The dimensional leap into Dreamland introduced in last week’s season premiere promised a long-form spoof of the WWII-era detective noir. (During a recent interview with Vulture, Lucky Yates pointed out that this season begins with the same inciting event as The Maltese Falcon — our man learns that his partner’s been murdered, with Archer in the Sam Spade position and the late Woodhouse as Spade’s right-hand man … who was, believe it or not, named Archer.) And this episode does dip into the well of traditional gumshoe plots and imagery, both in Cheryl Van Der Tunt’s plot to fake her own death and escape her life of luxury, and the classical L.A.-crime tableau of figures flooded by headlight beams on the side of the highway.
But “Berenice” pleasantly surprises by taking advantage of the change in time period to gain access to an entirely new set of cultural referents. Archer has freely hopped from genre to genre within the course of a single season before, oscillating between sex farce, espionage, and office sitcom with minimal friction. In “Berenice,” however, the shift feels even more natural because this half-hour’s flurry of screwball bickering fits the setting the season has settled on, at least for now. Archer and his distaff companion take this episode to get their Bringing Up Baby on, if Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn spent the whole movie popping codeine pills, and she yelled to an entire hotel lobby that “Me and him, we just fucked!”
The dynamic between Archer and Madame Van Der Tunt reaches a dysfunctional fever pitch over this episode, inflating the playful repartee of the screwball classics to new highs of crassness. Rapid-fire barrages of dialogue have been a key ingredient of the Archer recipe since the jump, but the new context adds another layer of fun. Archer and Van Der Tunt get more time alone here than Archer and Cheryl usually did during Archer proper, and their rare skill for getting on one another’s nerves makes for a fine nod to cinema’s classic bickering couples. They shoot off barbs like Gatling gunfire — “I’m middle class!” Archer protests, to which she icily responds, “This can’t be the middle” — which livens up an episode that otherwise gets weighed down by the duties of plot progression.
The particulars of private eye-hood and drug dealing readily lend themselves to an episodic structure, where each week could bring a new case, a new client, and a new guest star to voice them. But it would appear from this week’s episode that Dreamland is playing the long game, willing to go all-in on serialization with several protracted plotlines destined (doomed?) to intersect when the time is right. Archer’s investigation has guided these first two episodes most directly, motivating his wild goose chase around town with CVDT in tow, but everyone’s got something cooking. Embracing both his German heritage and mad-scientist tendencies more than ever, Krieger’s poised for big things this season. (In the same interview that he noted the Maltese Falcon tidbit, Yates declared this season “the season of Krieger,” to which his castmates heartily agreed.) Mother’s got a scheme of her own, so does Len Trexler and his stump-footed flunky Barry, and the furtive mention of Poovey’s “house guests” will surely come back around sometime soon.
By the time the season concludes and we have the ability to take a step back and consider it as a discrete whole, Dreamland could make for a richer storytelling effort than any Archer season that’s come before. But at this early juncture in the process of telling a longer story, an individual episode can get mired in the needs of plot. As diverting as Archer and Tunt’s haywire jaunt around L.A. is (and the Weekend at Bernie’s homage never seems to fail), most of the episode gets frittered away establishing the setting. Conflicts must be set up, the stakes between the Trexler and Mother syndicates must be raised, and so most of this episode revolves around moving characters from Point A to Point B. Fortunately, the hijinks between Archer and Lady Tunt provide a serviceable sideshow. But still, there’s a sense of impatient anticipation, of waiting for things to kick into high gear. Film noir tended to favor plots so labyrinthine even the writers didn’t know what was going on, so I suppose the more expansive ambitions of this season are in keeping with that. But in practice, at least at this early stage in the game, it’s more cumbersome than anything else.
To say something’s afoot would be a huge understatement; everything’s afoot, with the cops playing both gangs against the middle, Archer wandering in the dark, and Tunt definitely harboring a few secrets of her own. If the primary goal of the episode is creating anticipation for the next chapter, then “Berenice” accomplishes that in spades. But when an episode leaves the feeling that it’s something to be gotten through in order to get to the good stuff, the good stuff better be on its way.
Assorted notes and questions:
• For some reason, the movement animations look more fluid this season. It seems like every season expands on the show’s formal boundaries, either through increasingly sophisticated technology or the willingness to experiment with different techniques. (Take the match cut from Cheryl Van Der Tunt to the WWII-era French nun brandishing a gun, for one surreal and totally rad example.)
• Forcemeat, for those of us who don’t fall asleep to Food Network every night, is the name of the pureed mixture of lean meat with fat from which patés, quenelles, and galantines are made. You know it has to be fancy, because it’s also kind of gross.
• The main factor motivating conflict in the Spanish-American War was indeed U.S. interest in the Cuban and Puerto Rican sugar markets. Points to Poovey and Archer for knowing their 19th-century history, but zero points for being able to read a room.
• Attempting to cover up her snorting laugh at Len Trexler’s criminal headquarters, Poovey remarks that the air quality is “dander-town frolics,” a nice callback to Archer’s exclamation that breaking into the then-ISIS mainframe is as easy as “baby-town frolics.”
• Lots of wonderful one-liners this week. Poovey accusing Figgis of living on “Sarcastic Island, off the coast of That Was Uncalled For” works thanks to Amber Nash’s delivery, but nothing can match the beautiful simplicity of the pan across the utterly defiled hotel lobby until Archer meekly offers, “Sorry.”