The Season 4 premiere of Riverdale arrived on Wednesday night with an agenda of unfinished business and a script that was written and performed through tears. The episode, “Chapter Fifty-Eight: In Memoriam,” was a months-in-the-making tribute to the late Luke Perry, the beloved actor who died in March at age 52.
It’s been seven months and five days since Perry died in the wake of a massive stroke but the producers of Riverdale felt they couldn’t shoehorn a meaningful and fitting tribute into Season 3, which was already winding down. Skimping on a tribute to Perry was not an option for the soapy teen drama either.
Perry’s death was a heartrending loss for the Riverdale cast and crew and an emotional blow for fans of both Riverdale and the former Beverly Hills 90210 star. Perry, who portrayed Fred Andrews, father of Archie (KJ Apa) and husband to Mary (Molly Ringwald), had been a cast member since Season 1 (2017) and appeared in 47 episodes.
Perry made his last on-screen appearance in Episode 19, which aired April 24, about two months after the Ohio-born actor’s death in Burbank. California. Before Wednesday night’s premiere episode, the absent Fred was simply “away on business” within the narrative of the series.
That changed early in Wednesday night’s episode when Fred’s son, Archie (Apa), gets an incoming call on his cell phone with his father’s name and face on the screen. The voice on the line, however, belongs to a somber-speaking lawman. Watching with concern are the three other central characters — Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart), Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) — and they rush to the shellshocked Archie as he drops the phone and crumples to his knees.
The news is grim, of course. Fred Andrews is dead, killed by a hit-and-run driver up near Cherry Creek. The earnest Fred had stopped on the roadside on Route 80 to help a stranded motorist when a third vehicle struck him and kept going.
The episode then gives way to poignant remembrances of Fred, the engaged father, the empathetic stalwart of the community, the easy listener and quiet talker…all eulogies by proxy for Perry, who was hailed as a heartfelt presence within the ensemble and the industry. One of Perry’s close friends, his Beverly Hills 90210 costar Shannen Doherty, was a special guest star on Wednesday, giving the memorial episode a sentimental bridge to Perry’s past and wider fanbase.
The episode follows Archie and his friends as they go to Cherry Creek to arrange for the release of his father’s body. They visit the scene of the hit-and-run, a scenic stretch of a lonely country road, where they meet a mystery woman who is leaving flowers at the site. Archie suspects she may be the guilty motorist but the brunette stranger reveals that she was the stranded driver that Fred stopped to help.
Through tears she explains that Fred was removing her flattened tire when a car came hurtling toward them. She froze but the selfless Fred pushed her to safety. The motorist, portrayed by Doherty, sums up the tragic event: “Nobody would stop but your dad did,” she tells Archie. “He talked about you the entire time…he saved my life. If he hadn’t done what he did I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be here now.”
Doherty’s character, who is never named, then leads Archie and his friends in a poignant prayer. The scene is fleeting but effective. The show moves on without Doherty or her character returning. Though brief, the appearance was a wrenching task for Doherty, as she has explained publicly. She agreed to do it only after securing the blessing of Perry’s family and manager.
After the roadside revelations, the tragic context of Fred’s death starts to rip Archie up as he wrestles with a sacrifice that seems senseless and random in his bitter view. The episode eventually leads to Apa’s enraged character directly confronting the driver of the car but it doesn’t go as expected. The guilty party is a scared, unlicensed teenager who had snuck out in the family car. Archie’s anger hits a brick wall when he looks at the culprit and sees only himself.
The hit-and-run mystery is resolved as a subplot, which shows tasteful restraint by the producers. An extended whodunnit in this instance would have stretched Fred’s death (and, by extension, Perry’s passing) out beyond the boundaries of respect.
Overwrought, Archie progresses through grief as the story continues with emotional scenes of the procession, the funeral, his eulogy, and a somber Fourth of July that’s dotted with snapshot moments of a community coping with the loss and watching fireworks fade in the night sky.
But grief, ultimately, is an interior conversation, so the fitting final scene shows Archie alone with his thoughts and memories, fighting back tears as he sees his father’s face in the form of flashback memories. The montage of scenes with Perry is shown without dialogue while evocative music plays, a choice that respectfully (and smartly) keeps the weight of Perry’s absence intact. The episode goes dark and then a simple title card: “In Loving Memory, Luke Perry 1966-2019.”
Even before the characters got the grim news, the episode had a melancholy, forlorn feel to it. Even the discussion of a camping get-a-way, for instance, was laced with talk of finalities and farewells. “Remember this could possibly be our last summer to do this,” says Betty, “because next year we’ll be getting ready for college.”
Early in the episode, the planning of the town’s first Independence Day parade in years became a topic of angst, a scenario that will likely be echoed during the season in broader ways as the tug of the future pulls the circle of young adults away from aspects of tradition, the past, their childhood assumptions and, yes, their parents.
At New York Comic Con this past weekend, showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa said the transition tonalities are natural themes for this senior-year season: “The one thing bringing the parents together this year is the kids are graduating and the theme is seeing all the kids become adults.”
The impressive Season 4 premiere finished as the rarest of accomplishments for a melodramatic primetime television show: compelling fiction tailored to contain emotional real-life resonance. On top of that, the one-hour drama delivered a heartfelt and burnished tribute to Perry that also functioned as a vivid, major moment in the local history of Riverdale, the personal growth of Archie Andrews, and the broadcast life of a teen drama that’s growing up. The episode was directed by Gabriel Correa working from a script by Aguirre-Sacasa.