After two episodes spent moving its period pieces into place, it feels like Archer is finally getting back to doing what it does best: Winding up a bunch of dysfunctional assholes, aiming them at each other, and gleefully giggling at the chaos that results. For the first time since Dreamland kicked off, an Archer episode feels like it gives everybody in the cast something to do—no mean feat, in an installment that also gives ample screen time to four big-name guest stars, to boot.
For the second week in a row, we pick up exactly where the previous episode left off, with bent detectives Cyril and Poovey catching Archer and Charlotte Vandertunt (heiress to the vast Vandertunt publishing fortune) in the act of dumping the body of poor, abused Berenice over a cliff. One ill-advised overshare from Archer later, and Cyril reminds us that he’s functionally the villain of this Dreamlands season, announcing his intentions to book Charlotte/Cheryl as a Jane Doe, then ransom her off to her quasi-incestuous family in order to pay his debts to acid-happy mob boss Len Trexler.
Meanwhile, Archer gets himself tossed in a jail cell by a pissed-off Poovey, where he’s soon joined by Ray, Floyd, Verl, and Cliff, a.k.a. Lana’s backing band at the Dreamlands club. Thanks to Ray’s inability to keep his cool around “marijuana cigarettes,” they’re facing a six-year prison sentence, which means they’re quick to sign on when Archer announces he’s planning on breaking himself out. While they’re executing their chaotic escape—and getting into running arguments about scarecrows and the role of African-American soldiers during World War II—Lana is forced into performing solo back at the club. Rather than go the Pitch Perfect route, she opts to sweat her way through a stand-up set that, like the late Al Capone, is more infested with syphilis than she probably would have liked.
As a little nugget of low-key awkwardness amid tonight’s madcap action, Lana’s set is a delight, with Aisha Tyler wringing every possible cringe out of her enthusiastically bad impressions and trailing over-explanations. Given how amped up the rest of “Jane Doe” is, it’s a welcome respite from the madness, even if it continues this season’s problem of keeping the character in a vacuum. Archer characters are at their best when they’re bouncing off of each other and sidelining Tyler’s chemistry with the rest of the cast continues to be an odd choice for the show to pursue.
Meanwhile Archer finds himself wrestling with the racial politics of imaginary 1947, asserting that he’s “squad leader” of the band, whose non-Ray members are played by returning guest stars Wyatt Cenac and Keegan-Michael Key, plus The Wire and Treme’s Wendell Pierce. None of them are super receptive to the idea of Archer being in charge, especially since Sterling can’t even fit himself into a stolen cop costume. Instead the uniform ends up on Verl (Pierce), whose smooth-voiced chuckles and general Bunk Moreland nature make him a welcome addition to the show’s guest star roster.
Most of the episode’s guest cast (outside Jeffrey Tambor, who only gets a few lines) is black, and there’s a higher-than-average-for-Archer amount of racial humor in “Jane Doe,” as it toys with the backwards values of mid-century America. But one odd side effect of Archer’s new setting is that it makes Archer’s long-established, casual, unthinking racism feel weirdly ahead of the curve for once. Graded against the ugly attitudes of the late ’40s—and compared to Charlotte, who politely dubs Verl, Cliff, and Floyd “her first Negroes”—his “you people”s and general tone-deafness comes off as merely well-meaning but inept, rather than the usual evidence that he’s a total asshole raised by an openly racist mother. The show mines his discomfort and cognitive dissonance for all it’s worth, though, with the quick-fire trio of Cenac, Key, and Pierce delighting in twisting the knife as they poke and prod him, both with their jokes and the billy clubs that came with their stolen cop disguises.
Eventually, thought, the group makes it down to the police station’s basement, where they free Charlotte (who, seeing the band members in police uniforms, briefly believes she’s been imprisoned for decades, not a mere half an hour). And that’s when Poovey steps back in to make things more interesting.
I’ve talked about this before, but one of the most exciting things about Dreamlands is that we no longer entirely know these characters or what they’ll do when the chips are down. Poovey has most of Pam’s basic characteristics—her good-natured friendliness, her love of a fight, her general enthusiasm for life—while also being a dirty cop patterned on Russell Crowe’s conflicted enforcer from L.A. Confidential. Poovey is Archer’s buddy, but they also have their own agenda, so when they catch him in the act of breaking out, it’s a rare moment of legitimate tension for a show that’s usually happy to undercut this stuff with jokes. It’s also the lead-in to another of the season’s great sight-gag payoffs: five battered, broken men, having just barely taken down a single unarmed L.A. detective. (“Best. Day. Ever!” as Charlotte merrily giggles in the background.)
(And for those of you who thought I was too hard on Miss Vandertunt last week, she’s in perfect form tonight, tearing out her hair, happily smashing cops with wrenches, and executing that deranged giggle that only Judy Greer can fill with the proper mix of cute and terrifying madness.)
Freedom barely assured, everybody ends up back in Mother’s office, for a series of scathing put-downs from the woman in charge. Verl and Archer share a final moment, though, one that suggests that Dreamland is building toward something with its frequent callbacks to the War. This version of Archer is clearly haunted under all his bluster, and it remains to be seen what that means for the version of him stuck in a hospital bed in the modern day.
But that’s for later; for now, we get to hear the slowly dawning joy in Jessica Walter’s voice as she realizes a million-dollar ransom/rescue just wandered into her club and Cheryl’s merry delight as Mother describes cutting her up and mailing her home in pieces. Best. Day. Ever, indeed.
- The only cast member we don’t spend much time with tonight is Krieger, who’s busy getting ready to take poor, handsome Barry out dancin’.
- The runner about nobody having been to a rodeo was good. Pierce’s delivery on “Oh, brother, I have…” was better. There were lions!
- “I feel like we’re gonna run out of stuff to fill with Chinese whores.”
- “Was this the surprise?”
“Because I already know a crazy lady.”
“His Aunt Martha.”
“Eats paper by the pound.”
“Mmmhmm. God bless that mess.”
Cenac, Key, and Pierce were an absolute treat.
- “Will you quit jamming my ass with that thing?” “He said, coyly.” Great to spend time with Ray again, too. His delight at “Phil McCracken,” was so dumbly genuine.
- The best part of Lana’s stand-up: her failure to not over-explain the joke. “Based on this… medical examination” is such a good, uncontrollable run-on.
- “You look like you should be policing a corn field.”
“Arresting crows and shit.”
- Some lovely editing tonight, between the way Lana’s set overlaid the aftermath of the fight and the quick cut to Floyd abusing his newfound power over Archer.
- Obscure reference alert: Most of tonight’s references come courtesy of our guest stars, so we’ve got Robert William Stewart, who, the LAPD’s website confirms, did become the city’s first black officer in 1886. As mentioned by Cliff and Floyd, the segregation of the U.S. military forced many black soldiers to serve in vital-but-less-celebrated support roles. And Verl’s unit, Patton’s Panthers, was one of the most decorated black-only tank units in the war, serving with distinction, and eventually paving the way for desegregation in the eras to come.
- Line of the episode: Despite some great work from the band members, and Lana’s stumbling delivery with her stand-up, it’s Poovey this week by a mile: “But keep in mind, I’m gradually gonna get more tired, but also gradually more berserker.”
- Second, place, too: “Aw, I wouldn’t shit you! You’re my favorite turd!”
- And the running gag about their Chinese sister-wives. It’s such a weirdly sweet future to envision.
- Mobile report: Nothing interesting this week, although there’s a suggestion Archer might be going somewhere fancy in upcoming weeks.