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TV Club: Barry’s back (and he brought a classic Archer set-up with him)

How good is it to hang out with this gang again? Between the plot-heavy seasonopener, and last week’s Archer-centric flashbacks, it feels like it’s been a while since Archer just shoved all of its characters into a room, pointed a gun at their heads, and let the bickering commence. Tonight’s episode is a reminder of how good these characters can be when they have nothing to do but bounce off of each other, giving Pam, Krieger, and especially Cheryl, their first real chance to shine all year. Add in some of the best Malory scenes since season three, and the best Barry storyline ever, and it makes for the highlight of the show’s seventh season so far.

When we last checked in with Dave Willis’ formerly ODIN, formerly KGB, currently psychopathic cyborg, he was looking like a busted-up T-800, and failing to die in a Wisconsin grain silo. Now he’s in Los Angeles, dressed like a robot mummy, and bearing a motivation that gives him and Archer even more in common than they usually have: a shared obsession with an absent mother figure. To ensure The Figgis Agency’s cooperation in tracking down the mom who gave him up for adoption—he’s hoping connecting with her will help him find a “better Other Barry” hidden deep inside himself—the malevolent machine man has kidnapped Malory and buried her underground, leaving us with not just one, but two motherless children running around.

Part of what makes Barry so fun—besides the glee with which Willis delivers lines like, “Didn’t I murder you one time?”—is the way he acts as a shadow version of Archer. After all, the pair do the same jobs, sleep with the same women, and share a casual invincibilty and basic disregard for the people around them. But Barry’s also the one character that Archer can’t fight or bully his way past, and who actually makes him suffer the consequences of his numerous terrible decisions. To indulge in a Looney Tunes metaphor, Barry’s presence turns Sterling from Bugs Bunny into Elmer Fudd—or maybe Wile E. Coyote, given the elaborate nature of his plot to enlist Krieger to electrocute his mechanical nemesis.

That’s a fun reversal, so it’s a shame that Archer’s portion of the episode’s story is also its only real dud. Archer’s at his best when he’s feeling playful, like in his initial drunk confrontation with the mummyless mummy. He’s less fun when he’s forced into the role of petulant straight man, getting single-mindedly fixated on spiting anyone who’s ever done him wrong. It’s in line with his utter refusal to change or grow—this is the third episode in a row where someone’s asked him if he’s learned anything, and he straight-up shoots them down—but it also leaves the show’s main character as something of a distraction from all the delightful chaos happening around him.

But that’s one small downside in an episode that’s full of so much good. We’ve got Lana deploying “phrasing,” and copping to sleeping with Barry back when he was, y’know, human. Meanwhile, Pam’s smacking down body shaming with the same enthusiasm that she shoves pennies into the agency’s fuse box (and apparently still passing out Furlock Bones fliers in her spare time.) Cheryl develops yet another sexual fascination with a potentially lethal machine, Cyril gets to be basically competent, and Krieger has his creepiest reveal yet, showing off his collection of life-like simulations of his friends’ faces and hands. And they’re all playing off of each other, and off of Barry, who’s apparently gotten it into his poor metal head that these people are actually kind of his friends. (Albeit friends he’s perfectly happy to murder, because he’s 100 percent insane.)

But it’s Malory who really gets to shine, despite being locked away from the entire rest of the cast. It might strain credulity that the former spymaster would narrate every single thing that happens to her as she escapes from Barry’s underground prison, but it’s worth it to get Jessica Walter’s running commentary on the ordeal. Malory spends so much of her screen time reacting to the people around her—usually by being awful and shrill—that it’s incredibly refreshing to see her on her own, working through her initial panic and anger, deducing her location, and then breaking free through a mixture of calm thinking and inexhaustible grit. Meanwhile, her weary, “Step two’s always a bitch,” or her wry resignation at seeing Barry’s “Archer is to blame for this” painted on the wall, remind you of what a gift Walter is to this show, and how sorely she’s missed in episodes that don’t make this much use of her talents.

In the end, everybody gets a happy ending: Barry finds his mom, Malory escapes, and nobody except Archer gets shot. And after three episodes in which Archer has shown how different it can be, here in its seventh season, we all get a nice reminder of how funny the show still is when it sticks to is most basic, character-based techniques.

Stray observations

  • We also just posted an interview I did with one of the show’s executive producers, Matt Thompson, talking about these first four episodes, Archer and Lana’s relationship, and the overall direction of the season. You can check it out here.
  • Krieger’s face-and-hand closet (and the subsequent reveal of Barry’s metal visage crammed awkwardly inside a Cyril suit) is the episode’s most obviously distressing visual, but there’s also some nice animated acting in the scene where Archer obliviously rants about crab rangoon to his Barry-threatened friends.
  • Pam’s still trying to make “On my tits, whaaaat,” a thing, and god bless her for trying.
  • It’s always good to get a minute with Ron Cadillac.
  • The show skipped out on the Longwater stuff this week, which is fine by me. I like the long-form serialization, but there’s no need to shoehorn it into every episode. (Unless that really was Katya as the fake Veronica back in the season opener, and this whole “adopted mom” thing was just an elaborate ruse.)
  • Archer’s little giggle as he prepares to shoot the boot off his car in the opening is pretty cute.
  • Ray doesn’t get much to do this week, but his repeated “things a clock would say,” and sad admission to Barry’s verdict that he’s “a poor man’s Frank Langella” are strong contender’s for the episode’s best lines
  • Don’t be fooled by H. Jon Benjamin-starring animated sitcoms, folks: Thomas Edison was long retired by the time Edison Manufacturing filmed the sad execution of Topsy the elephant, which had nothing to do with the “War Of Currents” that had been waged a decade before.
  • Hey, we’re in L.A.: Archer drops a reference to the Los Angeles Aztecs, which were owned in part by Elton John, and played in L.A. from 1974 to 1981. (Feel free to use the fact that they’re no longer around in the Archer-verse in your futile efforts to pin the showto a specific year.) If that tiki bar he’s coming out of in the opening is a specific one, meanwhile, I can’t place it via online image searches. If you recognize it, let me know in the comments.
  • Obscure reference alert: Speaking of Looney Tunes, Archer’s drunken “That’s the old pepper” is probably a reference to this old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Meanwhile, Cheryl gets called out for quoting British mountaineer Wilfrid Noyce, and also gives a nod to Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and specifically to how they apply to her vagina.
  • Line of the episode: “Look, if this was easy, I wouldn’t have to bury ladies out in the desert!” is the perfect encapsulation of Barry’s mixture of friendliness and malice, and why the character is so welcome every time he manages to drop by.

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