FX’s Archer just returned with the season five premiere, “White Elephant.” A lot happens in the half hour, and it will change the format of the series for some time to come, if not forever. It’s an action-packed installment that stays true to the characters, even while altering the setting and circumstances, a bold move that few animated shows ever attempt. Well done!
“White Elephant” begins with a weird sequence in which Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) enters the ISIS office and his co-workers dance around him. Archer typically has a certain set of rules for its universe, and this defies them. At first, I assumed it was a dream, but moments later, reality sets in as ISIS is attacked by armed gunman and the headquarters is half destroyed.
Might the opening have been a clue that “White Elephant” and the rest of the season are all in Archer’s mind? We know he has a vivid imagination, and that would allow Archer to reset things later without having to literally blow up their premise, as they do this week. But honestly, I’d prefer to chalk up the first scene as a bit of whimsy that means nothing, and hope the story continues on from here.
The other hint that Archer Vice, as this season is dubbed in future episode title sequences, might not be real is that late in this episode, after the crisis is resolved, Archer imagines a series of scenes, which then play out over the next installments. These are jumbled and out of order, but after watching an additional four half-hours (all excellent!), they are definitely glimpses of future episodes. Perhaps the full installments are as much imagined as this quick montage is.
Should the events of “White Elephant” turn out to be real, though, there is some wonderful character development, and the program keeps its tone consistent. It makes absolute sense that Malory (Jessica Walter) would run afoul of the U.S. government, just as it does that she has the connections to get everyone out of trouble. She is selfish and doesn’t think the rules apply to her, and she seems to have lots of friends in high places, most of whom she has slept with.
One thing that may be missed is Archer’s enhanced tenderness towards Lana (Aisha Tyler) in this episode. He’s a little cruel, too, such as in the integration room, but that seems to be because of a lack of maturity, rather than because he doesn’t care. We see Archer want to be there for Lana and the baby, and this is a step up for him, putting someone else ahead of himself.
There’s always been an odd relationship between the two. I think Archer desperately wants to love, but having never really experienced it before, not even from his mother, he doesn’t quite understand. And Lana is a tough nut to crack, which makes it hard for her to fully commit to anyone. Perhaps, in time, they may be developed enough as individuals to have something real, but they’re not there yet.
Viewers learn a secret about Cyril (Chris Parnell) in “White Elephant.” Apparently, he used to be a defense attorney. Often, when a series brings up a past career in this manner, it seems forced and false. In Archer, though, given that everyone pretty much ignores Cyril, and Cyril insists he’s talked about it at length lots of time to Lana, it just works.
Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) has been promoted to full-time cast member in season five, his image added to the theme song. Honestly, it’s about time this happens. He is in the series most weeks, anyway, and he’s an interesting, weird character, adding something unique to the overall dynamic of the cast. He also has played a vital role in a number of past happenings, being the resident medical-y person. Plus, he’s funny, perhaps as funny as the rest of the stellar cast.
Archer may now be Archer Vice, but the characters, which also include Cheryl / Carol (Judy Greer), Pam (Amber Nash), and Ray (Adam Reed), are by far the best reason to tune in, no matter what they do. Whether spying or selling drugs, the essential things that make Archer so good remain, and because of that, whether Archer Vice ends up being a flight of fancy or an actual turning point, my optimism is high.
Archer airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.