Who killed Jason Blossom? (Did you read that in Jughead’s voice? I imagine you did).
It’s the question that’s been nagging at the residents of Riverdale ever since it was determined that he didn’t drown in an accident, but was murdered after the fact. If we’re to believe the voiceover that begins every episode of Riverdale, the murder of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines) is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Like any tragedy that befalls a small town, it’s an all-consuming event that not only threatens to expose someone as murderer, but also brings out the worst tendencies of the residents. All the buried grudges, suspicions and blood feuds float to the surface.
Look, let’s just get right to it. “Anatomy of a Murder” finally reveals who killed Jason Blossom, and the sequence that acts as the reveal is perhaps the highlight of the season. It’s everything those early episodes promised: The close-knit group of friends sitting around a computer, watching a video of Clifford Blossom (Barclay Hope) kill his son while he’s chained up in the basement of The White Worm, is the kind of Pretty Little Liars meets Twin Peaks moment that has, for the most part, been just a reductive point of comparison. The sequence is stunning in its vulnerability and tension. The kids actually feel like kids in that moment; you can see whatever naïveté they had left completely shatter. At its best, Riverdale has been an exploration of that messy transitional period between adolescence and adulthood, and the scene that reveals Clifford Blossom as the killer is the perfect climax.
Clifford Blossom murdering his own son ties in nicely with what the show has been exploring all season long. The notions of family feuds, long-held grudges, unimaginable secrets, and the inability of those secrets to stay hidden have coursed through nearly every episode. “Anatomy of a Murder” turns that up to 11, revealing that the Coopers are really Blossoms—Hal’s (Lochlyn Munro) murdered great-grandfather was actually a Blossom, and the family changed its name after that—which makes Polly (Tiera Skovbye) and Jason related. “A perfectly pure Blossom baby,” muses Penelope (Nathalie Bolt). These are the secrets Hal and Clifford were hiding, and perhaps they would have stayed hidden had Clifford not decided to kill his son after he refused to, as it’s revealed later, smuggle drugs. Apparently the maple syrup business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As much as that final moment really does connect and make for wonderfully dramatic television, it doesn’t justify all the pacing issues that came before it. While Riverdale has mostly succeeded in giving its teenage characters some serious depth, the same can’t be said of its murder mystery plot. Jason Blossom’s murder is positioned as the catalyst for so much of what happens this season, and yet it’s hardly a relevant plot point in most episodes. More often than not, the murder investigation has served as an easy way to underscore certain character dynamics. The investigation aids in establishing Alice Walker (Mädchen Amick) as the overbearing mother yet impressive reporter that she is; it helps set up the romance between Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and Betty (Lili Reinhart); more than anything else, it gives us insight into Riverdale’s bit players, from the Sheriff (Martin Cummins) to Joaquin (Rob Raco), and even the elder Blossoms. That’s all fine and well throughout the season, but the lack of focus dulls the impact of the reveal in “Anatomy of a Murder.”
Part of the reason the impact is so dulled is the fact that “Anatomy of a Murder” is overstuffed with information. This is the direct result of delaying the murder mystery storyline for weeks on end. Rather than build tension and anticipation, Riverdale shoots itself in the foot, having to get around to the reveal of Clifford Blossom as the murderer so that next week’s finale can deal with the fallout. It’s perplexing because much of the first season, at least in retrospect, is rather meaningless. From Archie’s (K.J. Apa) musical ambitions and his brief relationship with Val (Hayley Law) to dangling plot threads like Moose’s (Cody Kearsley) sexuality and the suspension of Chuck (Jordan Calloway), there have been numerous storylines that could have plausibly been withheld in favor of focusing on the murder investigation.
While “Anatomy of a Murder” might unfairly bear the consequences of Riverdale’s dodgy pacing, the episode is also a showcase for the season’s two best performances. Both Skeet Ulrich and Cole Sprouse have delivered nuanced, vulnerable, fully felt performances as F.P. and Jughead Jones. Their story of neglect, loyalty, betrayal and occasional optimism is removed from all the neon lighting and pop culture-infused one-liners, instead digging up real human emotions and laying them bare. Ulrich has a thorough understanding of F.P., a bad man who’s only now reckoning with his past mistakes, who would do anything to change things but also knows that he must atone for his neglect. Similarly, Sprouse is a revelation as the aching Jughead, using his snark to hide his pain until he can’t any longer, breaking down in tears when he realizes he can’t even turn to his mother in his most tumultuous moment.
This is Riverdale in a nutshell. The character moments land with true emotional devastation, while the murder mystery elements arrive and then vanish in a hurry.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.