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Farewell to Riverdale — and the CW as we know it

Last night, we said farewell to the beleaguered burg of Riverdale, home of telegenic teens and sudden-onset superpowers, love triangles and a long line of serial killers, high school musicals and an organ-harvesting cult.

The end of Riverdale — which was based oh-so-loosely on the Archie Comics characters and guided with loving lunacy by showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — comes as the CW is entering its first fall season under the ownership of Nexstar Media Group, which plans to cut costs by filling the schedule with reality, sports, and imported series.

Riverdale is over, and several other CW originals were canceled in the wake of the Nexstar acquisition, which leaves Superman & Lois, Walker, All American, and its spin-off, All American: Homecoming, as the only original scripted series left on the network. (They will return for shortened seasons in 2024.) And now that the core four have driven off into the sunset in Archie's Jalopy, there will never be another show like Riverdale again — simply because the world where a network allows a lavish, sexy, teen genre drama to run off the rails for seven gloriously outlandish seasons no longer exists.

Riverdale -- “Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven: Goodbye, Riverdale” -- Image Number: RVD720c_0203r -- Pictured (L - R): Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones and Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper
Riverdale -- “Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven: Goodbye, Riverdale” -- Image Number: RVD720c_0203r -- Pictured (L - R): Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones and Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper

Justine Yeung/The CW Cole Sprouse and Lili Reinhart in 'Riverdale'

Archie (KJ Apa), Betty (Lili Reinhart), Jughead (Cole Sprouse), and Veronica (Camila Mendes) ended Riverdale as they began it: As teenagers. In case you haven't been keeping up — well, you're not alone. The last time I watched Riverdale was the season 4 premiere, "Chapter Fifty-Eight: In Memoriam," to see how the show handled Luke Perry's death. But my editor (and EW's Riverdale beat reporter) Samantha Highfill thought it might be interesting to have me check in for the series finale — especially since the show has changed so, so much since its premiere in 2017, when it was kind of Twin Peaks for teens.

Save for a two-season time jump into their 20s, the adolescents of Riverdale stayed forever young. And as Sam explained to me, this year everyone in Riverdale was transported back in time to the 1950s after Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) used her superpowers to destroy a comet heading toward the town in last season's finale. (Sure. No notes.) They lived through high school a second time — perhaps because the writers realized teen dramas are never as good once the characters graduate — and in last week's episode, "Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Six: The Golden Age of Television," everyone but Betty and Jughead chose to "just remember the good things" from their pasts in the future. Perhaps that was Aguirre-Sacasa winking at the audience, acknowledging that they've endured a lot of weirdness — "Forget all the serial killers and superpowers and Gargoyle Kings," as Veronica put it — over the last six years.

Tonight's series finale is a sweet and unexpectedly straightforward tribute to the power of memory. Written by Aguirre-Sacasa, "Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven: Goodbye, Riverdale" finds an 86-year-old Betty Cooper (played by Michele Scarabelli) poring over Jughead's obituary. "Well, that's it," she sighs. "That means I'm the last of them." Longing to see Riverdale one last time, Betty gets a visit from Angel Jughead, who invites her to relive her senior yearbook day in high school, which she missed because she had the mumps. Back in her young body, Betty enjoys a final tour through her hometown, thrilled by the chance to say goodbye one more time. "Everyone is so young and beautiful and carefree," she marvels upon arriving with Angel Jughead at Riverdale High on the last day of school. "And they have no idea, do they, how special this time is, how quickly it goes by like a blink of an eye?"

Riverdale -- “Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven: Goodbye, Riverdale” -- Image Number: RVD720d_0180r -- Pictured (L - R): Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, and KJ Apa as Archie Andrews
Riverdale -- “Chapter One Hundred Thirty-Seven: Goodbye, Riverdale” -- Image Number: RVD720d_0180r -- Pictured (L - R): Camila Mendes as Veronica Lodge, Lili Reinhart as Betty Cooper, Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones, and KJ Apa as Archie Andrews

Justine Yeung/The CW Camila Mendes, Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, and KJ Apa in the 'Riverdale' series finale

Betty's last look back is poignant and relatable, bathed as it is in an adult's misty-eyed nostalgia for the glory days of youth. (The CW released an extended version of the episode online Thursday.) "Goodbye" offers spotlight moments for most of the players in Riverdale's sprawling ensemble, and Angel Jughead updates Betty on how everyone's story ends. Some of these "whatever happened to" updates involve reliably bonkers reveals, but most of the episode is grounded in the heartwarming (and heartbreaking) business of saying farewell to dear friends. "That's life, Betty. You say hello, you walk alongside someone for a while, and then you say goodbye," says Jughead in the extended episode, as he and Betty prepare to enter Thornhill one final time. "That's the arc of a life, isn't it?"

It's not for me to say whether Riverdale's die-hard fans will find tonight's 50s-set finale — and the revealed fates of the core four — satisfying, given all the narrative insanity that came before. (To quote my editor Sam, "Why am I saying goodbye to poet Archie when I spent forever with 'lemme wrestle a bear' Archie?") But as someone who had the pleasure of living through the teen TV boom of the late '90s and early aughts — launched in part by The WB, which would later be absorbed into the CW — the end of Riverdale captured the bittersweet sentimentality that comes with losing something you loved for good. For Betty Cooper, it was her town, her friends, her youth. For the rest of us, it is a TV industry that saw value in teen shows that weren't afraid to get a little (or a lot) weird — and networks that were happy to let said shows fly their freak flags for years. While there may be more hyper-stylized, self-aware, sex-drenched teen dramas in the future, they'll likely last no more three seasons — a typical run in today's streaming-dominated culture.

So goodbye, Riverdale, and Godspeed to what's left of the CW. Like Betty said, we had no idea how special this time was until it was gone.

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