If I had any one complaint about Archer this season, it’s that the stakes have been almost laughably low in every episode. It’s part of the joke, for sure—ISIS can’t seem to get anything right, and because they’re increasingly less important, there are fewer and fewer consequences to their failures. Add to this the convenient plot device of Cheryl’s family fortune—a device that gets Pam, Cyril, and Cheryl into the Tuntmore, with no strings attached, for example—and in places, despite its brilliance, the show has felt frustratingly light, as if it were ignoring the very real problems of the world to indulge in (brilliant) banter without any consequences.
Well, the metaphorical chickens have come home to roost.
As finales ought to, “The Sea Tunt: Part I” raises the stakes—ridiculously so—to the point that, by the end, the stakes are so absurdly high that the stakes are the joke, and that’s the kind of thing Archer excels at. I adored tonight’s episode in large part for its audacity in taking on itself as the butt of its own joke. This means circling back to the best in-joke in Archer history, the Bob’s Burgers cold-open at the beginning of this season. Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal guest-star (guest-voice?) as Cecil Tunt, Cheryl’s equally rich brother, and Tiffy, his annoying girlfriend. Needless to say, Cecil’s build is suspiciously like Gene’s, and Tiffy sounds and acts a bit like Louise will as a grown-up. Their scheme is about as harebrained as any Gene and Louise would come up with, too.
But even if you have no idea who those two clever voices are, “Sea Tunt” is still extremely funny, because it’s written so, so well. When I first watched it, I found the cold open of tonight’s episode a little mediocre. I realize now that’s because “Sea Tunt” is frantically scrambling to set up the basic framework for the episode—a framework that will be smashed to smithereens as the half-hour continues, but no matter. The episode is masterfully set up in three acts, and if the conclusion is a little wild, well, that’s all just part of the fun. Act one: setup. Act two: All hell breaks loose. Act three: All hell breaks loose, again. Malory, in her infinite wisdom, has discovered that an American B-52 has crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, and she wants to retrieve its nuclear missile and “give” it back to the United States—for a reward, naturally. Oh look, and here’s Cheryl’s brother Cecil, who happens to have a deep-sea submersible (a vehicle Archer fondly calls the “choppersaurus”).
As Todd has pointed out many times before, Archer shines brightest when all the characters are in the same place—and a choppersaurus is a perfect confined space for the characters to bounce off of each other. Archer hits the bar; Pam hits the raw bar. Lana complains about how no one has any morals anymore. Cheryl complains at people and things with equanimity. But as funny as they all are in this environment, Archer is also at its strongest when it’s dealing with character, not situation. So while the setting is a fun and new one, what brings together the second act is the dawning realization that Cecil and Tiffy have hidden motives. Cecil wants to get Cheryl’s money by having her declared clinically insane, which… is not terribly hard to do, needless to say. Cheryl’s coworkers take great delight in relating every crazy thing she’s done to Cecil, who is videotaping everything for later use.
But Cheryl is onto him, in her own special way. I’d say a major shift in “Sea Tunt” from “funny Archer episode” to “really funny Archer episode” is when it becomes clear—and it took me a few riffs on the same gag for me to get it—that Cheryl can hear the show’s soundtrack. At every creepy transition, she’s warily looking at the corners of the screen, trying to find the source of the noise, and right before a commercial break, she hears the music again and backs up, saying to herself, “Just try to ignore it… it’s non-diagetic.” So like, it is non-diagetic, but how would she know that?!
Coinciding with that brilliance is Pam’s slow-burning allergic reaction to all the vegan crab legs she’s been devouring, which I’m fairly certain is its own leap into comedy legend. It would never have occurred to me, after all these years of watching Pam take literally anything that has come at her without flinching, to discover that she’s deathly allergic to soy. But she’s perfectly willing to flirt with death in her pursuit of crab legs, which makes sense, because, crab legs!
Add to that a slow-burn of ISIS-employee disgruntlement over the size of their bonuses (in which Ray and Cyril team up, in what feels like a highly logical combination I haven’t seen enough of) and…wait, are you saying that within the choppersaurus there’s another small enclosed space where even more drama can occur?
The culmination of the second act—in which Cheryl decides to take matters into her own hands by locking herself into the cockpit as Pam staggers to the door in anaphylactic shock and the choppersaurus takes a nosedive over the Bermuda Triangle—all while Archer is casually holding a blender full of a “hairy navel” with a crazy straw stuck in it—is one of the funniest moments of the entire canon of Archer, let alone just this season.
And that doesn’t even touch the third act.
One of the reasons Archer himself is so integral to Archer is not just because he’s so witty and charming—though he is. It’s also because he rarely ever cares about anyone else’s problems, and doesn’t even think it’s worth pretending to care for the sake of propriety. Unlike Lana, who cares about everything, and Malory, who cares about nothing, Archer is kind of a wildcard, skimming through the surface of what the rest of us call real life, generally undisturbed. But every now and again, something will call out to him, and he’ll be moved to do the right thing. Some of Archer’s finest moments are when he suddenly decides to care about the world—usually in relation to Lana, his mother, or his son, the wee baby Seamus. His investment in the world of ISIS is the closest to ours, as the viewers—we care about the big things, maybe, but overall, we’re willing to shrug off nuclear disaster, should it come to that.
Fortunately for him and us, “Sea Tunt” doesn’t tax Archer’s empathetic brain center too much. Throughout the ensuing, mounting hysteria, which closes one particular door just to open a window to hell, Archer simply cannot be bothered to care in the slightest—which makes the resulting ramping up of imminent danger even more hilarious as it emerges. It turns out Cecil set up this whole plan in service of a crazy captain who runs an undersea laboratory… who plans to bomb major American cities in 12 hours… oh and the missiles are tipped with nerve gas.
If there was ever going to be a setup for ISIS to regain some legitimacy, make some money, and start a new chapter in its employees’ lives, it would be right here, and right now. But for all of my appreciation of raised stakes—even ludicrously high, artificially raised stakes—I have to at the same time appreciate Archer’s casual dismissal of them. Archer the person, and Archer the show. It’s smart enough to know that having stakes around makes things funnier, but it never takes them too seriously. Archer manages a masterful balance between caring and not caring, and this episode is a stellar example of how to achieve that balance. The world is ending in 12 hours, so… who wants a cocktail?
- Todd will be back next week to review part two.
- Creepy undersea captain is voiced by Jon Hamm! I didn’t recognize him at all until I saw the credits.
- So, what are the chances Barry and Katya show up in part two? Like, 100 percent, right?
- “SHUT UP, JOHN WILLIAMS!”
- Malory raising her hand to correct Cecil—uselessly, as it turns out, since he’d said it right the first time—and spotting the wedding band on her own finger was my first big laugh of the night.
- Of the many charities that Cecil and Tiffy have lost their fortune donating to, probably the most concerning is One Laptop Per Child Soldier.
- “Wait, did you not join the Nation of Islam?”
- Ray’s little “fierce” cat noise/gesture is wonderful.
- “Laaaast one. Swear to God.”