Yes, this episode is a year old. Yes, it’s the only full episode I’ve seen since season three. Yes, I only have an incredibly vague understanding of the plot at this point. Yes, I’m writing this article anyway.
Okay. So. Riverdale obviously is no stranger to musical episodes, though the only other one I’ve seen was the Heathers episode. I’m going to be up front here: I’ve only seen approximately half of season three, and my sister solely convinced me to watch it because I think Madelaine Petsch (Cheryl Blossom) is gorgeous. Recently my roommate and I were talking about different shows and the absolute BS they get up to sometimes, and that led us to discovering that apparently there are superpowers and more cults and serial killers on Riverdale now, but that was overshadowed by the fact that they used my favorite musical of all time in a musical episode. Naturally I was curious, but instead of watching the playlist of just the music that I found, I decided to watch the entire episode to gain a little more context.
And. Holy crap.
What is Next to Normal?
Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, was written and first performed back in 2008, opening on Broadway in 2009. That same year, it won three Tony Awards of the 11 it was nominated for. It’s largely a rock musical, though it has some slower songs as well. I first watched it in tenth grade (that being early 2018) when I went on a field trip with my creative writing class. I fell in love as soon as the overture started, and when I tell you this musical made me cry many times—
The summary is as follows: “A suburban household copes with crisis and the unpredictability of a mother’s worsening bipolar disorder.” It’s a short and basic summary, but yeah, that captures the biggest picture of the musical, which deals with loss, substance abuse and mental health. It’s not for everyone, and even touches on topics of suicide as well. I’m not sure if I’ll need to discuss this in relation to the Riverdale episode, so be aware of that.
There are very few characters in Next to Normal: (SPOILER ALERT)
Diana: “A suburban mother. Sharp. Delusional bipolar depressive. Thirties or forties.”
Gabe: “Diana’s son who died as a baby. He comes back to her in visions as a teenager.”
Dan: “Diana’s husband. Handsome. Genuine. Constant. Tired. Thirties or forties.”
Natalie: “Diana’s daughter. Sixteen and trying to be perfect. It’s not going well.”
Henry: “Musician. Romantic. Stoner. Slacker. Philosopher king. Seventeen.”
Doctor Madden (Doctor Fine): “On the young side of ageless. Assured. A rock star.”
You can already see from these descriptions that were in the script of the show where the plot might be going. I truly suggest listening to the soundtrack if you can’t find a recording of a performance; even just the music gives a good picture of the story.
Where are we in Riverdale?
Alright, Riverdale. So we’re at the tail end of season five at this point, and I very solidly do not know what’s happening, so I took the liberty of reading the summary of the prior episode to kind of figure out what I’ve missed. So here are what I think are the key points:
- Betty and Tabitha (I don’t know who Tabitha is?) spent ten nights on the Lonely Highway trying to either catch the serial killer or stop murders and abductions by said serial killer. I think there’s also some blackmail and other murder or at least illegal things happening here?
- Veronica and Chad start to finalize their divorce (I did not know Veronica got married?). I also do not know who Chad is.
- I think there’s more cult stuff going on with Penelope and Kevin but I’m not sure.
- This: “Chad retreats to Hiram to report that he and Veronica are proceeding with the divorce. Chad keeps hoping they might reconcile, But Hiram assures him they won’t so long as Archie is around, as he’s Veronica’s greatest weakness. If Chad wants to save his marriage, he’s going to have to kill Archie, which Hiram assists with by handing him an untraceable ghost gun.” Alright.
- Cult stuff with Cheryl???
- Then awhile after Chad tries to kill Archie: “Veronica shows up at Archie’s with the divorce papers. This leads to the estranged lovers having sex in Archie’s bedroom.” Okay, sure.
- It’s at this point that I really stopped knowing what’s happening, so I apologize. This is going to seem a bit less coherent than it already was and I will be skipping a lot.
- Also. This is an incredibly long plot description, there’s so much going on, but aren’t these episodes only like 50 minutes long???
- “A battle for control of the gun ensues, which ultimately ends with Veronica killing Chad as Smithers enters the apartment.” OKAY SURE.
- Alright, I think this is the most important part of the episode: “With Dreyfus’ guidance, Betty and Alice make their way to the junkyard, where they find Polly’s body in a trunk of an old car.”
