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Riverdale’s Series Finale Explained to the Best of Human Ability

Hey we saw you from across the quad and really dig your whole vibe. Can we buy you a milkshake? Photo: The CW

Last night, after seven seasons and 136 episodes of thrilling, often discombobulating loop-de-loops, mad-pilot Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and his whole Riverdale crew finally landed the crazy plane. And you know what? They absolutely stuck that landing. We always knew the idiosyncratic CW teen soap, with its gang wars and bear attacks and ghost-sex, was going to go out in spectacular fashion. And yes, the show’s final two episodes were bizarre in ways only Riverdale could be. But they were also moving, meta, and fascinatingly self-reflective, brimming with love for the show’s teen soap genre. What other network show could, after all these years, inspire PopCrave breaking news on the level of, “The ‘Riverdale’ series finale reveals that Betty, Jughead, Archie, and Veronica were all in a quad relationship with each other for a year?”

A quad! For those of you who may have tuned out after season one, maybe around the time of the Red Circle or the Gargoyle King, there’s a lot to catch up on for any of this to make sense. Like, the show entered supernatural territory a long while back. By season five, both Riverdale’s camp factor and its “dark” edge escalated to a point where Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) was an FBI agent kidnapped and trapped in a well like the senator’s daughter in Silence of the Lambs, her brother was a psychopath marrying a different psychopath who stole his identity, and her sister was a cult-escapee sex worker gone missing and murdered on a stretch of road referred to only as the Lost Highway. By season six, plot lines were infused with magic, superpowers, parallel dimensions, and time travel, and the season ended with a psychic blast sending the characters back in time to the 1950s, where they were suddenly high school juniors.

This is where we find the characters in the show’s final season. Beyond the trademark Riverdale lunacy of having actors in their late 20s and early 30s playing naïve mid-century teens learning about sex for the first time and saying things like “golly” and “gee whiz,” the time travel gave the show a simplicity and lightness it hadn’t had in years. Reggie (Charles Melton) was no longer a sleaze-ball bully but a sweet farmboy going through all the big life milestones with his best pal Archie (KJ Apa). Veronica (Camila Mendes) didn’t murder her abusive crime-lord father; her parents were the stars of “America’s #1 sitcom, Oh Mija.” Mrs. Grundy wasn’t grooming Archie; she was encouraging him to follow his Troy Bolton dreams of quitting the basketball team and writing poetry against his uncle’s wishes. This was a season of fan service, understanding the character dynamics of this ensemble, offering breathing room for fans to enjoy slice-of-life plot lines, and allowing for plenty of opportunities for ships to get remixed.

In the season premiere, the town’s guardian angel (a literal, time-bending angel), Tabitha Tate (Erinn Westbrook), tells her boyfriend, Jughead, who at this point is the only person who remembers the old timeline, although he’ll forget it after they share a memory-wiping magic kiss), “You all have to make a go of it here in the ’50s to ensure — to paraphrase one of my heroes — that the moral arc of this universe bends towards justice. That way, when I finally do untangle the various timelines, we can make it back to a Riverdale that isn’t on the verge of moral and societal collapse.”

Tabitha’s imperative — a literal cultural reset! — sets up the whole season as an intentionally inclusive 1950s pastiche that goes beyond colorblind casting to enter a space of optimistic alt-history fantasy created by undoing past injustices. This means these characters are openly gay in the ’50s. They’re in interracial relationships in the ’50s. They’re sex-positive in the ’50s. They fight McCarthyism. They fight the Hays Code. They snuff out Russian spies. They march for Emmett Till. They do all kinds of ’50s B-movie riffs, from nudie films to pulp horror, and they do an entire black-and-white atomic bomb episode two weeks after the release of Oppenheimer. It’s fun!

Which brings us to the second-to-last episode, hilariously, presumptuously, titled, “The Golden Age of Television.” Now that the gang has created a better version of history, guardian angel Tabitha returns with a color TV and tells Jughead to watch what’s onscreen. It’s … the first episode of Riverdale.

After getting caught up on the entire series — which the show is still a part of and existing within, a logic puzzle that makes my beanie spin — Jughead remembers his entire past life. “Neat,” he says with tears in his eyes, before correcting to the present-day slang he suddenly has access to again. “Awesome.” Tabitha explains that the gang can’t magically return to the present day in this new timeline; they’ll have to live out their days in this one “and they can decide if they want to remember their other adventures.”

