Well, they got me. It took until the very last second, but they got me.
Tonight’s Archer finale, “Mission: Difficult” is clearly a product of compromise. Nowhere is that clearer than in its efforts to craft a suitable farewell for superspy extraordinaire Malory Archer, arguably the series’ second lead for much of its decade-plus run. To elegantly remove such a comedic lynchpin from such a well-established series would be brutally difficult under the most ideal of circumstances; to do it without having access to the brilliant, witty, endlessly impressive performer who brought the character to such vibrant life ultimately proves more than the episode itself can handle.
And, really, if the entire subplot leading up to Malory’s departure tonight (amid a rescue effort to get Sterling out of the clutches of evil rival spy organization IIA, after last week’s semi-debacle) feels forced, that’s because that’s clearly exactly what it was. The last-minute reminders of her badass bona fides, the re-use of old dialogue, the absence from otherwise key scenes: All of these do little more than to remind the viewer how much more lively tonight’s episode would have been if Jessica Walter had been there in the mix for real, belting out insults, battlecries, and the merest hints of affections to all those idiots in her employ. None of that is the Archer team’s fault, obviously—god knows how they must have scrambled when they learned of Walter’s death back in March. (Given that Malory clearly had fresh dialogue recorded back in “London Time,” the star’s death presumably must have happened mid-production.) But it nevertheless leaves “Mission: Difficult” with an awkward hole in its heart that no amount of emotional goodwill can fully cover.
Not that Malory’s send-off was the only aspect of tonight’s finale that felt rushed, mind you. This has been a slightly more serialized than usual season of Archer, and so its finale is left to wrap up a surprising number of plot beats, all of which slam together in a mixture of rescue missions, counter-rescue missions, cyborg battles, and marital infidelities. Let’s quickly tally up the scores, since most of this stuff probably won’t be recurring next year: Archer no longer needs his cane, Lana and Robert are through, IIA now owns the Agency, the energy weapon MacGuffin is smashed, and The Professor is dead. (At least Eric André gets some last moments of fun, urging Krieger to push through even his extremely lax ethical standards in future scientific endeavors, and ending, as we all might aspire to, with a Golden Girls callback.)
Mark Ganek’s script handles each of these beats in a manner that can best be summed up as “perfunctory,” ticking through the boxes required to set up the show’s somewhat surprising 13th season renewal. (While watching tonight, I kept trying to figure out whether this episode had been designed to act as a series finale, if it had come to that; I think, with all the imagery of the Agency being shut down and moved out, that you can credibly argue that it was.) Worse, most of our main cast feels simply off somehow, a little too one-note, shoe-horned into their most simplistic traits in order to keep the plot kicking along. Cyril, and, weirdly, Pam get the worst of it; thank god Carol/Cheryl’s on hand to keep the chaos rolling.
The exceptions to this, blessedly, are Archer and Barry. And, look: Is it cliché, at this point, to have everyone’s favorite murder cyborg storm his way into essentially every other Archer finale, creating a physically impassible threat for Archer to have to improvise his way around? Sure. But Dave Willis has rarely been more fun in this part (and he’s been very fun in this part in the past), slipping back and forth between Barry and Other Barry—apparently the manifestation of all the Archer rage he tried to let go of during Coma O’Clock—with an energy that gives “Mission: Difficult” its biggest doses of laughter and excitement, by far.
The joy of Barry has always been that he puts Archer in an inherent underdog position, turning him into the kind of obvious loser that H. Jon Benjamin has played so well for so many years. Seeing that dynamic play out tonight, with the added wrinkle of regular Barry being stuck along for the ride, was the freshest element of an episode that otherwise often felt like it was merely going through the motions. (See, for instance, the formal end of Lana and Robert’s marriage, which makes me regret not having a word more redolent of the banal and predictable than “perfunctory” to toss at it.) If nothing else, it’s basically the only material that this over-stuffed installment actually takes its time to enjoy, Willis chewing happily into both the “cheerful nice guy” and “smarmy death bot” sides of his persona. If this is the last we ever see of Barry (unlikely as that might be), at least he went out on a hell of a high note.
Which brings us, in digressive fashion, back around to tonight’s other big farewell.
