Dramatic revelations in penultimate episodes often prove to be pivotal in the life of a new series beyond mere plot mechanics. It’s at this point that a show either proves to be worthy of admiration or falls apart under the weight of its own ambition. Riverdale has been one of the most engaging, blissfully bonkers, and visually rich new shows I’ve seen in a long time. It knows exactly how to hit that elusive sweet spot that so many teen dramas aim for. But I was worried that the reveal of Jason’s murderer wouldn’t meet my expectations. Part of my apprehension stems from the nagging issues that have been weighing down recent episodes like Veronica’s off-putting characterisation and the complete sidelining of characters I previously enjoyed like Josie. But “Anatomy of a Murder” didn’t just meet my expectations — it exceeded them. I’m left yearning for more high-intensity drama, witty comebacks, and family drama. This episode has everything. Incest, maple syrup intrigue, unhinged mothers, several showdowns, and Alice holding a gun, proving once again she’s not one to be messed with. This isn’t the kind of exhilarating and fun episode that quickly fades from memory. By exploring the fractures within these families it’s able to be emotionally impactful too.
While danger and secrets lurk around every corner, it has been apparent for some time only a few people could be responsible for Jason’s murder. Although I joked recently with a friend that maybe Melody would end up being the surprise killer deciding to take out her frustration on always being sidelined on the heir apparent of the town’s most powerful family. It’s also been pretty easy to figure out that FP was just a red herring. Sure, his reputation, general shadiness, and keeping Jason’s varsity jacket in his possession make him an easy suspect. But Riverdale is too invested in drama to make things that simple. FP finds unlikely allies in Veronica and Archie. They tell everyone they know about not finding the gun or lockbox when they sneaked into FP’s trailer. At first Betty seems hesitant and questions whether they just weren’t thorough enough in their search. But once she’s convinced, the typically independent and wilful teens made a decision I didn’t suspect: they told their parents. Despite the anger (and common sense) Hermione, Fred, Mary, and Alice dole out, they already made the decision to tell Sheriff Keller the truth. But by the time they get to the police station FP confesses to Jason’s murder.
If FP solely confessed to the murder I may have believed everything he said. He seems contrite at moments, even distraught. But once FP says he stole case files from Sheriff Keller’s home and the interrogation turns in that direction, I knew something was amiss. Hal is guilty of that crime. That means FP is protecting someone, but why? News of FP’s confession quickly spreads. The person who ends up suffering the most is undoubtedly Jughead. I don’t think I’ve said “Poor Jughead” more to myself than while watching this episode. Jughead just can’t catch a break. When Jughead arrives in the school cafeteria, all eyes are on him. He makes a beeline for Cheryl and apologises. But Cheryl doesn’t accept the apology; instead she slaps Jughead and beats his chest while he just stands there stoically. What little sense of community Jughead has with Archie evaporates once Principal Weatherbee requests he finish the semester at home.
Fred is concerned with keeping Archie safe more than anything else. That leaves Jughead without any adult figure to turn to. If FP confessing to murder wasn’t bad enough Jughead actually calls his mother in hopes of staying with her in Toledo for a while only to be told in no uncertain terms he can’t. I guess FP isn’t the only disappointing parent Jughead has to deal with. At the beginning Jughead believes FP’s guilt. He even jokes to Archie and Mary in his typically droll manner that at least his father is an “honest murderer”. But once he visits FP in jail he realises his father is lying about the murder. Cole Sprouse is never better at being Jughead than when he plays against Skeet Uhlrich. I never would have imagined this father/son dynamic working so well but it’s their scenes that resonate most. Jughead and FP definitely make this episode memorable for how they bring such detail to their prickly emotional landscape as a family. But it’s the Blossoms and Coopers who bring the drama.
