In its periodic attempts to explain why Sterling Archer is the way that he, well, is, Archer has usually turned to exactly one wellspring for his healthy stores of life-long dysfunction: His mother/boss/mother-boss, Malory Archer. So it’s interesting to see tonight’s episode, “Dingo, Baby, Et Cetera” attempt to finally tell an origin story for its master spy—a scant decade-and-change since the show premiered—and have it be one in which Malory barely features at all. To do so, said episode has to invent not just one but two different, never-before-mentioned-yet-somehow-fundamental-to-Archer’s-past characters, which is one of several things that render this whole exercise in retroactive worldbuilding a tad inelegant. And yet, there’s enough character depth to this little walk down memory lane that a whole host of more holistic flaws can’t stop the genuine quality from shining through, like so many of the glowing scene transitions that mark our movement between Archer’s present-day mission in Japan, and his memories of his very first outing as a field agent.
Both of which, not coincidentally, center on the titular Dingo, who we’ll eventually learn is an infamous assassin who beat Archer to their target on that premiere outing, leaving him with unresolved trauma that informs his shittiest behaviors to this day. (This episode is making some big swings, and doing so with some extremely clunky “as we all know” dialogue, but you kind of just have to buy in to it to get to the good stuff.) Oh, and she also happened to be his first girlfriend, Reiko (Karen Fukuhara), who seduced Archer, used him to get close to her Yakuza boss target, and killed his mentor McGinley (Bruce Campbell), all before dramatically vanishing and leaving a hole that a lifetime of booze and womanizing has failed to fill. And just so we’re all clear: All of these characters are extremely important to the backstory of the lead character of this 120-plus episode cartoon sitcom, and always have been, the whole time. Okay?
But I tease credited writer Mark Ganek, who does here what his scripts—including last season’s great “The Orpheus Gambit” and “Caught Napping”—typically do on this show: Make the emotional side of Archer (which does exist, despite the nay-sayers) work in tandem with its goofier instincts, instead of against them. The basic plot beats of the flashbacks are so predictable as to almost work as a sort of bluff; you keep telling yourself it can’t be that paint-by-numbers simple, until it really, truly is. But the near-negligible plotting allows for the relationship between Sterling (whose switch to “Archer” as his “brand” is one of several “Hey, it’s a prequel!” bits that don’t especially work here) and Reiko to get some actual traction; it’s a shame the character is “real dead” at the end of the episode, because Karen Fukuhara is a great fit for the show’s energy. “Suddenly-revealed-first-love who is the reason why a character is all the ways they are” is a wild thing to drop on any guest performer twelve seasons into a TV series’ run, but Fukuhara at least takes a credible stab at it, crafting a lively, hard-to-impress foil who embodies all those traits Archer most prizes in his lovers/mothers.
The other major flashback character, meanwhile, fills out most of the rest of the Archer equation that wasn’t already penciled in by Dr. Oedipus. (Congratulations on your degree.) On paper, casting Campbell as McGinley, the “uncle”/senior agent who drilled it into Archer’s head that he’s at his best as a drunk, thought-light instinct monster, is fairly inspired. (With the passing of Archer alum Burt Reynolds, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting pick for that kind of lantern-jawed machismo.) In practical terms, though, there’s just not a lot to the character. Outside of being Archer 1.0, he’s a pretty straight putt, his “teach a lesson, then die” role as rote as everything else in the backstory portions of tonight’s show. Campbell’s decision to underplay the voice-acting—minimal smarm, little in the way of cartoon bombast—is probably for the best, at least; the script is too grounded for anything more over-the-top to work. What we’re left with, then, is a sweet, funny, mildly murderous story about why Archer does what he does in the present day (and which probably goes a little too far in explaining nearly every quirk of his personality, fieldcraft, and trove of beloved running jokes).
