“The Rules Of Extraction” is a strangely sincere episode of Archer. Archer: Vice has had its fair share of mission-episodes—the trip to Miami to visit Ramón was one, as was the bus trip for Cherlene’s concert. But those episodes, and this entire season, has not cared at all for the consequences. But as Todd pointed out last week with Malory’s sudden concern for kidnapped Archer—it’s weird. I kind of love it—it makes for a slightly less funny but very interesting episode of Archer, where it’s hard to anticipate exactly which way the story is going to twist.
For the last several episodes, Archer has been an ensemble comedy. The characters get up to high jinks that usually land them into even more trouble they were in when they started; so far, obtaining the cocaine has landed the crew formerly known as ISIS into increasingly deeper shit. It’s a style that serves the show really well in some ways and terribly in others. Putting the characters in a room and letting them knock against each other creates wonderfully insane moments of ironic levity, but it rarely advances the story in any meaningful way. So the stakes of the story get slimmer and slimmer, which means the characters have to compensate by being more and more out-there.
The only show I can think of that really made this work is Arrested Development, and I’m not sure if I can explain that show’s ability to make a story with fewer and fewer stakes more and more interesting, except that it had the advantage of live-action comedy, which is that everything feels a little more important when it’s “IRL.” Plus, it cast its most sincere character as the protagonist, the character that was always invested in the stakes.
But Archer is a show about Sterling Archer, and Sterling Archer could not care less what happens to him or anybody else. He does care, a little bit, about some particular things, like the right way to throw a baby shower and also what time breakfast should be served, but as Ray observes tonight, imminent death doesn’t really freak him out. That’s the tone we’ve come to expect from Archer. So it’s interesting when that reckless messiness shifts towards something more coherent.
“The Rules Of Extraction” puts Archer, Cyril, and Ray on a mission that changes the dynamic of the show from ensemble comedy to mission-based buddy comedy, following in the footsteps of last week’s “Smugglers’ Blues.” The arc here is more like an action movie than what we’re used to from Archer—there’s an adventure, a goal, some complications, a resolution, and a few opportunities for the bros to have heart-to-hearts. It’s an oddly self-referential episode, too—several characters recall or point out past occurrences or current hypocrisies, just to call attention to them. At Tunt Manor, the girls all realize they’ve slept with Pam, which, how did that happen again? Cyril tries to take control, and Archer and Ray burst out laughing.
And most importantly, Ray—paralyzed or faux-paralyzed and slung over Archer’s back—takes on the role of calling either Archer the person or Archer the show on its bullshit. It’s interrogating the character, and I am using that word because I can’t think of a more apt one. Like: “He’s been half-assing this entire cocaine debacle from the get-go!” which could have been stolen from the mouths of critics of this season. And in this classic exchange:
RAY: “You think everything’s going to be easy!”
ARCHER: “Well, it almost always is!”
RAY: “Aha! See, that’s what I resent.”
ARCHER: “What do you resent, Ray—my muscly shoulders poking into your tum-tum?”
RAY: “I resent that you never take anything seriously because you always assume everything is going to work out for you!”
ARCHER: “It almost always does! (Cyril sighs.) Case in point!” (Archer gestures to an airstrip in the middle of the jungle.)
RAY: “What the—Goddamnit.”
I don’t know. There’s meta-textual, and then there’s this, which is on another level. This is Archer the show—its own creator, Adam Reed, who voices Ray!—articulating the problematic but endearing infallibility of its main character, while also offering him a chance to bond with his friends, and having second thoughts about the decision to start selling cocaine. We’re even engaged with a conversation with the show about whether or not we should bring back “phrasing.” And once the following exchange happens…
RAY: “How long will it take you, Archer, to admit that you dick around every time we’re in danger just to screw with everybody, because of your complete—no, your utter contempt for your own mortality?!”
ARCHER (briefly pauses): “I mean, yeah, duh.”
RAY: “All I wanted.”
…Ray (the voice of the writer?!) hops off of Archer’s back, his ability to walk suddenly restored. And now that he’s gotten that admission, he’s remarkably calm. Cyril is still pretty stressed out about their limited gasoline and general confusion, but Archer is obviously not bothered, and Ray has an oddly chill attitude: “Jesus Christ, woman, calm down! We’ve got five hours of fuel, we’ll worry about that when we have to.”
And how many episodes of Archer: Vice are left this season? That’s right. Five. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
I feel a little like I’ve stumbled into the wrong show. But it does seem that here, in the murky and uncharted swamps of Archer: Vice, where Adam Reed and his team of writers can do whatever they want, we’re seeing a season that shows Archer growing up a little, in a totally sincere way that sort of matters. Because the tonal shift of this episode, as compared to its predecessors, is sort of like the tonal shift of Sterling himself—a move from sarcastic jocularity and nihilism to sarcastic jocularity that is a little less mean and embraces the possible plus side of a happy ending. This has got to be one of the few episodes of Archer that ends with the crew in a slightly better place than they were when they started, as opposed to a not-so-slightly worse one. And though it has its moments of unevenness, Archer: Vice is taking some fantastic and entertaining risks.
- “Fear is their bacon bits.”
- This episode is notably split down gender lines. Only Kreiger stays with the women at Tunt Manor, and he has only one line of note in “Rules Of Extraction.” While the dudes go wrassle with crocodiles in the Amazon River’s basin, the ladies have a spa day. And they don’t even make a joke about that!
- This is one of those episodes of Archer where what carries is the day is a little less about the quips of the characters and a little more about timing. The smash cuts, pauses between lines, and lingering takes of extended gags all last just as long as they should.
- “Eat a dick, jungle!”
- Archer’s voicemail is maybe my new favorite thing ever—mostly because of Cheryl and Pam dancing along to it in the background. Make me a .gif, Internet.