This post contains spoilers for Riverdale Season 4, Episode 3.
Riverdale fans, this week’s installment had everything: Jughead finding out he’s maybe not as great a writer as he thought, Toni finally finding out that Cheryl has been palling around with her brother’s corpse in the family chapel, and perhaps most importantly, Chad Michael Murray playing a cult leader preparing to take off on a rocket while wearing an Evil Knievel jumpsuit. But perhaps most importantly, Wednesday’s episode advanced pretty much all of the season’s central plot points—especially the increasingly twisty mystery surrounding Jughead’s disappearance.
In fact, given certain hints dropped in the past two episodes, an uncommonly compelling fan theory has developed—one that posits this whole mess might be one giant literary reference. If so, that’s good news—because it would mean that although Jughead has disappeared and his friends have been seen burning his beloved hat, Riverdale’s resident weirdo is still alive.
The Jughead-centric panic began with Season 3’s finale, which saw Archie, Veronica, and Betty standing over a bonfire, covered in blood and stripped down to their underwear. Archie held Jughead’s hat, which also appeared bloody—and Jughead himself was nowhere in sight. Betty instructed the group to burn everything and not to speak to one another after the school year ends. The cliffhanger prompted an obvious question: Would Riverdale ever kill Jughead? (Our educated guess, for the record, is hell, no.) The cliffhanger takes place after a time jump, and this season has not yet caught up to it. But the questions only multiplied after last week’s installment, which included a flash forward of its own to the group searching for Jughead in the woods. Evidently, he disappears at some point this season—so once again, fans naturally wondered if he might be dead. But a book Veronica happened to be reading appears to suggest another possibility—and there’s actually reason to believe this fan theory might be on to something.
As one viewer pointed out on Reddit following last week’s episode, Veronica is reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The novel unfolds as a detective story, told by a character named Richard who befriends a group of students at an elite school by lying about his working-class background. The group eventually murders a fellow student, and Richard plays a part in covering up the crime. What a coincidence, then, that Jughead just transferred to the exceedingly fancy Stonewall Prep last week. Among his classmates? An elitist student named Bret Weston Wallis—an obvious reference to Tartt’s former classmate, Bret Easton Ellis. This week the two boys clash: Bret taunts Jughead about his upbringing in a trailer park and among gang members, and both boys are jealously competitive over their writing abilities. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the name of a female student in their writing workshop: Donna Sweett.
Riverdale loves to play with pop culture references, and this is an intentionally on the nose example (and a pretty highbrow one to boot). Perhaps the group’s blood-soaked, half-naked rendezvous in the woods is simply an attempt to cover up some gruesome deed Jughead got involved in. Or perhaps, as we posited after the Season 3 finale, Jughead is faking his own death, with the group serving as accomplices. The possibilities are infinite—but this feels like another solid piece of evidence that Jughead is alive and, we hope, at least mostly well.
That said, his situation does remain precarious. Bret has locked Jughead into an intense game of psychological warfare, seemingly motivated by little more than their differing backgrounds and their competition over writing. How amusing, then, that when it came time for the class to submit competing detective stories, it was Donna who won the challenge—and her two boastful, male classmates who tied for last place. Complicating the situation is Moose, who now attends Stonewall Prep as well, under the new name Marmaduke. (Moose would prefer that his classmates not know about his father committing murder while impersonating the Gargoyle King last season—or that afterward he was institutionalized due to a nervous breakdown, from which he says he’s since recovered.) Too bad that Bret decided to get to Jughead this week by revealing this backstory to the entire school.
And there’s one more thing that’ll likely remain on Jughead’s mind: Betty’s mother, Alice, might have managed to fatally shoot cult leader Edgar Evernever—played with extraordinary panache by a sometimes-shirtless Chad Michael Murray—but it appears he and The Farm are not done haunting the Coopers yet. At the end of this week’s installment, just as Betty told Jughead how relieved she was that the nightmare was “over,” her doorbell rang. She and Jughead found a VHS tape sitting on the doorstep. Just what they both needed: yet another thing to worry about next week.