A couple of days ago, I was talking with my roommate about my (relatively) negative review of “Bel Panto: Part II.” (For reference, I gave it a B-). During the conversation, I came to the conclusion that it would be hard for me to give a grade lower than a B- to an episode of Archer, because I love the basic nature of the show—and especially these characters—so much. To truly dislike an episode of Archer, I argued, it would have to break the show’s rules to a degree that it would barely count as Archer at all, or drain the characters of all their aspects that make them so dysfunctionally lovable.

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Cue tonight.

The phrase that keeps going through my head as I try to describe “Liquid Lunch” is “mean-spirited,” but that doesn’t really capture why it disappointed me so much. I like dark comedy just fine. But the “comedy” part has to be there, and between all the angry history lectures, “vagina” jokes, and—worst of all—scenes where the show’s two most reliably hilarious characters, Pam and Cheryl, were reduced to unspeaking drones, it just wasn’t there tonight.

Three episodes from the end of the season, we’re in obvious setup mode, moving the pieces into place for the closing two-parter. The biggest one: the Archer-Lana break-up that ends tonight’s episode, which has been brewing ever since he kissed Veronica Deane back in “Bel Panto: Part I.” And by “brewing,” I mean, “getting brought up periodically so that Archer and Lana can yell at each other,” in this case after they spot a billboard for Veronica’s new movie while accompanying Slater—still Christian Slater, still just a little too confrontational to be as funny as the show seems to think he is—on a case. This isn’t automatically a bad idea, if it produces a lot of good one-liners and jokes. But other than Lana needling Archer about his hidden Oedipal desires—so hidden that not even waterboarding can pull them out of him—there’s not much funny in the way the break-up plays out. It’s just two people battering at each other, with precious little room for laughs.

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That waterboarding, meanwhile, comes courtesy of the Slater plot, and its focus on the CIA’s sordid attempts to control the human mind. Again, the idea of Archer calling out Slater and his bosses for their institutional cruelty is funny in theory, but in practice it translates to a long rant that’s heavy on historical facts but light on jokes. MK Ultra is fascinating stuff, but Sterling Archer isn’t necessarily the moral authority I want rattling off its crimes, and Archer isn’t necessarily the platform upon which I’d like to see it done. At the risk of being cliche, it almost feels like this is “A Very Special Archer” about all the ways that torture is bad—and a particularly squeamish one, at that.

Look, I don’t want to watch anybody—even Archer at his most prickish— be waterboarded, any more than I want to see Krieger dressed up in blackface, doing a Richard Pryor impression in a profoundly misguided take on Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. But in the world of Archer, those are both things that happened, and things that the series is willing to joke about, but unwilling to show. That strikes me as the production team having their cake and eating it too, even if they try to acknowledge the awfulness of waterboarding by doing a Gilligan Cut from Archer being a mysoginistic, confident dick, to him being truly shaken by his experience on the table. Refusing to show the actual moment of his torture—especially his apparent confession of feelings for Veronica, which presumably happened after his “mock” interrogation got a little too real on Lana’s part—feels cowardly and unsatisfying in a way that Archer usually isn’t.

Also unsatisfying: the Krieger plot, in which he tries to hypnotize everybody at the Figgis Agency through typically Kriegerian methods. Watching him scheme with Ray to drug their friends is kind of fun, but the actual effects landed somewhere between chilling and dull for me. As I’ve alluded to numerous times, Pam and Cheryl are my two favorite characters on the show, so seeing them have all their personality stripped away by the administration of scopolamine—the so-called “zombie drug”—was just a drag. The one highlight of the subplot—beyond the admittedly great moment of Pam being lured in by the irresistible twin temptations of “Bluntz & Blintzen”—is Malory’s reaction to her own “spritzing”, kicking the shit out of the doctor and stabbing him with her heel. It’s a level of violence commensurate with the level of his offense, and a reminder that if you mess with Malory Archer, she’ll happily beat you to death with whatever’s handy, whether that’s a shovel or a shoe.

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But, as it turns out, the whole mind control thing is just a feint; the Cheryl, Pam, and Cyril capering around on the Figgis Agency’s floors like little wiggly pugs might be the real deal, but the Malory that ends up on Krieger’s video tape is a fake. The show’s been hinting at the reveal that Krieger was building robot duplicates of his friends for a while now—most recently with the Voight-Kampff machine he was hoping to build last week—so it’s not a huge shock when we get the episode’s creepy, face-venting reveal. The final shot of the robots standing in their bays, red eyes glowing in the darkness, is still effectively unsettling, though, even if it’s hard to distinguish the subtle whirring of their mechanical carcasses from the sound of Adam Reed and company moving all their actors into place for the upcoming finale—and, hopefully, back into a configuration that produces the fun version of these characters bickering, yelling, and drugging each other like the rampaging assholes that they are.

Stray observations

  • I was hard on this episode, so I’ll give credit where credit is due: Archer has been doing a very nice job this season of laying down the idea that Sterling’s been taking stupid, reckless chances for way too long now, and that the bill might finally be ready to come due. Tonight, we get Lana calling him out for blindly rushing into the apartment of a shotgun-wielding guy with paranoia, and then the very funny moment when his first “stealthy” step toward Slater’s target, Hinkins, causes the guy to fall off a building to his death.
  • Was there dialogue missing in the scenes where Cheryl and Cyril get lured into the break room? My screener has them apparently reacting to nothing, and it’s a little bit odd.
  • I’m not a huge Slater fan—the series does “Archer, but better” much more satisfyingly with Barry, I think—but his smug little self-sung theme song as he exits stage left is great.
  • There are a lot of fun background gags in the episode, including a very strange dog-sitting ad from Cheryl on the Agency’s bulletin board, Cyril using a search engine called 10 to the hundredth power, and not one, but two, references to Pita Margarita’s, Pam’s favorite place for getting “a shitload of tequila and some A-rab hoagies.” Apparently it’s a chain!
  • In case you don’t want to dig around on the Figgis Agency web site I linked to last week—but do want a wallpaper of Furlock Bones, ace doggie detective—you might be able to find one here.
  • Obscure reference alert: Bea Benaderet, voice actress and Green Acres star extraordinaire. Project MK Ultra—which, again, is legitimately fascinating/awful. Project ARTICHOKE. And the strange, depressing tale of John Foster and Allen Dulles, the brothers who engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala in order to benefit their fruit company.
  • Line of the episode: It’s a background moment, but Cheryl’s, “Wait, am I already hypnotized?”—while holding a knife to her own face is a small moment of pure delight.
  • The first installment of the two-parter that starts next week is titled “Deadly Velvet”—just like Veronica’s movie—so it looks like we’re finally going to get that Tinseltown visit the show’s been teasing ever since it made the move to L.A.

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