At the beginning of “Chapter Eleven: To Riverdale and Back Again,” Jughead (Cole Sprouse) mentions that a common refrain around Riverdale is that Jason Blossom’s (Trevor Stines) murder changed everything. It’s a common enough refrain for anyone to utter after a traumatic event, an acknowledgement of a shift in perspective that will never be the same again. Of course, Jughead doesn’t stop there, because what would an episode of Riverdale be without a rambling opening voiceover? He questions the statement, saying that while Jason’s murder may have been a tragic moment for the town, many things stayed the same, evidenced by this year’s Homecoming. If everything had truly changed, why were the relics and traditions of the past still there? Do those rituals and traditions act as a way to work through trauma, or do they only serve as a glossy surface that masks the rot and corruption underneath?
Jughead eventually puts a version of that question front and center when FP (Skeet Ulrich), who’s seemingly cleaned up his act and taken an interest in his son’s novel, starts to ask some questions about why Jughead is so interested in Jason’s murder. Jughead’s rebuke is that his story isn’t a whodunit, but rather an examination of whether Riverdale is a good place or one of barely concealed evil. It’s also a thesis statement for Riverdale, which is more interested in exploring the dynamic of this town than it is in solving the Blossom murder. In fact, as the season nears its conclusion, it’s becoming clear that Jughead is right in his analysis that Jason Blossom’s murder didn’t “change everything” about the town. Where he missteps is in his conclusion. He says that all the wholesome traditions, from Homecoming to grabbing a burger at Pop’s, stayed the same. That may be true, but the reason Jason’s murder didn’t change anything in Riverdale isn’t because of the resolve of its people to move past tragedy and violence. It’s because the tragedy and violence has been there all along. A dead body may be new, but the motivations and machinations behind it are the core of Riverdale.
Homecoming is like a flood that seeps into the ground of Riverdale and brings up all the bodies that have been buried for years. Despite the streamers, the lighting and the rather stilted rendition of “Kids in America”—if the “Archie’s musical ambitions” storyline went the way of Jason Blossom, I wouldn’t shed a tear—there’s a stench surrounding the event. Ghosts loom everywhere (but no Grandma Blossom, unfortunately). The first ghost appeared at the end of “The Lost Weekend,” as Mary Andrews (Molly Ringwald) strolled back into town. “It’s nice, I’m just not used to it,” says Archie (K.J. Apa) when he comes home to find his parents casually chatting in the kitchen. The intrusion of normalcy in extremely abnormal circumstances is the most prominent theme of the episode, and Mary’s presence is just the beginning.
Throughout the episode, which revolves around Homecoming but doesn’t actually spend much time at the event itself, there’s the sense that the whole town is playacting, putting on a brave face while chaos continues to reign. The Homecoming theme is “Blast from the Past,” which couldn’t be more indicative of what’s happening in Riverdale. The past is creeping up everywhere. Mary is back in town, Hiram is apparently on the path to being given time served and let out of prison, and FP and Jughead are reconnecting. In any other town and under any other circumstance those events would suggest a return to normalcy.
Of course, that’s not the case in Riverdale, and nobody suffers more from believing in that normalcy than Jughead. He truly believes he can move back in with his Dad, or maybe even go to Toledo with him to be a whole family once again with his mother and Jellybean, but that all comes crumbling down when FP is arrested—and possibly framed—after the sheriff finds a gun in a toolbox in the back of his closet. Jughead may have the cynical, sarcastic vocal tone down pat, but as anyone who’s ever employed that tone knows, it’s mostly an act to hide unadulterated earnestness and a need to believe in the good of people. The true Jughead shines in his relationship with Betty (Lili Reinhart), their ability to love fully and without reservation easily the most organic romance on the show. That Jughead doesn’t exist at the end of this episode though, as his newfound normalcy is ripped from him. It’s excruciating to watch, and one of the more emotionally impactful moments of this season.
What’s curious about “To Riverdale and Back Again,” and really Riverdale in general, is that the strong thematic work doesn’t always translate to compelling plot. This week’s episode is an absolute feast when it comes to the tense relationships that define the community of Riverdale, but what else is there? Putting Jason Blossom’s murder on the backburner in the early episodes of the season was an inspired choice, allowing the freshman show to settle into its world before diving into the exposition-heavy details of the crime. Now, though, the plot feels listless. When Polly (Tiera Skovbye) stumbles into a room adorned with a number of creepy red Blossom wigs, it doesn’t feel all that important. It feels like Riverdale just handing over one small crumb when, at this point, we should be getting on with the meal. “To Riverdale and Back Again” is a smart, sharp analysis of the corrosive effects of nostalgia, tradition, and the blind trust that comes with those things, but it’s also an episode that reinforces the creeping notion that Riverdale has no idea how to plot, pace and execute a murder mystery storyline.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.