Having been around for eight seasons now, Archer is no stranger to testing the limits of even cable’s increasingly relaxed standards and practices. As such, it should come as no surprise that the series’ strange trip into noir territory with Archer: Dreamland would be filled with plenty of sex, language, and violence – three things that typically make up the foundation of your average season of FX’s (now FXX’s) long-running animated spy spoof. The series has never been one to shy away from elements guaranteed land it a TV-MA rating just because it’s also a cartoon. If anything, creator and writer Adam Reed (who also voices Ray Gillette) has used the series’ status as comedic animated fare to continue testing the boundaries of television that he started with his work on Sealab 2021 and the bizarre proto-Archer series Frisky Dingo, and to steer into progressively darker, more mature (though with flagrantly less mature characters) content.
As it turns out, Dreamland took the Howard Hawks and Dashille Hammett-esque trappings of classic American film noir and hard-boiled detective novels, and contemporized them in a way that wasn’t altogether dissimilar from how Archer plays around in the tropes of spy fiction or any other sub-genre the series has dabbled in over the years. Dreamland was very funny and sharply written in the way you would expect from a season of Archer. Yet the graphic depictions of henchmen being shot, run over, and in one particularly gruesome moment, posthumously beaten by a homicidal cyborg, made it clear Reed and the rest of the Archer writing staff were taking the cynicism and fatalism of noir fiction and turning them both up a notch – well, several notches, really.
It’s not as though these are new concepts for the show. Cynicism and fatalism could be considered the cornerstones of the entire series, and, on a micro level, practically every interaction between the characters, whether it’s Archer and his mother Malory, Archer and Lana, or Cyril and Poovey. But set against the supposed optimism of the postwar period and the understanding that the story was unfolding completely in the subconscious mind of Sterling Archer himself, Archer finds an interesting angle to explore its main character’s state of mind, while also giving itself over to the kind of absurd whimsy afforded by the fact that it’s a fiction set within a fiction, dabbling in an era and a visual style so far removed from where the series is normally at. The result is a season that goes admirably all-in on its new setting, but also becomes a rare instance where an extra episode would have helped the season as a whole feel more significant.
Since it’s all a figment of Archer’s jaundiced and heavily sedated mind, and, you know, the fact that this is Archer, the notion of consequence isn’t exactly a top priority for Dreamland. Whatever happens, like, say, Lana being repeatedly shot and killed due to Poovey’s mishandling of Archer’s hair-trigger .45, isn’t going to carry through to seasons 9 and 10. That’s certainly part of the appeal of Dreamland; it gives the series freedom to move around and depict something like a character’s accidental death for a few morbid chuckles and then basically forget it happened a few minutes later. The result of that storytelling freedom, however, is it may leave the audience wondering what, exactly, was the point of the season. That’s especially true since the finale is given a title like ‘Auflosüng’ – which translates into Resolution – but then avoids resolving the impetus for Dreamland in the first place. That is: Archer’s season 7 shooting and his subsequent hospitalization that kicked season 8 off.
Instead, Dreamland settles for the resolution to be about the inciting incident of Woodhouse’s murder, once the story shifted into the actual Dreamland narrative. It’s an interesting choice that’s underlined by the show again acknowledging the passing of actor George Coe, while also reaching for something significant (albeit abstractly so) in title character’s relationship with his now-deceased manservant who was, in this instance, seen as his partner and even mentor.
The season made reference to Woodhouse on occasion, as the story expanded from murder investigation to diffuse criminal conspiracy involving competing gangsters Mother and Trexler, two dirty cops played by Cyril and Poovey, Lana as an undercover treasury agent, and Archer caught in the middle – sort of playing each side against each other in his search for answers to his partner’s death. But despite the noir trappings of the season overall, ‘Auflosüng’ is mostly caught up in the weirdness of Krieger’s experiments on Dutch, transforming him into an invincible killing machine, and pitting him against the other players that, in the push to figure out how a perpetually drunken P.I., a pair of hapless cops, and an undercover agent/lounge singer can take down a cyborg, the acknowledgement of Woodhouse’s murder and its “resolution” comes across as being a bit rushed.
That’s not too far off from how films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep reach their conclusion, so in that sense, Dreamland is indeed following in the footsteps of what it’s emulating. And yet, as oddly touching as Archer’s booze-swilling monologue at Woodhouse’s grave is, and how much closure he gains from understanding that his longtime friend is gone and will never return, the ending feels somehow incomplete. It’s hard not to think there should have been a coda or extra scene updating Archer’s current condition in the hospital – something to bookend how the season began. Without a trip back to Archer’s reality, Dreamland feels oddly unfinished and attractively committed to its noir story line at the same time. It’s likely that Reed and co. want to give themselves room to figure out what’s next for Archer in season 9, and to use the hiatus to decide where the penultimate season of the series will go, rather than nail a specific setting (or reality) down now. It makes sense, then, to keep Sterling in his coma for the time being. Maybe it’s all the dexedrines, but for an episode whose title translates to resolution, Archer: Dreamland strangely seems to only make it halfway.
Archer will return in 2018 with season 9 on FXX.
Photos: FX Networks
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