‘Riverdale’ Showrunner on Addressing the Deaths of Luke Perry and His Character Fred Andrews

     October 9, 2019

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*Be aware that spoilers are discussed*

Often on a TV series, characters come and go. Sometimes they get killed off for story purposes, and sometimes the actor just wants to move on. But as a creator, you never want to find yourself in the position of having to write off of a character because the actor, himself, died in real life. So, when beloved actor Luke Perry passed away back in March, of complications following a stroke, the creative team on The CW’s Riverdale decided to wait a bit to process the news before addressing their feelings and what the loss of that character would mean for their show.

After a press screening of the Season 4 premiere, entitled “Chapter Fifty-Eight: In Memoriam,” held at the offices of The CW, showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa answered questions about how they approached the episode, why they made the decision to wait to address it, paying tribute to both Luke Perry and Fred Andrews, how brutal the shoot was on the cast, the significance of including Perry’s friend and former co-star Shannen Doherty, and how Archie will want to honor his father, going forward. He also talked about how what will come next for the characters, having Molly Ringwald stick around to fill that parental role for a bit, what’s next for Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch), more crazy storylines, The Farm, and flash-forwards.

riverdale-posterQuestion: How did you even start planning an episode like this?

ROBERTO AGUIRRE-SACASA: What helped us was that, when Luke [Perry] passed, we very quickly made the decision then we weren’t going to address it, in the current season of Riverdale. 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. We briefly thought that maybe something would happen, at the end of the season, that would signal it, but that felt a little cheap. So, we thought, “Let’s just hold it, so that we can think about it over the hiatus and reflect on it.” That was absolutely the right decision to make, and it allowed us to absorb what had happened and really think about what kind of story we wanted to tell. That’s how we started, by not thinking about it for awhile . . . After that, we said that this episode really isn’t going to launch any huge stories for the season. It was really gonna be focused on that and the emotional effects of that passing, 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 kept focusing it on our characters, and focusing it truly on Archie. Sadly, there have been a lot of tribute episodes in television. One of my favorites is the Friday Night Lights episode, where the football player’s father dies, called “The Son.” We wanted to just tell a very grounded, truthful story. That became the organizing principle, or the marching orders.

How would a Season 4, where you wouldn’t have had to do this episode, have been different?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: It’s a really good question. At a certain point, towards the end of a season, you start talking about laying the groundwork for the next season. When Luke passed, it was still before we’d really gotten into deep brainstorming about what Season 4 would look like. I do feel like, when this happened, it did suggest a path for Archie, which is about growing up, a little more quickly than he would have, and giving senior year this almost melancholy feel. We hadn’t gotten too deep into talking about what Season 4 would’ve looked like for Archie, had this not happened.

The cast is clearly devastated, and you can see that in the episode. Were there any ways that you had to take their grief into account?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: It’s a really good question. We knew this was gonna be brutal on the cast, especially KJ [Apa], who was Luke’s main scene partner. In almost every episode, Luke and KJ had a scene in the kitchen. No matter what was going on, you’d find them at the island, and Fred would be giving Archie advice, which he would or wouldn’t listen to, and that was a real touchstone for KJ. So, I talked to KJ about it. I think everyone was really proud to gather to have this tribute to Fred and to Luke. Everyone was, I don’t want to say happy to have a catharsis, but when it happened, we were all scattered, so there was something really special, when we gathered to do the table read. That was cathartic. Shows are families. But we knew it was gonna be hard, and it was.

Can you talk about the significance of having Shannen Doherty on this episode?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Over the seasons, Luke and I had talked a lot about trying to get Shannon on the show, and the timing never worked out, or the part was never quite right, or she was unavailable, or it didn’t feel 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 . . . and Luke cared so deeply about Shannen. That’s how we got to that. With episodes like this, it resonates for Fred and it also resonates for Luke, and Shannen speaks to that. And she really wanted to be a part of it, from when we first talked to her about it.

