Of the many hats that Archer wears — workplace sitcom, espionage spoof, repository of obscure pop-culture and literary shout-outs — one of the most satisfying is the protracted character study. In essence, Archer is Sterling Archer, a deceptively complex personality lurking behind the typical signifiers of an exaggerated macho lifestyle. For seven seasons, faithful viewers have tracked his struggle to be less of a dick, a somewhat lighter version of the internal conflict that consumed Tony Soprano and the fleet of TV anti-heroes that followed in his wake.
Archer's done some awfully unseemly things over the years: abandoning his loved ones every six-or-so months, inadvertently causing his biological father's death by leaving to go get laid, having a baby tattooed. But because Archer is funny, likable, cartoonishly handsome, and deeply messed up on the inside, we hold out hope that he'll redeem himself and live a less dickish life.
"Deadly Prep" is not Archer at its funniest or most tightly plotted, but it is definitely Archer at its darkest and most insightful, which might even be a rarer treat. An unanticipated encounter with a pair of his grade-school tormentors opens Archer up for another biopsy of his broken, insecure, thoroughly damaged psyche during this half-hour, and the show goes to some affecting extremes to reveal how he got this way.
The client-of-the-week comes from Archer's past. He's a mogul who identifies himself as "Ivy," his nickname succinctly conveying the elitism and snobbery in his very blood. (When he shows Archer his plush office, he says, "Consider it crushed," which is all we really need to know.) Merely seeing Ivy turns Archer's blood cold and triggers traumatizing recollections of getting bullied as a lonely, maladjusted teenager during his prep-school days. In a flashback, the audience bears witness to what just might be Archer's radioactive-spider moment: He's dunked repeatedly in a piss-filled toilet while blood streams from his broken nose into his sinus passages, causing a case of pneumonia that sidelines him from his beloved lacrosse for a semester.
The flashback is, in a word, horrifying. But it's also tremendously revealing. How could a survivor of such a vile assault, on top of the steady diet of emotional abuse he was getting from his mother at the time, not grow up to distrust people? Cyril notes later on that people abused during their childhoods often grow up to repeat those same patterns of abuse, and though he's just angling to get Archer to leave him alone, he's absolutely right. Creator Adam Reed draws a big fat line between Archer's tragic experiences as a boy with the callous, pathologically inconsiderate adult he's grown to become. And while none of this excuses Archer's objectionable behavior, it does render it understandable, making him a richer character overall.
Within the character-driven story at its heart, "Deadly Prep" also finds ample time for difficult meditations on mortality and the worth of life. Humanity often has a comically low value on this show; it has to, for fatal incidents to have a humorous slant. (We'll never forget you, Brett, Attractor of Stray Bullets.) Archer himself admits this, claiming to have killed "literally, scores" of people. But when faced with the assignment of taking out someone he actually knows and has pretty raw feelings about, he has to contend with the reality of what he does for a living, and he finds only ambivalence. As he creeps into Ivy's house with the intention of beating cancer to the punch, he feels a twinge of guilt over the widowed wife he'll leave behind, and briefly wonders what gives him the right to end a life. Philosophical is a good look for Archer, clashing nicely with the barrage of goofy "vagina pass" jokes back at the office. Reed could stand to try it on a little more frequently.
And then there's the starting point of the entire episode: Abbiejean's uncertain future at pre-preschool. (Or as Lana so gratingly calls it, "pre-pre.") It's recently become something of a stock premise in sitcoms — The Office and 30 Rock did something similar, to name a pair of examples — and it seems to fall away as "Deadly Prep" focuses elsewhere. That is, until it culminates in two excellent moments near the close, which cue up next week's episode. First comes Archer's sincere and well-considered resolution to send his daughter into the public-school system, a clear sign of his new perspective. Living in the uppermost echelon led to all of the worst moments in Archer's memory banks, and rejecting that toxic part of his own identity represents a major step forward for the character.
Lana, meanwhile, makes the decidedly more ill-advised gesture of bringing homemade hamentashen to the headmaster of A.J.'s prospective pre-pre. The show spends about a minute-and-a-half on Lana's stint in prison, and Archer's comment that their new legal counsel Alan Shapiro will have her out soon suggests that this story line won't be revisited. Still, the sight of a black woman bent over a police car, getting cuffed for no good reason, remains a charged image in 2016. It's tough for Archer to present this scene without engaging the current epidemic of police brutality — even in a tangential way — but at least for now, the moment passes without recognition. It'd certainly be welcome if Reed does speak to such topics in the future. Either way, it's a great cap to an early standout in this young season.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- "I think she's technically an octoroon bastard, but our whole parenting situation is post-label." It is simply astonishing how Archer can be so progressive and so backwards at the same time.
- About these "vagina passes" … do they work like get-out-of-jail-free cards and exempt the holder from punishment for any vagina-related matters? Or is it more like a membership card, certifying that the holder is the true and proper owner of the vagina? Do they have a monetary resale value?
- "He almost made the Olympics. Biathlon. I know what you're thinking, pretty gay sport, but — do you think he knows Ray!?" Hard to tell if this joke is funny because it's been just long enough to forget that Ray scored a bronze medal in the slalom in his pre-spy life, or because Archer assumes all Olympic athletes know one another.
- There's no overstating just how piercing the bullying flashback is. Reed hardly takes anything completely seriously, so the audience's natural response is to wait for the bit's tension to break with a joke that never comes. It's excruciating.
- Upsetting as it is, however, that scene has nothing on Cyril's nightmarish Silence of the Lambs–style fantasy of revenge on Archer.
- Hamentashen are triangular pastries with fruit-flavored filling, typically associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim. They're pretty tasty!