Where do I even start with the Blossoms? Their chilliness and obsession with class has reached gothic horror levels at this point. Watching the Coopers and Blossoms interact is what makes Riverdale so thrilling. It hits just the right note of ridiculous, surprising, and operatic. Although Betty would like to be as far away from them as possible, that proves to be an unlikely outcome. Finding out who Jason’s murderer is might be the most unnerving revelation the characters have to deal with. When Betty and Alice (wielding a gun of course) hear an intruder they discover Hal trying to destroy the evidence he stole from Sheriff Keller. Instead of lying he finally admits the truth as to why he didn’t want Polly with Jason. “Your great grandfather wasn’t just murdered by a Blossom, he was a Blossom,” Hal admits to Betty. Why didn’t he just say that before?! Alice and Betty’s face move from shock to disgust. “I’m…a Blossom,” Betty says. Unfortunately, you are. Apparently after her great grandfather was murdered a sect of the family severed ties changing their names to “Cooper.” That means that Jason and Polly are related. Alice wastes no time going to the Blossoms in the dead of night to bring Polly home.
When they get to Thornhill, Alice is on a warpath. She suspects that once Penelope and Cliff realised that Jason started a relationship with Polly they were angry due to the incest. Actually it’s the opposite. “Nothing could be more purely Blossom than those babies,” Penelope says serenely. Cliff also apparently has no problem with incest since they were “only” third cousins. “Will you spare us the middle class morality,” Cliff says deciding to one up Penelope on the creep factor. When Alice and Hal end up being the best parents in the room you know there’s a problem. Polly finally being home comforts Betty but she’s still mired in proving FP’s innocence. That’s when everyone turns to Joaquin who improbably was the only phone call FP made once arrested. Joaquin proves to be an invaluable resource giving Archie, Veronica, and company directions to FP’s contingent plan which proves to be a flash drive hidden in Jason’s varsity jacket. The flash drive holds security footage from the basement of the bar where Jason was kept. FP did indeed kidnap him but it was Cliff who killed Jason with nary a hint of remorse. FP falsely confessed only to protect Jughead after Cliff threatened his life. If Cliff was willing to kill his own son he is obviously capable of anything.
Later, Cheryl gets a call from Betty after everyone watches the video. “You have to get out of that house,” Betty warns. But Cheryl is never one to be told what to do. She walks through Thornhill until she finds her parents at the dinner table. “You did a bad thing daddy and now everyone knows,” Cheryl says pointedly. I found myself playing this scene on a loop. It’s remarkably tense to watch Cheryl walk through her home with the knowledge of what her father has done. I half-expected her to get killed by her parents. The way she says “daddy” is so mannered it almost comes across as a parody of what the Blossoms represent. Things devolve from there. With his guilt proven by the security footage Cliff decides to kill himself. Sheriff Keller finds him hanged in the barn. The barrels of maple syrup and the drugs hidden within them strewn across the floor under Cliff’s dead body. There are still so many questions left unanswered setting the stage for what will be an explosive finale. Why did Cliff kill Jason? How long will FP be in jail for the other crimes he committed? Will Betty and Jughead remain together? Riverdale has reaffirmed it’s the show to watch this year with “Anatomy of a Murder.” Yet even with the murder solved there is still so much else left to uncover. As Jughead says, the nightmare is far from over.
— Top priority for the writers next season should be getting a better handle on Veronica’s characterisation. While she first seemed to be set up as the Cordelia Chase (a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer) mean girl who occasionally helps out with the team, that designation has been given to Cheryl. Unfortunately, Veronica has become a bit insufferable with her propensity to make everything about her own trauma and Hiram’s criminality.
— I’m rather confused as to why Molly Ringwald would be cast as Archie’s mother since she gets little of importance to do.
— Does Cliff sleep in his wigs or did he just throw one on when he heard knocking on the door late at night?
— The best line of the night goes to Penelope who has upped her crazy quota enough to rival Alice. After Penelope drags Cheryl into the barn revealing the family’s involvement in selling drugs she shrieks, “Maple syrup. Drown in it why don’t you!” It’s a line so odd and overwrought I’m still laughing about it.
— Keen-eyed viewers may have noticed Joaquin’s bus out of town was headed toward San Junipero, a reference to the beloved Black Mirror episode. It’s cute but I’m also confused about Kevin being shocked at Joaquin’s criminal activity. What did he think he was doing with the South Side Serpents? Exchanging tips on how to care for leather jackets?