Five Thoughts on Riverdale‘s “Next to Normal”

By | September 30th, 2021
Posted in Television | % Comments

Welcome back all you Riverdale fans! I have been reminded of why I love live performances, and specifically live music, twice in the last two days. The first was Summer of Soul. The second was this musical episode. Who woulda thunk it?

And as always, spoilers ahead.

1. Riverdale is a Strange, Strange Show

I was wondering last time where the last couple episodes of this season were going. Normally things ramp up until the finale, or at the very least the penultimate episode, but this season things seemed to all wrap up with “Dance of Death.” Well, as it turns out, there ISN’T any more escalation, at least not yet, and instead we’re doing something Riverdale doesn’t do often: slow down and honestly grapple with the people stuck in these larger-than-life events.

It’s not always successful, oftentimes a mix of moving interpersonal drama and silly, uncompelling ideas & dialog like in “Graduation”, but I always appreciate episodes like this coming after the culmination of the season’s batshit nonsense. And don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the batshit nonsense more than the tepid high school drama we got in season one but variety is the spice of life and if this amazing video that captures what it’s like to watch and review this show is any indication, Riverdale is the spiciest show of all.

2. Musical Melodies

Season 5 has had the most musical numbers of any season and so I thought we weren’t getting a full-on musical episode like seasons 2, 3, and 4 but it turns out I was wrong. I’m glad I was wrong a couple weeks back because this was by far the best musical episode thus far. It was cohesive, moving, and focused, the numbers didn’t feel out of place, and the musical performances were really good. Normally, I have a lot to gripe about but not this time. I was along for the ride and damn if it didn’t get me good.

3. Aristotle’s Poetics Has Nothing on Riverdale

So the actual plot of the episode centers on Betty and her mom, with asides to Veronica feeling aimless, Tabitha dealing with her snooty parents and maybe starting a relationship with Jughead, and Toni helping Brita becoming a recurring cast member for next season. It’s all really grounded compared to the usual shenanigans and part of that is to match the tone of the titular musical: “Next to Normal.”

Riverdale often tries to capture the feel of the musical it’s homaging – be it the dark comedy Heathers or the queer, socio-politcial, glam-rock Hedwig – to varying degrees of success. “Next to Normal” is probably the best thus far at capturing the spirit of the musical and then letting the episode’s plot reflect that. It focuses on Alice’s grief and denial, and the pain that’s causing Betty, contrasting it with the relative happiness of Jug & Tabitha, the final unraveling of Veronica & Archie, and the tentative hope of Brita, with just a dash of Penelope being flicked with holy water.

The usual neon soaked, pulp hyper-reality is replaced, for the most part, with the muted, slow-moving, and reflective hyper-reality of a family drama, Broadway book musical. It developed the plots and intertwined them so that, by episode’s end, we had reached an emotional climax and set a new status quo. It felt like an arc and, most importantly, spent the most screen time on the central conflict rather than dividing it up too much between the competing plots. It’s good, it’s effective, and it properly supports what the episode wanted to accomplish. Well done team.

4. Sing A Song of Sadness

Maybe it was the songs, maybe it was my mood, or maybe it was the writing clicking into place but I cried a lot in “Next to Normal.” I’m a weepy person when hit with a good musical cue so that may not be the best benchmark. However, I think “Next to Normal” was still successful at getting me to genuinely, rather than reflexively, emote.

It was hard to watch Alice slip away into her fantasy land, even if the numbers were lots of fun and the best use of Charles thus far. It was harder watching Betty try to get Alice to be present, to be with her rather than her dead sister and her serial killer brother. It was hardest watching Alice do what she always did – pick someone else over Betty – and Betty having to come to terms with her own role in reinforcing that during the seven year break. I have been harsh on Betty for not confronting her mother for her emotionally abusive and estranging actions, though much of what I pick up on is a result of the inconsistent writing of the show, but I also know how hard that can be.

Continued below

You love this person. You care and you want them to see you and be there for you and to be the person you once thought they were. Alice is her mom and Alice does care. She was hurt by Betty leaving, even though Betty needed to leave, and that hurt is manifesting now in toxic ways because she just lost the child that stayed. She felt she’d already lost Betty and so…who else does she have left?

She cannot see that Betty has returned but that her fantasies are creating a potentially self-fulfilling possibility. She can’t see that Betty cares because Polly and Charles have always existed within the show as fantasies within her mind: the perfect daughter who would do anything for her mom and the lost son, returned home after so many years. They’ve never been real to her. They’ve never shattered the illusion, try as their real counterparts might. Betty is real and messy and there, a reminder of the harsh light of reality and all the pain it brings.

Grief is hard, and family is harder, and the bittersweetness of the episode reflects that in a way I can’t help but connect to.

5. What’s Next?

Season 5 is almost over. I haven’t seen the stinger for the finale so I am truly in the dark as to what’s coming. I do know that Alice and Betty can finally, truly mourn the loss of Polly over her sandstone pink gravestone, likely a donation by Cheryl. I know that Veronica is heading back to New York City, possibly with Reggie in tow, as she pursues the things that make her feel fulfilled, while Tabitha and Jughead try to make a relationship work.

I know that Fangs and Toni are making their parenting arrangement a bit more official and that Kevin still hasn’t been given anything meaningful to do on his own since his and Fangs’ breakup. I know that Hiram is out there somewhere and that Archie wants to do right by his town and his buds, even if that means he and Veronica cannot be together. I know that Cheryl has a ward in Brita and a devil for a mother.

What I don’t know is what any of that means for the finale. We shall see, I’m sure. After an episode as meaningful as this one, the tonal whiplash will likely be immense but that too, is Riverdale, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Well, maybe I could ask for more Edgar Evernever rockets and less drawn out VHS tapes.

That about does it for now! What did you all think of the episode? Was it a good change of pace? A bad one? Did you cry like I did? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you next week for the season 5 finale, where anything can, and probably will, happen. Until then, stay sappy Riverdale.

Best Line of the Night:

Alice: “What’s that?”

Betty: “Polly’s ashes. I thought having them might bring you some comfort or closure.”

Dream Polly: “That can’t be right. I’m sitting right here. Tell Betty to stop being a brat.”

//TAGS | Riverdale

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after winning the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and has finally updated his profile photo again.


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