Way back at the start of this oddball season of TV, I wrote about how its premise—lodged as it is right in the middle of its hero’s surprisingly jazzy subconscious—felt like a trap for critics and other overly analytical minds. It’s just too easy to read deeper meanings into a story like this, where every element is built out of the character’s own imagination and fantasies. But Archer’s more human-level storytelling has always been secondary to its jokes and weird-ass scenarios, so I’ve been mostly content to take Dreamland at face value, as the noir story Adam Reed and company seemed mostly interested in telling.
Given that our protagonist just had a nervous breakdown, though, after repeatedly running over one of his real-world greatest fears with a car, a little armchair psychoanalysis might be in order. Especially when it comes with a sudden reminder of the two greatest forces standing in the way of Sterling Archer’s happiness and success: his mother, and himself.
It takes “Gramercy, Halberd!” a while to get to that point, of course, most of it focused on the crew’s lackadaisical escape from cyborg psycho Dutch Dylan. I wasn’t expecting last week’s horror tone to hold up for very long, but tonight’s action sequences still feel like a missed opportunity to make new-Barry feel legitimately frightening for a couple of additional minutes. Instead, he’s back to being Wile E. Coyote chasing down his own personal Roadrunner, albeit a Wile E. that takes a minute to petulantly kick around some of his former victims’s impaled corpses, just for fun. Dave Willis is as game as ever as the psychotic Dutch, but the cartoony lack of menace renders the episode’s later action sequences largely impact free, at least until a cackling Archer starts driving over his nemesis over and over again.
What follows from that moment is a bit of legitimately great acting from H. Jon Benjamin, as Sterling finally cracks under the pressure of the last several days’ events, injuries, and general drug-fueled sleeplessness. And while his monologue stays firmly focused on the events of Dreamland, it mimics the main criticism of Archer that the show has offered up periodically over the years, usually from Lana (who’s never been a more impotent voice of reason than she is here, trying to convince a car full of gun-toting criminals to drive her to her headquarters so they can turn themselves in): his tendency to rush in blindly to situations that would kill most people, trusting in his luck and skills to save him. It is, notably, the same trait that left him gutshot, floating facedown in a Hollywood pool last year.
If there’s a wider theme to Dreamland, beyond its frequent pokes at the ass-backwards racial and sexual politics of 1947, it’s its insistence on its hero’s fragility. Archer’s face wears every bruise and beating he’s accrued over the last seven episodes, and he’s finally coming to terms with the fact that he’s not actually as bulletproof as he acts. It’s such a rare moment of self-reflection that it’s something of a shame when Len Trexler quietly interjects to inform Archer that Mother is the one who ended Woodhouse’s life.
As Trexler, Jeffrey Tambor is this week’s MVP guest star, taking over for Eugene Mirman (whose Cecil gets ushered out of the way after becoming the show’s latest Brett-esque bullet magnet). The great thing about Trexler has always been his affability; 90 percent of the time (i.e., when he’s not issuing death threats) the character approaches everything with a friendly, almost paternal joie de vivre that’s incredibly engaging. (Case in point: the hesitant “Looks good…” he offers Archer when the latter asks him about his battered face while they’re hiding out in his freezer.) Tambor plays Trexler with a warmth that most Archer characters lack, and it pays off in that final scene. He seems genuinely sad to be breaking the news that Archer’s been so thoroughly played.
How much does all of this really matter, though? Despite my best efforts to take the show on its own merits, I’ve gotten hung up in the past on Archer’s need to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to dramatic storytelling beats like the truth of Woodhouse’s death. That one-foot-in, one-foot-out stance isn’t helped by Reed’s love of setting up elaborate story points, and then anti-climactically undercutting them as an (admittedly pretty funny) joke. At the end of its most focused, story-centric season ever, then, is Archer working a more complicated game than “just be funny”? Should it be? Or has this entire season been the setup for just another narrative punchline, waiting to go off in our faces? We’ll get the show’s latest answer to that question when the Dreamland finale arrives next week.
- I might not have loved how the episode used him, but Dutch’s “definition of insanity” speech—complete with him Wonder Woman-ing away everybody’s bullets—was pretty fun.
- “You have the right to remain silent, or get shot in the face!”
- “At the risk of another meatslap, you’re kind of an asshole.”
- Loved the repeated “Whaaaaaat”s when Lana outed herself as a Treasury agent; less enthusiastic about the accompanying transvestite jokes. (Archer’s “Well, probably not the last time” was pretty good, though.)
- Always happy to see a couple of Frisky Dingo callbacks pop up. R.I.P. Fat Mike.
- “He needs a hospital!” “I think I own one.” Mirman didn’t have as much to do this week, but he made the most of what he got. Ditto Maggie Wheeler as Trinette, whose inappropriately timed Groucho Marx impression made for a fitting send-off.
- Speaking of: “He’s not lookin’ too good!” then, turning to a bleeding-out Cecil: “You’re lookin’ reeeeeeal good.”
- Archer’s running “Whatever this is, we don’t have time for it” was a fun way to break out of the Mexican standoff between Lana, Figgis, and Poovey. (Although I’ve officially lost interest in the question of who ends up with the ransom cash.)
- “Jesus Christ, Figgis, you couldn’t suppress a cough.”
- Hooray for the adventures of Dex and Cody!
- Obscure reference alert: Not much tonight. Robert Goddamn Ripley, of course, created Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!. And Archer’s “Eat a dick, Gort!” is a rare Dreamland anachronism, since the alien robot Gort didn’t appear in theaters until 1951, in The Day The Earth Stood Still. Oh, and “Gramercy, Halberd!” is a line from a poem by Sir Walter Scott; it seems to be a guy thanking some guys with halberds for saving his life, although I imagine it was picked mostly to get us thinking about medieval weaponry.
- Line of the episode: Not so much the line, as the flashforward containing it, but future Poovey’s “Maybe they got us some new diapers…” is just too sweet and oddly moving not to include.
- “I mean, fucking halberds, Jesus Christ.”