(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Is ISIS going rogue? It hadn’t occurred to me before, which, in retrospect, is pretty ridiculous. The group has never been a haven of heroism, and what with Malory’s ongoing money troubles (which I doubt the marriage to Ron Cadillac resolved), Krieger’s experiments, Cheryl’s insanity, and Sterling Archer’s general asshat behavior, sliding from “Chaotic Neutral” to “Chaotic Evil” isn’t a huge jump. But up until now, at least, all that awful behavior has fit into a framework of a group that’s nominally on the side of the angels. Many, many miles away from those angels, but at least in a similar hemisphere. Now, though, it’s getting tough to see where the lines are. Both Lana and Cyril question the point of this week’s mission (paying some guys to blow up an oil pipeline in Turkmenistan), and while it’s a subtle shift, it’s possible that the show’s writers are setting in some groundwork for a new direction for the show. After a season of decent, but sometimes disappointingly muddled, episodes, the possibility of a new arc is exciting. Archer doesn’t need tight serialization to work, but it does need focus, and the story possibilities of Malory turning into a villain, and Archer having to decide which way he’ll go, could be fantastic.
That’s not at issue in “Once Bitten,” but thankfully, the episode holds together pretty well. Archer, Ray, and Cyril are in Turkmenistan, and Archer, being Archer, has managed to get their truck stuck in the sand, as well as lose the compass. While taking a dump (and using the map to wipe himself, going for the dick-head Triple Crown), he’s bitten by a Caspian Cobra. The venom sends him off into a merry dream in which James Mason (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, whom I didn't recognize until the credits) walks him through an homage to Heaven Can Wait, before walking him through an homage to The Natural, before giving him one more near glimpse of his dad. Meanwhile, Cyril and Ray try to find Archer a doctor, and end up in a caravan of Turks who don’t speak English, which leads to a lot of language dictionary page turning, and then the revelation that Cyril can’t draw snakes for shit. (There’s a nice pay-off here to an earlier joke about the leader of Turkmenistan renaming everything “gurp gorp.”) Double meanwhile, back at headquarters, Lana is pissed that she wasn’t included on the mission, before realizing that Malory left her out because the mission is environmentally unsound and sort of kind of evil. Then Cheryl drops a truth bomb about how Lana won’t ever leave ISIS because she doesn’t have anything else, and things get a little sad.
Well, no, not really. But it does offer us a brief character beat for Lana, who hasn’t been getting nearly enough to do of late. And Archer’s journey into his own mind found another way to tease us with potential revelations about Sterling’s real dad. It’s a reveal which has all its power in the mystery; I can’t imagine the actual father meaning much at all, given that he can’t be anyone we know at this point, but forcing Archer to keep reaching for the answer is a good way to remind us of the human core at the heart of the character, even while he’s behaving like a raging creep. It’s not that Archer, or anyone at ISIS, really needs to be a sympathetic or even likeable character, but his drunken Bond-imitation is funnier when we know it’s all this weird cry for help from a spoiled, fucking up little boy. (The show has never made a huge effort to connect to the Bond franchise outside the obvious signifiers, but this idea does have an element of satire to it; 007’s worst behavior makes a lot more sense if you recognize the unloved brat inside the bastard.) The hallucinations themselves are super weird, but given the various obsessions Archer has indicated over the years, it basically works, and gives the episode on the whole something like a spine. At first, the shifts between homages play a little too randomly, but it’s fun to see how much Sterling has built up his own mythology, and the final sequence, with him as a little boy getting a stuffed alligator from a mysterious man, suggest meaning without getting bogged down by it. (Also, if that last part is an homage, I missed it; a thousand apologies.)
Cyril and Ray’s banter is decent—Ray’s resigned practicality is always a good contrast against Cyril, who’s constantly terrified he’s not doing the right thing, until he decides to do the wrong thing. And the scenes at ISIS are great, although a little too casual; apart from some clever editing (it’s an obvious trick, but having a character in a different scene seem like they’re responding to something a character in the last scene said helps give an episode with multiple locations more of a sense of connection), and some concern over the pipeline mission, there isn’t a lot of urgency. Much has been made of the greatness of Pam—and she is fantastic, no question—but I’ve got a soft spot for Cheryl, who manages to be childlike without any of the positive traits children are supposed to possess. (Well, I guess she’s got enthusiasm going for her.) Her trick this week is to say things without realizing she’s talking, which lands the best with the terrific mini-monologue to Lana I mentioned earlier. It could be that part of the reason Lana has been sidelined so much lately is that it’s getting harder and harder to justify while she still works for the agency. By pointing out that Lana’s righteousness and secret desire to run the place herself is making her cling to a job that really doesn’t deserve her, Cheryl manages to draw attention to a potential problem, while forcing Lana to acknowledge it as well. As Todd has said, the character work on Archer has always been one of the series’ great strengths, and hopefully, this’ll galvanize Lana into, I don’t know, setting up her own rival agency or something.
“Once Bitten” is a little too shaggy, but still good fun. It’d be nice if some of the ideas thrown out here, like the possibility of ISIS turning to the dark(er) side, and/or Lana’s sudden moment of Cheryl-enhanced clarity, will come back in the weeks to come, but regardless, Archer trading quips with James Mason probably crosses a line off somebody’s bucket list.
- Speaking of bucket lists, No. 1 on Archer’s is going someplace where they’re making a huge kind of food, like a giant sandwich, and eating a piece, then laughing because he murdered Cyril. (Murdering Cyril is No. 2 on the list. I’m not sure how that works.)
- Pitching for this review, I was kind of hoping to get a Barry and Katya episode, mainly because I feel like Katya is a drag (even though I liked last week’s episode). I have this whole theory that the point of Katya’s initial design was that she wasn’t funny; the joke was, Archer found the perfect Bond girl, who would put up with all his bullshit, and she was a straight (wo)man to all the craziness of his life, and then she died. Which was confusing, because you didn’t know if you were supposed to be sad or laugh about it, but that’s a good kind of confusing. A lot of great comedies work that particular line. But bringing her back from the dead, and trying to make her more interesting, doesn’t really work, because there’s no depth to her. Barry, at least, was designed to be a slightly more dickish Archer. He’s going delightfully insane. But Katya is all one note, and I don’t see where the writers get anything from returning to her particular bionic well. (PHRASING.)
- “Look, I don’t want to sound racist, but—” “You’re gonna power through it.”—Malory and Lana
- Ray forgetting he had bionic legs felt like a joke on people who nitpick that sort of thing. And then he goes and lifts with his damn back.
- When he was 10 years old, Ray killed a bear. Late in the episode, Cyril hits and kills what he swears is a blind camel. Which makes them even.
- Thanks for putting up with me. Todd will be back next week, thank God.