Slipping into the past has forced Archer to get resourceful. Although characters speak with the vocal cadences of their modern selves, their actual words have heretofore hewn faithfully to their postwar time period. The show has cut off everything after 1950 from its allusive pop-culture lexicon, and yet that hasn’t slowed it one iota. Archer is as densely referential as ever, doubling down on its deliberately esoteric bent toward name-dropping that it established in earlier seasons. “Sleepers Wake” alone includes nods to Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 horror film I Walked With a Zombie, pseudonymous author of children’s detective fiction Carolyn Keene, and Captain America’s Nazi nemesis the Red Skull.
The minor details don’t even have to be rooted in pop culture, with some of the episode’s best gags specific to the more banal aspects of the era. You can almost see the Archer writers poring over Wikipedia pages, scouring for tidbits on the late-’40s that they can work into the show. Eugene Mirman’s fatuous Van Der Tunt brother Cecil got the biggest laugh of the episode from me when he mocked Archer for not simply using the $10,000 bill then in circulation. (Emblazoned with a portrait of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.) A later joke ekes a laugh out of the then-recent introduction of potato salad to the American diet. Artists often flourish when forced to operate with specific obstructions, and Archer has drawn inspiration from the story’s new circumstances instead of being constricted by them.
“Sleepers Wake” is a gear-turning episode, a half-hour dedicated to advancing a tangled plot while tightening the knots within it. The now-clichéd expression “the plot thickens” originated in detective fiction, after all, and there’s no way Dreamland would let the hand-off of the Van Der Tunt’s ransom money go off without a hitch. But while gear-turning episodes have a nasty habit of dragging even as they push forward, “Sleepers Wake” charges obligations of plot with marvelous, left-field humor. If the writers have to spend this installment positioning characters and rejiggering allegiances for events to come, then fine, but they’ll be damned if that stops them from including a brilliant running joke about cuy. (It’s a dish made of roasted guinea pig. They eat it in Peru. It’s a thing.)
While weaving a complicated web of betrayal and secrecy, “Sleepers Wake” mines humor from unlikely if not outright absurd sources. The episode also covers a whole lot of ground: Figgis wants to play both sides against the middle, Poovey will be loyal to pretty much anyone in her immediate vicinity, steampunk bionic Barry/Dutch has gone rogue and turned against Trexler, Krieger cashes checks from both Mother (as her barkeep) and Trexler (as his in-house experimental surgeon), and Lana’s got some concerns of her own. It’s a frankly staggering amount of business to keep in the air, and this episode make it all look natural. Moreover, it makes this unfolding mystery fun.
Archer consistently finds a way to have a good time with what could otherwise be time-marking plot evolution. Poovey and Archer leave the increasingly cold-blooded Figgis (truly, a good look for the character) in an all-too-apropos morgue compartment with the rest of the cadavers. “Sleepers Wake” has the good sense to make him light his pubic hair on fire before he can get out and move on, a delightful gag that then spawns the extended riff concerning burning hair, which cues up the cuy runner. The jokes interlock perfectly, pivoting into weirder jokes without skipping a beat.
“Sleepers Wake” also works bluer than most episodes of Archer, and this is a show where the bar for crudity is somewhere around a turned-on Pam declaring that you could drown a toddler in her panties. Archer’s dynamic with Lana paves the way to some commendably filthy gags: When she asks him what his angle is, he cheekily replies, “Oh, about 30 degrees.” (Of course, a cymbal crashes in the background of the sound mix right on cue.) Later on, after they’ve hastily consummated their relationship and Lana ribs Archer, “You finished, all right,” he suggests she “try Woolite.” That’s a brand of laundry detergent; you can connect the dots.
The hallmark of a good ensemble comedy is the cast’s ability to take any premise dealt to them and find some way to coax situational humor from it. “Sleepers Wake” scatters the Archer gang across independent story lines that intersect with one another at odd angles, if at all. Yet each character, in ways that specifically gibe with what we know about them, manages to amuse within their capacity of plot-thickener. Pretty much anything was destined to be a step down after last week’s return to Krieger’s past, but “Sleepers Wake” achieves a quieter sort of excellence. Too many mysteries — specifically, those of the hourlong and straight-faced variety — get all hung up on the destination without allocating time or creative latitude to enjoy the journey. Something big is coming (phrasing!) to Archer, we know not what, but for the time being, the characters can get their jollies bumbling through the motions of plot. Now, who’s up for some cuy?
• Poovey and Archer remain a winning comic combo. Poovey’s indomitable can-do attitude pairs nicely with Archer’s constant aggravation over the fact that he’s often the only sane man in a scene. Their rapport has never been better than “Well, I now officially regret my decision” met with “I almost always do!”
• A compelling clue in the ongoing mystery-within-a-mystery of Poovey’s gender identity: In one cut-away scene, Poovey berates the Chinese prostitutes for “leaving the seat down,” suggesting that Archer’s imagination has imagined Pam a cisgender man, if not genderqueer. Pretty subtle and radical representation, Archer!
• The main goon beaten by Dutch in the biker bar wears a jaunty chapeau and leather jacket identical to those worn by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. A 1953 release, it’d qualify as an anachronism if mentioned aloud, but Archer’s subconscious tosses it right into the era-specific soup.