There’s no great mystery at the core of Sterling Archer, no matter how many times the show teases us with hints about his mysterious parentage. It’s not Archer’s paternal relationship that lies at the heart of all his neuroses and addictions, after all, but his maternal one. Or, to put it more bluntly (and quote Ben Folds in the process): his mom fucked him up. (Can we get a “Phrasing” over here?)

Which doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating to see how the damage was actually done. Archer’s given hints before that Sterling’s long, Malory-mandated tenure at (six different) boarding schools was responsible for much of his antisocial behavior—not to mention his obsession with lacrosse and his tendency to spout off random, oddly literate trivia—but we’ve never gotten more than a few glimpses of his life there. “Deadly Prep” fills in some of those blanks, by introducing us to Richard “Ivy” Stratton IV (Jon Daly) and Trent Whitney (Jon Glaser), two of the bullies who helped shape Sterling Archer into the awful, occasionally kickass man he’d eventually become.

And how weird is it to see Archer this badly off his game, huh? In a nice touch from the animation department—who also knock it out of the park later this episode, with a moonlit fight sequence that’s as visually compelling as anything Archer’s ever put on screen—the hair-ruffling Ivy inflicts on Archer when they first meet up at the wee baby Abbiejean’s pre-pre-school interview stays visible through that whole opening scene. It’s a little detail, the tiniest chink in Archer’s perfectly coiffed armor, but it gives poor, stammering Swirling a childlike look of weakness, even as his self-appointed social better smooth talks his mom and throws vaguely racist shade at his kid. Even when Archer regains his equilibrium later, meeting with Ivy to discuss the latter’s cancer-dodging insurance fraud scheme, the show reinforces the flip of its usual dynamics by having his prep school nemesis be the one gently sipping from a prized bottle of Glengoolie Blue.

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The presence of that much-coveted Scotch acts as a hint at the episode’s real goal, comparing the toilet-based tortures Ivy and Whitney inflicted on a 13-year-old Archer and the way he treats the people around him—especially Cyril—today. The ostensible head of The Figgis Agency gets involved in the plot when he (rightly) suspects that Archer’s skimming off the top on his latest assignment, tracking him to the glass house that serves as the setting for Ivy’s proposed suicide-by-P.I. (The show glosses over how an accountant, even one who’s a licensed investigator, managed to successfully trail a former master spy; it’s possible that Archer’s so used to not noticing Cyril that it comes naturally by now.)

The series has gone a long way over the years toward softening Archer’s relationship with the people around him, especially Lana and Pam. (He even gets the occasional warm moment with Ray, who’s usually his harshest critic around the office.) But Cyril is different. Archer might not let his co-worker/begrudging boss get gunned down in cold blood—he moves pretty fast to pull Cyril out of harm’s way when Ivy reveals that the whole suicide plot is a ruse, and that he plans to snipe both his partner Whitney and his would-be assassins from afar—but he’s also not going to get himself shot just to keep him alive.

There’s a tendency in long-running sitcoms to generate emotional beats by filing the edges off every relationship—call it the “We’re all really a family!” school of long-form TV writing—but Archer doesn’t bother sugarcoating the fact that these two men really do not like each other. Cyril’s an ineffectual hypocrite with a surprisingly dark inner life—his smile coming out of that Archer-based Silence Of The Lambs fantasy is creepy as hell—and Archer is a bully with little regard for anything but himself. As characters, they’re both too flawed to ever be friends, even if some of Cyril’s pompous commentary about the way Archer responds to and emulates his treatment from his past tormentors hits pretty close to home. Meanwhile, it’s always nice to be reminded that it’s Cyril’s incompetence—wasting bullets, failing to secure the “Longwater” clues in Trent Whitney’s safe—that draws the biggest part of Sterling’s ire; Archer is a roving grab bag of flaws, but at least he can get the job done.

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And in the end, that’s exactly what he does. By the time the credits roll, both of Archer’s bullies are dead—for whatever value of dead you can assign to an Archer character whose corpse hasn’t been blatantly shown on screen, anyway. Both of our heroes(?) are safe. And Cyril asks Archer the question that‘s been cropping up more and more this year, as Archer continues to work on reinventing itself: “Did you learn nothing from this?!“

Archer hasn’t. But we in the audience kind of have.

Stray observations

  • I glossed over Lana’s “mom goes to crazy lengths to get her kid into a prestigious prep school” B-plot, which, outside of giving us another glimpse of Keegan-Michael Key’s recurring police detective, and the episode’s one (One!) Pam and Cheryl scene, is such a sitcom cliche that it’s barely worth talking about.
  • Seriously, one scene of Pam and Cheryl demanding more details on what their Vagina Passes are good for is not enough, Archer.
  • Lana using “Phrasing” to comfort a clearly shaken Archer is a surprisingly sweet use of a running joke.
  • Between the guest stars, it’s hard to pick an MVP. Daly’s blithe take on upper crust privilege is great, but Glaser really nails the crazy in Whitney’s “You think I won’t fucking kill you?!” (Both of them.)
  • It’s nice to see Archer get a little power back early on by teasing Ivy about what time he’s going to kill him. H. Jon Benjamin’s playful “Or wiiiiill iiiiit?” is one of those line-readings that reminds you what makes him one of the best in the business.
  • Another good week for Three Stooges-esque physical antics, too: Archer slaps Cyril, Archer gets shot, Archer slaps Cyril again.
  • Obscure reference alert: This was a pretty light episode, reference-wise (and in terms of Los Angeles landmarks, so we’ll skip over that section this week). Archer sings the Have Gun—Will Travel theme song to himself when he’s getting ready to kill Ivy; he also drops a pretty clear It’s A Wonderful Life quote when he’s extorting Whitney later on.
  • Line of the episode: This is Archer’s episode; his sudden, biathlon-inspired swerve into “You think he knows Ray?!” is exactly the sort of slow-burn callback this show does best.

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