Death has infiltrated pop culture like a black plague. In recent months, dozens of beloved TV characters have been taken from us, only for shows to reintroduce them or scuttle along to the next flashy plot twist. When death gets thrown around as an easy device for generating pathos and significance, as Todd VanDerWerff expressed so thoroughly in a fine piece at Vox, a show loses its potency and inches towards devolving into a soap opera.
Case in point: Sterling Archer cannot possibly be dead. He’s floating in the pool, his blood leaking from bullet holes like runny watercolor, but there’s no way he’s dead. At the very least, there’s no way he’ll stay dead. Bold reinvention has emerged as a cornerstone of Archer’s artistic identity, but it’d still be a stretch to eliminate the title character for the show’s next season. (If FX even grants them that luxury, that is — the network has yet to renew Archer for an eighth season. Better prepare a save-the-show campaign that involves mailing nips of vodka to FX’s offices!)
In the best-case scenario, creator Adam Reed will contrive some way to drag Archer back from the other side and treat his near-death experience with appropriate gravity, meaning that this wasn’t all for nothing. That’s how Joss Whedon successfully undid what he thought would be a series finale at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season: He retconned Buffy’s death, but also dealt her a severe case of PTSD. If Archer does get an eighth season, Reed will have his work cut out for him, unless his latest and most daring reboot involves an Archer-less Archer.
The dull thud Archer’s probable pseudo-death caps off an episode marked by a more-schematic-than-usual adherence to the tired plotting of film noir. One of the most persistent troubles with this season has been its inability to establish a mystery that didn’t solve itself after about five minutes. At the conclusion of “Deadly Velvet: Part I,” it was transparently clear that Veronica dun did this whodunit. Between Veronica’s repeated verbal timestamps to establish an alibi and the stock trope of the noir femme fatale, “Part II” keeps us waiting for a new twist that never arrives. It is simply what it is, nothing more and nothing less, a disappointingly straightforward engagement with genre that Archer usually sidesteps in the pursuit of winking parody. This finale should have found Archer at its sharpest, operating at the height of its self-aware, deconstructive powers. Instead, it’s the most basic episode of the season.
If nothing else, “Part II” does a bang-up job knotting all the strands of plot that frayed over the past nine episodes. Krieger’s clones come into play, nullifying the climactic shootout until it’s revealed that … no, they totally didn’t. Veronica even reveals the true nature of the MacGuffin that’s driven most of the season, and in true Hitchcockian fashion, the content of the disk has nothing to do with anything and hardly even matters. Not all of the pieces fit together perfectly — the season-opening conversation between the cops voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and J.K. Simmons doesn’t really make sense the second time around, but Key duly goofs on that issue with a pair of funny workaround lines. Satisfying as it is, however, “Part II” reveals that Reed has been flying by the seat of his pants. The ill-fitting dialogue indicates that he’s been making this up as he went along, rather than mapping out the entire season in advance. (Critics like myself received a rough cut of the finale for review, further driving home the down-to-the-buzzer nature of animation production, a set of challenges far beyond Reed’s control.)
But in a final analysis, season seven has given fans a lot to love and critics plenty to celebrate. The hysterical gags merely mean that Archer lived up to its own (admittedly) high standard, but the dicey ploy of uprooting the gang, flying them to the West Coast, and reinventing them as private eyes paid rich dividends, opening up opportunities for new comic premises and non-espionage pop-culture homage. At times, the show leaned too hard on the familiar components of the film noir genre, but regardless, it’s rare to see a sitcom consistently push itself to do more as it rolls into its later years. The fidgety spirit of reinvention electrified these “Figgis Agency” episodes, and though this season didn’t hit the delirious highs of the gang’s stint as coke-slinging criminals (God, I miss outlaw-country Cherlene), it was a pleasure to see Reed pull off another somersault without the net. The season concludes on a slightly off-key note. So what? Forget it, readers. It’s Archer.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- The allusion to what sounds like a “Doctor Han Bastolth” that Pam suspects might be “too obscure” really is. I do not know what that means. Googling all the possible spellings and permutations of what she said yielded no conclusive results. Archer has finally bested me. Congratulations, Adam Reed. I no longer know what you’re talking about. (But if you know, tell the rest of us in the comments!)
- Here’s a more easily gotten reference: Mallory’s “Grabney Coleman” crack refers to the actor Dabney Coleman*, a cinema fixture during the ‘80s with roles in such films as 9 to 5, On Golden Pond, and Tootsie, not to mention the voice of Principal Prickly in the millennial-beloved animated series Recess.
- Sliding further down Archer’s Grand Scale of Allusive Obscurity: The “Marlin Jerkins” comment refers to Marlin Perkins, a zoologist who hosted Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom from 1963 through 1985. Although Archer’s many allusions span centuries, the deepest cuts tend to come from Gen-X entertainment.
- Archer’s intense desire to pelt John Huston with coconuts further complicates the show’s inscrutable timeline. If the celebrated director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is still alive, then the show takes place no later than 1987, an impossibility considering numerous details of the past season. To paraphrase latter-day prophet Sun Ra, Archer works on the other side of time.
- Sound the “subtle Arrested Development nod” klaxon! Malory has no idea what a Turing test is, and asks, “What is that, a thing from Star War?” This does not mark the first time that Jessica Walter has referred to the blockbusting sci-fi franchise in the singular.
- In what may be his final appearance, Archer fittingly takes the one-liner championship belt. It’s a knockout one-two-three punch between his incredulous suggestion that Krieger open an “Adolf E. Cheese,” his description of himself as “softly awesome, like a haiku,” and lamenting upon seeing his mother weeping over the robo-corpse, “She hasn’t cried like that since Prohibition.”
- And that’s it for season seven, y’all! It’s had its peaks and valleys, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed watching, and that goes double for chatting about it with all of you around here. Take care, don’t mix scotch with sambuca or Blue Curaçao, and hopefully we’ll have more to discuss next year!
* This recap originally suggested that Dabney Coleman had died. He has not. We regret the error.