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Image via The CW

How did you make the decision to have Archie not be the one to look at his father’s body, and to instead trust Betty and Veronica with that?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: We talked about it in the room, and what that came down to was a character choice. Some people say, “I want to remember my father a certain way, and if I see him that way, I’ll never erase that from my thoughts.” And to be honest with you, up until almost the last draft of the script, we had Archie going in there. It almost feels like he’s a little boy, in that moment, and he can’t go into that room, so he turns to one of his oldest friends, Betty, and his girlfriend (Veronica) to do it. I think it’s as valid a choice as going in there. We talked about it a lot, though.

With the exception of Shannen Doherty, was there a line, as far as how much you wanted to pay tribute to Luke Perry vs. Fred Andrews?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: It’s interesting, with shows like Riverdale, I knew Luke as Dylan (from Beverly Hills, 90210), and I think you do associate actors that way, and with certain shows more than others. With the exception of Shannen, we really wrote it as a tribute to Fred, knowing that most of our viewers, or a lot of our viewers, have a real deep, personal connection to Luke. It just exists. The truth is that everyone knew Luke, and loved him. That was baked into the episode. We told this story about this man, in this town. It felt like the town would naturally honor Fred for who he was.

Were all of the flashback clips that we see of Luke Perry, in this episode, previously aired moments? Did you ever try to find any previously unused footage?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: That’s a really good question. Maybe there are two or three scenes with Luke that we didn’t show. It so happened that those two flashbacks were in the garage where Archie would go. I will say that I remember vividly, in the third episode of Season 1, Fred soundproofed the garage. It was a really simple story. Dad says, “You’re making too much noise.” Son says, “I wanna play my music.” So, loving father soundproofs the garage. And I remember when we did that episode, Luke called me and said, “I love that Fred’s doing this for Archie. It’s something I would have done for my son.” There’s so much baroque storytelling on Riverdale, but there was such a truth and simplicity to that story, and it was nice that it was a thing we could go back to. Same with when Archie bought the Jalopy to fix up with his dad. That was a nice confluence of memories.

In addition to the footage of Luke, there were also a lot of photographs. Did you get those from his family?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Yeah, we did. One of our executive producers, Sarah Schechter, was very close to Luke, and very close to his family. We involved them, as much as we could. They read the script, and then they provided those great photos. I loved seeing him in his baseball uniform.

In this episode, you take a moment to remind everybody that Betty lost her dad, too. Why did it feel important to draw that parallel between Betty and Archie?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: We had a bigger storyline plan 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, and that she’s been going through that on her own. It’s a testament to Lili [Reinhart] that, when we saw the scene of her alone at the grave, even though she doesn’t say a word of dialogue, somehow she fills that, and you know what she’s been going through. Seeing the vandalized grave and her cleaning stuff off it, that  spoke volumes. She’s the one character who went through the same thing that Archie did, but in a completely different way and under completely different circumstances. Over the season, we’ll play the death of Hal with Betty, as a soft echo to what Archie is going through.

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Image via The CW

At the end of this episode, Archie says that he wants to honor his father. What does that mean for him, going forward?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Fred casts a long shadow. On the show, Fred has always been our moral center. We frequently describe him as the one good parent on Riverdale, and the best influence on Archie. In a noir crime-ridden world, which is what Riverdale is, he’s got dignity and honor and really good values. Archie does, too, but we’ve seen Archie, for three years, looking to see what kind of man he’s gonna be and what he’s gonna do. In the end, it’s trying to do what his father did, which was help his community, help this town, help his friends, and 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. But Archie is still gonna be Archie, and he’s gonna struggle with grief and struggle with how to live up to Fred’s memory

How did you approach going into the next episode, after doing this?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: That’s another really good question. There’s a little bit of a time gap, between Episode 401 and Episode 402. Episode 401 is on July 4th, and then we pick up in September. I will say that the shadow Fred’s death casts is in Episode 2. Honestly, we’re about 10 episodes into the season and we’re still feeling that. The truth is, with something like that, Archie will be wrestling with it, for the rest of his life, but other characters, less so. One of the things that’s been interesting is that, when a tragedy like that happens, everyone grieves, and then people move on, at different points. But for the person who’s at the core of it, they live with it, every day. So, we don’t pretend that it didn’t happen. It’s still very much permeating Archie’s story. In the writers’ room, we did want to start Episode 403 on a little bit of a lighter note, and get back into the high school world. I think that’s a nice balm to it, and a nice counter to it.