I understood very little of that, and refuse to believe that all really happened in only one episode, but I do understand that a serial killer killed Polly, Betty’s sister. Okay. Time to watch the next episode.
“Just Another Day”
The episode begins with Betty and the gang drinking together after Polly’s death, and we learn that Polly’s twins (I KNEW she had twins but they weren’t mentioned when I looked up this episode) are staying with Cheryl for a couple days. Which also puts into perspective for me how long it’s been since I’ve seen Riverdale because I’m pretty sure they were newborns last I checked. They aren’t now.
Betty then talks about her mom and that her mom is listening to Next to Normal on repeat. Apparently Alice had taken Betty and Polly to see it on Broadway for Mother’s Day one year, which… I mean, it’s a great show, so I’m not judging there, but I’m assuming this is pre-Riverdale which would could also imply that Betty and Polly were young teens at that point, and also, for Mother’s Day?? Anyway. Betty draws the parallels between her family and the family in Next to Normal, though in some fairly superficial ways—that Diana wants a perfect family but is lying to herself, she fights with Natalie, she and Dan don’t love each other anymore, Gabe is dead.
We then cut to Alice singing the first song, “Just Another Day,” with some changes. Rather than “my son’s a little sh*t,” she sings, “my son’s a little odd,” losing the punch there. I mean, come on, Riverdale, you’ve definitely said sh*t before. The dialogue between Diana and Natalie is cut out; so are Natalie and eventually Dan’s verses, so we skip right to the chorus. I should also mention all the characters in this scene are dressed akin to the original Archie comics.
Polly sings the line “feeling like I’ll live forever,” which is interesting to note since that’s a line of Gabe’s, who is, of course, dead. She continues with “feeling like this feeling never goes away,” a line of Natalie’s that really doesn’t mean much without her verse that includes the line “some days I think I’m dying, but I’m really only trying to get through [just another day].” We skip from there to the next chorus, omitting Dan’s verse, and Betty gets Dan’s lines. The record begins skipping on Diana’s (and here, Alice’s) line “what doesn’t kill me doesn’t kill me,” leaving her to repeat “doesn’t kill me” again and again, and thus ends the song.
We return to Betty taking Alice out of her own mind. Alice gets up from where she was, with family home movies on and looking at a photo album, saying she’s going to take a nap.
Alright, that’s that scene. I understand the removal of Dan’s verse, given that Betty’s dad is a serial killer and also dead. The removal of the dialogue between Diana and Natalie also makes sense, especially since it ends, “I’m going to have sex with your father.” Skipping out on the last bits of the song, including the bridge and Diana’s final lines, also makes sense. But I can’t get over the removal of Natalie’s verse after that. I feel like it would’ve showcased how Betty is feeling in the moment in a way, but given that the number was inside Alice’s mind, this cleaned-up version makes more sense thematically. So it can stay … for now.
“I Miss the Mountains”
In-between, Archie and Veronica decide to move in together. Toni (who is apparently a social worker) learns that one of her queer students, Britta, has been living under the stairwell at school. The cut between her learning that and talking with Britta and another social worker is … really fast? Like in a pressed-for-time, kind of awkward way. Britta was kicked out by her parents, saying “They blamed me getting kidnapped by those crazy brothers on my deviant gay lifestyle.” I’m pretty sure that’s referencing the previous episode.
We return to Betty and Alice after this, with Alice still looking at photo albums. Betty asks Alice to join her on a hike around the river, and notes that Alice is not moving on. Alice then talks about other memories with Betty and Polly, especially a trip to the mountains they took. That moves right into the song, “I Miss the Mountains.”
While a solo in the musical, this song is now a duet between Alice and Betty. The duet aspect makes it sound a lot different in how the lyrics are sung:
Betty: “Mountains make you crazy.”
Alice: “Here it’s safe and sound.”
Betty: “Your mind is somewhere hazy.”
Alice: “My feet are on the ground. Everything is balanced here and on an even keel. Everything is perfect…”
Betty: “Nothing’s real.”
