Archer S10 E5/6 “Mr. Deadly Goes to Town/Road Trip”

There doesn’t seem much point in being coy, so I’ll tip my hand right now: these two episodes represent the high and low point of the season so far for me, and since these write-ups have been short on positivity, let’s ignore the broadcast order and get Road Trip out of the way first.

So. Deep breath. What is there to say about Road Trip that the episode itself doesn’t state explicitly in the dialogue? Let me put that another way: what is there to say about Road Trip that the episode itself doesn’t obnoxiously mansplain, before elbowing you in the ribs and saying “geddit?” This season has done a remarkable amount of explaining its own jokes, sometimes even addressing the camera directly to do so – a baffling decision, considering that lofting a gag over the audience’s heads once in a while is one of the show’s hallmarks. So now we’ve finally reached full meta, in that Archer is now just explaining its own premise out loud. It turns out that – get this – Archer is super lucky. If that is shocking to you, so be it.

I really wanted to leave the whole coma thing on the shelf for this season, since it’s speculative at best, and the show is pretty bad at resolving things anyway, so frankly it’s probably less interesting to unpack than it looks. But I’m out of options. The only way this episode makes any sense is as Archer’s hospital-bed dream – a world in which he’s always the hero, always proved right even when he’s wrong, and Lana is made to stand and watch as narrative convenience makes a mockery of her better judgement. (And he gets to punch Cyril in the face for no reason.) OK, so that does make in-world sense. But it’s still a bad idea in screenwriting terms. Firstly, spending half the episode explaining the joke doubles the losses – not only is it that never funny, it leaves less time for the throwaway gags the show does so well. But more importantly, having Archer fully aware of the situation is plain dangerous. A cocky jerk who’s oblivious to his own outrageous luck is one thing, but if he’s actually aware of the narrative – which in this episode he might as well be – then there’s no conflict. Every show needs stakes, even Archer – and it’s always had them; they’re just inverted stakes based on the characters’ messed-up priorities. Even these jaded assholes care about some things. (We’ve seen most if not all of them cry at some point.) But making the main character a knowing insider subverts the whole premise. This is sharky territory, Archer. A zone that is one of danger.

This episode is everything I’ve been complaining about in this season: explaining the joke, relying too much on action sequences, making Archer the winner of every interaction, bitchslapping Lana, and landing on generic heard-it-before punchlines like “It’s right behind me, isn’t it?” (Speaking of, we’ve had a couple of mentions of “can’t have nice things” in this season and the last, and I wonder if the writers have forgotten that wasn’t their joke.) Also we meet space clones, a trope that not only appears in almost every sci-fi series ever (o hai again, Red Dwarf!), but is a pretty dowdy hat on a much more stylish hat when you consider that this show produces alternate versions of its cast on the regular.

Negativity aside, though, Road Trip does look pretty gorgeous. Someone had fun making those psychedelic airbrushed backdrops – very pleasing given the 1970s aesthetic – but more than anything else, I can’t help noticing the attention to composition. (Just look at that poster-ready ensemble shot up top.) The fight between the monster and the ship is particularly notable for the consistent way it conveys space and geography, and that’s not faint praise – many action directors don’t have anything like this level of control, even when the scene they’re directing is basically a cartoon anyway. (You know who I’m talking about.) The early seasons probably barely even needed storyboards, but now it’s clear that an awful lot of consideration is being given to space and light, and I’ll admit that’s pretty cool. While I’m still at a loss to explain why anyone at FXX thinks viewers are tuning in to Archer of all shows for the animation, it’s one goshdarned handsome episode. Just check out the dread stillness of this hold-your-breath moment – it’s a shot we’ve all seen before, but holy space-snacks y’all, this is some cinematography right here.



ARCHER: Maybe we should find the navigator and… throw something at him?
CYRIL: Wait, I’m the – hey! [pen hits him in the face]
LANA: Seriously?
ARCHER: Sorry, I didn’t have anything heavier.

It may not be one of the cleverest exchanges Archer has had over the years, but it got me excited for Mr. Deadly Goes to Town right from the jump, because it establishes a certain rhythm we haven’t seen enough of lately. The way the dialogue pinballs back and forth between the characters has always been, for me, the main reason the show works in the first place, and straight away we’re back into a familiar groove: the terse, oh-whatever-never-mind cadence of characters who rarely finish a thought and were at least half talking to themselves to begin with. It’s that denseness of dialogue that’s been really missing these last few seasons (Dreamland has almost none of it), and it’s perhaps easy to forget how important it is to the show. The catchphrases, the reboots, and the hyper-erudite references are all well-loved calling cards, but we could go without them if we had to. Take away the distracted ah-fuck-it pacing of the dialogue, though, and it’s just another regular-ass sitcom with an indifferent script that doesn’t live up to its superlative cast. (Consider Arrested Development, whose great characters, fantastic cast and seemingly limitless supply of callbacks weren’t able to salvage the loss of the ensemble farce dynamic that turned out to have been the glue holding the whole thing together.) So while the pen-throwing scene is hardly the sort of gag that leaves you wondering “how do they come UP with this stuff?”, it’s a touch of the old Archer magic – and it’s certainly a damn sight funnier than the fart gags that have somehow become a staple.

