Riverdale’s favorite crazed killer is basically Santa Claus: He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, and he’s got a singular fashion sense. Maybe that’s why, when Betty dreams of Polly waking her up on Christmas morning, jolly old Saint Nick reveals himself to be the knife-wielding Black Hood in disguise. Or maybe she just watched Twin Peaks and took too much melatonin.
This isn’t a joyous holiday season for much of anyone in town, but especially for Fred and Archie, who are selling Christmas trees in the lot in front of Pop’s to make ends meet this winter. They’ll need all the help they can get: Fred’s post-shooting hospital bill has come in at $86,000. “What? Dollars?” his incredulous son asks. Sweet baby Archie. Welcome to American health care.
At Kevin’s Secret Santa party, we witness the awkwardness of both Bughead and Varchie trying to stay friends after splitting — even though the pre-breakup gifts they bought one another, like Veronica’s “Archiekins”-engraved watch, are uncomfortably romantic. That’s not the only meaningful present in the mix: Archie gives Betty a read-along Swiss Family Robinson record, an LP they used listen to together as children. The old pals embark on solving a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boy (singular) mystery together when they realize that a substitute janitor is filling in for Mr. Svenson, also known as the Riverdale Reaper’s sole survivor. Svenson is supposedly out sick, so Archie and Betty stop by the man’s house for a spontaneous welfare check. But there, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.
Waiting for Betty at home is a small wrapped gift somebody left on the front steps. What kind of massive, 2001-era anthrax panic will it take for the people of Riverdale learn that letters and packages of unknown origin are, universally, trouble? Inside, she finds a $50 Sephora gift card. No, just kidding. It’s a severed finger. Of course it’s a severed finger. This particular severed finger belonged to Svenson, who’s been kidnapped by the Black Hood. He calls Betty to deliver this message: “Exhume the past, find where the primal sin was committed, and you’ll find the sinner Conway, maybe alive.”
Betty and Archie next investigate the Sisters of Quiet Mercy, where a young Joseph Conway once lived. Betty bullies a reticent nun into spilling secrets by threatening to expose what she knows about the facility’s draconian reliance on corporal punishment. (Betty, um, you might want to go ahead and expose that anyway. Aren’t there kids living there right now?) Her intel: Conway eventually admitted he may have sicced a squad of bloodthirsty citizens on the wrong guy. So, that’s his “sin.” Those citizens did come to visit the boy, the nun remembers, but the only specific detail she can recall is that the woman had striking white hair with a red stripe. That could only be a description of Nana Rose Blossom — who, great news, apparently didn’t die in the Thornhill fire after all!
To Jughead’s horror, F.P. continues to do Penny Peabody’s shadowy and almost certainly drug-related bidding out of desperation. Juggie has other ideas, and the manpower (and Toni-power) of all the young Serpents at his disposal. Under Jughead’s direction, the Junior Serpents League abducts Penny and drops her off in Greendale with a warning to stay off their turf. She laughs in Jughead’s face, indicating the Serpent tattoo on her arm. By gang law, they can’t hurt one of their own. Fair enough. Jughead whips out a knife and slices the ink right off her arm, which, holy shit, Jughead! Cole Sprouse isn’t just channeling TV Dad Skeet Ulrich here, but Billy Loomis specifically, and I am nooooooot mad at it. F.P. is far from relieved when he learns what Jughead has done. Penny will be back to surprise-bitch.gif them, he’s sure of it.
Meanwhile, Veronica wants to prove to Archie she stills cares about him, and so she spills his $86,000 family secret to her parents in the hopes that the Lodges might throw Fred a diamond-encrusted bone. They refuse. V goes snooping in her father’s office and finds paperwork that proves her parents secretly bought Pop’s. That’s it. She dials the hospital billing department and pays Fred’s debts in full, on her mother’s American Excess (Riverdale, don’t try me) black card. In a rare moment of real-world plausibility on this television program, Hiram and Hermione receive a fraud alert for this very unusual charge and return home to confront their daughter. She confronts them right back. It’s time for them to tell her the truth about their secret, sinister business dealings. And so they tell her … yet do not enlighten us, the audience, which I personally find extremely rude. Whatever it is, she’s in, so long as Hiram and Hermione don’t force her to do anything illegal and they follow through on covering Fred’s bill.
Archie and Betty go to see Nana Rose, who does indeed have insider knowledge about the vigilante execution. The unlucky man was buried alive — and not only that, but Betty’s grandfather was among the posse who killed him. As Betty frets over her possible family complicity in this whole ugly mess (is that why the Black Hood targeted her in the first place?), Archie grabs her hand to calm her down, and they share a brief kiss in the car, parked right outside the Blossom place. Cheryl sees this smooch from her window. What’s that? No, I’m sure she won’t find a way to deviously leverage this information in the most socially destructive way possible! How could you even think that?!
Among Betty’s grandfather’s things is an old photo of a group of men having just, ahem, “planted a tree” in Pickens Park. They head there immediately, calling the sheriff on the way. Waiting for the kids is a shovel in the dirt, next to a makeshift headstone that reads “Here Lies Joseph Conway, Sinner.” But the coffin buried below is empty. Ruh-roh. Who but the Black Hood should suddenly appear? He commands Archie to climb into the coffin or he’ll shoot Betty. Then, he forces to Betty to bury him. As she piles dirt on her friend, the Black Hood is momentarily distracted by the sound of approaching police sirens. Betty wisely takes this opportunity to bang him on the head with her shovel. (Evildoers: Be careful when you give your victims shovels! The No. 1 thing shovels are good for is digging, but the No. 2 thing shovels are good for is banging unsuspecting people in the head.) She frees Archie, who grabs the gun, and the kids give chase as the Black Hood flees. They catch up to him on Sweetwater Bridge, where he’s fatally shot not by Archie, but by Sheriff Keller. The man under the mask is none other than Joseph Svenson, nine intact fingers and all. But Archie was right: He’s not green-eyed like the OG Black Hood. Is this really whodunnit? The Scooby Gang, and the authorities, seem willing to believe so. At least for now.
On Christmas morning, the kids finally open their remaining gifts from their exes. Betty bought Jughead a vintage Underwood typewriter; Jughead bought Betty a signed first edition of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And from Archie to Veronica, a locket with both their pictures inside. Veronica goes to see Archie to thank him — and that she does, beneath a sprig mistletoe on his porch that she took the liberty of hanging herself. After they kiss, as is required by federal law, she tells him that she loves him, too. Someone snaps photos of their embrace from a distance.
We end as Betty tosses her Black Hood souvenirs (that doesn’t feel like the right word, but I’m going with it) one by one into the roaring flames of her fireplace, including the actual black hood. But something feels off. She retrieves it. As Jughead’s narration puts it, “This isn’t over.”