Riverdale S2E21: Judgement Night
I mean, seriously, where to start with Judgement Night? It’s the tautest forty minutes of TV you’ll see this month, packed to bursting with reveals, revelations, and last-minute twists – and I thought last week was strong. But it’s really an incredible display of the sheer ambition that Riverdale has delivered on in this second season, a climax to a half-dozen plots that have been simmering for almost two dozen episodes leading up to this explosive (literally and figuratively) denouement.
Riverdale has always been enamoured with the idea that idyllic small-town America just can’t be as perfect as it seems, and Judgement Night is all about the deconstruction of those iconic images of idealised Americana: the Ghoulies (remember them?) launch an attack on Pop’s Diner, which has gone from cutesy pastels and kitschy uniforms to starkly saturated neon – apple-pie Archie winds hurling makeshift Molotovs at their attackers, and the Serpents destroy the school’s trophy cabinet filled with memorabilia from classes past. Riverdale spends this episode gleefully torching everything wholesome about the town over the course of one violent night – but the American icon that comes out of the episode worst off is the notion of the American family.
First off, let’s deal with the Coopers. Because yep, as Betty predicted a few episodes ago, Hal is indeed the Black Hood, and he’s ready to show his colours once and for all. The episode kicks off with him coming after Cheryl (my “I can’t believe this show is allowed at all” line of the week was, without doubt, her “I had time to grab my archery kit and hunting cape”), but she swiftly takes him down with a well-placed arrow and finally unspools the mess that he’s left in his wake. At the very centre of this episode is the moment Betty and Hal share, wherein he asks her to name him, and instead of referring to him as her father, she calls him the Black Hood. Riverdale is underlining in bold type the fact that familial ties look more like nooses in its world, and the confrontation between Alice, Hal, and Betty is sublime television (that shot of Hal and Alice on the couch, the beam from the projector cutting a line between them, is the sort of thing reviewers would be wanking themselves silly over if it was in a more prestige show), and even though Hal has been caught, Betty has finally found someone who she can recognise her own darkness in and it scares the shit out of her.
The Lodges get a killer plot this week too, as Veronica unearths pictures and an article her father had written about Hermione’s involvement with Fred Andrews. There’s something delightfully sour about how Hiram’s attempts to crush Fred’s family-values platform for mayor backfired in such a way as to send him through the ice with regards to his own nearest and dearest, but Hiram is actually relatively absent from this plot and it works surprisingly well. Even though Veronica and Hermione have consistently been some of my least favourite characters on the show, when you pull Hiram and his scheming from between them and force them to confront the machinations of the abusive, power-hungry patriarch at their centre, it makes for some damn compelling TV. When Small Fry, the son of the late Papa Poutine, turns up with the intent of murdering Veronica and Hermione only to have the latter finish him off in a violent confrontation in front of her daughter, the show seems to be putting a bullet in the head of the Lodges’ familial security. Not only does Hiram put them in moral danger for his own gain, he’s willing to risk their reputations to do what he believes has to be done. I like the Lodges as a scheming gangster whole, but I love them as fractured, out-of-sync parts in their own right.
Archie and Fred don’t make it out of the night unscathed either, as the Black Hood (or at least, a Black Hood) tracks them to their house and fires on Fred once more. It’s a reiteration of Archie’s seasick nightmares, even if Fred makes it out relatively unharmed – as Archie tries to keep the town from boiling over into chaos, the attack on his family home is a reminder that he can’t protect everyone at once. It’s another really great performance from KJ Apa, especially as he tries to cool tensions between the Serpents and the Bulldogs, and it’s a testament to the strength of this storyline that I was gutted for his helplessness in the face of the renewed attack on his father.
But the family that takes the biggest hit this week is the Serpents. Now, I’ve had my issues with the class warfare storyline, but given that it was all leading to this episode – the payoff might just have been worth it. After the attack on and eventual loss of one of their own, the Serpents act as the dark shadows passing through other people’s stories for most of the first couple of acts of this episode, but it’s as we draw into the final third that things really begin to take shape. An ex-Serpent intends to kick them out of Riverdale and replace them with the Ghoulies to secure better distribution for their drug empire, and offers Jughead a choice: get the Serpents out of town, or face off against the Ghoulies at dawn.
It’s a great episode for both FP and Jughead here (and a really cracking performance from Skeet Ulrich to boot), as they are forced to make impossible decisions to keep their extended family safe. Eventually, the two of them go against each other as they vote different ways in the debate over what to do in the face of the Ghoulies presence in town, and there’s a real sense of urgency and panic in the confrontation they share afterwards, an immediate family divided in an attempt to keep an extended one together. And it all surges unstoppably towards that incredible climax, as Jughead offers himself in lieu of the rest of the Serpents and is viciously attacked by the Ghoulies who apparently intend to beat him to death.
Whether or not Jughead is actually dead remains to be seen, so I won’t comment too much on that for the time being, but I will say that the final shot of FP carrying the brutalised body of his son out of the mist is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year. Because they earned it. For all that a lot of this season felt aimless, it was all searing towards this episode, this astonishingly ballsy and jaw-droppingly audacious torching of the American family via Riverdale’s various clans. With an episode like this one, Riverdale rises from “my favourite show on TV” to “the best show on TV”: packed with bold visual stylings, great performances, and that constant, juddering undertone of violence and death, Riverdale blows the doors off it’s own show and sets everything back to zero. Where do they go from here? I have no idea, but I am damn pumped to find out.
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(header image courtesy of Riverdale)