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The 25 Best Episodes of Archer, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: FX

It’s time to say good-bye to Sterling Archer, Lana Kane, Cyril Figgis, and the rest of the gang on FX’s hit animated comedy Archer, which premieres its 14th and final season on August 30. The show that started as a spoof of spy movies and TV shows evolved over the years in a way that kept it alive for much longer than most modern comedies. The prolific H. Jon Benjamin (also Bob on Bob’s Burgers, among many others) plays Sterling Archer, a narcissistic riff on 007 who initially worked for an agency called ISIS (a name discarded after a few seasons for, well, reasons), run by his demanding mother, Malory (the late, great Jessica Walter). Episode structures in the early years were pretty reliable: Archer got into trouble, usually because of his ego, and the superior spy Lana (Aisha Tyler) bailed him out. Lana’s awkward ex, Cyril (Chris Parnell), was typically mocked for being less of an alpha male than Sterling, while supporting characters like Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), Ray Gillette (Adam Reed), and Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) stole scenes as they saved the day. At one point, Archer even went into a coma for three years, allowing for self-contained seasons in which the voice actors played different characters — Dreamland (season eight), Danger Island (season nine), and 1999 (season ten).

Creator Adam Reed stepped back from a writing role to executive produce when Archer came out of his coma in season 11, taking some of the show’s ingenuity and cleverness with him, but there have been memorable episodes in every season of Archer. If you’re eager to do a little catchup before the final run or even just revisit some of the best, here’s our list of the gang’s 25 most essential adventures.

25. “The Wind Cries Mary” (Season 4, Episode 2)

Guest voice actors often elevate the most memorable episodes of Archer, and this one gets a great boost from another FX legend, Timothy Olyphant. The Justified star plays Archer’s best friend, Lucas Troy, who trained with him for ISIS but has now betrayed the company for its nemesis organization in ODIN. After Lucas reportedly dies, Sterling becomes convinced that he faked out, traveling to Vermont to find his childhood BFF. He discovers that not only is Troy alive (for now) but that he’s opened a bed-and-breakfast at which he wants to live happily ever after with Sterling, giving Benjamin and Olyphant some hysterical repartee in an episode that just flies in terms of pacing.

24. “Dingo, Baby, Et cetera” (Season 12, Episode 6)

This list’s only episode from the 2020s makes the cut for two reasons: some great origin material for Sterling Archer and a piece of excellent guest vocal work that really should have happened a decade earlier. One of the all-time kings of smarmy jerks, Bruce Campbell, plays Archer’s mentor, McGinley, in a series of flashbacks to the time that the young agent spent in Japan, falling in love with a local named Reiko. We get the origin of “phrasing,” a great recurring joke on Archer, and even why he’s referred to by his surname instead of his first name in one of the more dependably amusing episodes since Reed stopped writing.

23. “Southbound and Down” (Season 5, Episode 5)

Ian Fleming’s James Bond may be the most consistent reference material in Archer, but the career of Mr. Burt Reynolds is a close second. Archer’s love for the Cosmo king is filtered throughout the early seasons, but it’s most perfectly foregrounded (outside of Burt’s actual guest-star role, which — don’t worry — we’ll get to on this list) in one of the best episodes from Archer Vice, the fifth season. When Cheryl’s country-star persona, Cherlene, books a gig on Travis County Limits, Archer and Pam do a full riff on Smokey and the Bandit, outrunning a biker gang trying to steal the massive amount of cocaine they’re transporting across state lines. Hysterical from beginning to end, it features some of the best comedy chemistry between Benjamin and Nash.

22. “The Figgis Agency” (Season 7, Episode 1)

If you only watched the season premieres of Archer, you’d get a good sense of why the show has maintained such a loyal following — there are six on this list for a reason. Let’s just say the seasons of Archer often start with the show’s best ideas. Take the beginning of the frustrating seventh, which relocates the gang to a Hollywood private-investigation firm and rides out shooting after the nearly awful sixth season, regaining some of the show’s lost comedic power. Not only does it set up the mystery of the season by opening with Archer doing his best Sunset Boulevard impression in a swimming pool, but it includes a killer crew of guest stars in Keegan Michael-Key, J.K. Simmons, and Patton Oswalt.

