Archer Vice: “Arrival/Departure”
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Archer Vice: “Arrival/Departure”

Todd: “Arrival/Departure’s” main goal is to put a cap on this wild, wooly season of Archer, to take the whole story of Archer Vice and make some sense of it, while also returning the characters to a place where they will believably be back to their usual spy shenanigans next season. When I first heard that Adam Reed and company planned to “un-reboot” the show, I’ll admit that it gave me pause. Though this season hasn’t been Archer’s best—that would still be seasons three and two for me—it’s been, weirdly, its most meaningful, and I’ve enjoyed the examinations of how the characters are the same and different in their two divergent careers. At the same time, I’m not sure the season ever nailed the serialization aspect as much as it wanted to, and it sometimes seemed to lose track of it for long stretches at a time. Still, the four episodes set in San Marcos have more or less brought everything to a close, and there were moments in “Arrival/Departure” that were genuinely tense, something I wasn’t sure was going to happen.

The question, then, is if this season-long up-and-back was worth it. The up-and-back is a structure that’s incredibly familiar in television, yet one that’s technically meant to be avoided at almost all costs. In it, the characters go on a journey and have lots of strange adventures. Things might seem like they’ve changed inexorably, but once everybody gets back to the status quo, they really haven’t all that much. There are reasons this structure is appealing to a medium that loves the status quo more than it loves itself, but chief among them is the fact that a story like this can present the illusion of change more than it can allow for actual change. By the time we get to the end of season five of Archer, I’m not sure if that isn’t the case here as well. The characters seem to have changed, and Lana has become a mother (which will change her at least somewhat). But in reality, they’re more or less back where they started the season. Which, at first blush, is a little disappointing.

But the more I think about this, the more I like it. One of the themes of this season of Archer has been that no matter what happens, these people are still the people they’ve always been. Even Cherlene learns that she wasn’t fundamentally altered in any way by Krieger’s brain chip. It was just a sticker off the back of a Lego spaceman. Indeed, everything they were up to turns out to be one long ISIS mission, carried out by Sterling and Malory without anyone getting wise to it until the last possible moment. (And Malory helps her son out by telling a lie to ensure Lana ends up back in the dark.) I’m not trying to say this season is about the inescapability of fate or anything like that, but it really does seem to be about how these people are stronger as a unit than they ever could have been trying to do stuff apart. It says something that when Lana wanted to have a child, the sperm sample she chose was Sterling’s. Even if she hates the guy, she still loves him, and even if the two of them might never make a traditional couple or family, there was always going to be a bond running between them anyway. Might as well literalize that with a child.

But what do you think of this season-long experiment, Sonia? Are you ready to get back to ISIS adventures next season? Or are you still far too giddy at the thought of Lana’s child also being Archer’s child (as I know you are)?

Sonia: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! *spins around in circles for several minutes*

Todd, some weeks ago, you argued that Malory and Sterling were the central relationship of the show—adding, too, that you knew that would drive me crazy, as I am so invested in Lana and Archer’s relationship. “Arrival/Departure” indicates to me that both relationships are in fact heavily related to each other—in a triangle that Sigmund Freud would accurately term “mommy issues.” I had a feeling that once the show got to Lana’s delivery, she and Archer would have to make amends. But I really wasn’t expecting this setup for a lovably wacky unconventional family going into season six—I DREAMED OF IT, TODD, BUT I NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD REALLY HAPPEN.

I’m rosier on Archer Vice than you are, Todd: I agree with you that there’s nothing better than the second season of this show, which is when it really began to find its voice and demonstrate what it could be. But this season has been an incredible, absurd trip. Mostly, I think that’s because Adam Reed (who, correct me if I’m wrong, wrote every episode this season) kept the characters at the perfect distance from the story. Archer Vice was first presented to us as a random fantasy in Sterling’s head, and then that’s exactly what happened.

But there’s more: Because once the formalities of “narrative coherence” and “spy missions” were dispensed with, Reed had the flexibility to dig into these characters and why they’re all here with each other. Sometimes that ended quite funny—Krieger’s clearly been changed due to his experience with clones (is he even still Krieger? Or is he one of the clone-bruders?), but that exploration of his character has been more hilarious than harrowing. Meanwhile, Cherlene’s desire to strike out on her own as a country star gave her more motivation than she’s ever had before on the show—usually, she just boils down to kinky sex and yelling. And Pam got a serialized story that was both funny and tragic—an addiction that made her lose weight.

What came through most for me is that Reed really loves these characters—and he loves Archer, in particular. There’s such demonstrated affection for that flawed character that it reminds me a little of that show we watched yesterday, Todd: Mad Men. Don and Sterling aren’t dissimilar—I’d be surprised if Adam Reed didn’t have Don Draper’s swagger in mind when he crafted his ’60s-era, booze-swilling secret agent. Much of Archer Vice was not just telling great jokes, but exposing that character’s foibles and virtues. Archer Vice is a little unhinged—and it’s a bit darker than the show’s been in the past, as serialized plotlines gave the show some real consequences to work with. But I’d say it was a success.

Todd: Ultimately, I would, too, even as I found myself wondering if it was all strictly necessary if we were just going to get back to more mission-of-the-week storytelling. (I realize that’s presumptuous when we haven’t even seen what season six will look like. But it’s where my mind went nonetheless.) Of course, the odd way that the ISIS gang became an ad hoc family this season will almost certainly continue going forward, and it’s not like the show can simply sweep under the rug the fact that Lana and Archer are parents now (and Malory a grandmother to a baby she’s snidely been dismissing from the word go). But season five was such an unwieldy contraption—remember the trip down to Texas so that Cherlene could perform on the country music show, or any other number of plot points that ultimately didn’t have a lot to do with anything?—that I wanted a resolution that had a bit more punch than “They were secretly selling drugs for the CIA the whole time.”

