Archer S10 E8/9 “Cubert/Robert De Niro”

Welp, we made it. It’s been three years of false starts and dead ends, great character reinventions, lousy character takes, and an awful lot of speculation. What’s even real by this point? Are the continuity discrepancies the writers’ fault or Archer’s? Is it even worth reading into? I’m looking forward to not having to worry about such meta-malarkey from now on, because this dream has to end, and this continuity along with it. Time to wake up. Alexa, play “Ballad of the Wind Fish.”

The cold open is probably the strongest part of this episode, and I could cut and paste much of what I said about the cold open from Mr Deadly. The action begins with a grand, quiet 2001-inspired space scene, but within moments the mystified awe and existential wonder are replaced with an increasingly silly five-way kickabout, somehow touching on ranch, mithril, and ambergris (of all things) along the way until we’ve all but forgotten about the freaky space-cube and it’s all wrapped up with a juvenile pussy joke. In other words, Adam Reed is back and it’s classic Archer.

The downside is that, firstly, we’re back to space dementia yet AGAIN, and secondly, that since Archer’s reality is now truly falling apart at the seams, the concept of “plot” is somewhat moot. (Please insert your own air-quotes around the word “plot” for the remainder of the duration.) This is a dream sequence in the true sense: a string of semi-random events that continually flies off at tangents and never returns to dangling plot threads. Adam Reed simply doesn’t do narrative so don’t expect any. There’s a cube. Or maybe there isn’t? Pick one. It feeds on aggression, or maybe it causes it? Eh, it’s probably not important. It won’t come back around. It never does.

It does, however, lead us to Cubert’s inciting incident, in which Archer attempts to murder Lana. Let’s get that out of the way first because… shit. I’ve talked a lot about the disservice the past three seasons have done to Lana, but I think this might be an acknowledgement of just how jeffed-up things have gotten up in Archer’s subconscious. This is a show where mortal peril and crippling injury are usually played for laughs, but for once this time it’s made into an unsettling but effective space-horror moment. The implied stakes are the same as when Cheryl tried Krieger’s terrifying strangle-bot back in the first season, but the tone couldn’t be more different. I don’t personally get the appeal of horror so for me it just means fewer jokes, but the show does a good job of making it just uncomfortable enough to get the point across without getting too real or depressing. It’s a tightrope though. The keypad gag adds a little levity (and pays off a setup that I originally thought was shameless padding), but that’s probably mostly to keep the camera away from actually having to look at what’s happening, and that’s a wise move. There’s another awkward both-sides moment later in the courtroom scene when Lana points out how unnecessarily sexual the assault is, and Pam characteristically cheapens it. This is a very weird plot point, especially since Archer never shows any kind of remorse between trying to off Lana and dying to save her, but given how prickly it is, it’s delivered as well as could have been expected I guess. Brrr. Let’s move on.

So while we don’t get a lot in the way of narrative, the episode does work as a hook on which to hang a series of increasingly indulgent homages and callbacks. (Insert Tarantino joke here.) Cubert is a particularly vivid illustration of this season’s attitude to references. Is it a genuine bit of science fiction in the footsteps of 2001? Is it an emotion eater, feeding on Carol and Malory’s aggression like in Doctor Who? Is it a supernatural monster plotting their demise like in Event Horizon? Or is it a manifestation of Archer’s subconscious like Solaris? None of those labels quite fits – or at least, not for more than a moment before it’s discarded and forgotten – but since the tropes are all so familiar, they pretty much skate by without setting off any alarms. It’s the Steven Moffat trick: as long as the plot feels as though it makes sense at any given moment, the viewers probably won’t realise it never actually went anywhere. At macro level, the episode plays out like that game from Whose Line…? where the cast have to switch genre every few minutes. Bzzz! Space epic! Bzzz! Psycho horror! Bzzz! Courtroom drama – wait, did I hear “action revenge blockbuster” from the back?

