Riverdale Season 1 Finale Recap: "The Sweet Hereafter"

Photo: Courtesy of The CW.
Let’s get the most glaring issue out of the way first. Riverdale’s season finale doesn’t live up to its penultimate episode. That episode was glorious, bizarre, and propulsive. It showcased Riverdale at its finest. That leaves the missteps of the finale feeling all the more glaring. “The Sweet Hereafter” isn’t a wholly terrible episode but it’s definitely a let down. This doesn’t feel like the kind of explosive finale you’d expect from Riverdale. Instead it feels like a low-key coda meant to pave the way for the second season. Some characters seem so different I thought I missed an episode. That was definitely the case with Hermione, who has taken a turn toward Lady Macbeth territory as she prepares for Hiram’s return. Alice has somehow softened, losing the unhinged nature that makes her so watchable. The editing makes certain scenes, particularly the few that focus on Cheryl, feel rushed. All those problems aren’t enough to completely throw off a series as charming as this. Riverdale has always been amazing at spectacle and understanding how to carefully dispense information. But it feels a bit lost this week until the crime that will undoubtedly frame the sophomore season is revealed in the final minutes.
“The Sweet Hereafter” turns away from the Blossom family drama, which you’d expect to get a lot of, considering Cliff’s suicide, to develop other narrative threads. Instead of seeing Cliff’s scarcely attended funeral, we’re told he was buried “like a pauper.” Penelope is definitely at her most cruel for the ways she disregards Cheryl’s depression. But there isn’t enough focus on the tension and emotional upheaval happening amongst Thornhill’s last residents in order for their ending to feel earned. The sidelining of Cheryl to focus on how everyone else is adjusting in the wake of last week’s high octane drama is a distraction so what she does isn’t anticipated.
But once Cheryl gives Jughead her signature spider brooch and goes on an apology tour I knew she’d try to kill herself. Everyone is too wrapped up in their ongoing relationships to see the warning signs. Once Veronica gets an alarming text from Cheryl they figure she’s going to kill herself at Sweetwater River, where it all began. The river is frozen over but Cheryl is able to break the ice, letting herself be pulled by the current. Archie discovers where Cheryl has drifted off to and he beats the ice until his fist is a bloody mess. Why didn’t Jughead, Veronica, and Betty do more than stand by at that moment? Anyway, with Cheryl saved I knew her suicide attempt was a red herring meant to distract from the tragedy that would come later. But Cheryl isn’t the only one coming undone by family drama.
Despite Betty’s righteous indignation and Jughead’s desire, FP remains in jail. The only hope that FP has of a lighter sentence rests on his decision to snitch on South Side Serpents. But that would never happen. More importantly, I believe FP when he says that they aren’t responsible for selling the heroin that proved to be Cliff’s true business. What I don’t believe is that Sheriff Keller didn’t suspect anything since he has seemed somewhat in the pocket of the Blossoms. Also, Mayor McCoy may wear a friendly face as she plans the town’s Jubilee celebrating its 75th anniversary but she’s also proven to be underhanded. FP’s refusal to testify against South Side Serpents puts Jughead in a precarious position. Fred doesn’t have the money to also support Jughead. So he’s forced to move in with a foster family in the South Side and transfer to another high school. Jughead proves to adjust to his new school quite well which makes Veronica, Betty, and Archie’s attempt to save him by barging into his new cafeteria quite laughable. If all this sounds rather tepid for Riverdale you’re not alone in that feeling. I never thought I could feel so uninterested in Riverdale’s season finale but life is full of surprises. The episode is saved from feeling a bit forgettable thanks to various romantic foibles, the final crime, Cheryl setting Thornhill aflame, and Betty’s family life.
Betty is so stressed out by her family’s desire to pretend nothing has happened that she’s digging her nails into her palms until they’re bloody. As she puts it to Archie, the Coopers are “pretending to be normal and perfect when really we’re like a Greek suburban tragedy.” Betty is so angry with her family she confronts Alice about the story FP told her. What was the fight between Hal and Alice at their homecoming about? Alice, uncharacteristically, becomes an emotional wreck and later admits to Betty what happened. Alice was pregnant in high school and she had a quiet adoption for her son, who would now be in his twenties. It’s Alice’s greatest regret. There’s something about the dynamic between Alice and FP that makes me want to believe that this son is his not Hal’s. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking since Mädchen Amick and Skeet Uhlrich have blistering chemistry. Just as “The Sweet Hereafter” was proving to be somewhat lackluster several events happened I wasn’t expecting.
My jaw dropped watching Jughead and Betty ripping each other’s clothes off in FP’s trailer. I bet they’d actually have had sex if they weren’t interrupted by South Side Serpents knocking on the door and giving Jughead a jacket placing him within his father’s uneasy criminal lineage. I shared Betty’s confused look since I’m confused as to why Jughead would be interested in becoming a South Side Serpent since he always bristled at FP’s criminality. But given Jughead doesn’t have much of a family with FP in jail maybe this is the closest thing to community he believes he’ll ever have. More to the point, sex in teen dramas tends to be treated with the utmost importance which is why I was so surprised how out of nowhere this plot point feels like. Trading “I love you”s and their currently messy family lives makes it understandable why Jughead and Betty would seek comfort with each other. But Archie and Veronica just made their romance public which is why my I’m surprised they’d have sex now. How else could the scene of them undressing and waking up later in Veronica’s room with Archie putting his clothes back on be interpreted besides them having sex?
The glow of his night with Veronica soon fades when he makes his way to Pop’s to meet with Fred. Whatever serious talk Fred wanted to have is interrupted by Pop’s being held up by a masked criminal. Fred stands, hands held before him, to try and reason with the armed criminal. Archie rushes to stand in front of his father in another earnest but misguided move. The gun goes off leaving Fred bleeding out on the diner floor. One of the most instructive hints about what’s to come is thanks to Jughead’s voice over that notes this crime destroys what hope was left in the town itself. This end of innocence was “marked by an act of violence that was anything but random.” Could Hermione be angry enough that Fred didn’t sell his share of his construction company to kill him? Is this Hiram’s doing? Who else would do this to Fred, one of the few truly kind-hearted adults in Riverdale?
During the Jubilee, Betty gives a speech meant to unify the fraying dynamics of the townspeople. “Riverdale is at a crossroads. Riverdale must do better. We must do better,” Betty says. Riverdale the series is also at a crossroads. I truly believe Riverdale is fun for its weird concoction of classic film references, soap operatics, and humor despite this disappointing finale. Fred being shot also opens up a lot of new territory for the show particularly for Archie who has sometimes felt unevenly written. Will this force him to grow up? Will it be revealed that his wistful glances at Betty were actually a sign of his desire to be with her despite what he told Veronica? Will Melody ever get a line of dialogue? This finale didn’t quite live up to expectations but I can’t wait for this show to return and hopefully build on its potential for greatness.
Other Gossip:
— Josie and the Pussycats finally make an appearance after being nearly completely absent in recent episodes. Melody still hasn’t said anything. Val also got zero lines. I also didn’t like that they became glorified backup for Archie at the Jubilee. But I love Josie’s new blue braided hairdo and her propensity to call out Archie for believing the world revolves around him.
— We all agree that Polly should probably not be having children, right? Every time I think she can’t get anymore naive, she proves me wrong.
— Why is Archie being positioned with Betty as Riverdale’s hero? Mayor McCoy obviously choose him for the Jubilee because he has a more appealing presence than Jughead who was far more involved in the actual investigation into Jason’s murder.
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