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Riverdale Boss Explains How the Show's Thoughtful Luke Perry Tribute Came Together

"It's an episode we never wanted to make"

Megan Vick

"It's an episode we never wanted to make." That's how Riverdale showrunner and executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa began a question-and-answer session with a small group of journalists following a screening of the Season 4 premiere recently. The premiere is titled "In Memoriam," and it is a 45-minute tribute to actor Luke Perry, who played Archie's (KJ Apa) father, Fred Andrews, for three seasons before passing away after a stroke last spring.

The creative team behind Riverdale decided not to address Perry's death on-screen when it happened, choosing instead to give themselves the summer hiatus to plan a tribute to the actor and the character in the right way. The episode kicked off with the town of Riverdale preparing for the Fourth of July, which has been a dark holiday ever since the series premiere, when Jason Blossom's body was found in Sweetwater River. And then Archie received a phone call and learned that his father was killed in a hit-and-run on his way home from Cherry Creek. He was told that transport had been arranged to bring Fred's body back to Riverdale, but due to the holiday weekend, it wouldn't make it there until July 5.

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The idea of his father staying alone in a foreign town didn't sit well with Archie, so the majority of the episode is dedicated to Archie bringing his father home, and accepting his death in the process. Perry's real life good friend Shannen Doherty appeared in the episode as the woman who Fred was helping on the side of the road when he was killed. He died saving her life.

It's a tearful, moving tribute to Perry, and the most grounded episode that Riverdale has ever delivered, completely free of serial killers, Gargoyle Kings, and ominous flash-forwards. Below, Aguirre-Sacasa explains why keeping a singular focus for this episode felt appropriate and how the death of Fred Andrews will cast "a long shadow" over the rest of the season.

Luke Perry, Riverdale​

Luke Perry, Riverdale


How did you even begin approaching this episode?
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: You know what, what helped us was that when when he passed, we very quickly made the decision that we weren't going to address it in the current season. We didn't want to rush it. We didn't want to sandwich it in between all the other plotlines. We just wanted to take our time and think about it. You know, we briefly thought that maybe something would happen at the end of the season that would signal it, and that felt a little cheap. So we thought, "Let's just hold it so that we could think about it over the hiatus and reflect on it." That was absolutely the right decision to do, and it kind of allowed us to absorb what had happened and really think about what kind of story we wanted to tell. That that's how we started -- by not thinking about it for a while.

Riverdale tends to be very crazy and heightened everything. When someone dies, obviously, you guys can go in very wild directions. When you approached this with Luke, how did you decide what you wanted to do?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Very early on, we landed on the idea that Fred should have a heroic death -- that that would be impactful for Archie. It felt like that that was a way that Fred could have gone. After that, we really, again, said that this episode really isn't going to launch any huge stories for the season. It was really going to be kind of focused on ... the kind of emotional effects of that passing for for everyone. ... As we were working on the episode, [we] talked about putting in some other storylines, but as we were working on it, we just kind of kept focusing it on our characters and focusing it truly on Archie. There there have been, sadly, a lot of tribute episodes on television. One of my favorites is the Friday Night Lights episode where the football player's father dies -- it's called "The Son." We kind of wanted to just tell a very grounded truthful story. That kind of became the organizing principle or, or the marching orders.

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Can you talk about the significance of Shannen Doherty being the character Fred saved?Aguirre-Sacasa: Over the seasons, Luke and I had talked a lot about trying to get Shannen on the show. The timing never worked out, or the part was never quite right... When we were working on the episode, we knew that there ... would be some characters outside of our cast of characters that would be involved. We thought that rather than have another actor... we thought it would be nice if it was someone he really he cared for in real life. With these episodes like this, it resonates for Fred, it also resonates for Luke that Shannen kind of speaks to that. I think she really wanted to be a part of it.

Can you talk about the decision to have Archie not be the one to look at his father and to trust his friends to be the one to tell him? They say if you don't look, you might see them years later thinking, "Hey, wait, maybe."
Aguirre-Sacasa: We talked about it in the room and [what it came] down to was a character choice. They do say that. I believe that some people say, "I want to remember my father a certain way and if I see him a certain way ... I'll never erase that from my [mind]." To be honest with you, until almost the last draft of the script, we had Archie going in there and and then we kind of kept going over it. I kept thinking of that moment where Archie -- it feels very like he's a little boy in that moment and he can't go into that room. Then he turns to one of his oldest friends, Betty (Lili Reinhart), and his girlfriend to do it. I think it was as valid a choice as going in there. We talked about it a lot, though.

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Can you talk about Archie's mission statement at the end of this episode that he wants to honor Fred going forward? What does that mean for Archie through this season? How will that manifest?
Aguirre-Sacasa: Fred casts a long shadow. He's always kind of been our moral center. We frequently described him as the one good parent on Riverdale, the best influence on Archie... He's got dignity, and honor, and really good values. Archie does, too, but he's -- we've seen Archie for three years looking to see what kind of man he's going to be, what he's going to do. In the in the end, it's trying to do what his father did, which was help his community, help his town, help his friends make the right choices. Archie wants to live up to that. I think he's always wanted to follow in Fred's footsteps, but now feels that burden even more so. Archie is still going to be Archie, and I think he's going to struggle with grief and struggle with how to live up to to Fred's memory.

So the cast is clearly devastated throughout the episode. Were there any ways just when writing that you kind of had to take their grief into account?
Aguirre-Sacasa: We kind of knew this was going to be brutal on the cast, especially KJ, who was Luke's main scene partner. Luke and KJ almost every episode had a scene in the kitchen, and no matter what was going on, you'd find them at the island. Fred would be giving Archie advice, which he would or would not have listened to. That was a that was a real touchstone for KJ, I think. I talked to KJ about it. I think everyone was really proud to gather to tell this tribute to to Luke, and to a different [side of] Luke. ... When [Luke died], we were kind of all scattered, so there was something really special when we gathered to do the table read that was cathartic.

Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, Camila Mendes and KJ Apa, Riverdale​

Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse, Camila Mendes and KJ Apa, Riverdale

Robert Falconer, Robert Falconer/The CW

How did you approach going into the next episode after something like that?
Aguirre-Sacasa: There's a little bit of a time gap between Episode 1 and Episode 2. So Episode 1 is on July 4, and then we pick up in September. The shadow Fred's death casts is on Episode 2. Honestly, we're about 10 episodes into the season and we're still feeling that. ... Archie will be wrestling with that for the rest of his life, other characters less so. I think one of the things that's been interesting is, when a tragedy like that happens, everyone grieves and then people move on at different points. For the person who's at the core of it, they live with it every day. So we don't pretend it didn't happen. It's still very much permeating Archie's story. In the writers' room, we did kind of want to start Episode 2 on a little bit of a lighter note and get back into the high school world. I think that's a nice balm to [this episode].

You guys take a second to remind everybody that Betty also lost her dad not too long ago. Why did that feel important to sort of draw that parallel between her and Archie at this point?
Aguirre-Sacasa: It's funny. We had a bigger kind of storyline planned for that episode that had a little bit more of Betty exploring her grief and the difference between the ... death of Fred and the death of Hal. It is a reminder that Betty went through that... I think it's a testament to Lili, that when we were looking at that storyline and we saw the scene of her alone the grave, even though she doesn't say a word of dialogue, somehow she feels that, and you understand what she's been going through. You see the vandalization of the grave and you see her cleaning stuff off and it kind of spoke volumes in a way, so it felt like she's the one character who kind of went through the same thing that [Archie] did in a completely different way under completely different circumstances. Over the season, we will play the depth of how Betty kind of is a soft echo to what Archie is going through.

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You've said that Molly Ringwald is going to stick around for a little bit this season. What does that mean exactly?
Aguirre-Sacasa: It's been great to have Molly back. ... Mary moves back to Riverdale. She's moving from Chicago, not quite aware of what a rough town Riverdale is, so we're having some fun with that. I think that it's really great that Archie has Mary there for him, and I think Mary loves being able to be there for her son. I do still think there's no replacing his dad, but Mary's doing great, and I'd really be worried for Archie if not for Mary. ... We just did a really great episode I'm really proud of, which is a Thanksgiving episode that, again, kind of reminds us that this is Archie's first Thanksgiving without his father. It's kind of Mary and Archie shoulder to shoulder. There's typical craziness that happens, but I think there's a real, true emotional core there as well.

Cheryl deals with her feelings better sometimes than others. So what can we expect from her arc this season?
Aguirre-Sacasa: We definitely see Cheryl as heightened and weird and macabre as it is to have Jason in the crypt. I think the truth of that story is she loved her brother dearly. She never got a chance to say goodbye to him and she doesn't want to. In a weird way, her arc over the first movement of episodes is learning how to finally say goodbye to Jason, and it's quite moving. I mean, there's also the crazy goodness of it, but Madelaine [Petsch] has found the truth. ... This is their senior year ... the storyline is they're growing up and letting go of things that represent their childhood, and she's one of them.

This storyline is very realistic. It also sounds like the school stuff, like saying goodbye to senior year, is kind of similar. How are you balancing that realistic mess with the craziness that Riverdale tends to get into?
Aguirre-Sacasa: It's a high-wire act. A lot of people said, "Oh, Season 1 was much more grounded," and all that stuff. So we've used Season 1 a little bit as a as a template. We definitely still have crazy stories, but instead of, let's say, four crazy stories per episode, we have two crazy stories per episode, two that are a little more emotional or psychological or real. In Episode 2, we have this great story with Archie and Reggie and it's about Reggie's father. Therefore it's about the memory of Fred as well. It feels like a very straightforward coming-of-age friendship story. I think we're finding our way back to some of the stuff in Season 1. The truth is you kind of can never go back, but there were things that I know the fans missed and that we missed and are trying to write to.

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Can you tease some of the crazier storylines this season?
Aguirre-Sacasa: I think Episode 3 is crazy. That's the resolution of the Farm storyline, and I remember when we turned it in, the network was like, "Yep, good to know that that's still in there." That's kind of a crazy one. We have a really fun Halloween episode that is both grounded and heightened, I would say. The Blossoms can always be counted on for some craziness. There are some really great mysteries in there, they're just a little less -- I mean, we had, like, two serial killers running around and the killer cult and bear attacks. By the way, all stuff I stand by and loved. It's still out there. It's still out there for sure.

Speaking of the Farm, Alice seems to be OK. She is somewhere where she gets the Riverdale Register. What can you say about that?
Aguirre-Sacasa: It was so important for us to include everyone in this episode. Madchen [Amick] and Luke were great friends, and Alice is such a big part of the show. We felt it was a little bit of a cheat to just find Alice in some nondescript corner, but we kind of needed to do it. We actually went back and shot it after. We were working on the episode [and] I was like we need Alice in here, in her own moment. She's in Archie's nightmare, but you don't see her too much. We wanted to give her her own kind of hero moment.

So, she is alive?
Aguirre-Sacasa: She is alive in Episode 1, and with the Farm. That story really picks up in Episode 2. ... We'll also deal with the fall out of Betty's friendship with Kevin (Casey Cott). Kevin was a big part of the Farm, and as you'll see on the previously on in the next episode, he dragged her by her ankles into the lobotomy room or whatever, so we kind of try to pick up the pieces of their friendship.

Riverdale airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on The CW.

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