Nine episodes into Archer’s transition into the world of gumshoes, Hollywood, and gritty private eyes, we’ve finally got our first real taste of Tinseltown mystery. And while the identity of Ellis Crane’s murderer—which, more on that, later—probably won’t matter much in the long-term reality of the show, it’s at least nice to see the series back in a comfortable, if low-key, groove, after last week’s disappointing “Liquid Lunch.”
As “Deadly Velvet: Part I” opens, we see a couple of different plotlines that have been weaving through the back half of the show’s seventh season—the titular film, starring Crane’s ex and Archer’s crush object, Veronica Deane, and the ongoing Lana-Archer feud—finally come together. Crane and Lana (who’s taken the technical adviser position the director offered her back in “Bel Panto: Part I,” apparently just to piss Archer off after their break last week) are hiring The Figgis Agency to protect the film, and figure out who’s trying to sabotage its set.
From there, everybody splits up (never my favorite flavor of Archer, but oh well), with Archer ingratiating himself to Veronica and playing jealousy tennis with Lana. Meanwhile, Cyril, and an absolutely fabulous-looking Malory (“undercover” as a big-shot film executive, in one of two callbacks this week to season 2’s “Movie Star”) are tracking down financial motives for the crime, and Cheryl and Pam are teaming up with lovelorn lawyer Alan Shapiro (still Patton Oswalt) to try to stop Archer from charming his way into his beloved client’s babydoll nightie. (Ray and Krieger, meanwhile, are relegated to grip-work and “skulking around,” respectively, which seems like a bit of a waste. You can never have too much Ray.)
Let’s dispense with the Archer and Lana plots first, since they’re ultimately the least satisfying thing going on this week. It’s not that I’m deeply invested in Archer and Lana’s relationship, or that watching them fight is breaking my poor old shipper’s heart. (That belongs eternally to Archer and Pam, in any case.) It’s just that the Archer-Veronica-Lana love triangle isn’t very funny. This version of the fighting—which eventually devolves into fisticuffs after Sterling and Veronica “make love”—is at least a little more energetic than last week’s bitter bickering, and includes some good back-and-forth about whether Ms. Deane’s lady parts do, in fact, contain cobwebs. But after 84 episodes of Lana and Archer using other people to drive each other crazy over and over again, it feels like we’ve seen every possible iteration of how these fights can play out. It’s time to move on.
Speaking of: The most interesting emotional confrontation this week is actually the one between Cyril and Malory, who’s now straight-up calling their workplace “The Archer Agency” in front of clients. The power struggle between The Figgis Agency’s dorky figurehead and its actual puppetmaster has been playing out quietly all year, so it’s interesting to see Cyril finally take some steps to reassert himself. (Even if it immediately leads to him getting shouted down by the more dominant Ms. Archer.) This is also one of those rare instances where Cyril gets to prove he’d actually be a pretty decent attorney or P.I. if he could get out of these people’s orbit, working out at least some of the details of Ellis Crane (or whoever’s) Producers-like scheme to make millions by destroying Deadly Velvet before it can even get made.
Finally, there’s Pam and Cheryl, hanging out at the craft services table and just being reliably great. It’s always hard to pick a “best” line from the smorgasbord of id and wit that Amber Nash and Judy Greer serve up on a weekly basis. But for some reason, I was really tickled by Cheryl’s grudging admission that she’s still attracted to Archer, which comes off as pleasantly grounded for a character who also breaks down crying at the thought of a fire being put out. (There’s also a whole little exchange about Malory’s perception of Pam’s gender—rooted in a Swiss hot tub, a strap-on, and a whole shit-ton of absinthe—that makes me want to rewatch the series to see if the groundwork for it has been getting laid for a while now.)
The episode’s threads all come together when Cyril and Malory stumble onto Crane’s bloody corpse, with Cyril’s screams bringing the rest of the cast running. (By the way, I’ve lavished a lot of praise on Archer’s animations this season, but I don’t think there’s been a still image as arresting as the very noirish sight of the director’s slumped-over body, alone in a shadow-filled room.) Cue detectives(?) Dietrich and Harris for a line-up, and the looming question of who, exactly, pulled the trigger.
