“Riverdale” returned for its fifth season on Jan. 20 on the CW, picking up the pieces that its pandemic-halted fourth season left behind.
These pieces–the first three episodes of the fifth season–wrap up the high school storylines, which were left hanging when the pandemic led to a shortened previous season. From an action-packed and final prom for Archie Andrews and the gang to a bittersweet graduation episode, the pre-time jump episodes are wrapped up by the end of episode 3.
Episode 4 acts as the intentional season 5 premiere, picking up with the characters we’ve only known as high school students as adults in their mid-20s. Seven years in the future, Riverdale is a ghost town — an unincorporated and gang-ridden town which rests in the hands of Hiram Lodge, who hasn’t changed at all in the seven years that have passed.
The story picks up with Archie (KJ Apa), Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) returning home to celebrate the retirement of Pop Tate, but also to escape their troubled pasts. In the time that’s passed since their graduation, the lives and fates of all the characters have changed drastically.
Archie is a celebrated sergeant for the military, who has been sent back home to revive the town’s ROTC. Betty is an FBI trainee who continued her serial killer-catching after high school. Jughead is a published but troubled writer, living in New York City and with addiction. Veronica is trapped in a dying marriage and lives in the city too, dubbing herself the “She-Wolf of Wall Street.”
Other characters have stayed in town or returned earlier than the “core four.” Riverdale’s resident gothic heroine, Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), planned to stay in town to revitalize her family’s name and maple empire; instead, she trapped herself inside her family’s mansion Thornhill, where she spent the years renovating and isolating.
Her ex-girlfriend, Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan), has a much more emphasized role in the town and the show this season — largely in result of the Black Lives Matter movement and Morgan’s comments on her character’s treatment. Toni works as a counselor at the high school and was crowned as her rightfully-earned Serpent Queen title. She is also pregnant with a mystery baby by a mystery father (which is later revealed in the season.)
Other characters, like Kevin, Alice, Fangs and more, pick up the slack around the town — whether it be at the school, local businesses or in family life.
Season 5 does welcome newcomer Erinn Westbrook joins “Riverdale” as the energetic and business-savvy Tabitha Tate, the granddaughter of Pop Tate. She comes to town to take over her family’s diner, with hopes of franchising and growing the business. Westbrook brings a new and exciting energy to not only her character, but the show and ensemble as a whole.
“Riverdale” would not be a show — or a town — without a mystery (or several.) Without spoiling, the post-time jump portion of the season surrounds the disappearance of Betty’s sister, Polly, on the Lonely Highway, a long stretch of road polluted by a band of serial killers who target street workers and addicts. There’s also an interesting alien aspect, dubbed “Moth Men” in a typical “Riverdale” fashion, aspect to the mystery — but of course, it’s somehow wrapped together by the end of the season.
This season of “Riverdale” is just a lot darker than its predecessors — whether it be its colors, mysteries or its emphasis on trauma and its toll on mental health. The writers do a decent job of making the characters a lot more vulnerable than before, especially now with seven years of baggage on their shoulders. Grief, PTSD, depression, and loneliness are all strong aspects of the season, and these are topics that are only ever just brushed over in the show.
Although it is dark, the season also has its fun (and musical) moments. The characters might be grown, but “Riverdale” spares no musical moment. A highlight is an episode centered solely on Josie and the Pussycats, a fan-favorite group of characters that haven’t been seen on the screen together since season 2.
The episode is well-done and glamorous, focusing on global superstar Josie McCoy’s abrupt return to town and reconciliation with her former bandmates and best friends, Valerie Brown and Melody Valentine — who have apparently stayed in town despite not being shown since their sophomore year of high school.
The season also features its annual musical episode, which this time is Broadway’s 2009 “Next to Normal,” which seems to fit perfectly in the show and its ongoing storylines. It’s a musical about a troubled family, and a mother who just wanted everything to be perfect — which mirrors Alice and her role in the Cooper family. Many aren’t a fan of “Riverdale’s” musical episodes and moments (though I always will be,) but this season’s musical feels very real and fitting to the story.
“Riverdale’s” fifth season, like previous seasons, is a lot. The storylines are hit-or-miss, the change in characters is a big adjustment, and some moments make you think: How did they allow this? Overall though, the season feels refreshing. The mystery is enticing and leaves you waiting for the next episode. The new characters, relationships, and dynamics are some of the highlights of the season.
Just as Cole Sprouse read over shots of the town in the 2017 pilot, “This is a story about a town. A small town. And the people who live in the town.”
Even on its fifth season, “Riverdale” still seems to function under that line.
This will be Jackson Parks’ first year on ECHO staff, but he made several contributions while taking journalism class his sophomore year.