Imagine those lines being sung by one person, one of the most moving (in my opinion) songs of the first act. It’s literally about the highs and lows of emotions, something Diana believes she doesn’t experience anymore thanks to her medication. With her medication, she doesn’t think she feels anything, leading her to end the song by pouring her medications in the trash (or flushing them down the toilet, depending on the stage).
From that point as well, there are other differences in lyrics. Instead of continuing “I miss the mountains,” Betty continues, “I miss my mother, I miss my mom and I’m wandering through the wilderness…” I also have to note that Betty’s voice much better suits Diana’s than Alice’s, since Alice’s voice is softer and lacks the edge of Diana’s, but that’s beside the point. It’s interesting to note with the split lyrics as well that it paints Betty as processing her grieving in a way that’s good for her even though it hurts, while Alice leans into the delusion that everything’s fine, refusing to move on.
The song does end somewhat the same lyric-wise, though Betty repeats again “I miss my mother” instead of “I miss the mountains,” which again makes sense thematically for this episode. Still, without the realization of emotions Diana has, including the ending that forebodes what’s to come, this song lacks a lot of the emotional value that it has in the musical.
Then the title screen shows.
Did you know we’re not even ten minutes into this episode yet?
“Perfect For You”
At Pop’s, Tabitha (I think that’s her?), talks to her parents about the updates she’s made and is proud, but her parents aren’t very impressed with her and the fact that she’s dating Jughead and they will be joining them for dinner at a fancy restaurant. (She’s not actually. This is a fake dating thing, though he notes that she could just ask him to be her real boyfriend.)
Jughead notes that “Riverdale and the rest of the world are in a perpetual state of crisis. There’s no such thing as perfect timing,” leading him into “Perfect For You.” Not gonna lie, that’s actually a good transition, though the appeal of the original is that Henry is high as he sings this to Natalie.
The music for this seems off, like Jughead doesn’t start on the right cue, which for me throws off the entire first part of the song. Also, it throws me off that he says “I’m trying to tell you I like you” instead of “I’m trying to tell you I love you.” Come on, Jughead. Tabitha also offers no interjection like Natalie does. The next part of the song is omitted, though it has one of my favorite lines: “We dance on the edge of destruction,” which I think applies perfectly to this series.
The same can be said with “This small town is pretty much broken beyond all repair,” with “small town” replacing “planet.” And I mean, Riverdale is pretty screwed, but still. The octave drop with “perfect for you” was a little jarring, but I had to laugh when Jughead sang the line “I might be lazy, a loner a bit of a stoner” because??? I don’t remember Jughead being high at all during this series but if he was, the series suddenly makes a little more sense in my mind.
There are only two other small changes in the lyrics: “We’ll be the one thing in this town [world] that won’t hurt” and “I can’t fix what’s screwed [f*cked] up.” The latter makes a lot more sense to me than the former, like why not just keep “planet” and “world” throughout the song? The song is still right all these years later!
So this song actually fits pretty well with this episode in that, even though I don’t know much about Tabitha so the line “I’m just all nerves” doesn’t hit as hard, it’s a sweet, romantic moment like in the musical, sealed with a kiss between Jughead and Tabitha.
During the musical, this song would go into “I Miss the Mountains.” Instead, we go directly into the second song in the musical…
“Everything Else” is supposed to be either a flashback or a dream/hallucination in this show, since Alice, Betty and Polly are all playing piano together, using the beginning lines about Mozart to, in fact, discuss Mozart. Switching the lines “flat f*cking crazy” with “totally crazy” and “batsh*t, I hear” with “bonkers, I hear,” really reduces the joke and frustration Natalie has with playing the piano, especially since neither of the sisters is playing piano at the moment.
This is revealed to be a hallucination by Alice, as Betty walks into the background and sees Alice sitting alone at the piano, singing the song. The song ends with the line “everything else goes away” before Natalie’s large moment of frustration and anxiety, this taking away what’s most crucial to the song itself. Apparently Alice ordered the piano recently, reminiscing on the piano lessons she used to give Betty and Polly. Alice denies an invitation to dinner with Veronica and Archie, since she’s cooking “Polly’s favorite, meatloaf, for all of us.” I can already see the foreshadowing in that…
“Superboy and the Invisible Girl”
At Veronica and Archie’s, Archie and who I think might be one of his roommates get a phone call after sitting down for dinner that Veronica made, and have to go, since they’re volunteer firefighters (I think). Jughead then, after an awkward moment, says he’s going to eat in the garage which Veronica literally instantly agrees with.
