In true Riverdale tradition, the final season of The CW drama was all over the place in both tone and subject matter. After six seasons spent in the present day, creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa sent Archie (KJ Apa) and the gang back to 1955 — and back to high school — where they navigated the rigid expectations set forth by Riverdale's adults and society at large. Storylines about a town-wide comic book ban and Archie's internal conflict over whether to pursue poetry or basketball played out alongside references to Emmett Till's murder and the Red Scare, creating exactly the kind of cognitive dissonance for which the show became known.
Even with this campiness serving as a through line, fans were critical that Riverdale Season 7 was too different from the six that came before it. Viewers seemed to think the jaunt into the 1950s would be short-lived, as was the case with last season's five-episode "Rivervale" event; instead, the show remained there for all 20 episodes, returning to the present only in the series finale. (And even then, it was fleeting, as the bulk of the action took place on the last day of senior year in 1957.) The season also put an unfortunate amount of distance between its core characters, who were often siloed in their own narratives. As Archie fretted over his love of poetry, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) investigated "The Milkman" murders and attempted to save Pep Comics; across town, Betty (Lili Reinhart) discovered her sexuality, while Veronica (Camila Mendes) was left to her own devices at her movie theater, the Babylonium. Ratings reflected this sense of disappointment among the fanbase: Only 152,000 people tuned in to this season's musical episode, "Archie the Musical," a record low for The CW series.
[Editor's Note: This post contains spoilers for the Riverdale series finale, "Goodbye, Riverdale.]
By far the most common opprobrium was that the events of Season 7 existed in a vacuum and had no bearing on the characters or relationships that had developed since 2017. That's certainly true in terms of Riverdale's many romances: Archie and Betty worked toward an engagement for years before finally making it official in Season 6, but in the 1950s, Archie spent months oblivious to Betty's crush on him. Unexpected pairings — at one point, Archie and Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) considered getting married — further complicated ships believed to be endgame, including that of the show's main queer couple, Cheryl and Toni Topaz (Vanessa Morgan). The series finale revealed "Choni" got their happy ending "after living full, gorgeous, sexy lives," but the same can't be said for "Barchie," who shared one last kiss before going their separate ways.
While some of these criticisms are valid, particularly the Barchie of it all, Riverdale's swan song doesn't deserve to be maligned as "the worst season of the show," as many have complained. Even though they existed outside the contours of the rest of the series, the final 20 episodes returned to what Season 1 did so well: prioritize these characters and their coming-of-age journeys over ridiculous, supernatural-tinged plot twists.
A large part of what made Season 1 so successful was its embrace of neo-noir: Underneath The Town With Pep's bright exterior was a darkness powerful enough to consume entire generations of families. The first season emphasized the all-too-human nature of that darkness via the murder of Jason Blossom (Trevor Stines), who was killed for threatening to expose his father Clifford's (Barclay Hope) drug business, but over time, the show became less and less tethered to reality — something it shared with its comic source material, which inspired many of these outlandish turns. Storylines involving the Gargoyle King and the Mothmen flirted with the paranormal, but in Season 6, Riverdale finally crossed that line when it swapped out grudge-holding gangster Hiram Lodge (Mark Conseulos) for an actual supervillain, Percival Pickens (Chris O'Shea), a mind-controlling sorcerer acting on behalf of the devil in "the battle for Riverdale's soul." The arc was so outrageous (and required so many monologues laying out the root of Percival's issues) that it sucked all the air out of the drama, leaving little room for meaningful developments among the characters until after Percival was vanquished.
Though these supernatural events created the circumstances that sent Riverdale back in time — Tabitha Tate (Erinn Westbrook), the town's guardian angel, transported the gang to the 1950s to save them from the comet hurtling toward Riverdale — the final season wisely ignored matters of dark magic. In a nod to Season 1's animating conflict, the big mystery revolved around another deeply personal crime: the violent murder of Ethel Muggs' (Shannon Purser) parents.
The town's latest killer took inspiration from the fantastical pages of Pep Comics, but Season 7 never suggested he was anything but mortal. In fact, in another callback to the show's glory days, Clifford and Penelope Blossom (Nathalie Boltt) were behind the murders all along, as The Milkman's victims were executed after discovering their plot to make atomic bombs for the Soviets. As ridiculous as the reveal was (imagine if The Americans had ended with Philip and Elizabeth Jennings' arrest), it made perfect sense that the opportunistic, merciless Blossoms would be involved in something so insidious after years of masterminding similar schemes in the present day.
Interestingly, The Milkman investigation developed in fits and starts. It dominated the first half of the season, only to disappear for long stretches and then pop up again. That pacing reflected how many storylines the final season attempted to juggle, but it also betrayed the writers' priorities: For the first time in years, the central mystery took a backseat to matters of the heart and identity. The struggle between progressive and conservative values became a driving force, as Toni and new character Clay Walker (Karl Walcott) worked to uplift Black voices inside (and outside) Riverdale High, Betty fought back against her mother's (Mädchen Amick) influence and discussed her sexual urges in anonymous column The Teenage Mystique, and Archie questioned what it means to be "the man of the house." Reemphasizing these characters' emotional journeys and their real-world problems went a long way toward grounding the show, even in the face of the season's sillier developments, like Jughead and Ethel's underground comic book business.
And while the series may not have ended with every ship intact, denying certain parts of the fanbase a satisfying conclusion, the new pairings that were introduced, including Betty and Veronica and Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) and Clay, kept things interesting after so many seasons of relative stability. There were no horny teens left behind this season, and no obstacles left standing; the finale even revealed Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica spent senior year in a polyamorous quad. Embracing the full spectrum of sexuality ensured Riverdale ended its run by living up to its reputation as the "sexy Archie" show, a theme that was always far more interesting than yet another serial killer or cult storyline.
It wouldn't be accurate to say that Season 7 met the high bar set by the drama's debut outing — no season ever did — but at the very least, Aguirre-Sacasa made a concerted effort to capture its spirit. Regardless of where the final season winds up in the overall rankings, there's no denying that it forever cemented Riverdale's legacy as a show unafraid to embrace its weirdness, right to the very end.
Riverdale Season 7 is available to stream on The CW and premieres August 31 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.