Strange Doings in the Taboo Groves
While no one was looking, the relationship between fictitious versions of Pam and Archer grew into one of the most compelling in the history of the series, waking or no. Last week’s half-hour excelled by developing a dynamic that began in earnest a few episodes prior, but could still draw on years of preexisting percolating tensions. Danger Island has reimagined Pam as Archer’s burly-yet-feminine right-hand man, the gendered language of which Archer has fully taken to heart. As we learn in “Strange Doings in the Taboo Groves,” Pam Poovey is a human woman complete with the attendant wants and needs, but Archer treats her like something between a manservant and a man — and it all comes to a head in an unanticipated confrontation rivaling the most charged interactions between Archer and Malory, heretofore the show’s most richly developed.
The crux of last week’s “A Warrior in Costume” pushed Pam and Archer to their breaking point, as Archer remained ungrateful for Pam’s efforts to fix his plane while Pam felt unappreciated after having expended so much effort to help out a friend. That same friction persists in this episode, rising in intensity until an explosively emotional catharsis in which Pam reasserts her right to be treated with respect and dignity. It’s a hard-won right for her, acting as a constant punching bag for years now, and the legitimacy of her complaints lends them a surprising gravity in terms of pathos. All these years, Pam had been suffering in — well, not silence, Pam’s an inveterate complainer, they all are — but suffering without recognition. Seeing her forcibly claim some self-respect in the face of a world seemingly organized against her is a heartening turn.
Adam Reed opens the episode with a couple seconds of contextless clattering in blackness before the image joins it onscreen to reveal that we’re in the reconstituted body of Archer’s seaplane. It foregrounds the detail that the plane hardly works, nudging the viewer toward understanding Archer’s frustrations, though Pam makes the valid counterargument that it was only broken in the first place because of his misestimation that the landing on the central town drag could be safely accomplished. They continue to fight, though with a bit more vinegar than we usually see between the generally convivial buddies. Archer says radish-rose garnishes are wildly unnecessary; Pam doesn’t disagree, only shooting back that she likes them, with a faint note of hurt in her voice.
They’re hot on the trail to Dead Man’s Cove, a.k.a. Foreshadowing Lagoon, a.k.a. Harbinger Harbor, where Cyril’s map hints that the all-important MacGuffin idol may be hidden. (Cyril and Lana continue their flirty bickering, while in other side-plot news, Cheryl continues to use her status as the sexual queen dubbed “Crazy Coconut Lady” to bend Malory to her will.) As the name suggests, the route deals them no shortage of perils, from quicksand to ill-tempered howler monkeys that hurl rock-hard breadfruits at our heroes. Every youngster’s inexplicable bugaboo, quicksand gives Pam and Archer the most trouble, and it’s when it seems like the suction might actually take both of their lives that they can be real with one another. And for Pam, that means a lunge at a life of her own.
Pam Poovey isn’t the picture of perfection. She says “sploosh” at inopportune moments. She drinks BBQ sauce as an “aperitif.” She has been known to engage in illegal underground bum fights from time to time, often while using electrified equipment. But the sublime vocal performance from Amber Nash in this episode provides a reminder that tactless, sloppy people are still people. Under the mighty, impressive breasts that Archer feels the need to specifically address, there’s a mighty, impressive heart. Pam breaks down in tears when confessing to Archer that she’s severely limited the scope of her life, never pursuing a romantic entanglement or a dream of her own, and now she’s not even sure why. This is the sound of a sidekick blinking into awareness of their own sidekick-ness and bristling at the assignment of a supplementary existence. Nash has been this show’s secret weapon for so long, always ready with a sexually graphic one-liner at a moment’s notice, but this is the first instance of a script capitalizing on her skill as an actress. The moment would feel disingenuous if not for the years of frustration in Nash’s voice, revealing a vulnerability that’s been there all along.
I wondered last week if this episode would pick up with Archer and Pam out at sea, but the opening moments elide their return to shore and plunk them down in their plane. Likewise, I worry that the next installment may gloss over the marriage proposal that Archer unwittingly floats and Pam gleefully shoots down. It feels like a significant step forward has been taken in the Pam-Archer dynamic, if not with a declaration of love at least with an admission that they’re the most meaningful presences in one another’s lives. Pam pulls the ultimate “sike, bitch!” on Archer, guarding herself with a layer of irony, but there’s a grain or two of truth behind her prank. Maybe she just wanted Archer to acknowledge how much he needs her before she helped him out of the quicksand. But Nash sells the moment too well for it to all be a ruse.
• The Archer-est of all Archer jokes is the one that calls attention to its own obscurity; even the characters in Adam Reed’s universe consider all the Weir of Hermiston references a Robert Louis Stevenson deep cut. While best known for plotting the path to Treasure Island and cursing the meek Dr. Jekyll with the untethered Mr. Hyde, Stevenson’s unfinished final novel chronicled an upper-crust Scot’s foray into rural society and his romance with a wholesome farm girl. To quote Archer himself, “Read a book!”
• Speaking of things nobody could reasonably be expected to know offhand, Elisha Otis was a 19th-century industrialist responsible for the invention of the fail-safe that keeps elevators from plunging down their shaft in the event of a defective hoisting cable. You know, just some casual elevator-physics humor, as the people demand.
• The mention of “King Leopold” alludes to Belgium’s King Leopold II, the perpetrator of some of the most heinous colonialist atrocities that the world has ever seen in what was then the Congo Free State. His long CV of basic-humanity violations was detailed in the book King Leopold’s Ghost, which did a lot to rewrite the history of Belgium into something less friendly and more truthful.
• My darling Luigi returns this episode for a moment-long cameo, slowly dying while crushed under some sacks of flour. There’s a heartbreaking, James Gray–styled drama to be carved out of this season, and it stars my man Luigi.