It turns out that Nazi torture-chamber interlude in “Sleepers Wake” wasn’t just a memorable flirtation with the horror genre, but rather the vanguard of a chilling new status quo. “Waxing Gibbous” seems to take the nightmarish sight of Dutch’s bloodied leg-stump as a challenge, and handily outdoes it with the single most disturbing image that Archer has conjured to date. The show has gone plenty dark before — lest we forget the delightful dinner party that concluded as the assembled guests left with the machine-sawed body parts of an Italian politician — but this episode establishes a new standard for extreme content. If Dreamland intends on being the grimmest season of Archer, the horrifying Last Supper of mutilated corpses sets the bar pretty damn high. For all we know, this is just how things are now.
But before we can reach the grand finale of impalements and distended flesh, there’s a lot to get through — a lot of exposition, a lot of humor, and a lot of humor in the form of exposition. The great strength of Dreamland has been its ability to elevate the most menial table setting with consistently hilarious writing. At its best, Archer gussies up scenes in which characters deploy crucial information with absurd comic slants that enliven the narrative busywork. Consider this episode’s cold-open scene, in which the writers assign Archer the clearly defined objective of informing Mother that the corrupt police force absconded with their missing ransom money. It could take all of 15 seconds, but Adam Reed and company expand the moment into a gem of physical comedy by forcing Archer to communicate via a game of strangulated charades. All the scene conveys is the content of one three-word sentence — the choked words “cops took it” — and the rest of the bit is just fun for its own sake.
“Waxing Gibbous” pulls the same trick midway through its run time, when circumstances force Lana Kane’s hand and she outs herself as a federal agent. She’s been a known unknown this entire season, concealing a secret in plain sight though its specific nature was never clarified until now. The reveal that she’s an undercover special agent isn’t all that surprising — there was no way this show would let steely Lana play the coquettish cabaret performer for long — but again, Archer goes about revealing this in the most amusing and unexpectedly incisive way possible. The admission that Lana’s an incognito fed quickly segues into a more pointed dialogue about the intelligence sector’s disappointing hiring practices with regards to women and minorities, complete with a shout-out to trailblazing agent Alaska P. Davidson and a deep-dive into the many sins of J. Edgar Hoover. The comic hook lies in the fact that Lana works for the IRS, a noble position (they recovered the Lindbergh baby, after all!) that nonetheless earns her no respect whatsoever. Meanwhile, the focus shifts from the exposure of Lana’s hidden identity to its larger cultural significance.
As much as I commend Archer for rising above the drudgery of exposition, that’s not to cast shade on the elegant physics of plotting that invisibly guide “Waxing Gibbous” to its cliffhanger ending. The characters organically split into three groups, all of which are set on a collision course at Len Trexler’s undoubtedly haunted mansion. The Poovey-Figgis brain trust and Archer’s ragtag squadron piece the puzzle together and fall into robo-Barry’s grisly trap, but the most winning comic trio has to be Lana, the returning Eugene Mirman’s oddly mannered Cecil Van Der Tunt, and vengeful sex worker Trinette McGoon (who you may remember as the mother of Archer’s bastard child back in the real world). Everyone brings something to the table: Lana’s dumbstruck fury at her companions’ incompetence, Cecil’s skin-crawling sexual proclivities (“merkins, mistaken identities, and incest, and it’s a musical!”), and Trinette’s esoteric knowledge of automotive mechanics. Incidentally, her continued insistence that a leaky engine can be fixed with a chunk of potato — hence the term “potato compartment” — happens to be the episode’s finest joke.
Here’s something else to consider: We’re almost done with Dreamland. “Waxing Gibbous” marks the sixth episode in a season of eight, a more truncated run than the show’s usual 10- to 13-episode order. For all the fun they’ve had tangling plot threads like a game of film noir cat’s cradle, Reed and his writers will soon have to cut through the knot they’ve built for themselves. Now that everyone’s been collected at Chez Trexler, it would seem that everything’s out in the open. Everyone’s intentions have been made clear, and they’re now pitted against one another in a more present clash than their crisscrossing investigations. This being Archer, there’s no doubt that there’s another twist on the way, but the chickens are coming home to roost. We’ve come this far, and now Trexler’s place has been revealed as the fireworks factory everything has led up to. Now, all that’s left is to … [Ken Watanabe voice] let them fight.
• Charlotte Van Der Tunt describes Mother’s towering lackey as being closer to “Pantagruel” than Frankenstein’s monster, making reference to a collection of 16th-century French novels about a pair of giants. Author Francois Rabelais was also a noted fan of elaborate wordplay and the willful mixing of sophomoric humor with sophisticated satire — no doubt that someone in the Archer writers room has been a fan since college.
• The imagined flash-forward of Poovey attending the graduation ceremonies of his hypothetical Chinese-American children is delightful enough on its own, but his Orville Redenbacher-esque mustache is another thing entirely. Old Poovey’s face belongs on money.
• In related Poovey news, his fleeting references to knowledge accumulated while growing up on a farm have grown even more unsettling. This week: “Why do you know what burnt pubes smell like?” “Because I grew up on a farm?”
• Learn from Archer’s foolish error, kids: If you’re gonna mix Dexedrine with codeine, make sure that you have a way to tell the pills apart.