21. “Strange Doings in the Taboo Groves” (Season 9, Episode 5)

The best of the three Archer-in-a-coma seasons was the middle one, the adventure-riff Danger Island, and the best chapter from that season was its centerpiece, a goofy episode that again highlights the great dynamic between H. Jon Benjamin and Amber Nash. When the alternate versions of Archer and Pam get stuck in quicksand, it allows their voice actors a chance to shine with some unforgettable exchanges about how they’re going to escape this week’s predicament. Archer is often at its best when it’s doing riffs on classic action-adventure or espionage bits, and the writers make a meal out of the oft-revisited trope of the hapless adventurer who stumbles into quicksand.

20. “Blood Test” (Season 2, Episode 3)

One of the main draws of Archer is the manner in which the writers reward loyal and longtime fans with cleverly intertwined recurring jokes. This early episode is such a great example of that, calling back to so much of season one — it was actually written as the season-two premiere but aired after — including the return of Maggie Wheeler’s Trinette, a prostitute who claims that Archer is the father of her baby, leading him to a heist to try to replace his blood so he can pass the paternity test. Vicious without being mean-spirited, it’s just one of the most consistently hilarious episodes of Archer, especially Krieger’s amazing “Me too!” bit.

19. “Training Day” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Archer actually premiered with a one-off episode in September 2009 (stay tuned for that one), making this January 2010 sophomore outing when the legendary run of the series really kicked off. It’s hard to believe how confident the show was right from the beginning — the first season is arguably the best overall in terms of pure jokes per minute — given that the writers and actors were still getting accustomed to their characters. Look at this episode, which centers the twisted triangle of sorts between Archer, Lana, and Malory (with Cyril being used as a pawn in their games). A training session involving how to dispose of a dead prostitute made it clear early on that Archer was going to take direct aim at the misogynist world of espionage pop culture.

18. “The Rules of Extraction” (Season 5, Episode 8)

The multitalented ensemble of Archer works from different comic registers — from Archer’s macho idiocy to Cyril’s awkward heroism to Pam and Krieger’s, well, kinks. Those variations allow for different combinations from episode to episode, and this one works because of how the very different rhythms of Benjamin, Parnell, and Reed intertwine. While Lana and Pam plan a spa day for Malory, the trio of inept gentlemen find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere, leading to the revelation that what snakes are to Indiana Jones, crocodiles are to Sterling Archer. With rich callbacks like why they never make the “phrasing” joke anymore and some excellent physical comedy, this is a great centerpiece to the last truly great season of Archer.

17. “The Man From Jupiter” (Season 3, Episode 4)

It only took three seasons to get one of the greatest influences on Archer directly involved in the show, as Burt Reynolds plays himself in this phenomenal episode. How could Sterling Archer meeting his hero go wrong? If said hero is having sex with his mom. Admittedly, this episode is funnier in concept than execution — Reynolds kind of phones in his voice work — but the concept is so great that it doesn’t matter. Some of the funniest bits in Archer are when the title character gets what he wants and it blows up in his face anyway.

16. “Honeypot” (Season 1, Episode 5)

Speaking of Archer’s life going left when he expects it to go right, this hysterical episode features the title character excitedly getting involved in a honeypot scheme only to end up having to seduce a male enemy agent. Yes, it’s a bit problematic, but what makes this episode one of the best is the ensemble chemistry. Here’s where every character and voice actor started to really gel, bouncing funny lines off each other from beginning to end. The writing really starts to take risks and display a level of confidence that would carry the show over some weak patches in the future. Archer can often be wonderfully self-entertaining, dropping in references that few people outside of the writers’ room would get, but it’s that lack of desperation that has held it together.

15. “Fugue and Riffs” (Season 4, Episode 1)

The different animated worlds of H. Jon Benjamin smashed into one another in the clever fourth-season premiere, which finds Sterling Archer working at a burger shop as Mr. Bob Belcher, complete with an appearance by an Archer-fied John Roberts as Linda Belcher (and silent looks at the three kids from the Fox hit: Tina, Gene, and Louise). It’s not just that Archer had a Bob’s Burgers crossover, but that said crossover essentially references David Cronenberg’s masterful A History of Violence in its opening scene, in which an amnesia-riddled Archer goes on a bloody rampage against KGB agents who happen upon his greasy spoon.

14. “No Good Deed” (Season 8, Episode 1)

Another season premiere! This one marks the first massive shift in the history of Archer as the show revealed that Sterling was stuck in a coma, and the entire eighth season (and, eventually, ninth and tenth) would take place in his mind. The new status quo allowed the writers a whole new set of elements to parody under the banner of Dreamland, set in 1947 Los Angeles and shifting from an espionage riff to a parody that plays with elements of the noir genre. By introducing alternate versions of the Archer ensemble, this episode proves that the series was doing the multiverse thing long before it became so prevalent in pop culture.

