*Potential spoilers ahead*
As many know, there are no shortage of problems with the CW show Riverdale (bad dialogue, flat and inconsistent characterization, predictable plot points, need I go on?). However, I realized while listening to the amazing Riverdale podcast The Riverdale Register what problem stopped me from closely watching season 3 of Riverdale–the show sets up expectations for viewers without following through or by following through in the most boring ways.
Most well-written books, shows, and movies implement foreshadowing (an indication of a future event) for the audience by revealing a tidbit of information that becomes important in later parts of the narrative. When writers circle back around to those earlier details or important plot points, the audience becomes satisfied that details they filed into their memory bank were actually given narrative purpose. And best of all, the writer's artistic choices appear intentional to their audience; they appear to have control of their narrative; details and events matter because every cause has an effect.
The screenwriting blog Screencraft explains the technique of plant and payoff extremely well in the article Best “Plant and Payoff” Scenes Screenwriters Can Learn From. The article even offers various examples from movies and shows appropriately using this technique of foreshadowing. But what is the plant and payoff technique?
As Ken Miyamoto outlines in his article, the plant and payoff technique is a form of foreshadowing that "[introduces] a story point" (the plant) with the story point returning to the narrative later on (the payoff). This writing technique offers viewers "an advance hint of what is to come later in the story." So when writers create story points for their audience and then offer no payoff, they leave viewers dissatisfied–which continuously happens in Riverdale.
In Season 2 episode 13, Archie finds out that the FBI agent, Agent Adams (a name that sounds like an alias and cements Archie as a gullible sap), that's been harassing/pressing him for incriminating information on the Lodges was in fact working for the Lodges all along. The whole ordeal was a scam and test of Archie's loyalty to Veronica and her family. In revealing this, Agent Adams, whose real name is Andre, takes Archie to some desolate place in the woods and with the words, "Here ya go, boss" hands Archie over to none other than Hermione Lodge. The show dramatically frames this meeting as some sort of large revelation and causes viewers to question if Hermione is the real mastermind behind the Lodge's plots instead of Hiram. During the scene, Hermione strongly states, "Agent Adams isn't real. He works for me, one of my capos. I asked him to apply a lot of pressure to you, threaten your father, even, see if you would crack."
Television shows are not exempt from open-ended interpretation; the ending of Lost is proof of this fact. But in my mind, this rendezvous between Hermione and Archie demonstrated that Hermione was the big bad, even worse than Hiram. Yet as it turns out, Hiram becomes the big bad for the second half of season 2 all the way to season 3, meaning he isn't under Hermione's thumb. Looking back, I wonder if the show just wanted an intense shot for the episode trailer and so they overdramatized the scene between Hermione and Archie. However the scene gave off the impression that there was subtext to pay attention to. That if the subtext was decoded, you'd find out Hermione was the Lodge behind everything. Instead of satisfying the audience by taking the plant (Hermione ordering one of her capos to deceive Archie) and paying if off later on (Hermione becomes the big bad), the audience is instead led down a more lackluster route in the show–Hiram, of course, was the one in control all along.
In season 3 Betty's mother sends her to the Sisters of Quiet Mercy in an effort to protect Betty from the Gargoyle King after the Gargoyle King invaded the Cooper home. At the Sisters of Quiet Mercy, Betty finds out that the Gargoyle King has a chamber in the facility where Quiet Mercy patients are occasionally sent. Viewers are led to believe that the Gargoyle King is lurking the halls of the Sisters of Quiet Mercy, manipulating and mystifying inpatients in his chamber, however we soon find out in the midseason finale of season 3 that the Gargoyle King isn't really appearing in the Sisters of Quiet Mercy at all. Instead the patients are hallucinating his appearance, a combination of Fizzle Rocks and a gargoyle statue stashed in the chamber and inducing these visions.
This storyline for Betty is just another example of Riverdale paying off plants in the most unsatisfying way for their viewers. Instead of the Gargoyle King being an actual entity entering the Sisters of Quiet Mercy, as to be believed by the audience, instead the show reveals a less engaging resolution in a gargoyle statue.
And finally, in the midseason finale of season 3, Hiram pulls some strings and Riverdale ends up quarantined. The audience is put under the assumption that no one can get in or out, specifically Jughead and F.P. who were on their way back to town. This assumption is only punctuation by the cops guarding the town's entrance, guns in hand, guns that they point in the direction of Jughead and F.P. upon the father and son's arrival. As a viewer, you expect some sort of plot line when the show returns of Jughead and F.P. attempting to get back into Riverdale, despite the quarantine. Instead we get this voiceover while Jughead freely walks in the halls of Riverdale High:
Wasn't Jughead just trapped outside of town, unable to get in? Were him and F.P. let back in? Why isn't more time spent on the quarantine when the midseason finale ended on a quarantine?
I vaguely remember episodes from the ABC show Once Upon a Time where characters occasionally were locked out of or trapped in Storybrooke most often by casted spells. Then an episode or two would be spent on characters trying to defeat this obstacle–showing the audience what transpired instead of telling the audience. The same should apply to Riverdale. How awesome would it have been to see Jughead and F.P. figuring out how to get back into Riverdale? Jughead's voiceover easily explains away an obstacle that the audience should have experienced with the characters.
Then again, I realize I'm asking for improvement of a show I'm no longer watching. Although I've brought up examples from season 3, For the sake of my sanity I stopped closely watching Riverdale at the start of the third season, sticking only to the midseason and season finales.
The show's writing lacks a sense of control as introduced plot points, events, characters, are seemingly forgotten by the writers or just written off in voiceovers. Some basic aspects of foreshadowing seem to not apply to Riverdale and audience expectations end up tarnished in the process. Oh Riverdale, if only you let your hinted plot points come to fruition. We'd have Hermione, the mama bear mob boss dispensing her capos all over town.
Admittedly, the show still has a bit of a hold on me because it once held so much promise and the show has been able to establish this uniquely retro, grungy, angsty atmosphere. Only, Riverdale has turned into a parody of itself. Maybe that was always the intention but I've grown tired of parodies, of satire. So many shows and movies seem to be satirical commentaries that only give writers an excuse to reuse old tropes and tired plots. I want originality. I want a serious, hard-boiled mystery that just so happens to have teens. But I suppose I must be realistic. I must ask not for a lot and expect even less. And Riverdale could prove me totally wrong. There could be some great twist where Hermione is revealed as the big bad; they flashback to time spent during the quarantine; they could start paying off various plants but... I just won't be around to see it.
If you're currently watching Riverdale, I'd love to know what you think about the current season! Are you confused? Do you love it or hate it? Are you indifferent? Have your thoughts about season 3 changed over time? Let me know with a comment down below.