“Don’t you want to help your friends?”
“I don’t care about them!”
“Yes you do. You just pretend you don’t because you’re afraid of - “
“Dying in this frickin’ car!”
” - emotional intimacy.”
“Oh my god!”
“My point is until you can look at your mother and see her not just as your mother but as a person, a real person, you can’t grow up.”
— Burt Reynolds, “The Man From Jupiter”
It’s impossible to review the Archer season 12 finale without talking about loss. The cast and guest stars have seen their share. Burt Reynolds, Anthony Bourdain, George Coe, Ron Leibman, and Jessica Walter have all passed, and Jeffrey Tambor is dead to me. That’s a lot of grief for an animated comedy about an alcoholic manchild. Most of these were easy for the show to ignore since they were guests. Ron got an “In Loving Memory” card. Woodhouse’s death became a major plot point for seasons 8 and 11. And Malory Archer, the Iron Lady of ISIS? She disappears into the sunset with husband Ron, a well-deserved retirement free of the pain and frustration of running a quasi-independent spy agency.
But let’s talk about the episode before we get to all that. Archer is captured by Fuddian villain Fabian Kingsworth and evil cyborg Other Barry. It seems Kingsworth attempted to reprogram Barry and unleashed his psychotic alter-ego in the process, leaving Barry a passenger in his own metal skull. Kingsworth plans to torture and eventually murder Archer unless The Agency hands over a thumb drive containing the schematics for cool scientist Colt’s energy-producing MacGuffin. Lana promises Kingsworth the thumb drive, but plans an infiltration instead. Malory, meanwhile, has a plan of her own to rescue Sterling. Cheryl and Pam “sow chaos like an escaped tiger hit Mardi Gras,” while Cyril, Ray, and Lana lead the rescue mission and Krieger and Colt provide tech support. I won’t spoil the details, but it’s a fantastic showdown. Lives are lost, hearts are broken. The good guys win only to discover their lives irrevocably changed. Is it for the better? Time will tell.
Archer has grown. When viewed from the perspective of the last two seasons, Archer’s life with Malory as both mother and boss has defined him as a person. This isn’t a surprise; it’s been the basis of the entire show, and an accurate representation of how we habitually remain in unhealthy situations because they’re comfortable. There’s a tendency to judge people stuck in their rut, repeating the same mistakes and poor choices they’ve made their entire lives. But changing one’s behavior is easier said than done when the external circumstances remain the same. Being shot and the resulting coma provided the impetus Archer needed to evolve. In many ways, the coma seasons can be seen as his subconscious resistance to change as well as the first glimpses of the man he could be. In Archer: Danger Island and Archer: 1999, Sterling initially refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and yet by the end of both seasons, he sacrifices himself for his friends, plus some other people. He wants to be the hero, but you can’t be heroic if you don’t care about something or someone. In season 11, Sterling reckoned with his effect on his coworkers and how Woodhouse’s death and Aleister’s betrayal force him to become more self-reliant. He makes peace with Barry and in the process gains a real friend. He reluctantly, with false starts and missteps, becomes a leader and risks actual self-sacrifice to save the world. Season 12 is interesting because, for the first time, Archer doesn’t sabotage his own growth. It’s a new experience for him. He doesn’t blunder through missions, although it’s tough to say they go well. He is supportive of Cyril, albeit with some habitual abuse thrown in for comedic effect. He is upset when Lana emotionally cheats on Robert, despite his intense dislike of their marriage, because he can see her self-harm. And then, when Lana experiences real heartbreak, Sterling behaves more like a real human being than he ever has in his entire life.
It’s genuinely touching.
But Malory looms over everything like a judgemental monolith, and Archer’s backsliding is inevitable while she remains in his life. Until, suddenly, she doesn’t. It’s impossible to say whether Sterling can ever truly change a lifetime of parental programming and bad habits. But the opportunity exists, and there’s every indication Archer wants to change. In a perfect world, Jessica Walter would still be here to pop in unexpectedly and bust his balls now and again. But life is a fickle bitch. It only promises an ending and gives us little say in when that might be. Ms. Walter was taken from us and as a result, Malory’s exit was abrupt, perhaps written in after the tragic news. But it was kind. It was heartfelt. It grants Archer the opportunity to grow into a better man. I think Malory, wherever she may be, would appreciate that.
Header Image Source: Hulu screenshots