Trying to Save the Agency

Archer: Season 12

I used to be a big fan of Archer, the raunchy, irreverent FXX animated series. This is not a confession about how I feel off the show for one reason or another and will never go back. I still like the show, I just haven’t kept up with it like I used to for one simple reason: the show stopped getting released, with regularity, on Blu-Ray. I used to buy season after season for the show so I could keep up with it at home (this was before FX and FXX shows were loaded into Hulu on a constant stream). But then, after season six, I found it difficult to find the show at all. It stopped appearing on store shelves, and then after season nine it didn’t even get releases you could buy online. As someone that really likes physical media, and keeps up with a number of shows via those hard plastic discs you slip into players, not being able to find the media was a death knell for me.

Still, from time to time I could catch the show when it was advertised on one platform or another, so I’d see occasional seasons. I got through the show up to the point where Archer got out of a coma (seasons 8 through 10 were especially weird), and then fell off just because it never appeared on my radar. The benefit of discs on a shelf is I see them. In a streaming service, though, I have to wait for the algorithm to decide I need to see something, and if it never does well… that’s that. Streaming services are convenient when they actually have what people want and are programmed properly, but they aren’t always the end-all solution Big Tech would love us to believe.

With the end of the series (concluding late in 2023 with a three-part finale), Hulu has finally decided I need to know that Archer exists. While I could have gone back and watched the whole show from the beginning again (and I might at some point), it felt right to pick up where I’d last left off, and see the show through to the end so I can know how it all went down. And, man, did I pick up with a bittersweet season of the show: the final season for Malory Archer and her voice actress, Jessica Walter.

Archer would not be the kind of show it is without Walter’s performance as Archer’s mother, Malory. Throughout the series Malory could be relied upon to deliver lines with such biting, sarcastic wit. Obviously conceived to be the worst kind of mother possible (not unlike Walter’s character, Lucille Bluth, on Arrested Development), Malory was the icy spine that delivered some of the show's best one-liners. If ever there was a moment that could be made worse, more sarcastically evil to pull a shocked laugh out of the mouths of viewers, Malory could be relied upon to deliver it. Jessica Walters was a treasure and she will be missed.

It’s pretty clear, watching season twelve, that Walters died in the middle of recording her lines. Passing away in her sleep in March of 2021, and the show not debuting until August, there are times where Malory completely disappears from the show. The other characters end up commenting in eventually, and eventually her character is written off the show completely, but it’s pretty clear even early on that Walters wasn’t able to deliver her best work. Her voice was rough and if you hadn’t known she’d died during production you might already have suspected her health was failing. The gap she left in the show was noticeable but, credit to the showrunners, they did manage to crank out a solid season of television even without one of their major characters.

The season, appropriately enough, sees the central spy agency (which could no longer be called ISIS a couple of seasons earlier) struggling to make ends meet after a series of fiascos and one major government disavowment. That leaves the agency (soon to be known simply as “The Agency”) scrambling to find any jobs that can make it money. They end up taking on the impossible task of stealing a powerful weapon, and the scientists responsible for it, before any other agency can. This puts them at odds with IIA, the top-line spy agency, run by Fabian Kingsworth (Kayvan Novak). IIA wins at everything and there’s no way for the Agency to compete, right?

Well, not without Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), who only the previous year got out of a coma. Arguably the agency was running better without Archer around, but now that he’s back he’s remade the crew into his force once more (and, well, you could say all their troubles since might partially have been his fault). Archer was once the greatest spy in the world but now, after years in a coma, having to walk around with a cane, he’s not the man he once was. But the threat from Fabian, and the need to keep the Agency going, might just be what Archer needs to become the man he once was and help pull the Agency up to its former glory. If, of course, Archer can stop being Archer for once.

Archer has always been a raunchy and awful show in the best possible terms. Over the course of its run it found ways to build out each character on the series, from equally excellent secret agent Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) to corporate paperwork flunky Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), secretary-turned-psychopath Cheryl Tunt (Judy Greer), HR lead and all around back-alley bad-ass Pam Poovey (Amber Nash), other agent (who normally gets more abuse) Ray Gillette (Adam Reed), and mad scientist Algernon Krieger (Lucky Yates). In the process it also worked to change up its own format, never settling into one kind of show for too long before evolving. This season sees the show coming back to its roots, back as a spy agency comedy, but the characters are still their evolved selves, changed by 11 previous years and all their antics, and that’s what makes the show great.

Would Archer be Archer if Cheryl wasn’t a fire-wielding psycho? Would the show have the same vibe if Krieger wasn’t off doing god-knows-what in his lab, playing with science where others fear to tread (and making it all dangerously sexual)? And where would we be if the series didn’t let Pam off the leash to go on her “Pampage”? Each character has their distinct personality and lives that have come out as the show has grown, moving far beyond who they were in the first season of the show and becoming their better (and, personality wise, worst) selves in the process. It’s great to see, and a delight to know that, at this point, we’ll never have to worry about them going back to who they were. Pam might still be in charge of HR for the Agency, but she’ll also do lines and get into brawls with the best of them, while Cheryl sets fire to the building and Krieger makes a robot to masturbate to it in the background. For science.

The heart of the show, though, is Archer and Lana. These two had recently fallen out of a relationship when the series first began and, after seven seasons, it seemed like they were about to get back together right when Archer ended up in the coma. When he awoke he found that she’d had Archer’s baby but married someone else, a billionaire named Richard, and that threw a massive kink in all of Archer’s plans. This season sees Lana testing the bounds of her marriage while Archer figures out who he’s going to be as a secret agent, but it also allows the two of them to become better friends without the worry of romance getting in the way. This helps their central dynamic and allows the show to continue to grow in interesting ways.

The actual plot of the show, by comparison, is largely incidental. Whether the crew is in this agency or that agency, doing spy stuff or acting as drug runners (like back in the seventh season) matters less than seeing all the characters working together and having fun. Their motivation now, to keep the agency together and operating, is nice as it serves a bit of a throughline, but it doesn’t really alter their dynamic all that much. The crew is here, they’re hilarious, and they continue to be the best worst versions of themselves. The show made a lot of changes over the years to then come back and let everyone be secret agents again. All things considered, this is their comfort zone and season twelve continues to let Archer be Archer. Considering we’re steadily moving towards the end, when the show wraps everything up soon enough, I wouldn’t have it any other way.