13. “El Secuestro” (Season 2, Episode 10)

Some episodes on this list are more essential to the Archer mythology than others, and this one definitely shifted the show’s narrative as it revealed that the seemingly average Cheryl Tunt was actually a multibillionaire, complete with a pet ocelot. Mistaken for Cheryl, Pam is kidnapped and held for ransom, leading to a very funny sequence in which her value is debated by Malory. Not only does this one boast a high laughs-per-minute rate at a time when the show felt most consistent and confident (late season two into early season three), but it reaffirmed that Amber Nash and Judy Greer could essentially carry entire episodes.

12. “Space Race” (Season 3, Episodes 12–13)

Before Adam Reed devoted entire seasons to his bigger ideas, he would often stretch them out over multiple-episode season premieres and finales, leading to some of the best sequences in the history of the show. Take the third-season finale, a perfect two-part Moonraker riff that sends the Archer crew to space under the instructions of Commander Anthony Drake (a perfect Bryan Cranston). They are sent to space with Drake to investigate a potential mutiny on the Space Station Horizon, but everything shifts when it’s revealed that Drake wants to use the ISIS ladies to repopulate Mars. After all, it needs women.

11. “Mole Hunt” (Season 1, Episode 1)

A lot of comedies, especially animated ones, take time to find their voice. Not Archer. It was funny right from the series premiere in 2009. This early version of Sterling Archer is a little more aggressively toxic than he would become in later seasons, but much of the show’s comic skeleton is here right from the beginning. Of course, this is the one that introduces everything, especially the foundation of the show: Sterling Archer’s deeply Oedipal relationship with his mother, Malory, and how it constantly influences his truly poor decisions.

10. “The Honeymooners” (Season 4, Episode 9)

A lot of the episodes on this list work from structures that allowed the writers of Archer to satirize classic plotlines from spy movies and TV shows. Practically every espionage franchise has mined the classic “undercover couple” trope, wherein two spies have to pretend to be married, often recently wed, to complete the assignment. When Archer and Lana go undercover to bust some North Koreans who are trying to buy uranium, it allows Benjamin and Tyler some of their best comic chemistry in the history of the show. Their arc is funny enough, but putting Cyril, Pam, and Cheryl across the street from the undercover agents to spy on them is what makes this one a top-ten episode.

9. “Vision Quest” (Season 6, Episode 5)

Bottle episode! (Or, well, only if you think an animated series can have a bottle episode, which we don’t.) Every good show eventually gets to a self-contained episode, and Archer did so in the otherwise dismal sixth season, resulting in a near-perfect half-hour of comedy. It’s so wonderfully simple: Trap the Archer crew in an elevator and bounce their insecurities off one another. As Archer and the ISIS gang (minus Malory) try to figure out how to escape — including an amazing bit with a semi-sentient copier named Milton — they drive each other increasingly insane. At times, especially before the coma, Archer played as a hybrid of a workplace comedy like The Office and spy culture. This episode may be the most directly sitcom-ish, but in a way that only Archer could produce.

8. “Arrival/Departure” (Season 5, Episode 13)

Adam Reed really brought together the various threads of Archer Vice (the subtitle for the fifth season) in this finale, which finds Lana giving birth while the cocaine case that dominated the plot that year gets wrapped up at the same time. Not only is this one very funny, it’s one of the better episodes in terms of plotting, allowing for some very funny bits related to Archer dealing with Lana’s labor and the reveal of Slater’s true motivations. Essentially playing a riff on himself if he was a CIA agent instead of an actor, Christian Slater was an underrated hero of several episodes of Archer. Let’s hope he gets one more reprimand in the final season.

7. “The Limited” (Season 3, Episode 6)

There needed to be a train episode on this list, right? What’s a great spy property without a train showdown? Even Archer himself knows that train missions are the best, as he gets to live out his impossible dream as the ISIS crew takes a speeding train to Canada with a terrorist named Kenny Bilko. Not only does this episode have some fantastic train-spy-parody material, it gets a few nice jabs at Canadians with its iteration of the RCMP. This one is thick with references too, a great example of how deep the writing on this show can go, with nods to everything from Hud to From Russia With Love to The Banana Splits.

