I’ll admit it: They got me.
I had this whole mildly miffed rant ready, see, about how badly I wished the Archer team had held off on their big Comic-Con reveal for one more week, so as to make certain moments of “Cubert” hit all the harder for an un-suspecting audience. (Which is to say: Stuff like seeing Lana suddenly popping up in her old we’re-not-calling-it-ISIS-anymore getup, or the sudden, highly random return of TV’s Michael Gray, or the sight of Pam simulating sex with a lunch.) How great would it have been (I was going to argue) to have come into this episode blind of Sterling’s upcoming awakening, and feeling genuine surprise at seeing an old face pop up again at last?
But like I said: They got me. Cue Woodhouse.
Before we get into all that, though, let’s pull back for a moment, and take a second to appreciate what a weirdly structured episode of television this is—beginning as it does with a standard (albeit stranger-than-usual) sci-fi plot, then abruptly swerving halfway through into a Mulholland Drive-esque descent into…reality? Unreality? Surreality? Whatever you want to call it, it was pretty damn disturbing, especially as Archer got confused, then sinister, then violent, all in the span of a couple of minutes of exposure to what looked like a cosmic case of cube-related gaslighting.
We’ve seen this show get dark—dark dark, not fun, “the bomb wants to kill itself” dark—before, most notably back at the end of Dreamland. But watching a deranged Archer really, truly attempt to murder Lana—and can we take a second to applaud how awful Sterling looks in those scenes, madness brimming in his eyes?—is a step farther than it’s ever gone, the sort of moment that feels harder than usual to take back. It’s a well the show can only pull from once very few years, but “Cubert” deploys it with measured skill, the horror only amplified by the vague possibility that Archer might “really” be doing this somewhere, attacking his friends and families from deep within a bout of coma-induced psychosis. (After all, why would rock monster Pam react to a Tennessee Titty Twister like that?)
Even before that, though, “Cubert”—penned by Tesha Kondrat and Adam Reed, the latter back to finish off the last two episodes of his creation’s 10th year on the air—is a weird story, centered as it is on the titular ominous, reflective, aggression-resistant cube. It’s actually the sort of story I wish Archer: 1999 had told more of over the last several weeks; the disconnect between the crew of the Seamus blithely shitting on each other while the thing just hovers there—3D surface contrasting pointedly against the 2D backgrounds, and looking for all the universe like a refugee from the props department of 2001—is a delightful exercise in contrast, and a great example of the kind of episode the show couldn’t get away with back on Earth. It’s also just nice to have Reed back at the writing desk: This isn’t the most joke-dense episode of Archer ever aired, but nobody understands the rapid-fire give-and-take of its dialogue better. (Which makes the report that he will be back, at least for a single script, for next year’s season something of a small relief.) And the sight of Pam, Archer, and Lana trying to pull Cheryl/Carol’s head out of the cube while crapping on Cyril and raising concerns about her “birdy little neck bones” was weird in a way that pretty definitively worked, funny and strange in equal doses. It’s almost a bummer when those plot elements are abruptly dropped (for now, at least), even if what they traded in for was disconcerting and fascinating in its own right.
Which is to say: Woodhouse.
I’ve poked some gentle fun over the last few seasons at the people I refer to as Archer “fundamentalists”—the folks who operate under the assumption that most (if not all) of the plot beats of the last three seasons of this show have been intentionally reflective of different parts of Sterling Archer’s psyche. Admittedly, some of this is backed up by the text, or by interviews that Reed has given—noting things like the way Cyril has only gotten more pathetic and villainous as the coma seasons have progressed, or the increasingly complicated dynamics between Archer and Lana. (Immortalized in my mind in a line Reed once said as “A person Archer is infatuated with, but doesn’t actually like.”) The worry for me, though, has always been that treating these seasons—which now make up something like a quarter of Archer’s entire run time to date—like an extended game of dream symbolism Bingo inevitably lessens their value as individual stories. I continue to contend that Danger Island is good TV regardless of what it says about Archer’s perception of his and Pam’s friendship (or…birds?), and I’ve always tried to push back against the idea that the show is intended to be viewed as plot-driven, character-heavy psychodrama first, comedy adventure series second. (That being said, I’ll play ball with whatever the show tosses out, and “plot-driven psychodrama” is definitely the order of the day.)
