One of the side effects of Archer’s decision to wipe the slate clean this year is that none of our regular characters are quite as crazy as they used to be. Sure, the Dreamland version of Archer has his war-inflicted PTSD, Mother is sinister, and Krieger’s still Krieger, but these versions of the characters haven’t spent seven years trapped in an office/drug mansion/L.A. detective agency together, driving each other insane with a slowly building pile of quirks, flings, and interpersonal mistakes. The result is an emotional palette that’s been a little more muted than what the show normally pumps out (violent rampages and ankle manglings aside).
Enter Charlotte (a.k.a. Cheryl) Vandertunt, a woman who never met a situation, social or otherwise, that she couldn’t throw a little dynamite on. (Or gasoline, if we’re trying to preserve people’s teeth.) Archer generally utilizes Judy Greer’s gift for cheerful madness in small doses, relegating Cheryl to the sidelines and B-stories where she can burn things down without setting the main plot ablaze. “Berenice” is the rare opportunity for Cheryl to cut loose and own an entire episode, unleashing a familiar penchant for chaos on Archer’s mental landscape.
We pick up just a few seconds after the end of last week’s premiere. It’s still 1947 (or at least a coma-bound Archer’s noir-like conception of the era), Woodhouse is still dead, and Charlotte just pulled a classic femme fatale move, sashaying into Archer’s office and asking him to kill her.
Or pretend to, rather, in a bid to get away from her awful family. (It turns out that this version of the Tunt clan is even less pleasant than the real one, rating a “Four?” when asked how quasi- its “quasi-incestuous” relationships might be.) Luckily, Charlotte has the perfect tool for faking her own demise: the corpse of a maid matching her general build and dental records, who Archer dubs Berenice (as in, Weekend At’s).
Archer doesn’t usually go in for sight gags, but Berenice’s increasingly wounded dignity invites a number of them, whether she’s being slathered in makeup, smashed against an elevator wall, or, in a final, beautiful insult, having her head covered by an ice bucket so that Charlotte and Archer can screw. It’s some of the darkest humor Archer’s done in a while—rivaling the show’s other long-form body disposal farce, “Lo Scandalo”—but it stays on the side of the angels through the incredible animation on Berenice’s poor, ill-used face, and by giving Charlotte and Archer just the tiniest smidgens of sympathy for the poor girl whose body they’re using so poorly. That doesn’t stop the pair’s efforts to successfully navigate her corpse out of the Chesley Hotel from turning into the biggest sight gag of the episode: a wide-screen scene of chaos that invokes every Stooges-esque “farcical disaster” trope in the book.
Meanwhile, we get brief check-ins with the rest of the cast; most notably Cyril and Poovey, attempting to explain the disappearance of the slaves from last week’s ambushed shipment to a righteously pissed off Len Trexler. I talked about this in the comments for “No Good Deed,” but one of the biggest boons of Dreamland’s book-clearing conceit is that it lets Archer bring back past guest stars like Jeffrey Tambor (and Dave Willis, who has a brief scene suggesting Robo-Barry 2.0 isn’t too far off) without having to move around a bunch of plot pieces. Freed from KGB mind-control chips (and an insatiable hunger for lettuce), Tambor’s Trexler is as good as ever, mixing paternal friendliness with a rising, articulate anger that powers the diatribe of the episode, an economics rant at Cyril’s bumbling expense. There’s a perfect world where Tambor was a more frequent element of the show’s cast throughout the seasons, and Dreamland benefits mightily from his seething presence.
On the negative side of things, it’s unfortunate that the episode’s tight focus—which, outside the Trexler bits, stays firmly on Archer and his growing frustration with Charlotte’s scheme—means we see less of the crew at the actual Dreamlands club. A brief visit does reveal that Cyril is appropriately afraid of Malory in any reality and lets Archer get tongue-tied by a cool-as-a-cucumber Lana again. (Exacerbated by Charlotte, hurling more gasoline by loudly declaring that she and Archer just fucked.) Lana’s the character that Archer has had the most trouble finding a place for over the years, and it sucks to see her relegated to a handful of lines and a minimum of screen time for a second week in a row. (Even if those lines, and Aisha Tyler’s delivery of them, do a solid job of establishing her as the unflappable object of Archer’s lust.)
All that aside, though, reactions to “Berenice” are going to depend heavily on how much Cheryl is too much Cheryl for you. Even as a fan of the character (and Greer’s performance, which nails every mood swing from calm condescension all the way up to giggling, enthusiastic madness), I could feel my patience ebbing away right along with Archer’s, especially by the time the pair was finally ready to shove Berenice over the cliff. Cheryl’s self-interested sociopathy and sheltered point of view make her one of Archer’s funniest characters, but they also make her a tricky foundation for sympathy or story. To be fair, her mood swings usually have a twisted logic—like the loud argument about dragging Berenice’s body through the hotel’s revolving door—but they make for an episode that serves more as a random collection of character beats and funny scenes than a cohesive whole. I enjoyed spending the time with her distinctive brand of madness—and the welcome novelty as this new Archer slowly realizes what an erratic bag of crazy he’s gotten himself attached to—but I won’t be disappointed if she fades back into a brilliant, sporadic supporting role in the episodes to come.
- A couple of great callbacks to the premiere tonight, including the dick Archer drew on Cyril’s car and the continued rim shots at Dreamland.
- “You should have your underbutler fire your housekeeper.”
- “Well, middle class.” “This cannot be the middle.”
- Really, Charlotte/Cheryl had most of the best lines tonight. “Why do you think my father started the Spanish-American war?” not only serves as an obscure reference to William Randolph Hearst, but Archer’s “Wasn’t it sugar?” response sets up a callback with Poovey later on.
- Speaking of Poovey callbacks: “Dandertown frolics” reaches all the way back to “Mole Hunt,” and we get a reminder that the slaves from last week are still holed up at their apartment, out of Cyril’s hands.
- Archer’s review of codeine: “Zesty!”
- “This plan is perfect!” “I mean, dentally, maybe…”
- “Can’t and won’t are two different things, Mother.” “And yet, the end result is still the same.”
- “What are the odds?” “One to one?” “Yeah, I dunno, maybe!” If we’re going to get this little Lana, at least she gets in a good burn.
- “Of course you shalln’t.”
- Obscure reference alert: There’s the Hearst thing above; meanwhile, here’s more than I ever wanted to know about quenelles, roulades, galantines, and the wide variety of French creamed meat products covered under forcemeat. Also, Archer tries to get off a reference while he’s in bed with Charlotte, but she cuts him off with the apparent red herring about Mother tossing his office. He calls her “Monsieur D—”. My best guess is Poe’s detective Dupin, but if you have a better thought, let us know in the comments.
- Line of the episode: “Because I do not WANT the money. That is why I exchanged the money for goods and or services, which is the core concept of economics.” It’s mostly in Tambor’s delivery. (As is the welcome return of telling “Dutch” Dylan to shut up.)
- I don’t speak French, but the nun in Archer’s PTSD flashback says something about being in extreme danger. Anybody know exactly what she said?
- Mobile report: I’m playing along with the Archer P.I. mobile app, and it feels like it’s worth going over, at least in brief. Last week’s case revealed the hitchhiking dog’s connection to Krieger; this week’s suggests we might see some of our old Russian friends again. Mobile app Easter egg or actual foreshadowing? We’ll find out as it goes.