6. “Sea Tunt” (Season 4, Episodes 12–13)

The great fourth season of Archer opened with a nod to Bob’s Burgers and a guest appearance from one of its stars, and bookended that beloved episode with a two-part finale featuring voice work from two more Belchers — Eugene Mirman (Gene) and Kristen Schaal (Louise). The writers here played with every time a spy movie went underwater, as Mirman portrays Cecil Tunt, Cheryl’s idiot brother, who it turns out has led the crew on a wild-goose chase to get them to talk shit about his sister. As if this Sea Hunt riff wasn’t already funny enough, it also has guest voice work from a perfect voice for this show, Jon Hamm as Captain Hank Murphy, who has one of the most memorable deaths in the history of the series and whose presence acts as a big wet kiss to Reed’s earlier show, Sealab 2021.

5. “Lo Scandalo” (Season 3, Episode 8)

Almost a bottle episode, this fan favorite gives Jessica Walter some of her best material in the history of the show, as Malory has to figure out what to do when she ends up with the dead body of the prime minister of Italy in her apartment. And, well, he’s in kind of a compromising position involving a rubber phallus and a unique outfit. Malory insists to Archer and Lana that she has nothing to do with the world leader’s death, and the ISIS gang gathers to dispose of the body, leading to some viciously dark humor with Krieger and amazingly funny material as the crew has to pretend to all be there for a hoity-toity dinner party while the NYPD investigates. There’s a reason the writers call back to this episode so many times throughout the rest of the series’ run — they clearly love it too.

4. “Heart of Archness” (Season 3, Episodes 1–3)

Adam Reed’s desire to do multi-episode storytelling really started here with an amazing three-episode arc to open the junior year of Archer. After the death of his fiancée, Katya, at the end of season two, Archer has gone way off the grid, living in French Polynesia and starting life over again as the Pirate King. It was only a matter of time before the perfectly cocky Patrick Warburton got inducted into the Archer world, and he appears here as the wonderfully named Rip Riley, a former ISIS agent who goes deep into the jungle to retrieve Archer. This one also co-stars Walter’s Arrested Development co-star David Cross as the anthropologist Noah, who becomes Archer’s first mate when he ends up as the Pirate King. Again, the references here run deep, including nods to a Reed favorite in Tales of the Gold Monkey, The Six Million Dollar Man, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and of course Warburton’s Venture Bros. role as Brock Samson.

3. “Skytanic” (Season 1, Episode 7)

The best episode of the first season of Archer hits once it really feels like the writers and actors have completely settled into their characters. The recurring jokes all click here as viewers have come to know and even love most of these idiots. Adam Reed probably had “blimp episode” on a whiteboard early in the production of Archer, as espionage aboard a flying airship is just perfectly in line with the old-fashioned spy-hood of this show. When ISIS has to investigate a bomb threat against the Excelsior, Archer leads Lana, Cyril, and even Pam and Cheryl into the clouds. It’s riotous from beginning to end.

2. “Swiss Miss” (Season 2, Episode 1)

In the long lineage of great Archer season premieres, this is the funniest. It was a declaration that the show was only going to get funnier as the writers were willing to turn the insecurities and failures of the title character against himself. When Archer and the ISIS crew go to Gstaad to stop the kidnapping of a German billionaire, the writers get to have fun with the very concept of the suave superspy. It turns out that the billionaire’s underage daughter wants to get a piece of Archer, leading the 007 archetype to do everything in his power to quell the standard spy- trope of bedding the damsel in distress. At the top of a list like this, what really distinguishes positions is laughs per minute, and there’s only one with a better rate …

1. “Placebo Effect” (Season 2, Episode 9)

“RAMPAGE!” Again, it’s mostly about the ha-ha, but this is also the top episode in the history of Archer because of the source of the nonstop laughs: its deconstruction of the macho, alpha male superspy. The previous episode, “Stage Two,” which nearly made this list, revealed that Archer has stage-two breast cancer. It’s humorous enough to give a narcissistic, misogynistic spy breast cancer, but the real genius twist to the arc is when he learns that the cancer medication that he’s been taking is fake. It sends Archer on a literal rampage (which he brilliantly yells throughout the episode) to get vengeance on the Irish mob that has been selling counterfeit drugs. Some amazing Krieger backstory (he might be a clone of Adolf Hitler), Archer’s righteous fury, and even some solid character development with Lana and Malory all combine to make this an animated-comedy classic. Most of all, though, it’s just ridiculously, laugh-out-loud funny.

The 25 Best Episodes of Archer, Ranked