This leads into “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” which I hate. Not the song, the song is very powerful, but the situation. The point of this song is that Natalie is telling both Henry and Diana that she feels like Diana doesn’t see her, instead only caring about her dead brother (this would be after the songs “It’s Gonna Be Good” and “He’s Not Here” but in this episode, this comes before and in a different situation). Gabe is the Superboy, and Natalie is the Invisible Girl.
Veronica, here, is the Invisible Girl, while Archie is the Superboy. The way she sings the beginning is so angry, whereas Natalie is resigned, tired, depressed. After the first lines, she skips right to “I wish I could fly…,” a sequence of lines that brings Natalie face to face with her mom, who was listening. The lines end with “I’d fly far away from here,” giving Diana a harsh reality. Instead, Veronica has no confrontation, and simply wonders, “Would I fly away from here?” The ending doesn’t have as much impact without that confrontation, and without the duet between Natalie and Diana’s hallucination of Gabe. There’s an important difference between the two versions, that being Veronica’s being angry at the beginning but more sad towards the end, whereas Natalie is the opposite.
There just doesn’t seem to be much of an impact for me personally; when in this series has Veronica ever been invisible? She’s literally one of the main characters and is the one that is always the girlboss. So it doesn’t make as much sense to me as it would’ve had Betty sang this song and confronted her mother at that moment.
Guys. We’re barely a third of the way through this.
“It’s Gonna Be Good”/”[S]He’s Not Here”
“Superboy and the Invisible Girl” leads directly into these songs during the episode, no break whatsoever. The point of “It’s Gonna Be Good” is that Diana seems fine even though she hasn’t been taking her medication, leading to a disastrous dinner and Henry first meeting Natalie’s parents, which then plays into “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” “He’s Not Here” comes as Dan reminds Diana that Gabe isn’t alive, and died as an infant.
Charles, Betty’s brother (half-brother?) takes the role of Dan during “It’s Gonna Be Good” as part of Alice’s hallucination, and wow I am not a fan of this arrangement of the song. I don’t know what era it’s supposed to sound like but it sure is not the era Riverdale or Next to Normal is in. After the line “my family and me,” the song skips right to the end. Betty walks in then, seeing that Alice prepared a huge meal. Alice is still seeing Polly and Charles, however, even though Betty says Alice is freaking her out.
Oh, I don’t think I mentioned this before, but I’m like 60 percent sure Charles is dead, too? His wiki page lists him as unknown but presumed dead, and also he was a serial killer too? This series really has an issue with serial killers.
Anyway, Betty gently reminds Alice that Polly and Charles aren’t really there, and shows Polly’s ashes as proof. This segues into “She’s Not Here,” a song that Dan sang to Diana in the musical, but works pretty well here as well with Betty singing snippets of it to Alice. Honestly, it’s kind of criminal how short of a section from an already short song they use. Betty then offers that they go see a Broadway show.
“Didn’t I See This Movie?”
Veronica wakes up alone the next morning, since Archie (or who she thinks is Archie) is in the shower, and instead she walks in on Jughead and, uh, I honestly think that’s Jughead’s dad, maybe? But Archie didn’t return home at night.
We then cut to Cheryl and her mom Penelope, where Penelope remarks that all Cheryl’s “congregants” left her and that Cheryl is praying to her “false gods.” I think Cheryl started her own religion/cult at some point? Cheryl then says that her devil is her mother, and…
…I have a lot to say about this song and this show. “Didn’t I See This Movie?” is the penultimate song of Act One, after Diana attempts suicide. It’s like she’s viewing herself in an out-of-body experience during this song without actually being out of her body, and the lyrics include “That hospital was heavy but this cuckoo’s nest is worse” and “So stay out of my brain” (after the doctor explains electro-convulsion therapy, which she will undergo). She doesn’t want to sign the confirmation papers to receive ECT.
So for Cheryl to sing this song to her mother and replace lines discussing hospitals with lines discussing religion, since that’s the basis of their argument and relates it back to the mansion (“That horror house was heavy but this mansion has it beat” to rhyme with “priest” in the previous line), feels like a slight to the original. The rest of that verse is the same, though.