It’s not the only part of the opening that shows Deadly is putting its best foot firmly forward. Pam’s “Bring me the biggest goose in all of London!” is one of my favourite jokes from this entire season – Amber Nash’s Dickensian accent is hilarious, and seeing what appears to be a bipedal Thwomp engaging in such earnest amateur theatrics is simply precious (again with the expressive body language that used to be above Archer’s pay grade). But more than anything else, it’s an example of how to do meta properly. Calling back to immediately before the title sequence is both in character for the ever-oblivious Pam, and fits neatly with the show’s long-running gimmick of using smash cuts to make one character sound as though they’re finishing another’s thought. (Oh okay, it also makes sense because it’s a coma and the passage of time is weird in dreams, yadda yadda.) I know Pam’s freeze-frame bit from episode 2 has its fans, but for me it was a big red flag: a wrinkly old one-size-fits-all gag that could have been copy-pasted into almost any piece of media and dates back at least as far as Police Squad! (and arguably to Shakespeare). The biggest trap of meta-humour – and the big mistake of Road Trip – is to think that being self-referential is enough on its own. After all, it LOOKS like a joke so it must be funny, right? It’s the stock-in-trade of lazy video game scripts and the Scary Movie franchise, and even those audiences are beginning to tire of it. It’s reassuring to see that the writers haven’t forgotten there’s more to meta-humour than just looking at the camera.

And so we meet Mr Deadly. Full disclosure: I bloody love Matt Berry so your mileage may vary I guess, but I hope I’m not alone in finding him one of the more memorable – and likeable – guest characters from recent years. It’s just such a tee-up: in a world full of people losing their minds over petty bullshit, Deadly is charmingly unflappable, despite being both horny as hell and quite probably the single most important thing in the galaxy. The guest characters have been a little lacklustre this season, but where Captain Price from Zarglorp was flat and lifeless, and Bort the Garj was ebullient but ultimately kind of a nothing, Deadly makes a virtue of how stilted he is. It’s a sleek and lanky character design inhabiting the space between Dr Manhattan, Shodan and Seth, and there’s just so much personality in his cross-legged sitting pose, the way he flops down resignedly on the bed, that delightfully dorky thumbs-up, and the way he asks so politely if he can kill everyone yet. (It’s all the more surprising that we didn’t see more robotic characters back in the days of shoestring animation budgets.) Sure, he’s a killing machine, but the combination of under-articulated movements, over-enunciated dialogue and can-do stoicism is just so endearing. It’s a shame he and Carol didn’t work out; they would have made a genuinely sweet couple if he didn’t, uh, explode so much.

Mr Deadly also doubles as the best plot device we’ve seen so far. It’s a relief to have a MacGuffin that’s not just Sterling’s needlessly dogged contrarianism or yet another goddamn cocktail. I know the Archers’ barely functioning alcoholism is a running theme, but it sure can get repetitive. And sweet mercy, Lana finally gets some sort of agency, leading the A-plot as Mr Deadly’s would-be galactic pixie dream girl. (An MPDG with a plot arc, go figure.) Even her weary “… written right on the side” from the cold open is a welcome return to form – again, not the wittiest line we’ve heard, but a rare example of Lana providing common sense and being neither proved wrong nor punished for it. Even Archer can’t really be bothered to undermine her this time. It’s an oddly earnest tonal shift when he blames her for the failure of their marriage, but that’s quickly forgotten in the silliness of Krieger’s daft weapons and Charles and Rudy’s catty shtick. And while ending on an explosion is well-worn territory for the show’s makers… come now, how did you think it was going to end?

Stray observations

  • In Road Trip, Ray and Malory are seen enjoying cocktails and pedicures with their feet on crates of rations from the USS Tristan (the ship the gang find inside the Zarglorp). Seems Ray gets busy while everyone else is ignoring him.
  • “Item One…”
    “Item what?”
    Malory’s team meetings always start in the middle. There’s never been an Item One.
  • When Carol asks “Is anyone else turned on right now?”, did anyone else catch Krieger’s “I’m always on” among the chorus of Nos?
  • OK, so Charles is clearly Undyne from Undertale, but I can’t place what licensed character Rudy is. Is that one of the ThunderCats?
  • Special mention for the butterfly scene, which has some of Mr Deadly’s best moments. Not only do we get to enjoy more of Matt Berry’s trademark baroque pronunciation, but “That’s… not… anything I said” is delivered with the perfect level of tetchiness, and “Same to you, you bastard” carries such wounded formality, it’s just kind of sweet. Awww.