Speaking of: The present-day portions of “Dingo” work less well than the flashback stuff, mostly because a big chunk of them are still rooted in Lana’s marriage drama, and if Archer isn’t going to care enough about this plotline to bring Stephen Tobolowsky into the booth to act these arguments out, it’s hard for me to care too much about them either—especially because this plotline has been hit so hard this season, to such slow effect. But, hey: Aisha Tyler gets to stretch a bit as Lana flirts her way into something she’s pretty sure isn’t cheating with MI6 agent William (Emmett Hughes), and the final action scenes are serviceable-to-great, as Archer once again gets near-mortally injured by a woman he let get too close to him. (Literally, this time.) The reveal that Reiko’s body has not, in fact, disappeared mysteriously was a laugh-out-loud line for me, and if it’s clear that Krieger is only along for the ride here because Ganek realized he needed someone around to crack tentacle porn jokes, well—what else is Krieger for, right? The jokes come fast (and are all rooted in character), the voice performances are all top-notch, and getting to see Sterling be the one sputtering in rage for once is a fun twist on the Archer-Lana dynamic.
Now, here’s the big, season-not-episode-grade question: Does any of this make a lick of sense within the wider context of the show, as it exists, at this time? Not especially, and not this late in the series’ run. But that’s mostly because Archer has ceased to have much in the way of a wider context over the last few seasons, period. It’s weird to see an episode of this series suddenly care about the deep-rooted traumas of its gun-toting Bugs Bunny lead, just as it was weird to suddenly bring up the “Archer waking up from his coma ruined everything” plotline last week. But weird is not the same as unwelcome, and these episodes have been closer to the blend of heavy comedy and very, very light feeling that marked Archer’s golden age, at least for me. “Dingo, Baby, Et Cetera” is messy, and it tries too many times to make a joke out of characters stating the emotional subtext of a scene, while also relying on that dialogue to try to shore up said subtext. But it’s at least trying to be something, and that’s worth celebrating at this point—even if it has to invent new backstory out of whole cloth to do it.
- Guest star report: Fukuhara is the obvious stand-out, here; her banter with Archer as Older Reiko makes me genuinely wish we could have gotten more of this dynamic. Campbell, as stated above, is so low-key you might not even know it was him, if not for McGinley’s design. But nobody embarrasses themselves.
- We get very little of anybody who isn’t Archer-Lana-Krieger tonight, but the Dr. Oedipus gag was good and solid. (Not unlike Archer’s puke-corn, apparently.)
- We get McGinley origins for both “Phrasing” and “I had something for this,” which I’m sure will make a fascinating entry on Archer’s TV Tropes page someday.
- Lucky Yates is having a blast tonight as Krieger. “Yes! I love it when things aren’t our problem!”
- “Aw, it’s really humiliating how they don’t work for their mom, huh?”
- You know you’ve found The One when she’s down with your mother-dream erections.
- The tentacle coming out of Krieger’s porn comic was low-hanging fruit, but dang if it didn’t get me.
- In that same category: Every joke and reveal with Koto’s doggedly persistent translator.
- “Hey, you still working on that helmet for dolphins that lets them communicate sexual consent?”
- “Endangering innocent bystanders is like 90 percent of what we do. And the other 10 percent we’re on break!”
- “There’s something to be said for the mood of a time and place.” “That’s what the dolphins keep saying!” It’s a very good Lucky Yates episode.
- Obscure reference alert: There’s nothing an Adam Reed production likes more than a quick “Stay gold, Ponyboy.” Metamucil is a product associated with old people like the cab driver. Infamous legend holds that the Yakuza sever fingers of underlings who displease the bosses. And if Axe Yamaguchi is a real wrestler, I couldn’t find him.
- Line of the episode: Speaking of, I got a kick out of “I gotta say, for a Yakuza boss, he seems pretty chill. Although you did just give me a high three.”
- Archer’s blitheness to people getting shot never ceases to amuse me. “We all get shot, Lana!”
- “Nope, wow. She’s real dead.”
- Bonus reference alert: Wait, almost forgot: The episode title is a reference to Meryl Streep’s A Cry In The Dark, and, indirectly, to the Seinfeld episode that permanently ruined it in the public imagination.