And let’s talk about that for a second, huh? By my count, there are roughly four suspects who could be behind the murder. In no particular order:
- Veronica Deane: She’s got motive, opportunity, and even a willing fall guy, in the form of the deeply enamored Shapiro. (It seems pretty likely that the gun that killed Crane was the one Archer took away from him early on in the episode.) The only strike against Veronica being the culprit is that it’s too obvious; in a good mystery story, anybody with this much evidence pointing to them has got to be a red herring.
- Krieger: Or one of his robots. That’s gotta pay off somehow, right? (Unless it’s just an excuse for faking out the details of Archer’s death that we glimpsed in the premiere.) As for motive? It’s Krieger. Who needs a motive?
- That floppy-haired assistant director or camera guy who helped put out the fire tonight: This one’s just The Law Of Conservation Of Detail; why give a random extra a handful of lines if he won’t be important later? (By the way, I went back and checked: he’s definitely not the civilian identity of Mr. Rompers from the “Bel Panto” episodes.)
- The CIA or the KGB: Bear with me here for a second, because we’ve had hints all season that the world of espionage isn’t completely done with Sterling and Malory Archer. Even outside of Slater’s appearance last week, there was the very Katya-esque fake Veronica from the season premiere, and whatever the hell was going on with those Longwater documents. And tonight, we get not just one, but two posters for movies by Rona Thorne, the Soviet sleeper agent from “Movie Star.” Add in the international nature of Crane’s insurance scheme, out Dietrich and Harris as yet another couple of goofily incompetent CIA agents or freelancers, and it all adds up to the revelation that Archer never stopped being a spy story after all. (Bonus points for reinforcing the ongoing theme that people can’t really change, even when they make superficial alterations to their lives.)
Admittedly, that’s a lot of words about the plot of Archer, a show which has never worried all that much about plot. It’s to “Deadly Velvet: Part I”’s credit, then, that it’s got me interested in whatever happens next. (Which, really, is all you can ask from the first part of a two-part finale.) I’m actually excited to see the reveal of the season’s ultimate mysteries when they (hopefully) arrive next week.
- My screeners are still missing dialogue, usually from off-screen. (This week, it was Cyril’s scream at finding Crane’s body.) Sorry if I missed any particularly good lines.
- Archer’s getting around that whole “busted fuel pump” thing by having his sports car towed around on a flatbed truck, by a grungy Italian guy with DUIs on his record and a taste for road head. Seems legit.
- I have some theories about what a C.D.L. might be—other than a Commercial Driver License, anyway—but they’re all too vile to put into print.
- Veronica doesn’t remember Archer. Is she a clone? A robot? A self-absorbed Hollywood starlet? Or, my personal favorite: running a ruse?
- “Other than my ex-husband’s refusal to let me get on with my life, the only thing I need protection from is this clunky dialogue.” Mary McDonald-Lewis really sells the (hopefully) intentional awkwardness of that line.
- I do like Cheryl going all Cherylton Heston at the thought of a fire being put out.
- “Which hole?!” It turns out Pam’s only shot two mules. That seems low.
- “Why would I be asking rhetorical questions?”
“That one was!”
- We can add “kind of like a crack pipe” to the internet’s collective efforts to figure out what Sterling Archer’s penis looks like.
- And God bless Pam for getting another “On my tits, whaaaaat,” in in the face of the police interrogation.
- Obscure reference alert: Fritz Lang was the director of Metropolis and M, and one of the fathers of filmic noir. (He was also a contemporary of Erich von Stroheim, co-star of Sunset Boulevard.) And, for the record, the original crew of the Enterprise went to planets modeled on 1920s Chicago and Nazi Germany, but never time-traveled to those eras themselves. (At least, not in the original series.) Malory references HAL 9000, Cousin Oliver, and Rain Man in her conversation with Cyril; apparently she really has gone Hollywood.
- Line of the episode: A post-coital Archer: “I wonder if this was how Tenzing Norgay felt? Holy shit, I wonder if this is how Tenzing Norgay ALWAYS feels!” H. Jon Benjamin’s at his best when he’s voicing Archer’s sudden moments of joy.