I can only assume it’s because of Adam Reed’s return as a writer that Ray finally gets something to do besides act as a sponge for everyone else’s condescension, dropping sick burns on his coworkers (“…And bumble it is”), slyly pulling a gun on the overconfident Cyril, and at last getting to yell at everyone else in court. I was also unexpectedly tickled by another mention of his spoon collection punctuating an otherwise interminable Alien reference. There’s no getting around it: the references in these episodes are straight-up bad. The moment Carol sits down to eat, we can see the punchline telegraphed from the next galaxy, and yet even that’s not as wearisome as the Aliens reference in the next episode. The gun turret scene is infuriating for several reasons: the waste of a fun plot element, the obvious direction it’s headed, and the utter audacity of adding “Iono, director’s cut?” in case we didn’t get the Aliens reference, because it’s been over ten minutes since the last one. This practice of lifting entire scenes from movies without taking the trouble to parody them in any meaningful sense is probably the worst of Family Guy’s unfortunate legacies. Equating entry-level pop-culture savvy with wit is the where the likes of David Brent and Jackie Harvey get it wrong, and this sort of cut-and-paste writing just lowers the bar for everyone by passing off dad jokes as proper comedy. (I do realise that I’ve drawn a comparison to Family Guy in almost all of these write-ups, but if Archer is going to keep returning to the same lazy well again and again, so will I. And only one of us is getting paid.) Somehow a scene about loading up an outlandishly sophisticated gimmick and then blowing it all on nothing seems like a more fitting metaphor for itself than was probably ever intended.

All of which passes the time until the boarding party arrives, and any pretence of continuity is finally abandoned for good. While the viewers seem to have formed a pretty much consensus opinion that Barry is one of the weakest parts of the show, Adam Reed apparently considers him the main character. Or maybe Archer does? I mean, if we can infer anything from this showdown, it’s that Archer’s entire life secretly revolves around Barry. It’s a complete reversal of roles: Barry’s always been obsessed with Archer, who has reciprocated by not giving much of a shit these last ten years. But now Archer puts him front and centre, unceremoniously dropping the whole murder plotline and making everyone and everything bend over backwards to put him and Barry together. All of a sudden, the space-cube dementia is gone, Malory cares enough to play along with their ambush plan, Cyril can shoot straight for once, Barry is human again, and Archer is firmly in hero mode, ready to die for a bunch of coworkers he hates and an ex-wife he just called a whore to her face and tried to kill only 10 minutes ago. Never mind them anyway, they’re gone. Yup, the ensemble cast of this ensemble comedy just left the building halfway through the episode. Nothing is too important to be sacrificed for more Barry time. “So you’re willing to die just to make sure I do?” asks Archer, with characteristic lack of irony. Goddammit Sterling, this is your reality, YOU’RE the one blowing yourself up just to score a cheap point in a non-contest against a jerk nobody cares about. Even his first words on waking up are “Goddamn Barry.” I think I speak for many when I say I wouldn’t care if we ever see this character again, but as far as the writers are concerned, this is the Barry Dylan Show and nothing else matters. Kneel before your pobobot overlord.

The montage is… well, a montage. It can be a bit jarring seeing some of the janky old animations, and it’s fairly self-indulgent, but those come with the territory. Better to have a roll-call of running gags and such in a montage than to do it right in the script, as so many shows do in their final season (I know this isn’t the last season, but the writers didn’t). It’s essentially an excuse to take a tour of Archer’s various costumes and disguises, and it’s perfectly competent, but the musical cue surprised me. I didn’t think obscure early ‘90s indie was Archer’s speed… but then again, what is? It’s pretty fitting for an episode – and a season – that’s really struggled to find a tone. (Bzzz! Now in the style of a hoedown!)

Finally, there’s a coda in which Archer wakes up in his hospital bed (a different bed from last time) to find that Malory has finally become a doting mother. It’s all very out of character, and there’s a good chance it’ll all be retconned before the beginning of the next episode. So to be honest, I don’t think there’s much point even addressing this. We could speculate for weeks, and in the end it may all be hand-waved away with “Iono, director’s cut?” And I’m OK with that too.

Stray observations

  •  “You were shot! By a crazy woman!”
    “Just like Eddie Waitkus!”
    “Don’t get him started.”
    Eddie Waitkus was a baseball player who was non-fatally shot by an obsessed fan in 1949. Welcome back, Sterling. Let’s hope it’s for good.
  • I was really looking forward to Malory trying to possess Barry-6 (ackchewally I believe the word is pwn) like she did with Funbeak. Shame she didn’t; it could have been fun watching two controlling figures in Archer’s subconscious fight. Never mind.
  • “What was her name again? Simone?”
    Joke’s on you Barry, her name was Framboise. Don’t you feel like a dick now? (They all pronounced it right in season one. I have no idea whether this was Barry’s mistake, Archer’s or the writers’.)
  • The song from the montage is “Robert de Niro” by Queen Sarah Saturday (thank you Shazam). Having said the song doesn’t seem to fit, it turns out the episode was named for it, go figure.