‘Riverdale’ Season 5 Gets Ready To Leave High School With Psycho Killers and Broken Hearts

Nothing is off limits for the CW’s “Riverdale.” From its endless pop cultural references to the wildest plot twists imaginable, it is the teen guilty pleasure of our time.  Season five of the saucy Archie Comics phantasmagoria actually begins with what was supposed to be the big finale for season four. Like many other shows, “Riverdale” was forced to shut down production due to the pandemic. It’s an effortless move to simply open where we left off. So now we’re finally seeing the gang live through their final weeks of high school, which comes with the usual bag of serial killers, secret societies and ruthless mob bosses. 

The premiere is officially titled “Chapter Seventy-Seven: Climax.” Without missing a beat we’re back to Jughead (Cole Sprouse) and girlfriend Betty (Lili Reinhart) still on the hunt for the The Auteur, a masked killer responsible for videos of various victims being slaughtered by his own masked followers. Their search leads them to ponder entering the town’s underground of snuff film aficionados, all linked to the Blue Velvet video store. To do this they propose faking a snuff film with eternal attention-seeker Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch). Undergoing a different drama is Archie (K.J. Apa), who has decided to not apply for college but, despite owning a gym and construction business, decides to join the Navy. To impress a scouting Naval Academy Commandant (Garfield Wilson), Archie has to box another competing candidate, KO Kelly (Zane Holtz). Why? Well, the Navy has a proud boxing tradition, according to the Commandant. Archie’s girlfriend, Veronica (Camila Mendes), is of course supportive. But there’s another underlying tension she is unaware of: Archie and Betty recently kissed, posing the question of what that could mean for their relationships and friendships. Prom is where it all might come to a head.

“Climax” is a fitting title for the opening salvos of this season since it reaches a fever pitch intense even for this show. Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, guru of the CW’s neon-colored roster of YA shows, is ratcheting up the volume before planning to jump about five years ahead in the show’s timeline. This will take place after the leftover episodes meant for season four take place. Sacasa’s passion lies in those high school years, so he seems to have no time for college. To end Archie and his crew’s senior year, the plot turns into a demented swirl of more obsessions and twists, full of winks to everything from David Lynch to ‘90s alternative music. It’s not about what high school was actually like, but how it should be in the mind of an imaginative Gen Z’er’s naughty fantasies. Since its premiere in 2017, “Riverdale” is best described as a YA fever dream. Over the years cults, serial killers, the mafia, warring biker gangs and prison stints have plagued Archie and his friends, but any lingering PTSD aside, they’re gearing up now to get their BA’s. 

Consider the following: Jughead and Betty recruit Cheryl to fake a snuff film, openly referencing the little-remembered 1999 snuff thriller “8MM” starring Nicolas Cage. But when they offer the tape to the creepy owner of the Blue Velvet store (named after the classic Lynch surrealist thriller), he smells it’s a fake, so Betty offers up a rare tape of her father, serial killer the Red Hood, as a child. They are given entry to an underground “rave” by a cryptic “The Film Society” (which used to be the name of campus film groups to see movies before the video age) where young denizens dance, and wander from room to room, watching forbidden underground films which include snuffs. Say what? Indeed. It all gets turned upside down when they seem to catch a glimpse of The Auteur after bumping into his cultish minions, who all wear creepy masks borrowed from “The Purge.” Alas, the Auteur gets away and Jughead is instead left with the horror of discovering his younger sister, Jellybean (Trinity Likins), was also at the rave after being invited by friends. For a small town, Riverdale has quite the lurid teen social scene.

But as tends to be the admirable case with CW shows, including the recent “Batwoman,” some truly progressive ideas are thrown in. Cheryl and girlfriend Toni (Vanessa Morgan) are named Riverdale High’s first LGBTQ prom royal couple, but before that they have to face pushback from Toni’s family. It’s not that they disapprove of her same-sex relationship, but they happen to be Native Americans resentful of the Blossom’s stealing of their land generations ago. It has to be acknowledged that “Riverdale” has managed to be more open about sex and identity in pop fantasy than many other shows that take themselves more seriously. In its own whacky way this show has questioned everything from racism to religion, with the adults and wealthy elites turning out to be the real psychos. Archie doesn’t even get shamed for not going to college. He even gets offered a deputy mayor post! Speaking of adult villains, Veronica’s mobster boss Hiram Lodge (Mark Consuelos) is recovering from the disease that was causing him to shake last season. His treatment is apparently beating up people with brass knuckles at bars per a flashback. Wife Hermione (Marisol Nichols) has a lower profile for now, although it could be because Nichols is reportedly leaving the show before the timeline jump.

The weaker storyline in “Climax” belongs to Archie. There’s always a struggle to find more to do with his character. Here we have him partake in about the 500th boxing match since his days at a juvenile prison where an evil warden used him in underground fights for bets. That was the season where he escaped and also survived a bear attack. Determined to join the Navy for no reason, Archie now fights KO Kelly, a big buffed kid who first comes off as an oaf, but turns out to be decent. The real drama is in Archie having to confess to Veronica that he kissed Betty, which is a kind of fate’s revenge since it was Veronica who first snagged Archie away from Betty in season one. In a truly heartbreaking move, Veronica finds a song in Archie’s room she is sure he wrote for her. So she sings it at her speakeasy in front of everyone, only to discover he wrote it for Betty. This information comes out at prom, where everyone gathers for their last real moment of high school. Ah, but of course it gets crashed by The Auteur’s minions, who play a video of yet another murder set to the sounds of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” There’s actually a disturbing power to how it’s staged since the video seems to hypnotize viewers, making them dance in a mad frenzy.

Will Veronica and Archie really call it quits? Will Jughead and Betty stop The Auteur? Will they be able to adjust to college life after living the kind of experiences not even Elon Musk can pay for? “Riverdale” has that kind of pulpy energy where these questions could flash by in bold letters at the end of every episode. It’s a pure fantasy also full of millennials’ and Gen Z’s vintage obsession. People take photos with ‘50s cameras, prom is danced to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” and The Auteur delivers their tapes on VHS. No confirmation yet on when the final season drops, but season five is off to the kind of start we would expect. Even when the timeline is set to jump years ahead, it doesn’t matter, “Riverdale” is the kind of guilty pleasure that will keep calling viewers back as long as it keeps its madness intact.

Riverdale” season five premieres Jan. 20 and airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.