decision is given even more weight.

Weirdly, Veronica (Camila Mendes) notes that there’s a war on (with whom, one wonders? Greendale?), but it still leads to a charged goodbye that’s played as equal parts touching and tragic. Betty (Lili Reinhart) commandeers the iconic jalopy, driving herself, Veronica, and Jughead to say a real goodbye. We last see Archie, his hand pressed against the back window of the bus taking him to training camp as the other three stand in the road, mixed emotions on their faces.

The final act is even more devastating. We learn that without Archie, things quickly fell apart. Veronica goes to the Hamptons to hang out with her mother and Andy Cohen (a wild reference in the previous episode revealed that Hermione Lodge was joining Real Housewives of New York). Betty and Jughead, meanwhile, drift apart in the slowest, most agonizing manner possible. Eventually, Betty leaves on a road trip with her mother, while Jughead drags himself to increasingly sadder places: first the empty Andrews house, which loses electricity and then gas; and finally the sex bunker, where he waits out his time until he can leave for the University of Iowa.

Photo: The CW

But the biggest gut punch is still to come.

One year later, Jughead returns. And waits. And waits. Several cups of coffee later, he gives up and leaves, offering up one, final, narration.

“It would be six years before I saw my friends again,” Jughead says, as he morosely walks out of Pop’s. “We would be different people. Each of us. Brought together by, of course, a new crisis, a new mystery. But that’s another story, for another day.”

What’s particularly heartbreaking about this scene is how well it parallels the pacing and emotional thrust of the pilot; particularly when it comes to Jughead’s arc over the past four plus seasons. Here’s a guy who hated the town he lived in so much he started documenting everything that was happening, railing on the darkness that had seeped in through pages of a book nobody will ever read. He was uncomfortable in his own skin, had no real friends — Archie had spent the summer getting buff and boinking his teacher, Betty was away at an internship, and Veronica hadn’t even shown up yet — and was, by choice, sitting alone in a booth at Pop’s drinking coffee when we first encountered him.

Four years later, he’s again the only one there. Alone. Waiting for the friends he now thought he had for life, only to find that like everyone and everything else in Riverdale, they had abandoned him.

His father left. His sister left. Now, his friends are gone, too.

Even his iconic beanie is gone, tossed into a time capsule buried by him and his friends as a symbolic “growing up” gesture. His armor is down, he is emotionally open — and from Jughead’s perspective, he’s been punished for it.

Photo: The CW

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For all of high school, he fought back against the darkness, and in the end, the darkness won. Almost assuredly we’ll find out the reasons nobody returned as the rest of the season spools out; but for now we only know that from Jughead’s perspective, every fear he ever had as a Sophomore in high school about being a meaningless weirdo loser was real.Because there he is, again, alone at a diner booth.

There’s hope, of course. Even with some sure to be bonkers mystery around the corner, chances are the Core Four — as well as the rest of the cast of characters in Riverdale — will be back together, soon enough, fighting that good fight. Believing that there is a chance for a better tomorrow, to paraphrase Betty’s Valedictorian speech. For now, though, we’re left with lonely Jughead; older, sadder, and another story for another day.

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on The CW.

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