Photo: Archer (FXX)

[Before we dip into the episode proper, you might want to check out this interview we did recently with Archer creator Adam Reed, confirming his plans for the show’s 10th season, and what, if anything, might come after.]

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Sterling Archer is dead. Long live Sterling Archer…in space!

But while that final teaser at the end of tonight’s episode was a lot to take in, we can’t go nuts talking about where Archer the series is headed—burning down yet another premise on the way to its next big, weird idea—until we’ve spent some time eulogizing where (and who) it’s been. So R.I.P. to Danger Island Archer, a man who died as he lived: Falling into a volcano alongside a murderous Nazi robot, while bragging about sexual conquests he never actually achieved.

And yet, for all his general Archerness, there was a low-level kindness and vulnerability to this version of our hero that I’m actually going to miss. Reed says he always intends to write Archer (the character) as the same person every time, dream season or not, so I have to assume that the difference here was in the people around him. Ignore all the racist cannibals and radioactive death idols: Giving Archer two characters who legitimately had his back and liked him, in the form of Crackers and Pam, was the most revolutionary thing Danger Island added to the Archer formula, and it’s created a version of our favorite asshole who’s been a lot easier to root for, without ever actually losing his edge. It’s Pam being in danger, after all, that sends Archer leaping literally into the mouth of an active volcano tonight, playing the Gollum to Fuchs’ Frodo—a reference that none of the show’s cast would get, since it comes from a book first published in 1955.

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The various Hobbit jokes running throughout tonight’s episode served a surprising number of purposes, actually: At first, they felt like just another one of Archer’s coma dream anachronisms. But then it turns out that, for once, everybody (except poor, island-trapped Noah) knows exactly what Sterling’s talking about, treating Tolkien’s children’s novel like it was the Da Vinci Code of its day. Reed’s script gets an enormous amount of mileage out of these seemingly throwaway lines, even flirting with the idea that we might be racing toward some kind of LOTR-esque fantasy season, before dismissing it for being too damn long to adapt. (For what it’s worth, Charlotte isn’t even remotely wrong about all those fucking songs. Get an editor, John Ronald Reuel!)

Meanwhile, the general video-gaminess of the last few episodes continues, as the team—fully assembled at last—makes its way through a surprisingly underwhelming temple full of not-actually-all-that-many death traps. (Is the lackluster nature of the temple sequences just another one of Archer’s beloved anti-climaxes, or a consequence of devoting the last three minutes of an already slim 19-minute episode to a teaser for next year? You be the judge!) At least the idol itself is worth the hype, for once, albeit not in the way everyone was hoping: It’s a big old chunk of uranium, just the thing the Third Reich might need to kickstart a nuclear program and take over the world. (Stakes!)

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The final boss fight against the self-described Uber-Fuchs is a little visual treat, though, especially as our over-matched heroes realize how badly their callback-loving cannibal pals the Mua Mua have fucked them over. (See, Archer, the chief wasn’t such a tough room after all!) It’s always worth taking a second in these latter-day Archers to acknowledge that the show has never looked better; not just the designs and the scene compositions—like the shot of Pam looking tiny but brave in the face of the giant metal death machine—but also little animation touches like Ray’s hands-in-the-air jump when he flees the scene, or the way Pam’s body ragdolls when Fuchs knocks her off a cliff. (Speaking of, how perfectly Archer was it to open the episode with a shot of Ms. Poovey’s lovingly rendered ass, only to fart directly in the audience’s face?)

And so, as our hero plunges into the lava with a cheerful cackle of unearned self-confidence, we have to step back and ask: Did Danger Island work? And if it did (or didn’t), what does that say about Archer’s continuing prospects?

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Let’s start by making one thing clear: This is the first “coma” season to really pay off the premise of infinitely iterating Archer that we’ve been operating under, ever since Sterling got shot. Dreamlands had its moments, but it was too sloppy, and too unwilling to engage with the tropes it was ironically invoking, to really succeed. In contrast, this season has consistently walked the line between the comedic sociopathy and navel-gazing wordplay of the Archer “brand,” while still modifying itself to fit the lighter, more action-adventure tone of its serialized sources. But as I try to grapple with this very odd ninth season of a cable TV show—so far removed from the “Manchild James Bond parody annoys his coworkers” premise where it started—I keep coming, perhaps inevitably, back to Crackers.

