It took me a little while to figure out why I liked “Bel Panto: Part 1” so much. (Spoiler alert for anybody who hasn’t looked at the episode grade yet: I really liked “Bel Panto: Part 1”). But it wasn’t until the show explicitly called out the story structure it was referencing—with Cyril reminding Cheryl of their ill-fated blimp-based choke-sex back in Season 1’s “Skytanic”—that the connection became clear. That episode—and its spiritual sequel, “The Limited”—work so well because they transplant the show’s entire cast into a foreign, confined setting, a configuration that gives them a), new people to use in their ongoing efforts to destroy each other, and b), the opportunity for everyone to get intimately involved in the caper of the week.
These days, Archer mostly reserves this structure for its season-ending multi-parters, where the plot questions of why, say, Cheryl might be along for the mission are easier to wave away or outright ignore. So it’s only fitting that this odd-duck mid-season two-parter might use it, too, dragging the entire Figgis Agency to a high-class gala in support of (hilariously) the American Tinnitus Association. (A real group, by the way, whose actual logo shows up on the event’s introductory sign.)
Said festivities are happening at the home of Ellis Crane, the previously mentioned ex-husband of movie star Veronica Deane, a good clue that we’re dipping back into the season’s ongoing story arc after last week’s Barry-focused departure. But while Crane’s estate does end up getting invaded by some Purge-looking homicidal clowns, hunting for the fancy necklace that Alan Shapiro (still Patton Oswalt) hired the Agency to protect, “Bel Panto: Part 1” is way more focused on an equally volatile situation: the brewing love triangle between Archer, Lana, and Veronica Deane.
As expertly diagnosed by Pam—whose skills as a romantic detective far outstrip her abilities or interests as a more traditional private eye—Lana and Archer are engaged in yet another duel of jealousy-inducing one-ups-manship. But while Archer’s flirtations with an unnamed actress—and Lana’s receptiveness to Crane’s handsy offer to be a technical adviser on his latest movie—are standard parts of the Archer playbook, Sterling’s response to Ms. Deane is not. We don’t get “vulnerable Archer” very often, and his inability to lay down his usual patter when confronted with the object of his crush suggests that his feelings for the veteran actress might pose a real, existential threat to his and Lana’s ongoing romantic detente. (Even if, when the clowns chaotically burst in, their instincts are still to call out each other’s names.)
But instead of the two teaming up, Veronica pulls Archer away to a panic room, hidden behind a baller secret passage concealed inside a bookshelf. There, the two have their first real scene together, giving us a chance to gauge where Veronica falls on Archer’s wider spectrum of strange and damaged people.
This show focuses so heavily on characters that are sociopathic, violence-prone assholes, that it’s surprisingly affecting to spend time with a “civilian” like Veronica, who’s terrified that she’s about to die in a dangerous situation, or horrified when Archer snaps the neck of Pinky Brewster (the leering murder clown he lures into their hiding spot so that he can kill him and steal his clothes). Archer has killed dozens of people over the course of the series, usually with a dismissive quip on his lips (phrasing) and nary a solemn look back. But it’s been a while since he’s done it so explicitly, apologizing to Veronica in advance, and then loudly and gruesomely snapping the robber’s neck. It’s a brief reminder of what our wise-cracking hero (and maybe our whole cast) might look like to a regular person, one who hasn’t seen him in Rampage Mode before.
But then, just as quickly, it’s time to get back to the jokes. Which are in abundance, because this is a very funny episode of Archer, from Cheryl’s expected-but-still fantastic five-hour case of Stockholm Syndrome, to Ray’s Casper The Friendly Ghost headcanons, to Archer summing up of military service with, “Seems like a lot of running.” Loading up these characters with resentments, jealousies, and stress is always going to bring out their worst, which translates to the show’s best, in terms of one-liners, put-downs, and obscure references to 19th century female detectives. Let’s just hope “Bel Panto: Part 2” can keep the momentum going when it arrives to finish out the two-parter next week.
- Between Shapiro’s hesitation when describing the Czarina, and his facial reaction when Cheryl makes a joke about hiring a clown, I will be very, very surprised if the home invasion doesn’t turn out to be a hoax, with the shifty lawyer looking to earn his beloved client some insurance money and discredit her philandering ex.
- That’s smooth-throated Seinfeld veteran John O’Hurley as Crane, by the way, giving a suitably John O’Hurley-esque performance.
- Not enough can be said about how good Amber Nash and Judy Greer are on this show. Pam’s “Shut up!” to the scandalized old lady, and Cheryl’s fake yell before dropping the vase, aren’t that complex on paper, but they both forced me to laugh out loud.
- Actually, between the vase drop, the Stockholm Syndrome, the Encyclopedia Brown runner, and “Tiny Montana,” this is Cheryl’s best episode all year.
- I’m still not sold on the bumpers, but I’ll admit to some fondness for the one that shows Ray, Pam, and Cheryl all indulging in their various vices.
- Some stellar, chaotic animation on the scene where the clowns break into the party. It feels like there’s been at least one of these jaw-drop visual moments every episode of this season so far.
- Obscure reference alert: Buckle in: Bugs Meany, the Tigers, and Idaville are all part of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown. Kate Warne, meanwhile, was a Pinkerton known as America’s first female detective. Maria Alexandrovna was an actual Russian Empress, Shocking Blue had been a band for two years when they recorded “Venus,” and I have no idea who the “Stevie” from Ray’s grisly Casper fanfic is.
- Bonus obscure reference: Archer describes Veronica’s posterior with a “ka-kow,” a reference to the bumbling Xtacles from Adam Reed and Matt Thompson’s Frisky Dingo. (Also, the old sideburned guy who gets kicked in the face by the robbers is Lord Felchley, from way back in “Training Day” from Archer Season 1.)
- Line of the episode: “That was her. Running her fat mouth.” Cowardly, finger-pointing Ray will never not be funny to me.