Riverdale’s return to the ’90s is the show at its nonsensical batshit best

“The Midnight Club” might be Riverdale’s wildest episode yet. And look, that’s saying something.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 4 through 10 is “Chapter Thirty-Nine: The Midnight Club,” the fourth episode of the third season of The CW’s Riverdale.

Since its first episode, Riverdale has been an ultra-meta fever dream of a show, a vast, churning stew of winking pop culture references and plot lines that play as though the writers’ room picked up both a newspaper from the 1980s and a 10th-grade English class syllabus, proceeded to do, like, all the acid there is, and then said, “Well, there’s gotta be a season of TV in here somewhere!”

It is a show whose current storylines involve one teen being forced to participate in an underground prison fight club, another teen operating a (non-alcohol-serving) speakeasy out of the milkshake shop she owns while also being blackmailed by her drug lord father, and two more investigating a string of murder-suicides apparently inspired by a dangerous game called Gryphons and Gargoyles.

It is also a show where an apparently big-time mobster decided to make an incredibly stupid teenage boy his second-in-command and everyone around him just went, “Yeah, that seems like a good way to operate your business”; a show with a maple syrup sex/drug cult; a show where, when a teenage girl is menaced by a serial killer, she makes sure to put on her hunting cape before shooting him with a bow and arrow — and that’s not even the most absurd thing that happens in that episode.

I’m telling you all this so that when I say “The Midnight Club” is maybe the wildest episode of Riverdale yet, you understand that the superlative truly means something.

“The Midnight Club” captures Riverdale’s madcap absurdism

The cast of RiverdaleCW
The Midnight Club plays some Gryphons and Gargoyles.

“The Midnight Club” is Riverdale’s tribute to the ’90s, if we understand the ’90s to mean roughly 1985 through 2003. (It’s a Breakfast Club tribute scored to the music of the ’80s, but the clothes are mid- to late ’90s, basically.) The episode takes the form of an extended flashback to the high school days of the main (teenage) cast’s parents, and while it’s ostensibly meant to give us a backstory for the parents and their deep hatred of the game Gryphons and Gargoyles, all of that is gravy, and the show knows it.

Really, what “The Midnight Club” does is give Riverdale an excuse to a) indulge in nonstop absurdity, and b) have its teen leads recreate the iconic ’90s performances of the famous actors who play their parents on the show. It does not disappoint.

At some undefined time in the ’90s, we learned this week, all of Riverdale’s adult characters were in the same class at Riverdale High. (Yes, this does mean that all the adults are the exact same age and they all had their kids in the exact same year. Go with it.) Most of them were strangers, but when they were all assigned Saturday detention together, they formed an unlikely bond. They further cemented that bond when they all became addicted (as you do) to the Satanic pleasures of Gryphons and Gargoyles — until one especially vigorous game of G&G ended with the principal … dead.

One of Riverdale’s favorite meta devices is to cast former teen stars in the roles of its adult characters. Archie’s parents are 90210’s Luke Perry and John Hughes muse Molly Ringwald (she goes unmentioned in this episode, despite the plentiful Breakfast Club references, but fellow Hughes alum Anthony Michael Hall shows up to play the doomed principal). Betty’s mom is Twin Peaks’ Madchen Amick. Jughead’s dad is Scream’s Skeet Ulrich.

All of that means that when the kids in the main cast were tasked with playing their characters’ parents in “The Midnight Club,” there was plenty of documentary evidence for them to use as research — which the rest of us can now compare them to.

The eeriest resemblance here comes from K.J. Apa, who clearly put some time into learning Luke Perry’s forehead-wrinkling school of emoting. (The always-solid Cole Sprouse seems to have mostly relied on his Skeet Ulrich wig for his impression, and it more or less works.) But the most compelling performance comes from Lili Reinhart, who seems to revel in getting the chance to shed her plucky, tense Betty Cooper image and go full bad girl with hair-pulling, leather-jacket-wearing teen Alice. And while her wig might not quite live up the majesty of Amick’s Twin Peaks-era hair — even if Alice’s flashback voiceover does describe it as “enviable” — Reinhart has Amick’s smile and mannerisms down cold.

The rest of the teen cast doesn’t get quite so literal with their performances (Marisol Nichols, who plays Veronica’s mother in the present day, was a bit of bombshell, but Camila Mendes does a lovely job playing the teen version of the character as a mouse), but they’re still clearly having a ball ditching their familiar characters for new territory. And when the flashback becomes a long acid trip of a sequence where the whole cast starts running around the school in Renaissance Faire garb and hosting impromptu concerts while hallucinating gargoyle-masked monsters everywhere — well, then the rest of us are all having a ball, too.

On any other show, it would be a disappointment to leave behind the fever dream joys of the extended flashback sequence and go back to boring old everyday Riverdale. But Riverdale, bless its batshit heart, gives us the gift of ending The Midnight Club with Jughead locked in an underground survivalist bunker, strung out on Gryphons and Gargoyles (in this universe, role-playing games apparently have known hallucinogenic properties), raving about how he’s about to ascend to the next level and meet the Gargoyle King. This is Riverdale at its best, when it never met a pinnacle of absurdity that it couldn’t immediately top.

For most of the second season, Riverdale was not at its best. It languished in a disappointing gang storyline that dragged on forever without once finding an effective tone, and it sidelined some of its best characters into side plots that went nowhere. (Oh, Cheryl Blossom, what is to be done with you?) The madcap glee of “The Midnight Club” is an encouraging sign that Riverdale is on its way back to the unhinged nonsense that makes it great — but even if it isn’t, even if Riverdale never quite returns to its former self, this is still a beautifully ridiculous episode of television.

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8 pm Eastern on The CW.