How far can you take a joke? Archer’s “elaborate voicemail hoaxes” have never reached “Cape Feare” levels of comedy through repetition—they usually pop up just often enough to remind you that Sterling Archer, all other things aside, would be a deeply irritating person to actually know—but the 90-second centerpiece sequence in tonight’s episode, which sees Ray, Mallory, Cyril, Pam, and Cheryl silently listen to Archer beat down an entire biker gang worth of dudes, probably takes the premise as far as it can go.

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But hey, if we’re going to put Archer’s odd little hobby to bed, at least it went out with a bang. The whole segment is a brazen act of confidence on the part of the show’s animators, who manage to deliver one of Archer’s boldest setpieces without the benefit of dialogue or the show’s amazing vocal cast. Besides being pretty funny, the whole thing is loaded with fun little character beats, like Cyril’s pissy reaction to Ray’s finger tapping, or the way Cheryl’s eyes light up when she hears somebody getting strangled. It looks fantastic, too. Visually, this has been Archer’s most compelling season yet, whether that comes in the form of a new emphasis on noir-ish close-ups, or the hypnotic (and surprisingly expensive, apparently) effect of The Figgis Agency’s employees lazily spinning in their chairs. It even has a perfect delayed punchline, with Mallory’s disbelieving “My god, he trained crickets!” landing a few minutes later.

This is a great episode for the elder Archer in general, actually. She ends up saving the day—rescuing Archer, Lana, and Patton Oswalt’s returning character, Alan Shapiro, from the vengeful biker gang. But she also gets to utterly devastate Cyril, with a monologue that’s worth reprinting in its entirety, because it feels like a thesis statement for this entire season-long trip out west:

“Cyril, you have been given the opportunity of a lifetime! A new job, a new city, where no one knows you, which means you can reinvent yourself. You can be anyone you want.

So why would you keep being you?”

It’s honest, brutal stuff, and Jessica Walter absolutely nails it. After a season that saw Mallory mostly on the sidelines, chafing like everybody else under the CIA’s control, it’s incredibly refreshing to hear the character so invigorated again. (And if she hypocritically undercuts her argument a few seconds later by undermining Cyril’s control of the agency yet again, well, that feels true to the character, too.)

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Meanwhile, Lana and Archer are out in the field, working to recover the Longwater disk they stole last week for the real Veronica Deane, and her lawyer, Shapiro—a nastily effective bit of L.A. satire from Oswalt, who plays the character as a guy who’ll fondly reminiscing about how long his servants have worked for him one minute, then threaten to have them deported if they don’t clean up “a Family Circus cartoon’s worth of watery dog shit” the next.

The dynamics here are pretty familiar: Archer flirts with another woman, Lana gets mad, they go on a mission, things get screwed up, and a rampage ensues. But there’s also that sense, held over from the premiere, that these old beats are all getting a little old, for everybody involved. Archer’s immediate attraction to Veronica Deane (and his sudden coldness toward Lana as soon as a new conquest walks into the room) cuts a little deeper, because the pair seemed to have reached some level of romantic detente. His wounds seem to be lasting a little longer—he’s still sporting the bandages and bruises from his fall down the hillside last week. And he just seems tired, remarking that it’s actually been a while since he’s had to take a human life.

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Just like everybody else on the show, the move to Los Angeles represents a chance for Sterling Archer to change, to soften his urge to antagonize the people around him, to give his deeply involved prank work a rest. It remains to be seen whether he—or any of the people in his life—will be able to take that chance.

Stray observations

  • The level of carnage in Archer’s biker gang rampage is pretty impressive: the guy shot with actual arrows is a nice touch, but I have to name that old classic, “Dude with his arms trapped by a couple of tires over his head,” as my favorite of the bunch.
  • This show loves its dopey bad guy sidekicks. Ocho, the biker who reveals the gang doesn’t actually know who hired them, would probably get along pretty well with Boris. (His boss, meanwhile, was a little too one-note and nasty for my tastes.)
  • It was nice to hear Shapiro acknowledge Lana’s hotness, especially given how often the men in her life—Sterling, especially—seem to take it for granted.
  • Ray’s guns are named Liza and Barbra, because of course they are.
  • I still don’t know how I feel about the new, Charlie’s Angels-inspired bumpers. I dig the ’7os vibe, but they seem to kill the pacing of some of the cuts to commercials. (That might be an artifact of watching via screeners, though.)
  • Milton! You guys, Milton made the move!
  • Hey, we’re in L.A.: The handoff takes place in Angel’s Gate Park, home of the Korean Bell Of Friendship. You probably remember it from a similar exchange in The Usual Suspects, which went about as well there as it did here. (At least nobody on Archer got a cigarette flicked in their eye.)
  • Obscure reference alert: Cheryl’s “Who am I, Alphonse Bertillon?” is obvious Wikipedia bait for the surprisingly crazy 19th century forensics pioneer. Ray namedrops Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell while he’s cattily throwing shade at Lana’s thighs. And Mallory compares Cyril’s “idiot savant” status to Daryl Zero, the hero of Bill Pullman’s shamefully unknown cult classic Zero Effect.
  • Line of the episode: Mallory’s crickets line is great, but it can’t beat Archer’s rambling digression about the time he walked into a motel room that was inexplicably full of seagulls. “God,” he laughs, “Myrtle Beach is a trainwreck.”

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