Warning: Spoilers ahead for Riverdale season 5 premiere, “Climax.”
A snuff film rave. A high school jock in a gimp mask. A ghoulish prom interlude. It wouldn’t be a Riverdale season premiere without these disorientating little gems — and Thursday night’s season 5 opener, “Climax,'' offers them up in spades. While these moments would fit comfortably in any Riverdale episode, they all have a single uniting purpose in “Climax:” leading the series’ core characters towards “The Auteur,” this season’s officially named new Big Bad.
Riverdale’s lead teen detectives, Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) spend the season premiere hot on the Auteur case, with a little help from their shared half-brother Charles Smith (Wyatt Nash). But, when you zoom out and really look at Riverdale’s many creepy twists and turns, you realize Bughead may be settling themselves up for failure.
A single long-forgotten Riverdale season 4 conversation has been hanging over the series since “Heredity.” Charles’ last appearance in that episode, the sixth of season 4, reveals he is Chic’s boyfriend. Therefore the very convoluted story both Charles and Chic offered about their connection over Riverdale’s first four seasons is a total lie (it boiled down to them being violently antagonistic roommates). During the “Heredity” scene, Charles tells Chic he helped Betty and her family hide the corpse of the Shady Man (Christian Sloan), permanently securing their trust after unexpectedly popping up in their lives. “Even Betty?” Chic asks. “Even Betty,” Charles assures him.
What Charles and Chic are planning, and why Betty is integral to it, is not explained. Whatever it is, must be nefarious and vast, since Chic is involved. The last time we saw Chic prior to “Hereditary” he was revealed to be the Gargoyle King, an acolyte of the Black Hood, and a pawn in Penelope Blossom’s (Nathalie Bolt) revenge scheme against Riverdale’s core four. The Auteur’s bizarre machinations — which include sending creepy tapes to Riverdale residents and filming (possibly fake/definitely eerie) murders — may be the fruits of Charles and Chic’s suspicious labour. The videos are the ultimate form of surveillance, which is an FBI speciality.
“Climax” is the first Riverdale episode to get into the specifics of the Auteur and name him. The premiere picks up directly where season 4 finale “Killing Mr. Honey” left off, with Betty and Jughead in the abandoned Lodge cabin. During the 2020 cliffhanger, the couple watched a group of unknown people — who were wearing masks in the likeness of Riverdale’s main teens — seemingly stab someone to death. The film was based on a fictional short story by Jughead, which means the Auteur needed access to Jughead's computer or the ability to hack the device (Charles checks both boxes). It is hinted the video's victim is Mr. Honey (Kerr Smith), Riverdale High’s least-liked principal. “Climax” confirms Mr. Honey is still alive, leaving the identity of the supposed stabbing victim a mystery. All Betty and Jughead do know is that someone held a screening of the snuff film in the cabin.
The person monitoring all of these crime scene details is Charles.
Yet, when Betty and Jughead go deeper into their investigation into the Auteur — a suspected murderer terrorizing one cursed small town — Charles is nowhere to be found. Betty and Jughead film their fake snuff film by themselves in an effort to snag an invite to one of the Auteur’s “screenings.” They speak to Bret Weston Wallis (Sean Depner), an imprisoned criminal, and Blue Velvet video store owner David (Birkett Turton), a believed Auteur accomplice at minimum, without FBI supervision. They even go to “Climax’s” central, and extremely dangerous, snuff film rave without backup or even a wire — despite Betty’s plan hingeing on smuggling Jughead into the party. If Betty could get one man into the event undetected, why not also sneak in a federal officer like Charles? Unless, of course, Charles doesn't want Betty to find the Auteur in the first place.
Charles remains oddly casual about the Auteur situation in his final scene of the episode. At this point in “Climax,” all of Riverdale High has witnessed a new possible taped murder. The video features the masked, faux Riverdale crew brutally killing someone suggested to be David from Blue Velvet. No one can find David, so he fled town (and is likely the Auteur) or really died. Betty is dissatisfied by this lack of information and demands to know what she, Jughead, and Charles can do. Charles essentially shrugs and says, “Continue our search for David.”
If Charles is the Auteur, his calm demeanour makes sense. Should David remain MIA — say, because he was secretly murdered — and the videos stop, the authorities will assume David was the Auteur and is in hiding. This belief will let the true Auteur off the hook. Even the videotape Archie Andrews (KJ Apa) finds in “Climax’s” final scene could bolster this narrative; it’s easy to imagine the police saying David dropped the video off before going on the run.
Either Charles (and Chic) are the Auteur — or, even more wickedness is on the way for Riverdale.