It drives me crazy that this is played for comedy, with Penelope interjecting, “An exorcism, nightmare child? That’s rich,” before Cheryl dumped a chalice of holy water onto her and continued with the final verse. The song continues on the path, and while Madelaine slayed the vocals, I just can’t get behind this song in this context. It’s supposed to be a look into Diana’s mind, and I kind of hate that it’s played for laughs here.
“I’m Alive”/”I Am the One”
Reggie and Veronica then are in what I think used to be the Speakeasy beneath Pop’s, which now looks like a jewelry store? Interesting. They’re studying for Wall Street things, and Veronica seems to regret recent choices she made.
Betty is all set and ready for Broadway, but Polly pops up in Alice’s mind, bringing in “I’m Alive.” “I’m Alive” is one of my favorite songs in the entire musical. The description of this scene is as follows: “Diana visits a new doctor, who performs talk therapy and hypnosis on her. During their session, she sees Gabe, who asserts his dominance over her and the control he has in her life.” Essentially, during this song, he says “if you won’t grieve me, you won’t leave me behind” and “if you try to deny me, I’ll never die.”
Polly sings this song to Alice, and eventually Charles joins in, but the first verse is changed and chopped up so much that I feel like I can’t enjoy it? Lyrics are changed, some notes are changed, and it lacks all of the bite that the original has for me. Betty interrupts them after the line, “I’m alive, I’m right behind you” and launches right into “I Am the One.”
“I Am the One” is supposed to take place before “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” and is Dan telling Diana that he’s the one who’s been there all that time, not Gabe. I’m also noticing with this song that not all the cast are great at lip-syncing. That said, I think this is the most faithful to the original song in terms of lyrics, and it’s more enjoyable for me because of that.
And after all this, Alice mentions the seven-year gap that Betty didn’t return, and literally says “[Polly’s] dead because of you.”
There are still 20 minutes left in this episode. I hate it here.
“I’ve Been”/”Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling”
Leaving Pop’s, Tabitha’s dad talks to Jughead, telling him that Tabitha is “going through a phase” and that what they have is a “passing fancy.” His advice is to not show up to dinner, to which Jughead remarks that he reminds him of Hiram Lodge, Veronica’s dad who is one of the main antagonists of the show.
Later, Archie apologizes for missing dinner, and Veronica wants to talk about their relationship and future. He says that he sees himself still in Riverdale in five years, to which she seems disappointed.
Toni is looking into foster care for Britta, but nobody will take her. Fangs suggests that Cheryl takes her in, which not only doesn’t seem like a good idea because of Cheryl’s … whatever is happening with her religion, but also because it seems like at this point in the series, Toni and Cheryl are exes. Again.
Betty then talks to Kevin at his place, and says she’s scared for her mom’s mental health. She starts singing “I’ve Been,” another one of my favorite songs.
Look: “Dan returns home to clean up the scene of his wife’s attempt at suicide, narrowly avoiding a breakdown of his own as he reminisces about the years spent with Diana.” This is not a lighthearted song, and is supposed to hurt.
The song starts the same, but the process of grieving versus a mental illness, not to mention the contexts the song is sung in, are vastly different. Most of the song is skipped after the first verse for the lines “And I’ve never had to face the world…” to “mine is just a slower suicide.” Kevin jumps in with “But you can’t give up now,” an interjection that feels weird again because of the contexts. While Dan avoided a breakdown, it doesn’t seem like Betty was at risk of one at all. The line that follows, “‘Cause I’ve never been alone, I could never be alone” is replaced with “‘Cause she shouldn’t be alone, and you shouldn’t be alone,” as Kevin sings those to Betty. All of the emotional weight of this song is robbed from me in this scene.
Betty then wonders if her mom was right, that it’s her fault Polly died, launching Kevin into “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling.” This song is supposed to come after “I’m Alive.” Natalie and Diana make up the one side of the song while Dan and Diana’s doctor make up the other. This is a powerful song, bringing in allusions to “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” as well. This song is so short that it loses that power again.
