Riverdale has always existed in the realm of the operatic, so ridiculousness and some shaky plot dynamics are par for the course. This isn’t usually a problem, since the series excels so spectacularly at this mood. But in season two, the writers have doubled down on the murder-mystery aspect of the show, focusing on a Zodiac-lite figure known as the Black Hood who terrorizes the citizens of the small town, targeting those he considers “sinners.” The Black Hood hasn’t been the most engaging approach to villainy for the sophomore season of a show that is otherwise a pleasure to watch. While his brutality offed the predatorial Ms. Grundy and allows the writers a window into exploring the knotted town history, the Black Hood hasn’t consistently struck the right notes, despite his potential. He feels a bit too blunt and one-note for a show that nails moodiness and soap-opera twists.
A lot of the issues with the Black Hood and his place within the narrative could be alleviated with a thrilling identity reveal. Instead, in this week’s midseason finale, “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” the series granted us with what feels like a profoundly anti-climactic and transparent fake-out by revealing that the Black Hood is a character that was ruled out in the previous episode: the school janitor Joseph Svenson. Wait, what?
Here’s a bit of a refresher from the last episode: Veronica and Archie follow their own lead on a previous murderer known as the Riverdale Reaper, who slaughtered a family. They discover that there was a young survivor from the family, Joseph Conway; he got his name changed and grew up to be janitor Svenson, who shuffles between the halls of Riverdale High School, not drawing all that much attention. Veronica and Archie confront Svenson, but even though he says some intensely creepy things about how “justice was served,” since a lynch mob tracked down the Riverdale Reaper and killed him, they decide Svenson isn’t the Black Hood.
Throughout this season, Archie’s memory of his father’s shooting, and staring into the unnaturally bright-green eyes of the man who nearly killed him, has cropped up repeatedly. Archie has always believed that he’d know the Black Hood simply by looking into his eyes. But whenever this flashback replays, it reads as a memory warped by trauma. It doesn’t seem outlandish that Archie may not recognize the Black Hood accurately when faced with him. It seems odd, though, given the weight this memory has been given, that Archie has no inkling at all when faced with Svenson. But that isn’t the only issue with this reveal and why it reads as a distraction for the drama that is surely to come.
Investigating the Black Hood, Archie and Betty grow closer as they interrogate Grandma Blossom, who knows the identity of the lynch mob that killed the (actually innocent) man Svenson accused of being his family’s killer. Betty and Archie eventually find themselves grave-digging under a gnarly tree in the dead of night, finding an empty grave where the lynch mob’s victim should be. They also find themselves on the wrong side of the Black Hood’s gun. As police sirens near, Betty is able to hit the distracted Black Hood over the head with her shovel. A chase ensues. But even before his mask is ripped off after Sheriff Keller shoots him dead, something about the scene feels amiss. Would this mastermind killer really be outdone by two teenagers because he was distracted, and make the mistake of dropping his gun, too? The scenes leading up to and including his reveal lack the strong sense of atmosphere and catharsis I’ve come to expect from the show.
When the whole gang meets up at Pop’s neon-lit shop, Betty surmises that Svenson became the Black Hood out of some twisted sense of guilt. It was his way of “balancing the scales” for identifying the wrong man as his family’s killer. This explanation is already a bit thinly constructed, but what especially makes this feel like a fake-out is the fact that Svenson was only just meaningfully introduced in the last episode — he’s mostly been a figure in the background. There has to be a rule within detective fiction, which this season is hewing toward, about not introducing the real killer at the last moment.
The greatest issue with the reveal of the Black Hood is how disconnected Svenson is from the lives of the characters. The way the writers have set up the reveal suggests that the Black Hood is someone intimately connected to the characters of Riverdale, which would go a long way to explain his particular obsession with Betty. What is fascinating about Riverdale is the complexity of the town history, which reached the height of soap opera when it was revealed last season that the Coopers and Blossoms are somewhat distantly related, adding an uncomfortable layer to Polly’s pregnancy. Having the Black Hood be inconsequential to the characters, save for the terror that has blighted their lives, feels out of step for the series.
The midseason finale ends with Betty burning the items she’s gathered during her twisted investigation of the Black Hood. Somehow, she’s compelled to not burn the makeshift mask she found. As she stares into the roaring flames in front of her, Jughead’s narration adds another bit of support to my theory — he says that the Black Hood uncovered “a truth that could not be burned away, a truth that whispered to [Betty], ‘This isn’t over.’” I don’t think this is over, either. So, what are the options? Svenson could have been merely a pawn for the actual Black Hood, getting his finger cut off and his real identity threatened in the process. Maybe he is the Black Hood, but he isn’t working alone. Riverdale is only halfway through its 22-episode second season, so there’s obviously a lot left to explore. It’s also always been the kind of show that enjoys messy twists and dramatic character revelations. And the truth about the Black Hood is far too neat to be the final word on the madman that the second season has made its focus.