“Southbound And Down” is a moving tribute to that most beautiful of partnerships, that of Snowball and Lickbag, better known as Pam Poovey and Sterling Archer. After the last episode—easily the best the season has offered so far—this is a bit of a detour, as the show focuses full-time on getting Cherlene’s singing career off the ground, along with as many Smokey And The Bandit jokes as episode writers Adam Reed and Ben Hoffman can throw into the mix. Honestly, that’s not such a bad thing. Though I’ve been enjoying this season’s more serialized focus a hell of a lot, it’s always good to have something else to cut to, even if everybody is just as involved in the season’s B-story as they are in the A-story. Along the way, there will be 100 pounds of cocaine that become the interest of a biker gang, some kickass action sequences, and something that seems like genuine sincerity from Archer. Oh, and on the press screener for this, the episode description includes the phrase, “Put that hammer down and give ‘er hell,” which makes me inordinately happy.
The impetus for this madcap race to Texas is that Cherlene has been booked on Travis County Limits, and she needs to go by bus, because Cherlene doesn’t fly. (Doesn’t this contradict the series’ previous history? The other characters ask that question—since Cherlene was on a blimp, helicopter, and space shuttle as Cheryl—but they—and we—are told that the chip has somehow given her a fear of flying, too. I’ll go with it.) They have about 36 hours to get from New York to Austin, but Archer insists that it will be closer to 24 by the time they get the bus and blocker car. And why does he need to get the blocker car? Because that’s the only way he’ll get to live out all his Smokey And The Bandit fantasies, that’s why. (Why does Archer need to spend all this money? It’s advertising, that’s why! For who? Pontiac, he guesses.)
Strictly on a plot level, “Southbound And Down” is pretty loose and shaggy around the edges. That’s all right, though, because it’s clear that the point here isn’t so much to tell a deeply coherent story or even one that meshes all that well with the season to date. The point, instead, is just to have a shitload of fun doing riffs on Burt Reynolds movies, complete with Archer in full mustache and cowboy hat, with Pam sharing the car with him as the beautiful woman who must ride alongside the masculine man in all movies of this genre. Archer and Pam is one of my favorite character combinations on the show, and I like the way that isolating the two of them in the car allows for some moments when they’re allowed to be… I don’t know if I would say “heartfelt” with each other, but definitely “honest” with each other. After Archer gets an earful of invective from his mother about how she really feels about him (which only happens accidentally), the stage is set for both Archer and Pam to be surprisingly open with each other, particularly in a closing conversation where Archer tells Pam that everybody hated her less when she wasn’t a coke fiend. (Yeah, Pam tells him, but she didn’t have these tittays. Amber Nash is wonderful in this episode.)
The tour bus, meanwhile, features Cherlene, Malory, Lana, and Cyril. There’s less fun to be had here—except for the fact that everybody makes Cyril drive 24 hours straight through, because why not?—but the bus does get to be the setting of one of the show’s best action sequences, wherein the biker gang, believing it to be storing 100 pounds of cocaine, attempts to pull the bus over to the side of the road. (Cherlene believes it’s a kidnapping. “It's a kidnapping! To kidnap MEEEEE!” she cries. Judy Greer is also wonderful in this episode.) The sequence with the biker gang shooting out one of the tires on the bus and Archer and Pam also having to deal with the gang is surprisingly exciting and suspenseful, and it makes for a nice break in the middle of all the other road-movie moments. If this is a Burt Reynolds riff, then there needs to be at least one sequence like this and one sequence where the characters avoid the cops. Fortunately, this episode has both. (The “evading the cops” sequence is more perfunctory, sadly, though it has its moments, like when Archer and Pam argue about what would constitute “ironic” in their current predicament, and Pam concludes by asking what satire is. “No one really knows!” Archer says.)
What keeps the episode from floating off into a stratosphere of silliness is the Pam story, which involves her insecurities about her weight and desire to be liked. That Pam, the show’s most forthrightly confident character, would have these insecurities could feel forced, but Nash’s readings of her lines give Pam a surprising vulnerability that’s just connected enough to her devil-may-care self that it all works very well. Season five has given some of the characters slightly different personalities (sometimes literally) to make the whole new premise spin, but Nash navigates nicely both the Pam who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks about her and the Pam who cares what everyone thinks about her. So often, the two are related, after all, and this feels like the kind of character deepening that underlies everything else that’s come before for the character.
When I talked to Adam Reed before the season began, he said that one of the things he was surprised by in writing the season was that he thought the characters were being nicer to each other as he got deeper into the season’s scripts. There’s a moment in the episode where Pam describes her and Archer as “good buddies,” and he insists that’s a wild mischaracterization of their relationship. But later, when she calls him “good buddy” and they make a deal for him to throw a bone into her in exchange for her throwing the cocaine out the back of the car so the biker gang (disguised as the cops) can get it, he doesn’t object on either occasion. That’s not really “niceness” so much as just being a halfway decent person (and, okay, getting to have some awesome sex), but on Archer it might as well be the equivalent of giving someone you barely know your kidney.
- Ray and Krieger sit the episode out, choosing, instead, to stay behind in the mansion, where they’re working on Ray’s newly working legs. Mostly, this involves Krieger making Ray goose step around the place. Ray insists it isn’t funny. Krieger’s not sure why he would think it was funny to begin with.
- There’s something about enclosing the characters in some mode of transportation that makes Archer come alive. Since the show has already utilized a blimp, a space station, a train, and a tour bus, I’m wondering what the next episode of this ilk should be. I insist that season six feature some sort of story set onboard a submarine. That seems like fun. (My wife insists that because they did the SeaLab episodes last season, that counts. I SAY IT DOESN’T. I WANT A DECOMMISSIONED SOVIET SUBMARINE, AND I WANT IT NOW!)
- I know that’s not Judy Greer doing Cherlene’s singing, but the vocal resemblance between Greer and Jessy Lynn Martens is almost eerie. Anyway, it was a very nice cover of Jerry Reed’s “East Bound And Down” that she offered up for us, and I look forward to all future musical numbers.
- Other connections to the last episode: Malory and Ron’s divorce is bleeding Malory dry of whatever money she had before.
- All of the best episodes of television end with self-referential freeze frames, so I guess this must be one of the best episodes of television.