SPOILER ALERT! This post contains details from the Season 7 premiere of The CW’s Riverdale.
It’s the beginning of the end for Riverdale. The series kicked off its final season on Wednesday, picking up where the last moments of Season 6 left off, after the characters were suddenly transported back in time to the 1950s right before Bailey’s comet decimated the town.
Archie, Betty, Jughead, Veronica and the rest of the gang are back in high school, in a decade that showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa says is “most associated with Archie Comics.” But while the season will certainly feel nostalgic, it also won’t shy away from the realities of the decade, Aguirre-Sacasa said.
“It would have been disingenuous to erase the real struggles and the real hardships that a lot of people in the 1950s faced, especially for our queer characters and our characters of color,” he told Deadline, adding that for Season 7 “the big bad would be the 1950s and society itself — how conformist it was, how repressive it was, how homophobic it was, how racist it was, how sexist it was.”
The writers make good on that promise right away in Episode 1, which centers heavily on the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers. Tabitha (Erinn Westbrook) and Toni (Vanessa Morgan) have just returned from Mississippi, where the trial had taken place. While many of the students and faculty are ready to ignore the news, the OG crew is not. Betty eventually helps Toni find a way to bring the injustice to everyone’s attention by reading Langston Hughes’ Mississippi — 1955 during the morning announcements. The move prompts a larger discussion about racism at Riverdale High, which was recently integrated.
We also learn throughout the episode that Jughead is the only one who remembers what happened before they were sent back in time. Tabitha (the version who is Riverdale’s guardian angel) visits him to let him know she is the one who sent them all back to save them from Bailey’s comet. While she figures out her next move, she tells him needs him to save the town from moral failing. And then she wipes his memory. Before he forgets, Jughead manages to write a reminder for himself to “bend toward justice.”
Aguirre-Sacasa spoke with Deadline about how the writers landed on the story for the first episode, how they crafted the final season around the oppression of the 1950s, and how the characters’ mission to fight injustice might save their future selves.
DEADLINE: When did you decide that you wanted the final season to be set in the 1950s, and how did you settle on this as the way to get there?
ROBERTO AGUIRRE-SACASA: We were towards the end of breaking Season 6. We were in the writers room, and Mark Pedowitz, who was then the head of The CW gave me a call. He and Michael Roberts called me and said, ‘We’re going to announce that Riverdale’s seventh season is its final season.’ We had been renewed, but we didn’t know if it was for our final season. So when that happened, it was obviously very bittersweet, but it was good timing because we were still about two episodes from the end of breaking Season 6. So we started talking about what Season 7 would look like, and spitballing on what would happen if we continued in the present and we continued with our characters in their mid-to late-20s. We had come up with some scenarios, but I think it resonated with us that this was our last season, and every season we explored a different genre or had a big conceit. It felt like the worst thing we wanted to do was have our last season be running on fumes. In a different conversation, Mark Pedowitz had mentioned to John Goldwater, who’s one of the executive producers of Riverdale, how he was sort of nostalgic for when the kids were in high school. And KJ Apa, who plays Archie, had called me and said, ‘Man, remember when I was on the football team, and I was a bulldog and there were cheerleaders?’ And we were all feeling kind of nostalgic for when the characters were in high school. The problem with going back to high school is we’ve done high school. We did four seasons of them in high school. As divisive as Riverdale can be, one thing that everyone delights in is every time we do a dream sequence or a fantasy sequence or flashback and we see the kids in their iconic Archie Comics 1950s outfits. For whatever reason, the 1950s is the decade most associated with Archie Comics. I remember saying that in the room, ‘What if we do go back to high school, but what if it is the 1950s?’ We started talking about that, and we started getting really, really excited. It felt that would allow us to go back to high school in a fresh way and get back to the original thesis of the show, which is that the Archie Comics present in a wholesome, innocent, all American kind of way, but that there might be some darker themes and darker issues and more primal desires and impulses roiling underneath the surface. The ‘50s is a great decade to explore that.
