Riverdale did a remarkable thing dedicated the first hour of its fourth season to cast member Luke Perry, who tragically passed away last Spring. At the time, the series was not equipped emotionally or logistically to acknowledge it beyond on-screen dedication cards and the sudden reappearance of Mary Andrews (Molly Ringwald) in plots meant for Perry’s character, Fred Andrews. But with all that squared away in the Season 3 finale, the program was free to offer the actor a tribute via the passing of his character.
In doing so, Riverdale acknowledged the border between its hyper-real world of teen mobsters, serial killers, and “endgame” couples and our own mundane world where a universally loved actor can be snatched away in an instant.
That is, in fact, the way Fred is lost to Riverdale — a senseless random event without the decency to be part of the various schemes and intrigues teen detectives Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) confront week after week. That senseless becomes the thing Archie (KJ Apa) must confront and the story is much stronger for it. Apa delivers a spectacular performance as the confused and grief-stricken Archie and there is something cathartic in watching him go through the stages (include tearful acceptance), which in the Riverdale world includes a chance at revenge. But even in that, the show smartly made Fred’s killer someone Archie could not, ultimately, hurt in an attempt to process the grief. That person lives in our muddy world while Riverdale specializes in the ordered chaos of TV drama.
But beyond Archie’s A-plot, the episode keeps reminding us about the line between the story and the reality in which Perry died. Fred’s death takes place in another town, which is shot in broad daylight without the show’s noirish touches. Perry’s Beverly Hills 90210 castmate Shannen Doherty appears out of the mist to offer Fred (and Perry) a final prayer.
Even back in Riverdale, everything feels different and little more mundane. Consider the first appearance of the Andrews’ backyard; a completely normal looking space that may leave you wondering where the garage sits on the property. Note the way the interior of the house is shot — other than in Archie’s dream, of course — making it feel more like a real place in a real town. Reality invades Riverdale with a rare beauty despite the tragic circumstances behind it. And as counterpoint, notice how the grammar of Riverdale presents itself only during the scenes prior to Archie getting the call about Fred or the way the shots of Alice (Madchen Amick) or the Lodges in prison almost feel like intrusions into the proceedings.
Nonetheless, this is still an episode of Riverdale. And while its usual hyper-real grammar recedes for the week, the characters are still true to themselves in the context of Fred’s unexpected death. The grief is real and earned here — particularly among the key four, but also among characters like F.P. (Skeet Ulrich), Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols), and the Kellers.
And, let’s face it, Perry’s death was just plain sad. That the show would actually put everything on pause to honor him is a testament not just to who he was as an actor, but what he meant to the production even if Fred was relative on-screen rarity. For those who enjoyed the actor’s work over the years or had the chance to meet him, the episode is an hour to consider him and let the grief flow freely. One just wonders how things go back to the Riverdale normal next week. And for Archie, can normal ever really exist again?
So let’s ponder that future while we look at a preview of next week’s show. It looks like Riverdale will find its way to normal quickly.
Riverdale airs Wednesdays on The CW.
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