Sterling Archer finally returns to the real world for the eleventh season, and the opening double-bill, “The Orpheus Gambit” and “Bloodsploosh”, suggests that it might have been just the right time to wake him up.
This recap of Archer season 11, episode 1, “The Orpheus Gambit”, and Archer season 11, episode 2, “Bloodsploosh”, contains spoilers. You can read our coverage of Archer: 1999 here, and Danger Island here. Oh, and Dreamland here.
For the last few years, Adam Reed’s beloved, sneakily genius animated spy spoof hasn’t actually been a spy spoof – contorted by the whims of its title character’s comatose imagination, Archer has reinvented itself as a late-‘40s noir, an adventure serial, and a space opera. Now, though, it’s back to being a spy spoof, splitting the difference between espionage thriller and workplace sitcom, with Sterling suddenly awake but physically compromised, and re-joining a team who have spent the last three years realizing they’re better off without him.
That’s the running gag through the two-part opener to Season 11, “The Orpheus Gambit” and “Bloodsploosh”. In Sterling’s absence, everyone has gotten their act together. There’s no drinking on the job, nobody says “Phrasing!” anymore, and the whole unit operates like a well-oiled machine. Cyril is suddenly hyper-competent and buff, Ray isn’t crippled, Krieger has his van, Cheryl is new and better – to a point – and Pam is… well, still Pam, really. Almost as soon as Sterling wakes up, everything starts going wrong, old wounds are reopened, and it becomes increasingly clear that, far from missing their old pal, everyone has come to realize that he’s a giant liability to all of them.
And I do mean everyone, including Archer himself, even if he has a hard time accepting it at first. “The Orpheus Gambit” finds him waking up in an apartment strewn with party detritus, and the rest of his life feels much the same way; full of evidence that people other than him are having all the fun. Archer would be happy to feel sorry for himself and have everyone feel sorry for him, but nobody does, least of all Woodhouse, who he keeps calling for and comparing people to despite him having died several seasons ago. The tragedy in that joke is that this old man who he used to torture for fun was the only person who really cared about him before his coma, and probably the only person who’d be happy to see him wake up from it. Of his old friends and colleagues, he might have predicted that Cyril would be better off without him, but he takes Lana having married an old, bald billionaire named Robert (Stephen Tobolowsky) particularly hard.
“The Orpheus Gambit” has to walk a fine line between getting this point across and still being funny. And it nails it, in large part by outright refusing to take any shortcuts back to the old status quo or give Sterling any easy solutions to the problems he currently faces. Despite the fact he walks with a cane now, he’s still able to improvise ridiculous solutions to hiccups in the field, usually to the eventual betterment of the mission. But he can’t apply that same freewheeling approach to his personal life and relationships. Suddenly, all of the history and emotional weight that the show has accrued by being on the air for so long is weighing on Sterling’s shoulders, and he isn’t being given an easy way out. In large part, along with obviously being a way for Reed to retain an interest in the property, Archer’s coma seasons were to avoid having to deal with the repercussions of Archer’s apparent death or his refusal to change in any meaningful sense. Archer Season 11 isn’t giving him much choice in the matter.
“Bloodsploosh” isn’t quite as obvious about this as the first half-hour, but the clues are there if you look for them. Even if the characters tend to fall back into their old roles here – it’s about a martial arts tournament and splits the difference between Bloodsport and Enter the Dragon – and Archer is less visibly mortified about how little everyone has missed him, the underlying theme is still the idea of everyone trying and in large part succeeding in changing. Cheryl might still be nuts, but she’s actively trying to keep her psychoses in check; Cyril might take a licking as the episode goes on, but at least at first his newfound martial prowess is a real benefit. While the plot still contrives a way to let Sterling get away with being Sterling, it also makes a point of showing him how his colleagues have improved in his absence; it makes development real in a show that has always favoured the status-quo.
What also benefits “Bloodsploosh” is how rife it is with classic Pam Poovey behavior, especially since she’s the only person who genuinely liked being around Sterling in the first place and the only person with whom he has something resembling a genuine connection. Were it up to Pam, she’d probably quite happily embrace the dynamics of old, but she, too, has to deal with the fact that it’s only her who really enjoys Archer’s presence. While this might be me being too generous, I’m partly of the mind that this episode purposely veered into classic Archer-isms just to show how much everyone besides Archer and Pam resent them.
But who knows? The rotating writing team makes me nervous, and this early into the season, it’s pretty much impossible to tell what the ultimate shape of it might look like. I think it’s pretty safe to say, though, that reviving Archer was a good idea. This show’s most longstanding gag is that the character never changes – perhaps now he won’t have any choice.
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