A good foil is more than a negaverse reflection of a character. The two should be remarkably similar except for one key difference, which illustrates just how important the trait in question is for the main character. The foil acts as a sort of “What If?” one-shot to the main character’s Earth-616, showing how life could have gone with a single shift in the tides.
Barry Dylan may not be the oldest face in Archer’s gallery of recurring foes — that’d be the perfidious one-time diversity hire Conway Stern — but he’s the most meaningful. When we first met Barry, the most significant difference between him and Archer was that one of them had blonde hair. Both were elite secret agents, renowned worldwide for their debonair skill, and both were intimately familiar with Lana. The interim years have not exactly been kind to Barry — he’s been nearly murdered a half-dozen times, robbed of two fiancées, left for dead in space, and turned into a cybernetic killing machine — but he’s still not too far from the man Archer could’ve been. Barry was clearly conceived as Archer’s insufferably smarmy counter, but something set him on a path toward evil while Archer stuck to the side of the dickish-but-good.
Just as last week’s outstanding “Deadly Prep” dipped back into Archer’s history to gain a little insight on his present, “Motherless Child” provides a definitive answer as to what could have turned Barry from a prick into a homicidal prick. Surprisingly enough, a maternal presence is what sets Archer and Barry apart from one another, and what pushed them toward divergent paths. When Barry shows up and forces the Figgis Agency to track down his birth mother, he reveals the same undercurrent of hurt and vulnerability that turned Archer into a womanizing wastrel. But whereas Archer had to survive a ceaseless campaign of abuse and mistreatment from his own mother, Barry apparently had it worse. Left to grow up an orphan, he clearly never developed the sense of empathy that makes us human. (This is before he literally became inhuman, for the record.)
“Motherless Child” mostly succeeds in making a sympathetic — or at least slightly more understandable — character out of the gaping anal sphincter known as Barry Dylan, though creator Adam Reed doesn’t let him veer too far into compassion. After all, we’ll need to loathe him again when he inevitably reappears in season eight. But in order to justify trotting out this character yet again, Reed has to take him somewhere new, and the most inviting direction is inward. Archer has little breath to spare for Barry’s orphan sob story (his wisecrack “you’re coming to me as a robot mummy … who’s got no mummy!” is as callous as it is satisfying), perhaps because he knows firsthand the horrors a mother can inflict, or perhaps because he hates Barry more than anyone on the face of Earth. Maybe he’s discomfited by the realization that he’s one abusive mother away from total sociopathy and usage of the third-person when speaking about himself, which are pretty much the same thing.
Mallory’s B-plot in the underground chamber is basically a facet of the A-plot, but semantics notwithstanding, it helpfully reminds us of just who we’re dealing with. Mallory is an expert spy above all else, and watching her in action is a simple pleasure. There’s unexpected humor in how her self-engineered escape immediately deflates the dramatic tension of the episode’s central plot, and animated or no, it’s impressive to watch a geriatric woman use nothing but her wit and a bobby pin to wriggle out of restraints. Mallory’s endangerment also grants Archer a nice humanizing moment, when the audience sees that he still freaks out and leaps into action the millisecond his mother gets in harm’s way. Moreover, it provides a nifty glimpse of the woman who collected all of those legendary fieldwork stories.
All told, last week’s “Deadly Prep” makes for a fine companion piece to “Motherless Child.” Both episodes vivisect the psyche of a troubled character, searching for the seed of dysfunction that bloomed into a mighty oak of neurosis. Admittedly, the psychological material never advances past the entry level, but this ain’t In Treatment — it’s a cartoon that aims to make us laugh. When Archer accomplishes that and adds thoughtful dimensions to long-time characters, it’s a privilege to watch.
Assorted Thoughts and Questions:
- Don’t be afraid of clichés, Sterling Archer! If this time it really is personal, then by all means, you go right ahead and say, “This time, it’s personal.” Say it with a low, urgent voice! Lean into it!
- The line “Samuel Johnson tells us puns are the lowest form of comedy, but for me, it’s murder” may be the show’s purest distillation of what Archer is and strives to be. Reed counts on the audience to have boned up on their 18th-century Anglican essayists/literary critics, but even if that reference sails over a viewer’s head, the unexpected punchline still connects through the reversal of expectations — the foundation of all comedy.
- “Don’t body-shame me, dog tits!” It’s rare for someone to follow up a demand for basic respect and person-to-person decency with the insult “dog tits,” but then, Pam Poovey is a rare sort of woman.
- The episode title refers to the old slave spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Give it a listen, and in the instance of this particular rendition, try not to think too hard about the contextual implications of who’s performing it.
- Cheryl, who never met a violent fetish she didn’t like, has now developed the hots for skinless automaton Barry, and Judy Greer does right by the excellent line “Barry’s about to violate the first law of robotics … on my vagina.” But the real question here is whether or not we have collectively, as a society, coined a term for sexual intercourse between robots and humans. (Like “beastiality,” but for androids.) We’re going to have to, eventually. Agalmatophilia refers to the phenomenon of developing sexual attraction to a statue, mannequin, or doll — maybe an inroad can be made there?