Shows naturally evolve, and plenty go off the rails in the pursuit of longevity, but no show has deviated as far from its starting point as Riverdale has throughout its five-plus seasons. From murderous nuns and diabolical boardgames to teenage witches and parallel universes, the CW show is a far cry from the delightfully retro but relatively grounded small-town murder mystery it started as.
Since its debut in 2017, Riverdale has grown into one of the wildest and weirdest shows of the last decade, so much so that it’s impossible to say where it will go next. In fact, the only thing you can predict is that you can’t predict it. The sole piece of pop culture that comes close to this sort of narrative transformation is the Fast & Furious franchise, which evolved from a similarly grounded film about an undercover cop infiltrating the world of street racing to Ludacris and Tyrese going to space. So as preposterous as it sounds, Riverdale has become—or is in the process of becoming—the The Fast and the Furious of television.
For example, the show’s recent five-episode “Rivervale” event series revealed a dual universe created by the bomb that closed out Season 5. It called to mind the final episodes of Felicity, where the show’s eponymous heroine, played by Keri Russell, travels to the past to find out what would have happened if she’d chosen Noel (Scott Foley) instead of Ben (Scott Speedman). But that was the result of additional episodes being ordered after the creative team had mapped out the final season’s narrative, not the writers going off the deep end. And in a way, this isn’t that either. The idea for a special Riverdale arc came straight from The CW, which has been successful at eventizing TV through its annual Arrowverse crossovers. But even if The CW hadn’t come to showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa with the idea to step outside the boundaries of the show’s regular narrative to create an event series, it’s not hard to imagine the show doing it on its own given how ridiculous storylines have gotten in the past.
However, this one truly takes the cake.
Across the five-episode “Rivervale” arc, a version of Jughead (Cole Sprouse) did his best Rod Serling impression, framing the narrative and walking viewers through episodes that had little connection to one another except all were outside the realm of the show’s normal reality. In the first episode, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) cut out Archie’s (KJ Apa) heart during a creepy cult ritual meant to bring sap and thus maple syrup back to Rivervale. The hour that followed saw Jughead and Tabitha (Erinn Westbrook) haunted by ghosts while Betty (Lili Reinhart) lost her unborn baby to a vengeful spirit known as La Llorona, whom Toni (Vanessa Morgan) became as penance for killing the child of a rival gang member. But the supernatural elements didn’t end there. In the third episode, Veronica (Camila Mendes) outsmarted the Devil after Reggie (Charles Melton) sold her soul in exchange for capital for a casino. And in Episode 4, Kiernan Shipka made her long-awaited debut as Sabrina Spellman, the witch she played in Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, in an hour that revealed Cheryl never existed but was a Blossom ancestor known as Abigail who’d been cursed with immortality by a warlock.
As strange as those episodes were, though, none compared to the finale of the five-episode event, which coincided with the show’s 100th episode (yes, there have now been a shocking 100 episodes of Riverdale). The hour opened with the reveal the prior four episodes had been the dreams of the show’s main characters, all of whom lived in the town of Rivervale. Then, on the eve of Archie and Betty’s wedding, Jughead discovered this town was in fact a warped parallel universe to Riverdale after seeing the dead body of his doppelganger (the Jughead narrator), which had a Rivervale comic clutched in its hand. This led him to read 95 issues of Riverdale comics that detailed everything that happened in Riverdale before switching to a run of five Rivervale comics. His investigation into what was going on caused the two universes to start to collapse, as the events of Riverdale began repeating in Rivervale.
As Jughead tried to figure out how to save the prime universe (aka Riverdale), several deceased characters from seasons past returned, including Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), Ben Button (Moses Thiessen), Dilton Doiley (Major Curda), Hal Cooper (Lochlyn Munro), and Clifford Blossom (Barclay Hope). The strangest parallel universe twist, though, was the appearance of Ross Butler, the show’s original Reggie, who left because of his role in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. But as Jughead got closer to recreating the scenario that caused the birth of Rivervale in order to undo it, Archie became intent on stopping him because he thought his dad (the late Luke Perry) would return from the dead as well—since no one stays dead in Rivervale.
