Archer, always, is a show that refuses to take its own narrative stakes seriously. Not because it’s not interested in what happened to the characters—but rather because it would like to subvert your expectations in as many different ways as possible. Sort of like the characters themselves, Archer dodges the questions it raises with an ellipsis, a question mark, and a raised eyebrow: “….?”
“Palace Of Intrigue, Part I” is a half-hour that is about raising stakes and then kind of ignoring them, in favor of awkward conversations in the hallway about anonymous sex. It wouldn’t be any fun if the show didn’t introduce its haywire schemes—drugs for weapons for drugs for race-war conspiracies involving communists, anyone?—but following through isn’t in Archer’s playbook, either. (Or in Sterling Archer’s, for that matter. More and more I’m convinced that Archer himself is a stand-in of sorts for Archer, the show: They certainly have similar senses of humor.)
It’s ironic: Archer is a show that gives its characters the opportunity to have world-changing adventures with a clear mission and appreciable goals. The show, especially in the first season, often offers up a mission to start with, just to ground the characters in a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. And because we watch other television shows, we expect and hope that our heroes will fulfill their goals and complete the mission and give us a happy (or, at least, conclusive) ending.
That is, anyway, what Lana Kane wants. Lana is positioned as the show’s straight-man/voice-of-reason/Debbie-Downer, but she’s also the character who expects normal and regular things from the Crew Formerly Known As ISIS. That’s why she’s always surprised at another harebrained scheme—or asking the obvious question after a joke—or the only one left who is even considering “doing the right thing,” whatever that is. As a result, she’s this show’s Britta Perry—perpetually sort of sucking a little bit, because she’s perplexed as to why these crazy people can’t all just follow the rules.
Archer, in some ways, exists to annoy Lana (just as Archer seems to mostly exist to annoy Lana). From the very beginning, she has wanted this show to go in one direction—and I’ve leaned in her direction from time to time, hoping against hope that someone on Archer will not lose all their money or commit several acts of treason this week.
But Archer really doesn’t care—about narrative stakes or my delicate sensibilities. It is too busy laughing at the humor it derives from the (anxiety-provoking!) schadenfreude of flouting international law and narrative convention. Which, in “Palace Of Intrigue,” amounts to the crew getting into a long conversation about whether or not the mansion that is home to potentially fascist, definitely corrupt President Gustavo Calderón has an ice machine. (Or towels.)
“Palace of Intrigue,” the episode, is not over yet—Todd VanDerWerff will take it on next week, and he’ll be in a better position to review the whole story. But the first half is a brilliant little encapsulation of just how funny this show can be, precisely because it refuses to take anything too seriously.
Calderón is voiced by Fred Armisen, naturally. Calderón is less an actual Latin American dictator and more a caricature of one, meaning that Armisen’s put-on, affected Spanish accent is perfect for the role. But Armisen is more weird than laugh-out-loud funny, and the roles that work best for him are ones that showcase his creepiness without letting it take over completely. He always did well in Saturday Night Live because he bounced off of the other, more overt comedians there; but sometimes, in Portlandia, his brand of humor is more unsettling than anything else.
At this point, anyone is funny compared to Cherlene—Judy Greer’s line-reading of “No towel machines?!” had me in stitches, as did her declaration that Central America is even more Outlaw Country—so Calderón’s obsession with her is predictably hilarious, right down to her suddenly platinum record. But playing Calderón off of Malory Archer is truly inspired. There’s an extended sequence where Malory and Calderón are having a conversation about two different things simultaneously—Malory is selling weapons (or is she?), and Calderón is serving wine (or is he?), and Jessica Walter and Armisen both find the right note of drawling, hesitant bluster, punctuated with confusion and double-entendres. The scene is one of those that is not immediately, laugh-out-loud funny, but instead, one where the humor creeps up on you gradually. It’s all the more amazing, given that the voice actors all record their lines separately.
In general, this is a great episode for some of our supporting characters. Malory isn’t exactly a member of the supporting cast, but in this brave new post-Ron world, she hasn’t had a lot to sink her teeth into. Putting her on a real mission, in the field, and giving her the reins with negotiations with Calderón gives her an exciting role in the episode, where she might otherwise just be the exasperated voice on the other end of the line. And as Ray unexpectedly got an episode in the spotlight two weeks ago, now Krieger has his day, as the palace of intrigue has a bunch of clones of him working on something behind the scenes. This can only end well. I love that the show called back to the throwaway theory that Kreiger is a clone of Hitler; I also love that Kreiger’s reaction to the clones is identical to their reaction to him (a lot of screaming, with some lip-wibbles for good measure).
- The cold open features a conversation where the characters try to determine who would be who in The Breakfast Club. Lana would not be Molly Ringwald. I’ll point out, though, that while that would make her Ally Sheedy, it would mean that her romantic pairing in the film would be Emilio Estevez, a role immediately called by Archer. JUST SAYING.
- Pam is the janitor, incidentally. She either takes that as a compliment, or farts (or both).
- .gif me this, Internet: The cutaway to a million copies of Cherlene’s Outlaw Country slowly making their way off planes, onto forklifts, and into the presidential palace.
- “QUEER!” ::zipper beat:: ::cocktail shaker beat::
- This is the best episode about towels in the history of television. Also, the room with towels? Not the same room as the one with secret clones. Despite hotels’ razor-thin profit margins.
- How the hell did Calderón’s men not hit Cherlene and Pam when they shot at the crate? And how wonderfully indignant is Cherlene that they shot at her crate, even though she is basically a criminal?
- I don’t have a lot to say about Archer’s dalliance with Calderón’s wife, but his explanation to Lana for how that isn’t anonymous sex is pretty funny. (“You’ve gotta assume there’s a pretty thorough vetting process…”)