(Image: FXX)

So, what are we doing? Are we just jumping right into this? Because tonight’s Archer is one of the strangest, darkest things this show has ever done, and I’m honestly at a bit of a loss as to how to approach it. The first half of “Auflösung”—German for “resolution”—is pretty normal Archer fare: everybody takes turns threatening and sniping at each other, and there’s plenty of jokes about rope, gags, and absent toast. Even when robotic murderer Dutch Dylan smashes down the wall of the Dreamland club, we’re not that far off from a standard “Barry beats the rest of the cast up” episode, a series staple since all the way back in season 2. It’s not until Dutch reveals that he was the one who killed Woodhouse—just to see “his light go out,” which, Jesus—that the rules that underpin the series start to aggressively, rapidly shift.

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To start with, though, the anticlimactic reveal of the season’s big mystery isn’t actually all that shocking. As I noted last week, this ”set up big plot moments, then ruthlessly undercut them” pattern is a joke that Archer seems to really enjoy, as evidenced by last year’s “Longwater” plot, and the over-arching, never-to-be-answered question of Archer’s parentage. Archer’s approach to narrative tension has always been the TV equivalent of Sterling’s beloved voice mail pranks, with increasingly elaborate promises of dramatic stakes to lure you in, only to get called a “stupid” for getting suckered yet again. It’s only fitting, then, to have Dutch—who’s positively gleeful in his acceptance of his meaningless, coincidental role as the season’s “final boss”—be the secret culprit in Archer’s big parlor room scene, because he’s the living personification of Archer’s ”Fuck it, nothing matters” attitude, vis a vis its own plot. (Also, Woodhouse totally cut him off in traffic.)

But that’s just the start of “Auflösung”’s descent into narrative nihilism, with things getting even darker as Dutch makes his grisly exit. When “Waxing Gibbous” ended on a scene of striking, Hannibal-esque violence, it felt audacious and bold, a push at our idea of the things Archer could successfully do. But tonight’s violence stepped over the line into gratuitous for me, first with the too-realistic snapping of Dutch’s neck, and then the absolutely horrific sight (and sound, ugh!) of Zerk killing Krieger’s robo-hounds. I’ll admit to having a weak point when it comes to violence against dogs—John Wick very nearly lost me in its opening minutes, to give an example—but the shot of Zerk pulling the Doberman’s jaw apart tonight made my stomach turn. And unlike Lana’s later death, there’s not even an underlying joke to serve here, beyond “Isn’t it kind of funny how horrifically dark we can make this stuff, now that we’re on FXX?” It’s an inarguably memorable and viscerally effective sequence, but it’s also not even kind of recognizable as the goofy spies-and-detectives show I fell in love with.

And speaking of Lana’s demise, it says something when the lethal and repeated shooting of a show’s female lead qualifies as a “lighter moment” in an episode of TV. Lana’s been poorly done by Dreamland as a whole, so it’s weirdly fitting that she’d be taken out by the hair-trigger on Archer’s trusty Chekhov gun, as a sort of exaggerated play on the old noir trope that says the stalwart detective will always lose his lady love. But it also served as a sudden, unwelcome reminder for me that Dreamland isn’t really “real.”

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Last week, I got the chance to chat a little with writer and creator Adam Reed about this season, and he told me that he went out of his way—distancing himself from the “all in Archer’s head” conceit, tossing out scenes that would have checked back in with Sterling’s comatose body in the real world—to maintain the reality both of the world, and the versions of the characters inhabiting it. (That conversation is also why I don’t read that much into Mother being the one to shoot Lana, despite what it says about Archer’s ongoing Oedipal issues.) That’s mostly held true, I think, but Lana’s death, equal parts farcical and shocking, is the moment when that devotion to the Dreamland reality starts to fall apart.

It’s just so…silly. And I like silly! The sequence itself is one of the funnier of the episode, with the repeated shootings taking on a “rake gag” kind of comedy. But they also serve as reminders that these versions of the characters “don’t count,” that they’re just dolls in the film noir toybox Reed built for himself out of this year’s scripts. (To double down on my Simpsons’ references, it reminds me of the gleeful way “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes kill off members of the show’s regular cast, just because they can.) If and when resident badass Lana Fucking Kane dies, I want to feel it, and in this case, outside of some initial shock, I really didn’t. It doesn’t help that her death is followed by a very meta conversation with Poovey, implying that Archer himself might actually be dead, as well. (Or possibly that Aisha Tyler won’t be coming back next year? After all, Lana’s supposedly dead, “forever and ever, on infinite earths.” Both are depressing prospects.)