You’ve said that Molly Ringwald is going to stick around for a little bit, this season. Is she taking on the parental role in Archie’s life?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been great to have Molly back. We’ve been having a lot of fun with Mary moving back to Riverdale. She’s moving from Chicago, not quite aware of like what a rough town Riverdale is, so we’re having some fun with that. It’s really great that Archie has Mary there for him, and Mary loves being able to be there for her son. I do still think that there’s no replacing his dad, but Mary’s doing great. I’d really be worried for Archie, if not for Mary.

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Image via The CW

Are we going to see her get her own storyline?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Oh, yeah. We just did an episode that I’m really proud of, which is the Thanksgiving episode. It reminds us that this is Archie’s first Thanksgiving without his father, and it’s Mary and Archie, shoulder to shoulder. There’s the typical craziness that happens, but there’s a true emotional core there, as well. 

Cheryl deals with her emotions better sometimes than others. What can we expect from her arc, this season?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: I love that gesture she does for Archie. I love that the most unlikely character is the one that understands that grief, in a way some of the other characters don’t. She’s suffered loss, she’s felt despair, and in a weird way, she’s uniquely equipped to help mitigate that for Archie. As heightened and weird and macabre as it is to have Jason in the crypt, the truth of that story is that she loved her brother dearly, she never got a chance to say goodbye to him, and she doesn’t want to. Her arc, over the first movement of episodes, is learning how to finally say goodbye to Jason. It’s quite moving. There’s also the crazy gothicism of it, but Madelaine [Petsch] has found the truth in that. The fact that this is their senior year, the storyline is that they’re growing up and letting go of things that represent their childhood, and she’s one of them.

This particular storyline is very like realistic, and it sounds like the high school stuff will be, as well. How are you balancing that realness with the typical Riverdale craziness?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: It’s a high wire act. A lot of people said that Season 1 was much more grounded, so we’ve used Season 1, a little bit, as a template. We definitely still have crazy stories, but instead of four crazy stories per episode, we have two crazy stories per episode, and 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, so therefore, it’s about the memory of Fred, as well, but it feels like a very straightforward, coming of age, friendship story. I think we’re finding out way back to some of this stuff in Season 1. The truth is that you can never go back, but there are things that I know the fans missed and that we missed, and that we’re trying to write to.

Can you tease what some of the crazier storylines will be, in Season 4?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Yeah. Episode 403 is crazy, and that’s the resolution of The Farm storyline. When we turned it in, the network was like, “Yep, good to know that’s still in there.” And we have a really fun Halloween episode, that is both grounded and heightened. And the Blossoms can always be counted on for some craziness. There are also some really great mysteries. We’ve had two serial killers running around, a killer cult, and bear attacks, which is all stuff that I stand by and loved. It’s still out there, for sure. Episode 403 is as crazy as we’ve gotten.

What can you say about Alice and The Farm?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: That story really picks up in Episode 402, and is also in Episode 403. Betty’s first thought is, “We’ve gotta get my mom out of The Farm.” It will also deal with the fall-out of Betty’s friendship with Kevin. Kevin was a big part of The Farm, and he dragged her by her ankles into the lobotomy room, so we try to pick up the pieces of their friendship.

How will the flash-forwards color this season?

AGUIRRE-SACASA: Early on, we decided that that Episode 1 would not have a flash-forward. We wanted [the first] episode to just be about this one thing. However, we do have flash-forwards, moving forward, from Episode 2 on.

Riverdale airs on Wednesday nights on The CW.

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