‘Heart of Darkness’ Brings Riverdale Back on Track

‘Heart of Darkness’ Plot Summary:

Archie (KJ Apa) finds himself torn between larger commitments to football and music. Veronica (Camila Mendes) tries to help Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) deal with her grief over Jason’s death. Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation into Jason’s murder yields explosive findings. 

After the past two episodes, you wouldn’t be crazy if you’d started to worry that Riverdale was going off the rails. A continually lackluster Archie plot followed by a completely botched handling of Miss Grundy’s send-off were both rather significant causes for concern. And yet, just when things seem to be on a downward trajectory, the show manages to turn it around. By finally freeing itself of the Grundy plot and re-focusing on the core mysteries driving the show, Riverdale has followed up the season’s worst episode with one of its best.

Surprisingly, Archie’s plot improves dramatically in this episode without changing any of its core conceits. Less surprisingly, this is because the show has finally decided to add some actual stakes to Archie’s agonizing over whether to pursue his music. Before, the choice between music and his other responsibilities was largely academic: his dad was perfectly willing to let him stop working at the family business, and he seemed more than capable of balancing football and music while still receiving effusive praise for his musical talent. Both things have been upended here, with the celebrated music teacher Valerie (Hayley Law) introducing him to dismissing his angsty teenage songs and the pressure to compete for captain of the football team draining his time.

The story is still highly cliché, but now that there is some actual drama involved, it’s a lot more interesting to watch. And when it ends with Archie realizing that he needs to turn down the captain position and stop letting his own insecurity hold him back, we even get some genuine character development. Given all these massive improvements, it’s almost hard to believe that you’re watching the same show that subjected you to previous forays into Archie’s problems, but it’s most certainly a welcome change.

Meanwhile, Cheryl continues to receive the redemptive arc we all knew was coming. We’re hit with the one-two punch of really getting to know her truly terrible parents and then getting to see her actually express her grief over Jason’s death without being wildly melodramatic or filling it with weird subtext about their relationship. The former is another pretty big cliché, but her parents are so deliciously petty and cruel, and their behavior so perfectly explains Cheryl’s own, that it’s hard to hold that against the show. And the latter is genuinely affecting, as we finally get to see the depth of Cheryl’s sadness over Jason’s death and what their relationship really meant to her, as she delivers a heartfelt eulogy at his memorial service. It’s still a little melodramatic and crazy and oh so very Cheryl, but it also takes her feelings seriously, and so it works like gangbusters.

It’s Betty and Jughead’s plot that really provides the bombshells this episode, though. Up until now, Betty’s character has largely been defined by her contentious relationship with her mother Alice (Mädchen Amick), but with Alice out of town for the episode we get a chance to see Betty interact with her dad for once. At first, it seems like he’s the reasonable counterbalance to Betty’s mom, opening up to her about what happened with her sister Polly and watching old videos of his daughter because he misses her. That goes out the window when Betty finds out the truth about Polly and Jason, and he reveals himself as a vindictive man nursing a decades-old grudge against the Blossoms. This not only gives us a new lead in the murder case, it destroys the last semblance of a healthy home life that Betty had and is sure to send her spiraling even further in future episodes.

There’s been a real “sins of the father” motif happening in Riverdale lately. Archie and his dad have a normal, healthy relationship, but now Betty has two vengeful and crazy parents who have lied and manipulated her, Veronica is starting to discover all of the shady dealings her parents have been up to, we’ve gotten a real look at the totally dysfunctional Blossom family and how they treat Cheryl, and though we don’t know much about Jughead’s dad, given that he’s the South Side Serpent who’s been threatening Veronica’s mom, it can’t be a great relationship. It ties in fantastically to how Jason’s murder is slowly exposing the seedy underbelly of Riverdale, showing how the town has always had this element of darkness that continues to plague it to this day. Considering how the episode ends with Betty and Jughead adding her parents as suspects to their “murder board” and Veronica’s mom opening up about what’s been going on, it’s not likely to go away any time soon either.

Between the plot revelations, the myriad character development, and the continued excellent pacing and fun dialogue, it’s hard to find much to criticize about this episode. It provided just about everything the series needed right now, a real shot in the arm that revives flagging interest and fixes a lot of recurring problems that had been holding it back. Perhaps ridding itself of Miss Grundy was the magic formula to get this show moving, or maybe that’s just a coincidence. Either way, Riverdale is back to being a great watch.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Chris Diggins is a staff writer and incorrigible layabout for The Pop Break. He usually reviews TV and movies, although he sometimes writes ludicrously long pieces of critical analysis and badgers the editors to publish it. He cannot be stopped.