Serialized stories are often so difficult to talk about because one eventually needs to look at whether the whole adds up to more than the parts. Purely viewed as an episode of television, “Arrival/Departure” is good stuff, with some really great gags, and a bunch of moments that cap off so many important bits in the season that preceded this. I’ll admit that the reveal of the CIA’s involvement got me, even if I half-assumed something of the sort would happen roughly since Slater turned up, and I liked the way that the pieces clicked into place when Archer walked into that room and saw several of the season’s guest stars. I also enjoyed the end of Cyril’s miserable time as dictator, as well as the nerve gas missile ultimately having its nerve gas removed to become Krieger’s newest baby. (And if you don’t think that’s coming back at some point…) There was even a surprising amount of tenderness in the scene where Malory and Pam arrived at the airport and helped Lana deliver her daughter.

It’s that word “tenderness” that made this season a worthwhile experiment, I think. I don’t know if it’s a texture that Archer can use much going forward without irreparably damaging itself, but I liked the suggestion of how much Reed had come to care about these characters and how much they, by extension, had come to care about each other. I even liked the way he tied in a reference to season two’s breast cancer episodes, the show’s previous most prominent exploration of this particular territory. I really don’t want Archer to become a show about how these people all secretly super-duper love each other, but I appreciated the way season five put the bonds that held them together under a magnifying glass—right before threading in a bunch of ideas that could tear them apart just as soon as they’re exposed in season six. It may have been more of an experiment than a reconfiguration, but season five, ultimately, worked and worked well.

How about it, Sonia? Which developments that came up in these last few episodes are you most interested to see pay off in season six? And are there other aspects of the show that were ignored this season that you’re excited to see return with a refocus on spy missions?

Sonia: You know, I forgot to say something earlier that you mentioned in your first take: I don’t think Sterling lied to Lana! I assumed immediately that Holly and Slater were throwing Archer under the bus, and that Malory decided to tell the truth to Lana for a surprising moment of humanity. But I could be entirely wrong. The ambiguity is there.

Ultimately I think that’s what keeps Archer from veering too far into the feel-good office politics of the place, which characterizes Parks And Recreation, for example. Everyone’s a big happy family, and sometimes there’s jokes—but usually, they’re at the expense of no one. It also keeps the show from veering too far into the soulless and pure detachment of something like Curb Your Enthusiasm or even, at times, Arrested Development—two excellent shows that do not make it easy to love their characters.

Archer more ambitiously, has moved to a tension between the two. It explores that tension in the breast cancer arc, as you point out. And this whole season returns to that space. There are dramatic stakes, for once—but do the stakes matter? There are expressions of, as you say, tenderness—but is it real, or just convenience? What’s clever about Archer is that often, it’s both. Lana both loves and hates Archer; Malory both plots against her employees and plots for them. The show is both snarky and sincere, and part of what makes it so consistently funny is that it’s learned to play the two off of each other.

I’m looking forward to Archer continuing to tell this story now that everything has been complicated even more. The mission-style storytelling of the past few seasons have allowed Archer to be a pretty stagnant character—he’s shown occasional humanity, but he’s also had a lot of opportunities to spend a ton of money, while drunk, in pursuit of some skirt or other. The characters have all learned a bit too much about themselves and each other, and now they’re going to be back in the office. It’s disappointing—of course it is! After a four-episode stint in San Marcos?!—but I think the characters will be disappointed, too, and that will be kind of interesting. I’m also relatively convinced that this isn’t just going to be a return to the regular day-to-day of ISIS. The show has proven they can pull off pretty big stories—that it doesn’t need the procedural structure to shine. I’m curious to see what’s next.

In closing—watching Archer more seriously this season, I’ve grown to appreciate just how rich Adam Reed’s teleplays are. And the animation team does a fantastic job not just with the backgrounds and action sequences, which are consistently rewarding, but also with the facial expressions of its characters. Sterling Archer has a recognizable range of emotions on his face when Lana tells him she’s the father of his baby. That’s talent. I’m looking forward to seeing them continue their work.

Todd’s finale grade: A
Sonia’s finale grade: A
Todd’s season grade: A-
Sonia’s season grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • “All the gardeners are running away!”
  • The show is always ready with the outdated racial terminology, so Lana’s daughter (Aubergine? Did I hear that right?) is immediately dubbed an “octoroon.” Never change, Archer. [TV]
  • God help me, I had to google “octoroon.” Also, “quadroon.” Now I want to wash my brain out. Also, I heard it as Abby-Jean, or perhaps Abijene. Abijean? Imogen? Do you think her middle name will be Malory, too? [SS]
  • Pam’s delivered a bunch of babies out in the barn, both cows and her sister’s. What? They didn’t want any of that in the house. [TV] (It’s a long story. A long, racist story.) [SS]
  • I realize that the increased prominence of Pam this season has rubbed some fans the wrong way. She’s my favorite character, so I never minded. But I do agree that Pam’s big season came at the expense of some of the other characters, and it might be nice to see if season six can find more for, say, Ray to do. I miss Ray. And Woodhouse! [TV]
  • I’d also be down with Slater coming back and potentially flirting with Ray a bunch this season. [SS]
  • WHICH REMINDS ME: The extended gag with the fighter pilots is a thing of beauty, a joy forever. [SS]
  • Can we all do Pam a solid and make both “appropes” and “inappropes” a thing? Feel free to use hashtags. #appropes [SS]
  • Pam, to Malory: “God hates you.”
  • Some words of wisdom for all of us as we head into the hiatus: “So my whole life all I ever had to do was believe in myself? And inject a sticker into my brain?” [TV]

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