You will be pleased to know that the nonsense phrase “SoDale” is not uttered once during the Riverdale musical episode. Nor does anyone say anything about a prison — private or otherwise — and while people talk about Chic, that high-cheekboned creeper is only on screen for about 30 seconds. (Yes, I counted.)
“Chapter Thirty-One: A Night to Remember” — in which the Core Four preps for a performance of Carrie: The Musical — avoids most of the problem areas that have plagued the latter half of Riverdale’s second season, while giving us what we want from this show: Beautifully-rendered teen angst shot through with dark humor, winking theatricality and a morbid central mystery.
Plus, shirtless Archie doing push-ups.
For the first twenty-two episodes of its existence, Riverdale built its storylines around murder: Season one was spent figuring out who killed the preternaturally pale Jason Blossom, and that Gothic tale of incest and sinister wigs was followed up by the Black Hood’s bloody reign of terror in season 2. But the writers — charged with producing 22 hours this season, compared to 13 last year — decided to put a pin in the Black Hood storyline by having Betty and Archie capture the (wrong) guy in December’s “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” What came next can only be described as a placeholder narrative, as Riverdale spent weeks trying to wring campy melodrama from a sordid tale of… real estate. Long, quite boring story short: Rich quasi-mobster Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) bought up Southside High and the surrounding land to build a for-profit prison, along with housing for employees of the aforementioned for-profit prison.
Oh, Riverdale. You — and we — deserve so much better. Making the last eight episodes of property-related misery worse was the introduction of Betty’s long-lost brother Chic (Hart Denson), a petulant hustler whose flat affect and dead-eyed stare would be menacing if they weren’t so intensely irritating. Poor Betty (Lili Reinhart) hoped getting to know Chic would help her understand the “darkness” that lurks within her, but all he did was teach her how to wear a wig in front of a webcam — which Kevin (Casey Cott) might generously describe as “exploring your BDSM sexuality.” Maybe the writers hoped Chic would add an air of danger to Riverdale during the snoozy SoDale shenanigans? If so, it didn’t work. But it wasn’t all in vain: Chic and the SoDale silliness proved, by their very existence, that Riverdale’s seasons should be limited to 13 episodes total. Now we know that stretching the show’s elaborate, eerie tales over 22 episodes results in threadbare, less-than-satisfying adventures.
This is all a long way of saying that viewers might be carrying bit of anxiety and baggage into the Riverdale musical episode. As such, it’s a great relief to report that “A Night to Remember” offers fans, and the show itself, a chance to let it go and have a little fun (up until the terrifying final minutes). Even the actors seem relieved, and they exude more verve and joy in the episode’s opening number — featuring an ensemble performance of Carrie’s tribute to popularity, “In” — than we’ve seen from them in months.
Though it flopped on Broadway, Carrie fits seamlessly into the Riverdale universe, starting with its main characters: “Good girl” Sue Snell (played by Betty); “mean girl” Chris Hargensen (Veronica); and Sue’s “boy next door” love interest, Tommy (Archie). Meanwhile, Cheryl Blossom — fully recovered from her gay conversion captivity at Riverdale’s dank, apparently unregulated nunnery — is cast as Carrie White, a role she embodies with a fierce and entertaining audacity.
The most satisfying part of the musical episode is the way it restores the bond between Archie (KJ Apa), Veronica (Camila Mendes), Jughead (Cole Sprouse), and Betty — whose relationships have been strained by Hiram’s antics — by allowing the characters to express their sadness, contrition, and love through its songs. In one of the sweetest moments of the night, Betty performs “You Shine” — a romantic ballad Sue is supposed to sing to Tommy — as a loving apology to Veronica. (Much like Leslie Knope, Riverdale puts ovaries before brovaries.) And Alice, as Carrie’s mom Margaret (“To me, there is nothing more amateur than age-inappropriate casting,” sniffs director Kevin) seems to plead for Betty’s forgiveness with her wistful performance of “Stay Here Instead.”
“A Night to Remember” also puts an end to this season’s most egregiously damaged relationship: Fred (Luke Perry) and Archie. Through the magic of musical theater — and his father’s gentle, unconditional love — Archie realizes that his loyalties should lie with dear old Dad, not the shady, compact criminal known as Hiram Lodge. Archie’s sweet gesture of atonement — no spoilers, but it involves an “old jalopy” — moves Fred to tears, and I’ll admit I cried, too. (How many shows can make you misty over an old jalopy?)
Of course, order and harmony don’t last long in Riverdale, nor should we want it to. All through rehearsals, the gang’s production of Carrie is plagued by a series of sinister threats — warnings that culminate in a horrifying twist in the episode’s final 60 seconds. Though it sends the poor citizens of Riverdale into a panic, the event left me feeling somewhat reassured about the show’s future — and a bit ashamed of my nagging doubts. If there’s one thing I should have learned after 31 episodes of Riverdale, it’s don’t underestimate it — and don’t bet against it, either. Grade: B+