Six seasons into Archer’s run, the show has become about so much more than the mission of the week. The combination of Adam Reed’s joyfully demented vision, a rock solid voice cast, and an overall commitment to selling every single weird reference or throwaway line made for one of the best ensemble comedies on television. Over the years, the characters have taken turns evolving, regressing, progressing, and ripping their preconceived notions apart at the seams, inevitably tagging any real developments with a dick joke. As they’ve all become more and more comfortable with each other, they have also given less and less of a shit, and the results are even more shameless than ever.
Yes, it’s cool when an episode involves defusing a bomb or scrambling an enemy signal under the clock, but the element that makes Archer a million times more fun than the usual spy spoof is the electric chemistry between the cast and characters. Their endless ability to banter is what led Reed and company to take a swing with the format shuffle of last season’s Vice, and it’s no doubt what led to “Vision Quest,” a classic bottle episode that traps everyone together in an elevator—in real time.
Bottle episodes are indeed cheaper to produce—which had to be part of the motivation for “Vision Quest” after all the more technically demanding animation this season—but relying solely on the cast to sell a continuous twenty-plus minutes of conversation is far from easier. That real time element is also that makes “Vision Quest” so singular. It’s one thing to strand characters in one place; it’s completely another to follow them minute by excruciating minute. For one, Reed couldn’t rely on flashbacks or flash-forwards to punch up the jokes, or even just to keep the elevator itself from feeling too claustrophobic. For another, it requires an ongoing conversation that needs to ebb and flow as naturally as possible while still firing off joke after joke. It wouldn’t have been impossible to do this kind of episode early on in Archer’s run, but the fact that Reed waited until now to do “Vision Quest” makes it clear that he is cashing in on six seasons worth of character development for maximum impact. “Vision Quest” is, after all, a team-building exercise.
But for all my bluster about the technical aspects of the episode, it’s also just a hell of a lot of fun. Nothing much even happens. There are no big reveals or resolutions. “Vision Quest” is just full the brim with treats, nods, and winks to the Archer audience that has followed these weirdos from mission to coke-dealing and back again. Archer tries to restore order by firing his gun, which immediately sends everyone into deafness and furious mawp-ing. Pam downs her bearclaw and 40 ounce beer the second it looks like they might make her share. Cyril spouts arcane knowledge (this time about the history of elevators) and defends his sweater vests. Krieger clutches a Thermos full of…something. Don’t ask. Everyone is their own peak self.
It’s down to Cheryl, though, to provide the real meta moments. “What is this, Soviet Russia?!” she yelps at one point, only to meet an elevator full of skeptical faces. “You’re seriously asking?” Lana counters with a raised eyebrow, neither confirming nor denying anything that could help us pin Archer down to a specific time period. Then, in the grand tradition of her sporadically spouting off startling truths, Cheryl tries to read everyone’s mind and ends up reeling off everyone’s defining characteristics—which, as is fitting for Archer, also means everyone’s defining vices. Archer wants to drink; Lana wants to lecture; Pam wants another bear claw; Ray wants to smoke; Cyril wants to masturbate; Krieger is scared they’ll figure out he’s a clone. It’s purposefully on the nose, but that doesn’t make everyone’s stunned silence afterwards any less satisfying. It especially stands out against the episode’s later stunned silence, in which Ray tries to call Malory and instead gets through to the elevator’s supposedly broken phone and everyone hears Archer’s voice talking about getting stuck in elevators. I’ve watched that ending several hundred times now, and while I can tell it’s a voicemail hoax of some kind, I’m still not sure what’s happening there.
After all that, though, my favorite part of “Vision Quest” is how quickly everything goes spectacularly to shit. Again, this episode is in real time, so the fact that everyone freaks out over the food situation just about four minutes into being stuck is particularly funny. Being stuck is frightening, sure, but since Malory was coming to the office and would realize something was up, the possibility of them being stuck there forever was never really in the cards. Still, the exponential rate at which everyone panics is also perfectly fitting. This is a group of people who have never reacted to anything appropriately, who know each other so well that even Pam “flapping [her] wildly unkempt vagina” only gives them a minute of pause before they’re on to the next ridiculous, hilarious thing. When Malory finally opens the elevator doors to find half her employees naked and the other half choking the naked half, it’s startling, but not at all surprising.
- Can we all just take a moment to give this voice cast a standing ovation? H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer, Amber Nash, Chris Parnell, Lucky Yates, and Adam Reed himself deserve much credit for this nailing this banter-heavy episode—especially since they never actually record in the same room.
- That said, Malory has had far less to do in the past few episodes than usual. Did Jessica Walter take a break or…?
- Lana, explaining the empty office to Archer: “Remember that year we became coke dealers?” “What, so people just quit?”
- I am completely in support of making Ray shutting people out of elevators a new runner.
- While Cyril protests to everyone saying they might die “impaled on his boner…like meat at a Brazilian barbecue,” he does indeed start masturbating right before the smash to credits.
- Krieger versus Krieger Clone: When Cheryl calls Krieger out on possibly being a clone, his disbelieving “whaaaaaaaaaat” says it all. Point: Krieger Clone.
- Malory versus Milton: Milton fails to help beyond popping toast hopefully in the elevator’s general direction. Malory has Vision Quest. Point: Malory.