The decision to keep Malory Archer alive, eternally at the top of her game (and being awful to waitstaff on an undisclosed beach), was the right one, I think. Her death would have been too traumatic, both for her son, and the show, to have to wrestle with—especially with the fish-out-of-water “We all work for IIA now” stuff presumably taking front and center next year. But I have to admit that the mercenary necessity of the letter found in Malory’s desk drawer, bidding a straightforward farewell to her employees/sons, left me feeling hollow. (Nowhere tonight was Walter’s unavoidable absence more painful.)
But then… Well, they got me. I genuinely wasn’t expecting that last pull-out, which reveals that Malory has made her grand escape, not alone, but with the inimitable Ron Cadillac at her side. Ron’s dialogue is canned, too, of course—Ron Leibman having died in 2019, two years ahead of Jessica Walter, his wife of 36 years. The final shot of the pair, hand-in-hand, is, inarguably, the sweetest moment in Archer’s entire history. It’s also a damn fine way to say goodbye.
- Guest star report: Interesting to see voice actor/Reno 911! royalty Carlos Alazraqui in the main cast credits tonight, as the enigmatic mover who helps Archer escape. Given that the Agency will presumably be moving into an IIA facility next year, I wonder if there are plans to bring the character back. (I also wonder if Kayvan Novak is coming on for a regular role, or at least the semi-regular position folks like Stephen Tobolowsky and Christian Slater have previously held.) Eric André and especially Dave Willis are the real stand-outs here, though; Barry is, obviously, one of the best voice performances in the show’s history, and André was surprisingly good at running in the Archer register.
- Oh, and also: Pamela Adlon’s Sandra is here to give the kiss of death to the Robert-Lana plotline. I’ll echo Lana: “If only you’d gotten here sooner!”
- “Check your privilege!” “I’ll never do that, and you know it!”
- “That would sound a lot more sinister if I wasn’t standing next to a giant tub of jelly beans.”
- Sorry, low-class STDs: Cheryl/Carol is “strictly spirochaetes.”
- Ray, laying out a compelling reason to bail early: “Since we’re about to be responsible for the apocalypse, if I leave now, maybe I won’t end up in a bone cage, where I’m slowly revenge-eaten by mutants.”
- That whole “self-doubt, then Cheryl inspires everybody” scene rings ridiculously false, but at least Judy Greer gets to have some fun with her invisible tape recorder.
- Archer, improvisational master: “I wanted to make a blender glove, but that stuff wasn’t here.”
- All of the Barry/Other Barry stuff tonight is great, but nothing better than, “You probably know that, but honestly, it feels weird and helpless to ride around on a psychopath, so I’m just saying stuff to feel alive!”
- Wait, one thing is better: “C’mon, man, we experience sex in 8 different dimensions now!”
- Cyril’s Krieger-assigned fake name: Beta Cuckington.
- Barry, as bullets bounce off of him, as they have for 10 seasons: “Yeah, it still works like that. Thanks for checking, though.”
- I do like that Krieger’s mind-meld helmet continues to fail. Good toying with expectations there.
- This was almost the line of the episode, but I want to recreate The Professor’s final request in full: “Do more science. Just really weird, fucked-up shit. Stuff where even you’re like, ‘Man, I shouldn’t have done that.’ Do that.”
- “God, I hate this hallway.”
- I’m happy to have the Robert-Lana stuff done, but I will miss Stephen Tobolowsky line reads like, “How did it go? I’m on tenterhooks here.”
- Obscure reference alert: The Professor mixes up Estelle Getty, star of Golden Girls, with the Chandrasekhar Limit, which determines whether a star will eventually go supernova. Pam drops a quick reference to the monolith from 2001, while Fabian is apparently a Rush fan, given that his secret holding company is named YYZ. And there’s a final little callback to “A Going Concern,” as regards hesitation to dig around in Malory Archer’s desk drawers.
- Line of the episode: It’s neither the most impactful nor most relevant line in the episode, but it did make me laugh the hardest: “And she told you, a woman whose loose lips have sunk so many ships they should be named ‘Admiral Nelson’ and ‘concept of torpedoes.” A classic over-written Archer joke, delivered with unflagging skill by H. Jon Benjamin.
- And that’s a wrap on our coverage of Season 12 of Archer. The show will, presumably, be back next year; no promises, but we’ll at least check in to see what its latest transformation looks like.
- “And how is my lady love?” “Infinitely better, now.”