DEADLINE: Right. The first episode revolves heavily around the murder of Emmett Till. Why did you decide to open the season with that?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: When we decided to go to the ‘50s, I remember Erinn Westbrook, who plays Tabitha, and I talked about it. The conversation was, ‘Is this going to be an idealized 1950s, where there wasn’t racism and there wasn’t homophobia and there wasn’t repression?’ It would have been disingenuous to erase the real struggles and the real hardships that a lot of people in the 1950s faced, especially for our queer characters and our characters of color. And it felt like that would have been the wrong thing to do to pretend that none of that stuff existed. We ended Season 6 going back to the 1950s with the death of James Dean. And originally we were going to pick up with the death of James Dean and we do a little bit. But around the same time that James Dean died, there was the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, where they got acquitted. They were within weeks of each other Two very, very different stories, one of which was completely covered in the mainstream press, and one of which was not covered in the mainstream press. One everyone wanted to talk about and one people didn’t want to talk about unless it was in the Black press. It felt like if we were saying that Riverdale High had recently been integrated, there’s no way that our characters of color, Toni and Tabitha especially, who are so socially conscious and so outspoken, wouldn’t be talking about what happened with Emmett Till’s murderers at that trial. So it felt like that was a way to get into the season and start exploring those issues and thematics head on.
DEADLINE: Toward the end of the episode, we get a bit of an explanation as to what happened to send them to the 1950s. Tabitha tells Jughead that their goal now is to save the town from moral failing and bend the timeline toward justice. Can you explain what that means? And why was Jughead the only one to remember their past life?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: Regarding Jughead, we felt like because Jughead was the character most associated with the multiverse and with Tabitha, in Season 6, it felt like if anyone was would retain their memory, at least for a while, it would be Jughead. Every season, we introduced a big bad villain. In Season 6, that big bad was Percival Pickens, the immortal British time-traveling sorcerer. We played Hiram Lodge up as a villain [for multiple seasons]. We felt that for Season 7 though, there are villainous characters for sure, but really the big bad would be the 1950s and society itself — how conformist it was, how repressive it was, how homophobic it was, how racist it was, how sexist it was. What our characters would unite against is figuring out how to push against all the strictures and restrictions and backwards thinking in order to live their most full, authentic lives. We thought that it would be interesting to catch our characters on the cusp of a few huge societal changes, right when the civil rights movement was going to explode and right when the gay liberation movement was going to explode. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s and before things like the Vietnam War happened. We wanted to catch our characters in the throes of American society on the cusp of all these revolutions.
DEADLINE: Riverdale is often at its best when it’s self referential and meta. I imagine that is easier to do when your stories are more fantastical. How did you balance these big storylines about American oppression, which are incredibly timely and pull back the curtain on a not-so-distant past, while still having those lighter moments that do feel authentic to the show?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: It’s funny. I think we’ve made a really concerted effort to ground our storylines. We just really refocused our storytelling on the characters and their friendships and relationships and their internal personal struggles so that we can kind of explore both the fun of being a high school kid in the ‘50s, as well as these bigger societal shifts that were happening. So I think it’s about the storytelling becoming more grounded. We’ve had a lot of conversations in the writers room and we’ve had a lot of conversations with the actors and our directors on how to thread the tonal needle of these stories, and find the right balance.
DEADLINE: The episode ends with Jughead losing his memory of their lives in the future. But he manages to write the words ‘bend toward justice’ down before he forgets. Can you tease a bit about what’s in store? Will Jughead be at the forefront of that, even though he now doesn’t remember what those words even refer to?
AGUIRRE-SACASA: It is Jughead at the forefront, but really, it is all of our characters. They’ll all be pushing against these monoliths that are generational, that are societal, that are cultural, that are political. They’re all, in their own storylines and separately and together, pushing against that. Not just for each other but for their friends. In Episode 1, the idealized 1950s comes face-to-face with some really, really dark, disturbing truths about the 1950s. That starts all of our characters having a conversation. I think as Jughead says in his monologue, [a conversation] that many people weren’t having. That conversation will hopefully blossom into actions and then turn into either a quiet or a not-so-quiet revolution.