Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Riverdale‘s Luke Perry tribute episode, “Chapter Fifty-Eight: In Memoriam,” is that it doesn’t forget it’s also an episode of Riverdale. Which is to say, that — spoilers past this point — in between mourning both Luke Perry and his character Fred Andrews, there’s still time for some ghostly visions, a little bit of crime, and some mysteries.
That, according to showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, was very much on purpose.
“We talked about exactly that thing, which was… We said, it can’t be a normal episode of Riverdale, but there is that little bit of crime story with Archie,” Aguirre-Sacasa told Decider when we talked to him about the episode at New York Comic Con.
For those who didn’t watch, the episode starts off for the first four-ish minutes like any normal episode of Riverdale. It’s July 3, and as the town prepares for the first Fourth of July parade in three years — they’ve been a little busy dealing with stick monsters and candy drugs — Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) is on the warpath, ready to shut the parade down.
Tired of her antics, Archie Andrews (KJ Apa), Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse), Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) retire to Pop’s Diner for some pancakes, and talk about how their going to spend the rest of their final Summer before Senior year. That’s when Archie gets a phone call from his Dad — only it’s not his father at all, it’s the news that brings him to his knees. Fred Andrews has been struck and killed during a hit and run.
Later, thanks to a guest star turn from Shannen Doherty, we discover that Fred died a hero. Fred stopped to help her, a total stranger, on the side of the road after other cars just passed her by. And when a rogue driver swerved out of control, Fred pushed her to safety, sacrificing his life to save hers.
Over the course of the episode, Archie becomes predictably obsessed by the event. While the rest of his friends memorialize Fred, including a beautiful story from Betty about how he was truly everyone’s Dad, Archie keeps avoiding any emotion except anger, always moving forward like a shark. That night, he has a dream, and heads downstairs to see his deceased grandfather, while every other character — including others that have died — are all waiting in his dining room.
That nightmare feverishly causes Archie to go on a road trip with his friends to pick up Fred’s body and bring it home in time for July 4; and while waiting for the mortuary to prepare the body properly (in another classic Riverdale trope, the mortician is a bizarre wierdo), Archie finds out the name and location of the hit and run driver.
Archie runs to the house, confronts the man, ready to beat him up. Only it turns out, the man didn’t do it at all: it was his unlicensed son, out for a joyride, and the father was just trying to protect his sobbing kid from incarceration.
“We talked about it for a couple of weeks, and figured out how much of that crime and noir element to add, and knowing that if we added it, it sort of had to be about Archie, and his grief, and his journey,” Aguirre-Sacasa added. “We still wanted it to be an episode of Riverdale, with a little bit of a crime angle to it.”
That’s ultimately what makes the episode work. There are heart-rending moments throughout, including the July 4 parade being turned into an impromptu Fred Andrews celebration, as the whole town watches his body be returned; followed by the funeral of Fred Andrews, which feels, given the reactions from the actors, much more like a funeral for Luke Perry. But it’s centering the episode in it still being an episode of Riverdale that makes those moments hit so much harder. It could have been like literally gawking at a car crash, as you watch the actors mourn a friend they knew in real life, one most of us only knew through his appearances on TV. Instead, the viewer is allowed to mourn with them as we watch Archie and company continue to exist within the rules of Riverdale. They’re mourning the man they knew, we’re mourning the character we watched. It all leads to a catharsis of sorts, even if the pain will never really disappear.
And though this is a one-off episode, the death of Fred will power Archie throughout the season, as we pick up next week with the first day of Senior year and he continues to try and honor his legacy. Hopefully, this season will honor Luke Perry’s legacy, too.
Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on The CW.