Even on a show as willing to veer into oddity as Archer, even in a season as darkly committed to the grotesque and bizarre as Dreamland, you must admit: None of us expected this ending with a gigantic ogre fighting a pair of bloodthirsty robotic Dobermans to the death. Their clash all but transcends its genre and format, playing out with the viciousness of the brawl between an enraged King Kong and his dinosaur challenger in Peter Jackson’s take on the material. And like Kong, Mother’s muscle knows that the fight isn’t over until you’ve ripped your opponent’s jaw apart.
Though that scene, funny and horrifying in equal measure, isn’t really the end. While this season finale indulges the brutal urges that led Archer and pals down grimmer alleyways than usual, it ends on a softer and more elegiac note. Archer has gotten sidetracked with a gang war, kidnappings, and post-Nazi experiments gone awry, but his stated mission throughout Dreamland has always been investigating the death of his partner Woodhouse. The finale brings an answer to that question, though Archer’s victory is purely pyrrhic. He comes to the sobering — though not literally, he’s been taking dexedrines like Tic Tacs — realization that no action he can take will bring Woodhouse back. Revenge rampages and beatings are completely powerless to stop the inevitable dedication card that closes out this season: “In loving memory of George Coe.”
This isn’t the first time a show has had to write around the death of one of its actors and it surely won’t be the last. Hasty improvisation, sometimes mixed with a bit of digital wizardry (lest we forget the infamous cut-and-paste job that reanimated Nancy Marchand just long enough to close out her arc on The Sopranos), has often gotten shows over that hurdle. Archer, however, foregrounded this abrupt absence by making it the bedrock of Sterling Archer’s emotional arc. Speaking of The Sopranos, another show that made use of a protracted dream sequence as a symbolic conduit through which its protagonist could process weighty issues: “Auflösung” gets this haywire mystery back on its narrative track by returning it to the core issue of Woodhouse’s passing and Archer’s inability to accept it. All of this leads to the gut-punch of intimacy that comes when Archer finally makes his peace with his dearly departed friend. You can’t ask for a much better good-bye than “I brought you some heroin. Hopefully some kids won’t walk by and eat it,” and H. Jon Benjamin sells the discomfort, candor, and flickering woe of the moment like a pro.
The episode title “Auflösung” translates from German as “resolution,” and as promised upfront, it piles on the closure. Dutch is finally and mercifully disposed with, Lana is outed, and the simmering conflict between Len Trexler and Mother reaches a temporary ceasefire. Even Poovey gets a fitting end to the most elaborate, emotionally rich running joke Archer has ever attempted. The show refashions its cavalcade of resolution as a joke unto itself, as the convened characters dump out one denouement after another to a reception of angry yells.
But the one matter that matters cannot be talked into a happy ending. Archer nears a moment of self-awareness beyond the constructed reality of Dreamland when he cries, aggravated and defeated, that Woodhouse is dead on every plane of the multiverse. I initially found it frustrating that this finale refrained from returning to the land of the living, as if keeping this season hermetically sealed in fantasy prevented it from having any real-world ramifications. But while “Auflösung” doesn’t comment on the future of Archer, it does offer a substantive new direction for Archer himself. Whether he gets out of the coma (and what may have transpired in the time he’s been gone) will prove inconsequential when compared to Archer’s final surrender to the inevitability of death. As he walks away from Woodhouse’s grave, his steps are heavy with the knowledge that he isn’t exempt from fate.
In 21 fleet-footed minutes, “Auflösung” vacillates between genuinely discomfiting violence (the shot of Dutch snapping Archer’s arm like a Slim Jim is a wincer), the usual bicker-heavy comedy (the smash cuts in the car ride and the bruises that appear to accompany them start the episode with a dose of levity we’re gonna need), and pensive melancholy. The script stays true to this season’s spirit of adventurous risk-taking and covers a lot of tonal ground with success. In the moments between Dutch’s grisly demise and Archer’s final visit with Woodhouse, the script stalls for a scene, but it’s wiped away by the time Archer forlornly lays his baggie of heroin on Woodhouse’s headstone.
Archer’s vacation in Dreamland ends as all great film noir must, with our hero shouldering the terrible burden of perspective for the sake of the world he’s kept safe. Like Sam Spade trudging off at the end of The Maltese Falcon, Archer is left with only his pain after he successfully dismantles the killer androids. It’s a downbeat conclusion, right up there with that time Archer’s incorrigible horniness resulted in his probable father’s death, all the way back in season one. But while that incident provoked Archer to look within, albeit briefly, he’s not implicated this time. Life itself is Archer’s enemy now, and she’s a coldly indifferent one. Maybe Archer will wake up to find his loved ones gathered around him, or maybe he’ll get booted into another time and place. (Archer goes Gangs of New York would be a scream.) Wherever we see him next, he’ll have gotten more closely acquainted with the gaunt face of death. And that’s the first step to getting comfortable with the sight.
• John Moses Browning was a noted firearm designer and the godfather of the automatic and semi-automatic weapon. Great innovator, though he probably had a negative net impact on the world.
• In addition to the literal German word for resolution, the episode title, “Auflösung,” refers to a composition of the same name by Franz Schubert, a fittingly sad tune for the occasion.
• In what might constitute the season’s only anachronism, Archer screams that “he’s dead forever on infinite fucking Earths,” a reference to the popular DC Comics story line.
• When Archer repeats himself, Charlotte mutters, “Somebody likes chewing his cabbage twice.” It’s an antiquated idiom, the obviousness of which renders it more of a flourish of faithful period detail than a proper joke. It’s a small thing to fixate on, but fixations on small, obscure things are Archer’s stock and trade.
• And that concludes season eight! FX has renewed Archer through its tenth season, so I hope to see you all back here in 2018. (By which I mean both that I hope you continue reading, and also that I hope the internet, the United States, and Earth as we know them still exist by this time next year.)