Of all the traditions Archer has built up over its decade-plus on the air, I think its approach to season finales—i.e., bundling the whole crew off on an exotic adventure filled with new characters and supposedly world-ending threats—might be my least favorite. Sure, “Space Race” is a blast, but for the most part, these season-ending extravaganzas tend to go heavy on guest stars and action setpieces, light on the character comedy that’s Archer at its best. Certainly, “Cold Fusion” falls firmly into that mold; as the end to a season that’s seen Archer get back to basics in mostly welcome ways, it’s a little disappointing to see some of its less successful elements get resurrected, too.
Although, really: If we didn’t already know that this week’s installment was the series finale, could you actually tell from watching it? Sure, Archer gets a summation at the end where he pushes back (not especially convincingly, to my mind) against the season’s thesis that his waking up has re-ruined his co-worker’s lives. And we get a few bizarre flashes of people from the coma season—Crackers!—that suggest there might be something genuinely screwed up with our protagonist’s brain in a way that’s different from all the other things that are screwed up in Sterling Archer’s brain. But there’s no real effort to draw the season’s themes together, or close any kind of character arcs—to the point that, when Archer is listing off all his pals’ backsliding, all he can pull for Lana is that she’s being mean to a just-introduced side character that neither we, nor the audience, actually care about.
And really: No shade to Pamela Adlon or Kayvan Novak—both of whom are fantastic on their own respective FX shows—but Antarctic researchers Sandra and Rex don’t seem likely to make a dent in the big list of great Archer guest characters. It takes a certain surfeit of expressiveness to succeed when dropped into a group of voice actors this comfortable going huge with their performances, and neither Adlon nor Novak seem to have the juice to keep up. (Again, that’s not necessarily a dig on them; no less esteemed a performer than Jamie Lee Curtis fell into a similar boat twice this year.) The episode gets more mileage out of the guy with permanent Werner Herzog voice and the creepy female Krieger—to say nothing of episode MVP Baby Lamont (although that might just be my weakness for Frisky Dingo references rearing its ugly head).
As to the plot: The whole agency gets whisked away to Antarctica by a paint-by-numbers Elon Musk type, who turns out to be taking the Lex Luthor approach to cornering the real-estate market with some hydrogen-bomb-assisted sea level changes. The bulk of the episode is taken up with investigation of a murder on the base, but it’s really all just marking time in between oddball interrogations and Ray Gillette ice cream binges. Turns out there’s a bomb, a plot to flood the planet, and a chance for Archer to once again nearly die, this time in service of saving the world with a massive explosive pickleback. It’s rote, is what I’m saying, which means that the episode’s quality has to fall back on the strength of its jokes, and said strength really isn’t even close to enough to prop this whole thing up.
It’s not that there aren’t laughs in “Cold Fusion,” although they’re fewer and more far between than I usually expect from this show. (My running list of great lines, which normally stretches several pages, is looking pretty sparse tonight.) It’s just that the few great lines on display are mostly hanging out around the margins, whether it’s Pam playing strip solitaire in an effort to seduce the researchers, or Cheryl/Carol casually stabbing people. In its effort to boil all of the characters down to their most basic traits in order to make Archer’s whole “I’m your excuse to suck” thing at the end land, it feels like Mark Ganek’s script has also stripped our favorite jerks of the nuance and neuroses that power so much of Archer’s comedy. We’re left with only surface-level cracks about Pam being horny, Lana being angry, and Malory needing to drink. Eleven seasons in, the depths of these characters’ various issues are the most powerful reserve of comedy this show’s got; squandering it can’t help but leave the whole thing feeling like an anticlimax.
Archer’s 11th season ends where it probably had to: With everything back to normal—regardless of whether Archer’s character model has been updated with a cane or not. (R.I.P. the tactil-cane, as plotty a plot device as has ever nakedly plotted.) But hoping for actual, meaningful change from Archer has always been a futile game. The real pleasure of this season has been watching it prove, definitively, that Archer can still be great, and funny, and smart, and surprising, no matter how long it runs. When the members of what is still one of the best working casts in television are given the tools and the writing to succeed with, this show soars just as effortlessly as it seemed to during its “golden years.” “Cold Fusion” ain’t it, though. Thank god for the 12th season renewal, because seeing the show go out like this would be a particularly bitter dream to try to wake up from.
Episode grade: B-
Season grade: A-
- This is full-on armchair quarterbacking, but it really feels like last week’s episode should have been the season finale, right? More personal stakes, a better pay-off of season-long themes, even the recurring appearance of Peregrine. It’s weird!
- Archer, after Lana blanks on supposed grad school rival Sandra: “Nothing worse than a nemesis that doesn’t know you exist: Like playing air guitar with your entire life.”
- “Why don’t you all take a deep breath? There’s wonderful oxygen right outside my office.”
- I might as well put this here, but the voice performance on the episode’s villain, Trip, really did not work for me. Read as generically smug (and slow!) with no real character to it.
- The crew’s guesses for what’s killing people at the base: “Alien monstrosity,” “flesh-eating virus,” “demon possession,” “multi-dimensional hellbeast,” and that old go-to, “sex worms.”
- Aisha Tyler doesn’t get a ton to do tonight, but the contempt she puts into denigrating penguins as “flightless birds” really tickled me.
- “That’s the thing about real men, they’re always saying they’re men.” Between this and the ice cream binge, Adam Reed reminds us why Ray remains a vital part of the show’s ensemble.
- Aw, Archer’s Plinko board.
- “Jesus, Cyril, you leave your nuts in your other uterus?”
- Nice to see KGB sleeper agent Rona Thorne’s still getting work.
- The mystery stuff is frustrating, because if you told me Archer was tackling an Agatha Christie plot, I’d be all for it, but the whole thing’s so half-assed. Archer tries to lampshade it with the setup for the slow, plodding exposition, but the episode doesn’t steer into the mystery tropes enough to support the gag.
- But also: Who did kill Maddox?
- Also, why has Ray seen the Elon Musk guy be hog-tied? Truly, this is an episode of many mysteries.
- “We’ll cross that bridge when you casually stab it.”
- From my notes: “Wait, is pickle juice less dense than water? Why does the pickleback bomb float?”
- I can only assume the Crackers appearance was included specifically to cater to me. I miss that bird.
- Obscure reference alert: This is our second Shackleton reference in two weeks, while a French 75 is a sparkling cocktail of gin, Champagne, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Bernard Bolzano was a 19th century philosopher and logician. And Baby Lamont was the penguin saved from global warming after Killface’s son Simon activated the Annihilatrix, moving the Earth three feet from its original position. Obviously.
- Line of the episode: Yet again, this section becomes the unofficial Judy Greer cheering section; nothing in this episode made me laugh harder than Cheryl/Carol’s casual “So hi, and stab” to one of Trip’s goons. But really, she ran the board tonight, between the loud whispering, her intentional unhelpfulness, and her glee at the concept of a “coke sub.”
- And that wraps us up for Season 11 of Archer. All in all, I’m incredibly pleased with how the show has weathered this latest transition—there are episodes (although, admittedly, not this one) here that stand up favorably to anything the show’s done throughout its very long run. God knows when season 12 will actually arrive, but the bulk of this season leaves me extremely excited to see where the show goes next. Until then, be well, and thanks for reading!