“Hey #3/Perfect For You (Reprise)”
We then join Tabitha and her parents at dinner, and Jughead ends up coming after all. “Hey #3/Perfect For You (Reprise)” is what plays here, and again the emotional context is removed. This song is the last of the “Hey” series is described as follows: “At the dance, Natalie voices her concerns to Henry that she will someday end up with the same issues as her mother, though Henry promises to stand by her no matter what, and the two kiss.” This is after Natalie turns Henry down to the dance, after she had issues with substance abuse, but she’s there. With Jughead and Tabitha, it’s a tender moment before they leave the restaurant together and end up slow dancing together. I’m tired, so I’m not going to point out all the lyric changes in this song, but know that they’re there. It’s essentially filler instead of the end of a main storyline.
“Why Stay/A Promise”
Cheryl and Toni talk about Britta, and Cheryl says she’s surprised Toni trusts her with that. Toni says that Cheryl’s huge capacity for love is what Britta needs; Cheryl agrees to take in Britta.
Veronica talks to Archie about Chad, and that she’s starting to feel like she’s losing herself with Archie like she did with Chad, and that it would be best if they took a break for a while.
Betty’s back home with Alice; she took the record player out of the house. Betty apologizes for breaking her promise, but promises that she’s not leaving Alice alone ever. “Why Stay/A Promise” is edited down to just the latter section, in which Betty promises earnestly again that she won’t leave again. Without the beginning part, the emotional punch, the latter feels empty to me; here’s the description from the musical: “Diana questions Dan about why he stays, despite all of the things she puts him through and all the pain they have experienced together. He reminds her of their wedding vows and promises to see their relationship through, no matter how much she pushes him away.”
See what I mean?
“Maybe (Next to Normal)”/”Light”
Alice apologizes for what she said, leading into “Maybe (Next to Normal).” This is one of the strongest parallels: “Upon returning outside, she connects with Natalie for the first time, noting the similarities between the two of them and truly making an effort to connect with her for possibly the first time. They embrace and agree that somehow they will get a life somewhere next to normal.” This is the last song between mother and daughter, though Alice and Betty switch parts and the song is, of course, recontextualized to fit their situation. Again that sort of takes away some of the emotions from the original.
Alice then watches Polly and Charles leave.
In Pop’s, we learn there was a memorial to bury Polly’s ashes; Jughead quotes Shakespeare.
Cheryl and Britta are apparently doing well, according to Fangs and Toni. Toni tells Fangs she loves him; he reciprocates.
Alice is looking at another photo album in the dark. Betty sings “Light” and physically turns on the lights.
“Light” is the final song in the musical: “Dan says Gabe’s name for the first and only time in the show [after seeing him in “I Am the One (Reprise)”]. Gabe disappears, and Natalie returns home to find that her mother is gone. She continues her relationship with Henry, and Diana has moved in with her parents temporarily, still depressed but more hopeful than she’s ever been. Dan visits Dr. Madden, who gives him the name of another psychiatrist he can talk to. Gabe is seen by the audience one final time, this time relaying a message of hope as opposed to the threatening, ominous persona he has previously taken, and the family adjusts to their new way of life.”
We look to everyone else from the episode in flashes of verses as well, though the focus is on Alice and Betty in this song. As it should be. There don’t seem to be many changes apart from omitting some lines to fit the time constraints. I can’t say I hate this version of “Light,” though of course I prefer the original. We end during Polly’s memorial and on a picture of Polly, Betty and Alice next to the Next to Normal sign.
And… That’s It.
There are 36 total songs in Next to Normal, 19 of which weren’t used in this episode. I have to say, as much as I love some of those songs, I’m glad they weren’t used here. While some of these songs fit the episode well, others felt like a reach, and in terms of using this musical to show the grieving process outside of mental illness… Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Diana’s grief and her bipolar disorder are so intertwined with each other, and a lot of the songs are removed from the context of mental health and substance abuse that the musical has, and to me, that context is very important for the songs.
That said, honestly, I was expecting worse. Some of the scenes felt very out of place, but this is the second-to-last episode of the season; I understand some plotlines would need to be quickly resolved, though others, such as Veronica and Archie moving in and then almost immediately breaking up, seemed like filler for time. Time that could’ve been used for longer songs, but that’s just me.
So, yeah. These are all just my opinions, but I hope you decide to give Next to Normal a listen when you have the time!