With a single change of a minor character—swapping out a deranged mad scientist for a flighty but loyal animal companion—Reed and his team managed to rewrite the dynamics of their decade-old show, reinventing and reinvigorating relationships that had grown repetitious and stagnant. Suddenly, Archer and Pam had someone to team up with (and yell at together). Horrible ideas had a new voice of reason mocking them. And, at the risk of descending too far into metaphor, the entire moral barometer of the series took a strongly optimistic uptick, Nazi death robots or not. (It’s worth remembering that all of the cyborg rampages and bloody dog deaths of last year’s needlessly grim finale could be traced back to Krieger, while Crackers is second only to Pam in terms of being basically good.) Sure, the dialogue has lost a step or two, the verbal interplay not quite as relentlessly tight. And I don’t mean to single out Crackers as the only thing Danger Island has gotten right. But if one character change—and a great Lucky Yates voice performance—could gin up this much fresh material, who’s to say Archer couldn’t continue on in this vein for years?

Not that it will, in any likelihood. The show’s order from FXX is up next year, and I wasn’t entirely shocked when Reed told me he’d be leaving the series after it expired. I’ve argued before that Archer, at this point, essentially is whatever Adam Reed feels like writing about, so it’s hard to imagine even wanting the series to continue in his absence. It’s a shame to leave, though, just as the series is finding what feels like a new, late-life groove. But it does mean we should probably take the last minutes of tonight’s episode as a glimpse of the show’s final frontier: Archer and Archer are heading to (a very clunky, ’70s-inspired version of) space; one last big, potentially brilliant detour before Sterling Archer finally wakes up (hopefully!) from this long, strange, genre-busting dream.

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Stray observations

  • Malory, commenting on Pam’s opening “line” of the episode: “That’s disgusting.” “You’re the one covered in farts!”
  • Archer’s not sure why Noah makes him so goddamn mad. Malory has an opinion: “For me, it’s his face.”
  • Reed would probably make fun of me for harping on this, but the show’s last big set of Tolkien references came with all the “Space mythril” jokes from “Space Race.” Coincidence?! (Yes.)
  • Which is the better Pam line? “If I put my back in any more, it’s gonna come gooshing out my front,” or “Oh man, that’s Hobbit as balls!”
  • Meanwhile, the best of the Tolkien jokes is Lana’s little “Just like the ponies!” after the door slams shut behind them. Specificity saves the day.
  • “You guys don’t really strike me as readers. Especially of fantasy.”
  • Sterling Archer, leader: “Noah, if I have to ask you again, it’s going to come in the form of a shove.”
  • Charlotte going full Cheryl after Archer reminds her he ruined her life: “Oh my god, I forgot about that!”
  • Malory remains eternally optimistic that they’ll run into a bar, since the entire temple looks like “a prehistoric Trader Vic’s.”
  • And hey, Cyril gets in one last “Suppressing fire!” for old time’s sake.
  • Obscure reference alert: The Hobbit was, indeed, published in 1937, and was enough of a massive hit that it’s not entirely impossible that everybody in our crew would have read it. Trader Vic’s was (and still is) a famous chain of tiki bars. And while classic spiritual “Dem Bones” wasn’t the song played on the skeletal xylophone in the classic Ub Iwerks short “Skeleton Dance,” it has been inextricably associated with that particular trope over the years. (Here it is being used as a puzzle solution in King’s Quest VI.)
  • Line of the episode, speaking of: Archer, after Lana fruitlessly yells at him to take down the giant murder bot with nothing but a pair of femurs: “Like what, play ‘Dem Bones’ at him?” (Followed by an annoyed “Oh great, now that’s stuck in my head” from Charlotte.)
  • Speaking of Lana, Reed blew my mind by describing her as someone “Archer is attracted to, but that he doesn’t like as a person.” Kind of cold, but maybe it helps explain why she’s been such a strange, distant presence these last two years.
  • “It’s not often you find a primitive people who understand the callback.”
  • The last cryopod we see at the end (before Archer’s) is Krieger, A. Good news for fans of ethically fucked-up super science! (Bad news for me.)
  • Re: Space: I can’t say I’m automatically enthused for a starship-set season, even if the idea as Malory as the ship’s prissy computer is a fun one. But, then, I wasn’t very optimistic about Danger Island, and it turned out to be my favorite out of the three seasons I’ve reviewed for the site.
  • And on that note, let’s bid farewell to this season of this very strange, very lovely show, with the only way we could: A hearty, “Shut up, bird.”

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