Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Game of Thrones and Riverdale
Riverdale's season 3 finale was nearly perfect, not only tying up the season's biggest plot threads, but also weaving in the storylines from seasons 1 and 2 - from the death of Jason Blossom to the Black Hood murders. However, the finale came at the end of the show's worst season so far, which dragged out the mysteries of Gryphons & Gargoyles and the Farm for months, split the main four characters up into uninteresting side plots, and stalled for time with red herrings and false leads. In short, Riverdale had the exact opposite problem to season 8 of Game of Thrones.
The HBO show has come under fire from fans for rushing through events like the final showdown with the Night King and the siege of King's Landing. The focal point of recent criticism has been Daenerys Targaryen's heel turn, with the Mother of Dragons deciding to burn down King's Landing and its helpless citizens - including elderly people and children - after the Lannister army had already surrendered. While there had certainly been foreshadowing for Daenerys becoming the "Mad Queen" over the years, many felt that her switch from hero of the downtrodden to slaughterer of the downtrodden felt abrupt and forced.
While Riverdale and Game of Thrones might seem like they're worlds apart - one a soapy CW teen drama, and the other a big-budget prestige fantasy show - they're united by a common problem: a season length that isn't well suited to the story they're trying to tell. But while it might be too late for Game of Thrones to turn things around (unless that petition for a remake of season 8 actually works), Riverdale still has a chance to fix things in season 4.
Game of Thrones Season 8 Suffered From Too Few Episodes
Game of Thrones first moved past the events of George R.R. Martin's published books in season 6, with the author revealing the major plot upcoming beats to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss so that they would know what general direction to take. Up to that point there had been one season of the show for every book released, so while fans would probably have loved for the show to go on for ten seasons or more, eight seasons in total seemed like a reasonable amount of time in which to wrap things up.
However, the final seasons of the show also have the greatest amount of plot to deal with, wrapping up not only the much-hyped conflict with the Night King and the White Walkers, but also the "Last War" against Cersei and the question, after that, of who will actually end up on the Iron Throne. Yet season 7 was shortened to just seven episodes, and season 8 comprised of a mere six, albeit with slightly longer running times for some of them. While Benioff recently told EW that they'd "always believed [the story] was about 73 hours," the reality of both the White Walker invasion and the war against Cersei being resolved in a mere three episodes has been disappointing for many fans.
No element of this has been more controversial than the "Mad Queen" twist, in which Daenerys - who had once chained her dragons in a dungeon because one goat herder's daughter was burned, and just two episodes prior had been postponing her quest for the throne in order to sacrifice her forces fighting the White Walker army - suddenly snapped and began massacring peasants with dragonfire. Had the final seasons of Game of Thrones been the same length as earlier seasons, the Great Battle of Winterfell could have been the climax of season 7, and Benioff and Weiss could have used a full ten episodes to show Daenerys' final descent into madness and its fallout.
Riverdale Season 3 Suffered From Too Many Episodes
If Game of Thrones is emblematic of the damage done when a show doesn't have enough episodes to wrap up its story, Riverdale demonstrates the pitfalls of having to spread a story out over too many episodes - something that a lot of shows on The CW suffer from. Riverdale season 1 was comprised of just thirteen episodes and remains the show's strongest season. It introduced the main characters, established the town of Riverdale, opened with the mystery of Jason Blossom's death, and took several twists and turns on the way to the final reveal of the killer's identity. It then ended with a shocking cliffhanger that introduced the main focus of season 2: a serial killer called the Black Hood.
Unfortunately for Riverdale, however, the second season came with an expansion to 22 episodes, meaning that after the premiere in October 2017, the show had to drag out the mystery of the Black Hood until May 2018 - not only over 22 episodes, but also through a midseason break and the many hiatuses that The CW shows are known for. Of course, it's not unusual for mystery shows to prolong their mysteries; Twin Peaks, one of the major influences for Riverdale, didn't reveal Laura Palmer's killer well into season 2, and The Killing didn't unveil its murderer until the season 2 finale. Then again, The Killing was also criticized for dragging out its mystery with an endless string of red herrings and false leads, and Twin Peaks is its own strange beast that's difficult to compare to anything else.
Riverdale season 2 dealt with the problem of having to spread out the Black Hood mystery by revealing a false Black Hood partway through the season, and then dropping the plot thread more or less entirely for a while before picking it up again in the final third of the season, revealing the real Black Hood, and then another fake Black Hood for good measure. Season 3 suffered similar problems, to the point that by the time Chic was eventually unmasked as the Gargoyle King (with Penelope Blossom as the puppet master), the Gargoyle King had already been unmasked twice before. Meanwhile, the mystery of the Farm was dragged out for so long that cult leader Edgar Evernever didn't even show up until Episode 16, and Veronica and Archie spent most of the season locked into dull side plots about La Bonne Nuit's business debts and Archie's newfound boxing career.
How Riverdale Can Fix Its Problem in Season 4
Riverdale's problems aren't easy to surmount, because the show won't realistically go back to having shorter seasons. The CW's scheduling model requires that its shows kick off their seasons in fall and reach their finales at the end of spring the following year, which means 22-23 episodes and numerous breaks. Riverdale's season 3 finale has already set up a mystery for season 4 that means we'll have to wait a full year to find out how Archie, Betty and Veronica end up in the woods, covered in blood, burning Jughead's beanie and swearing to go their separate ways.
However, a better model for how Riverdale can approach its seasons already exists in the form of its sister show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Distributed by Netflix, Sabrina has a somewhat convoluted approach to releasing, with "Part 1" and "Part 2" (and the holiday special released in between) comprising the first season of the show, and Parts 3 and 4 on the way as the second season. Parts 1 and 2 had a single over-arching plotline: Sabrina's struggle to choose between her life as a mortal and her life as a witch, her resistance to the Dark Lord's machinations, and her rebellion against the patriarchy and barbarity of the Academy of Unseen Arts. However, each part also had a very clear and distinctive story with a big climax at the end of Part 1, and another at the end of Part 2.
Riverdale seasons may not officially be split into Part 1 and Part 2, but in terms of storytelling they could be. Season 2 could have been vastly improved if, instead of dragging out the dual plotlines of the Farm and the Gargoyle King over the entire season, it had instead focused on the Farm in the first half of the season and allowed that storyline to reach a climax in the midseason finale. The payoff for the Farm's mystery was delightfully gruesome (revealing that the cult was just a front for Edgar Evernever to harvest organs), but the journey to get there was painfully slow. Meanwhile, despite efforts to mingle the two main storylines with implications that Edgar could be the Gargoyle King, they never really gelled.
We don't yet know what's in story for Riverdale season 4 aside from that ominous flash-forward. However, if it falls prey to the same pattern of endlessly dragging out storylines and packing them out with filler, a lot of fans may not bother sticking around to find out how the gang ends up in the woods that night.