(EDITORS: This story contains spoilers from the Season 3 finale of "Riverdale." )
Jughead Jones trudges through a dark forest alongside best friends Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge as he comments on a "vicious cycle of never-ending madness that turns back on itself over and over again until someone breaks the chain." He's referring specifically to the events that have unfolded in their hometown over the past three years, but with a show this meta, it's fitting that his words could just as easily describe the experience of watching the past three seasons of "Riverdale" itself.
The CW series, a loose adaptation of the Archie Comics, aired its Season 3 finale on Wednesday night, capping a seven-month saga of lethal board game playing, rampant drug use, sadistic cults and (almost literally) backstabbing parents. Oh, and death, of course - but that part's nothing new. The pulp noir-y first season centered on the murder mystery of a Riverdale High student, earning the show comparisons to David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" and convincing older viewers that this was not the Riverdale they grew up with. Critics liked it well enough, a statement that wouldn't likely be extended to the most recent season.
Because, well, what on earth happened to "Riverdale"? The first season thrived because of its ability to balance darker elements with regular high school things. As The Washington Post's Hank Stuever wrote in his review, the show "is never more comfortable than when it has assembled its sentimental gang in the retro Chock'lit Shoppe diner ... or when everyone attends a school dance featuring live music from Josie and the Pussycats." Those scenes remind both viewers and the characters that there is some ordinariness to Riverdale, giving the surreal happenings some weight.
Though the writers managed to squeeze the SATs and a spring musical into Season 3, such instances of normalcy are few and far between. The Chock'lit Shoppe now doubles as a front for a speakeasy that Veronica (Camila Mendes), an underage high schooler, inexplicably believed she ran with Reggie (Charles Melton) as her body man when, in actuality, it's her father who owns it. Her father, Hiram (Mark Consuelos), a corrupt businessman who wants to privatize Riverdale, has tried several times now to kill Archie (KJ Apa), who, remember, is a child. The underlying plot of the entire season had Jughead (Cole Sprouse) trying to discover the true identity of the Gargoyle King, the masked villain worshiped by Gryphons and Gargoyles players, while also grappling with the knowledge that his mother, Gladys (Gina Gershon), is a drug lord. And then there's Betty (Lili Reinhart), whose father is a resurfaced serial killer called the Black Hood (Lochlyn Munro) and whose mother and sister have been sucked into a cult led by Chad Michael Murray (well, Edgar Evernever).
That summary alone is enough to make your head spin, an effect someone in "Riverdale" would probably attribute to the Fizzle Rocks runoff that has contaminated Sweetwater River.
Even those who watch "Riverdale" on a regular basis have probably forgotten half of the bizarre things that happened this season, more than a hundred of which BuzzFeed documented here. This is the same season in which Archie confesses to a crime he didn't commit and gets sent to juvie, where Veronica and her fellow cheerleaders arrive to serenade the boys with a rendition of "Jailhouse Rock." It is also the season in which he gets mauled by a bear, as he casually mentions in the finale. Remember the nuns killing themselves? Betty's mother and sister throwing babies into a fire? The widespread seizures?
When brothel madam Penelope Blossom (Nathalie Boltt) discloses in the finale that she has been controlling both the Black Hood, her former lover and cousin (?), and the Gargoyle King - who is revealed to be Chic (Hart Denton), a man who once pretended to be Betty and Jughead's half brother, Charles - we breathed a sigh of relief that there was finally something to tie several messy plot points together.
Penelope forces the main quartet to play one last game of Gryphons and Gargoyles, a sequence that includes a flashback to a game of Spin the Bottle that caused major drama between Archie, Veronica and a lovesick Betty in the first season. "I'm having a diabolical sense of deja vu," Veronica says in a wistful tone, an emotion viewers might share. High school can be tiring, but at least it's fun to watch.
Season 2 had strayed quite a bit from featuring typical teenagedom, too, as all the frenzy surrounding the Black Hood left viewers wondering: Do these kids ever think about school anymore? Showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is also the chief creative officer at Archie Comics, said at last year's San Diego Comic-Con that the writers would "infuse this (third) season with a lot more high school stuff. We're going to talk about the SATs, applying to colleges, advisers, extracurriculars, etc."
Aguirre-Sacasa didn't fully keep his promise, but "Riverdale" was renewed in January for a fourth season - maybe its last one, if we are to read into Archie's insistence in the Season 3 finale that senior year will be the "last time" they are all together. (The main cast members are probably ready to move on, at least in terms of career prospects if not emotionally. Apa, Mendes, Melton and Sprouse have all appeared in teen romance movies, while Reinhart will appear in the star-studded "Hustlers.")
The finale introduced a new story line of Betty and Jughead helping an FBI agent, who is the real Charles (and an FBI agent named Cooper - "Twin Peaks," much?), but tied up most of the supernatural plotlines. With the Gargoyle King locked up, Riverdale finally has the opportunity to return to a near-normal state. At least, that's the hope. Get on those college apps, kiddos!