Centering the episode around Archie’s desire to see his father again was a touching tribute to Perry that added emotional weight to an extraordinarily complicated and ridiculous storyline, one that also featured a sequence in which the show’s characters were all dressed like their comic book counterparts, drinking milkshakes and reading comics at Pop’s. The “finale” ended with Jughead pounding away on his typewriter in a sealed bunker, becoming the story generator and thus a battery for constant imagination and creation. This counteracted the destructive effects of the bomb that initially created the parallel universe. In the end, Riverdale and Rivervale were able to coexist, with Jughead’s writing powering the latter in a time loop, and Betty and Archie escaping the bomb in the main timeline after the former received an anonymous call warning her about the bomb.
In many ways, these episodes allowed Riverdale to be the show it’s seemingly always wanted to be. Horror and otherworldly creepiness have hovered over the series from the beginning. Storylines that flirted with the supernatural seemed to stop just short of crossing the line between, well, between Riverdale and Rivervale. The writers found real-world explanations in the darkness of humanity as the culprit for whatever transpired, like a grim live-action Scooby-Doo. But with each passing season, the show’s shark-jumping and weirdness only managed to grow. It went from someone nearly being boiled alive in maple syrup and cheerleaders performing “Jailhouse Rock” outside an actual prison to Veronica opening a speakeasy in the basement of Pop’s, and Cheryl dressing up her brother’s corpse and talking to it for months. There were also the times Archie became a gangster, went to prison, was attacked by a bear, and waxed poetic about the epic highs and lows of high school football. Honestly, we all thought the Miss Grundy storyline was too much in Season 1. How naive we were! Since then the series has featured everything from masked serial killers, musicals, and gang wars to organ-harvesting cults, the Gargoyle King, and tickle fetish videos. And now it’s gone and introduced a parallel universe.
Just when you think you have Riverdale figured out, it does something to completely upend that notion. It’s similar in that way to the Fast & Furious franchise, which has escalated its action sequences in tandem with storylines that grow bigger and bolder and more unhinged with each passing movie. By the time the series reached the fifth film, it was transitioning out of the world of street racing and into an action and adventure franchise built around improbable heists (with fast cars, of course). But what’s legitimately crazy is that it worked. Fast Five saw the extended cast—which had grown by that time to include Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Gal Gadot, Elsa Pataky, and others—come together in South America to pull off a heist. The film concluded with Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom (Vin Diesel) dragging a giant vault full of money through the streets of Rio, destroying entire blocks of the city in the process, all while being chased by crooked cops and a powerful gangster. And it was awesome. It didn’t matter that the events depicted could plausibly never happen—it only mattered that the adrenaline-fueled storyline was underscored by an emotional narrative about the love and importance of family, and that the result was thrilling heart-stopping entertainment.
Since Fast Five, the films have continued to up the action insanity game, memorably featuring Dom driving a Dodge Charger out of an exploding airplane, Dom launching his car at a helicopter, Dom and Brian jumping skyscrapers in a stolen Lykan Hypersport, and eventually even Ludacris and Tyrese going to space in a car fitted with a rocket in order to destroy a satellite. Along the way, fan-favorite characters like Han and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have died only to show up several movies later, somehow alive.
Explanations and logic have no place in the Fast & Furious universe or in Riverdale, which has also now seen characters return from the dead. And while the latter doesn’t measure up to the former in terms of action and excitement—call me when Archie goes to space, y’all—the ambition and creativity are there. It doesn’t always make for great TV (and you can argue the Fast & Furious films aren’t all great), but you have to admire the show’s dedication to toeing the line of what’s possible and simply going for it when given the chance. If nothing else, it’s entertaining trying to figure out which shark the show will jump next. Like Dom, it lives its life a quarter mile at a time.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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