The high-gloss pop of Riverdale has always been the show’s allure. A slight perversion of the classic gee-golly Archie comics world, the series is the sultry, murder-fueled CW take on cookie-cutter Americana. This macabre focus hasn’t waned as Riverdale moved through seasons and genre: noir, horror, musical. Here we are at season three, post-Black Hood, and things are even stranger–more maligned, less accessible, and deeply cultish in a way that immediately calls to mind HBO’S True Detective. Welcome to Riverdale, home of the strange.We open on a summer montage. Archie (K.J. Apa), wrongfully on trial for the murder of Cassidy Bullock â€“ a bully that Veronica’s father, Hiram (Mark Consuelos), had a henchman kill â€“ is stifled in the haze of amber courtroom blues. Our narrator, Jughead (Cole Sprouse), conjures images of their friends group going about business: Veronica (Cami Mendes) pouring coffee at Pop’s Diner, Betty (Lili Reinhart) tending to Archie’s lawyer mom as she prepares for his hearing, the four of them leaping from a cliff at Sweetwater Swimming Hole, oblivious to the concerns of tomorrow. This is both what summer should be and actually was for our Riverdale favorites, each of them grappling with Archie’s looming sentencing.Archie’s not guilty, of course, but his trial is still the meat and potatoes of “Chapter Thirty-Six: Labor Day.” We spend a lot of time with his mother Mary Andrews (Molly Ringwald) and father Fred (Luke Perry), as they argue with each other and against district attorney Mrs. Wright (guest star Penelope Ann Miller). Mary uses Archie’s good boy image to try to clear him, but she can’t fight for his freedom when Archie himself is stubbornly married to his guilt — even though it’s borne from ego instead of truth.Archie spends much of the episode prepping himself for what he considers inevitable: That he’ll wind up behind bars. And he does wind up behind bars, because that stubborn guilt about participating in Hiram’s underworld weighs too strongly on him. Archie’s courtroom drama anchors Riverdale in reality, and his sentence â€“which we can’t imagine will stick for an entire season, but who knows! â€“ will let the show play around with other genres and themes. It’s also a big contrast to the other, more alluring things going on in this premiere. Namely, cults and a new mythological villain whose signature style looks a lot like the Yellow King’s from True Detective.As we learn from a terrified Dilton Doiley (Major Curda), this new big bad is known as the Gargoyle King. “Ben and I, we thought it was just a game, a stupid role-playing game, but it’s not. It’s so much more” a frantic Dilton tells Jughead when he shows up at his trailer unannounced. “He’s real.”Jughead later finds a map that Diton leaves behind, covered in drawings of antlers and twigs, which leads him to Fox Forrest Park. As he rushes there, Archie is whisked away on a prison bus and we see that the iconic “Welcome to Riverdale” town sign has been graffitied with similar antler markings. Jughead arrives at the park and finds the bodies of Dilton and Ben (Moses Thiessen) bent into prayer formation, with rune-like carvings in their back. They’re set before an alter of bones and candles, and were presumably poisoned; their mouths are foamy and there are chalices containing blue liquid nearby. Ben wakes up as Jughead screams for help.The Gargoyle King stuff fits in neatly with the Cooper family storyline.Â Alice (MÃ¤dchen Amick) and Polly (Tiera Skovbye) are now pledged to a weirdo personality cult called The Farm and talk fondly of its leader, pressuring Betty to get in on their new hippie lifestyle. Betty, meanwhile, is addicted to Adderall, to the point that she’s forging prescriptions just to function as the family’s anchor now that her father is in prisoner for his Black Hood crimes. In the episode’s closing moments, Betty stumbles on what looks like a sacrificial ceremony in her backyard. Alice, Polly, and others are gathered before a fire in white robes and drop Polly’s twins into the flames. Or did they? Upon witnessing this, Betty falls to the ground and starts seizing. Is this a symptom of withdrawal from her pills, is The Farm playing some trick on her, or is the Gargoyle King’s reach far and wide? The cult and the king do seem to share a fondness for ritual and fire. Perhaps The Farm’s leader is pulling double duty.Whatever’s going on, we’re super into it. Riverdale works best when it’s steeped in reality — Archie in prison, the Ghoulies vs. Serpents rivalry, a pool party at Cheryl’s mansion — and surreality. It’s fascinating to see the show veer away from a more traditional serial killer storyline and into something cosmic and nonconventional. We can’t wait to see where this all goes, and, most importantly, to see if Jughead gets to deliver any Rust Cohle-like monologues.Let us know what you thought of the Riverdale season 3 premiere in the comments below!
Images: The CW