“Best Friends” works as a great episode of both pre- and post-coma Archer, finding a new way of hilariously riffing on the old formula.
This recap of Archer season 11, episode 5, “Best Friends”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
“Best Friends” was a really good episode of both pre- and post-coma Archer. I still insist those are two different things, though admittedly it’s difficult to tell sometimes. Pre-coma Archer was a spy spoof – mostly – rooted in character that used its mission-of-the-week(s) plot to poke fun at the longstanding dynamics. It was never so much about what was happening and more about how everyone reacted to what was happening; this is why some people turned away from the show when it began consistently reinventing itself for each season. It might have still been fundamentally Archer at its core, but the subtle twists on established personalities and the radically different settings and genres made the show suddenly more about what each episode was riffing on at the time.
Post-coma Archer has been a bit different since we’re back with the original versions of these characters but after a significant period of change. It’s a spy spoof again, but the “World’s Greatest Spy” it was spoofing has been comatose for three years and all his colleagues have realized he was never that great to begin with. What’s more, his enemies have realized it too. The only person who hasn’t, it seems, is Sterling Archer himself, and he’s determined to prove his worth even if it costs him his life and the lives of his so-called friends. This is the eventual gag of “Best Friends”, but until then it’s also very much a traditional episode of Archer.
It’s so much of a traditional episode, in fact, that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a lost twenty minutes of the second season or some such, but the late twist changes everything. The A-plot of the episode finds Simon Pegg’s returning Aleister employed as Archer’s new valet, and of course, he’s absolutely perfect in all the ways Archer loves, including being totally on-board with Archer recreationally torturing him by rubbing and squeezing things in his eyes. Equally predictable is the fact that Aleister is secretly an assassin using his new position to get close to Archer so that he can kill him, or at least that’s what we’re expected to think. As it turns out, though, he’s really after Cyril, who has assumed the mantle of “World’s Greatest Spy” in Archer’s absence.
Because “Best Friends” contrives a way to get all of the other characters out of the office – Ray has faked being kidnapped in Africa so that he can holiday unmolested in Fiji, and Lana figures this out and goes to join him, along with, eventually, Cheryl, Pam, and Krieger – the focus is firmly on the Archer/Cyril dynamic, and to great effect. All of Aleister’s early assassination attempts include both of them, for obvious reasons, so they’re constantly being put in odd couple situations that force them to bicker and clash in their usual way. This is nicely tweaked by the fact that alpha male super-spy Cyril is currently faking a broken arm so that he can go back to pushing pencils and stay out of harm’s way after last week’s mission, so while his persona has regressed to its pre-coma version the episode itself hasn’t forgotten about the changes that had supposedly taken place in-between.
When Aleister eventually shows his hand Archer has to suffer two indignities. The first is that he was being used as bait for Cyril. The second is that he was chosen as bait because he and Cyril might be best friends. This angle reminded me, weirdly enough, of Red Dwarf, which rests entirely on a similar dynamic between Lister and Rimmer, the latter of whom was brought back from the dead as a hologram by the ship’s computer, Holly, because he had mistakenly assumed since Lister had spent more time with Rimmer than anyone else on the ship that they were friends. In reality, they spent all that time together because they worked the same shift and constantly argued because they hated each other. “Best Friends” wants Archer to reckon with the idea that maybe his hatred for Cyril is actually love, and of course, he’s utterly indignant about it.
In amongst all this is a litany of classic Archer beats. Mallory immediately starts to flirt with Aleister. Cheryl keeps making weird sexual remarks. Krieger has created multiple clones of Woodhouse that he has to flush away when he learns that Archer has employed a new valet. But I think what’s cleverest about the episode is that it feints in the direction of all this old stuff while also recognizing that we’ve seen it too many times for it to work on its own. The little twists on the longstanding formula prove that Archer can still take that formula as far as it’ll go and mine what’s still funny about it, but also that it knows when to switch things up and deliver something that feels fresh and interesting. This latest season is consistently proving itself to be surprisingly worthwhile.
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