So one by one, the cast of Riverdale watches Riverdale. And we watch these Riverdale characters watch Riverdale and react to what their characters did on Riverdale. The entire segment is a way to commemorate just how ridiculous Riverdale was over the years. “I was a boxer, prisoner, football player. I was a soldier,” says Archie. “There was so much darkness in that world,” Betty cries, processing what she’s gone through over six seasons. “My father was a killer. My sister was murdered and then came back to life. You and I,” she notes to Jughead, “we were together” (never forget that Reinhart and Sprouse were together, for three years, in real life outside of the Riverdale within a Riverdale). “I was with Archie, and I killed my husband Chad and my father,” says Veronica, who in this timeline owns a movie theater and invents the Nicole Kidman AMC pre-roll. Poor Julian Blossom, who on the other Riverdale was eaten in the womb, can’t even bring himself to watch.

“Can we forget all the serial killers and superpowers and Gargoyle Kings and just remember the happy times we had?” Jughead asks Tabitha. So Tabitha basically edits together a fancam of all of the happy parts of Riverdale — graduation, jalopy rides, musical numbers, make-outs — and the cast of Riverdale watches and cries. It’s surreal, and it brings us to the final episode, “Goodbye, Riverdale,” which opens on an 86-year-old Betty Cooper reading Jughead’s obituary, noting that she’s now the last living member of their friend group. The entire episode is one long post-credits sequence, taking place in the ’50s on the last day of school, sending off each character to go forth with the rest of their lives — then literally showing us how they live the rest of their lives and die:

• Archie’s mom (Molly Ringwald) meets a woman named Brooke and becomes a lesbian.
• Alice is a stewardess who does a Sully–style rescue and becomes a pilot.
• Fangs (Drew Ray Tanner) dies in a tour-bus crash weeks after leaving town.
• Veronica becomes a studio exec, wins two Oscars, and is buried in Hollywood Forever cemetery.
• Archie moves out West, starts a family, and becomes a construction worker.
• Reggie joins the Lakers and has two jock sons.
• Kevin and Clay move to New York City where Clay becomes a professor and Kevin writes musicals. They live into their 80s.
• Betty is basically a mix of Helen Gurley Brown and Gloria Steinem.
• Jughead founds their universe’s version of MAD Magazine, “Madhouse.”
• Cheryl and Toni are artists and activists and have a son named Dale, “named after Riverdale of course.” They both pass away “peacefully, after living full, gorgeous, sexy lives.”

And yes, as Kevin reminds Betty in the ’50s, “C’mon, don’t tell me you’ve suddenly forgotten that you, Archie, Veronica, and Jughead have been in a quad this entire last year!” This includes plenty of Betty and Veronica hookups, “more often than you’d imagine.” As Twitter user @korysverse noted, “Something about writers doing a poly relationship to get out of choosing an endgame is a little real.” Just like the whole season, the finale quad reveal puts fan service and fun above all else.

Back in the present day, Betty’s granddaughter drives her to Riverdale for one last look while dreamy Twin Peaks-y synths play, and she dies, smiling, in the backseat of the car in the Pop’s parking lot. Cut to the afterlife, which this show has always had the annoying habit of calling “The Sweet Hereafter.” We know the afterlife takes place at Pop’s for some of these characters because Jughead has died and landed there before. The whole cast is there, and Jughead monologues to the camera about how this group of characters will always be there, “Forever juniors, forever 17 … always going to, coming from, some dance, talking about school, the big game, who’s dating who … It’s where they’ve, where we’ve, always been, always will be.” I like to think this is a statement on the enduring nature of the teen drama, although it might be some horrible Twilight Zone shit about how these characters are trapped forever in this show with a newfound awareness of their place within a TV series called Riverdale.

“So if you happen to see that neon sign at the end of that lonely night at the end of that long journey, that journey that every one of us is on, pull over, come on in, take a seat, know that you’ll always be among friends and that Riverdale will always be here. Until then, have a good night.” Jughead walks away. We hear the familiar typewriter noise. Fin. It’s all very sappy, which is fitting, considering how many of the plot lines on this show had to do with the maple syrup industry, and it’s a little self-mythologizing. But it’s so very Jughead, and it’s so very Roberto. I like to read this as the whole series building up to a reminder that we can go back and revisit all of Riverdale on streaming. This was a show in love with its own episodic nature with uncommonly large episode orders and precious room to fuck around. But in the end, it all boiled down to the fundamentals: characters’ relationships to each other and fans’ relationships to characters. A beanie-doff to the most TV show TV show to ever TV show.

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Riverdale Finale Explained to the Best of Human Ability