The obvious exception to these caveats has always been Dreamland, and, specifically, the show’s handling of the death of Woodhouse (and by extension, voice actor George Coe). Fresh to the “coma season” conceit, it’s very easy to read that season as being “about” Woodhouse, and about the ways Archer feels guilty for relentlessly abusing, ignoring, and feeding cobwebs to the only real parental figure of his life. Archer’s faithful valet was a huge part of the first half of the show’s lifespan (to say nothing of its lead character’s backstory), and so there was something fitting about he, and it, taking their time to say goodbye.
And now, for however briefly (and for however assisted by leftover audio tracks from Coe’s old recording sessions), he’s back, ushering his surrogate son…Where? Back to the world? Deeper into madness? That ambiguity is just part of what makes the last minute of this episode such a shocker, reviving the one character you might legitimately assume—besides, I guess, TV’s Michael Gray—that Archer was never going to bring back.
As with many great comedies, Archer has always been careful to keep the magic trick of sudden sincerity hiding somewhere deep in its back pocket. For a show buried under labyrinthine layers of irony and anticlimax, it’s always understood how a real burst of human emotion—Sterling responding to his cancer diagnosis, or telling Lana to escape in Vice, or meeting his daughter for the very first time—can hit all the harder because of the mountains of bullshit it’s cutting through. When you undercut real feeling with a joke 99 times out of 100, the 100th tends to be a doozy, and seeing Woodhouse sitting in that cell, martini tray in hand, is one of those moments. There’s a difference this time, though: Instead of warmth, the feeling being invoked is one of rising disorientation, maybe even madness. The facade of Archer:1999 is finally cracking. Its hero’s mind doesn’t seem to be far behind.
- I always like the way the show plays with Jessica Walter’s other big TV comedy role, and not knowing what ranch is—let alone “ranch tub”—is a very Lucille Bluth note.
- Cubert: Neither ambergris, nor mythril. (Which is our first real reference to that time Archer and the non-coma crew went into space this season, I think?)
- Archer, trying to remember the difference between viruses and bacteria: “Well, what am I thinking of?” Malory: “Space whores, presumably.”
- Still trying to parse out whether all the focus on Krieger’s scanner is a Chekhov’s gun sort of thing—setting up a reveal in the second part of this two-parter—or just a running joke about magical tricorders and whatnot in sci-fi shows.
- Malory, realizing the limits of her crew’s ability to solve space-based existential mysteries: “So those are our only two options? Ghosts or magnets?”
- Between yelling about his collectible spoons, “And bumble it is,” and Reed’s delivery on “I won’t have you manhandling my beautiful things!”, this is a really excellent Ray episode.
- “Oh Krieger, buddy: Please tell me you didn’t try to have sex with the ghost cube.”
- Walter’s “Findies Keepies” is so weird and fun, matched by the post-twist moment when Carol/Cheryl corrects it.
- Let’s take a moment for plot speculation—because, obviously, nothing is more worthy for a deep lore dive than the show about the cartoon spy who loves dick jokes. Is Archer already out of the coma, and just hallucinating? That doesn’t jibe with the idea that he’s supposedly going to be physically atrophied in the next season, but it does line up with the slightly more “rational” way the crew acts after they all forget about the cube.
- A quick diagnosis of Cyril’s problems: “We know what’s wrong with you.” “Yeah! Foot hole.”
- Krieger, diagnosing Archer (and making a strong contender for line of the episode): “No drugs in his system, and just what I assume is a therapeutic level of bourbon.”
- Obscure reference alert: Nothing really elaborate, although the scare with Carol/Cheryl choking is obviously yet another Alien homage. Beyond that, it’s mostly internal homage, from bringing TV’s Michael Gray back from the Season 6 finale, to all the flashes of everybody back in their “normal” clothes.
- Kudos to the animation (and sound) team for making Archer’s attack on Lana feel “real” in a way violence on this show usually doesn’t. It’s meant to be scary, and it is, from the weight of the hits to the sound it makes as she slams against the cabinet. (Aisha Tyler also absolutely kills it, imparting real anxiety and shock into Lana’s reactions.)
- Line of the episode: I’m a sucker for a bit of weirdly structured wordplay, so Ray responding to Archer’s questions about the cube with, “You mean like an ice cube, or something in a Rubik?” really tickled me.
- The end of this episode is tense, but not so tense that Pam can’t get in a twofer space-phrasing joke.
- Next week’s episode is titled “Robert De Niro,” which I can only assume is going to end up being a reference to Awakenings.
- “Now that’s disconcerting.”