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The despair of it all leads into Archer’s surprisingly sweet farewell at Woodhouse’s grave (I’ll admit to feeling a real pang of sadness at “I’m gonna miss the shit out of you”), and then the final scene with Poovey at their home. Poovey’s fantasies about their future with the Chinese sex slaves have been one of the strongest running threads this season, telling a surprisingly complete story about the loneliness and hopes lurking under the character’s boisterous exterior. The women’s inevitable departure, and the shattering of those lofty dreams, marks the most perfectly “noir” note the show’s hit all season, a moment of real heartbreak and pathos to go out on.

And that’s what’s so frustrating for me about “Auflösung.” There are moments of real beauty here, and real comedy, and real shock and horror. But none of them work with each other to build to anything more than confusion; I count at least five major tonal shifts in the last ten minutes of the episode, and the grander end result is often little better than a disorienting case of narrative whiplash. Dreamland has been dotted with these little out-of-genre moments throughout, where Archer briefly becomes some other, equally interesting show. But it still feels off-kilter for it to depart on so many of them at once.

Those episode-specific complaints aside, though, my suspicion is that Dreamland will work better as a binge-watch, when viewers can take in all 160 minutes of its new world in one big batch. (It’ll probably help solidify its outlying hints of melancholy into a more concrete tone, to boot.) As an experiment, it remains a shockingly bold thing for a show to pull off in its eighth season, and I stand by my initial assessment that it injected welcome energy into a series that was starting to show its age. If nothing else, it serves as an unquestionable testament to how good these actors are, and how much pleasure there is in spending time with these characters, regardless of the era. I have no idea where we’ll end up next year—Reed has strongly implied that we’ll simply drift into some other mental landscape, although he was cagey on what kind of theme world or setting it would be—but I’m still excited to see where Archer takes itself next.

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Stray observations

  • So much for all my theorizing about Archer’s war flashbacks, huh? “Holy shit, glad I don’t have a flashback for that!”
  • Also ultimately meaningless in its blatant MacGuffin-ry: the ransom payment. At least we get that last shot of Cecil and Trinette getting married, weird German nudie mag in hand.
  • Thank God, though, for Charlotte Vandertunt, a woman who never met a grim situation she couldn’t lighten up with a demand for toast, or a happily hurled chair. Judy Greer’s “Uggggghhhs” are a work of art.
  • There’s not enough bickering between Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter tonight (and really, there never is), but Tambor’s indignant “Huh! Slander!” was so great.
  • Speaking of Mother: Reed expressed his regret at not making her and Archer actual mother and son this year, so expect that dysfunction factory to be up and working again next season.
  • “Sock sock…Then you say ‘Who’s there?’”
  • It’s weirdly sweet that Archer brought Woodhouse heroin. “Hopefully some kids won’t come by and eat it.” (It’s also pretty funny that dream-Archer definitely doesn’t know his first name, or when he was born.)
  • “I got blood on you…” “Well, I blew a load on your dress, so…” I feel like these two lines really capture the intersection between Archer and noir.
  • And one last joke about Krieger’s robot cat. Little guy loves his work.
  • Obscure reference alert: Not much, really. Zerk gets called a golem, and Cyril references Hercule Poirot, but nothing people probably weren’t already familiar with. (Unless that nudie mag was real; I don’t really feel like Googling it.)
  • Line of the episode: Dutch’s “I was already a murderer before you turned me into a freak, so I don’t know why you thought this was gonna have a happy ending” is just too apt not to go for. Runner-up awards go to Charlotte’s “Rudolph the rude-nosed reindeer,” though, and Poovey’s “I was gonna say rope salesman!”
  • As for season MVP, holy crap is that a hard one. I think Poovey wins out in the end, if only because I really ended up feeling for the big lug. But the Vandertunt siblings were as funny as anything I’ve seen in a good long while.
  • And that’s the end of another year of Archer coverage, folks. Thanks for playing along!

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