There’s plenty of room in Archer’s sandbox for all sorts of sci-fi toys—the majority centering around Krieger’s resume, ranging from the marginally practical to the horrifying abominations that spit in God’s eye. But the show’s setting is, primarily, one based in the same "flexible" reality the 007 film series inhabits. Sterling Archer has absorbed an obscene amount of bullets and alcohol with no apparent lasting physical damage, with his brush with cancer being the only real threat to his mortality he’s faced (and his recovery during remission nothing short of supernatural). Other than the fact that Archer’s reality is slightly misaligned with our own in that the Cold War never really thawed, anything else too crazy to happen in Moonraker or The World is Not Enough is typically the result of the characters’ varying levels of mind-altering substance abuse. But "Nellis" goes ahead and opens up the show’s world—make that galaxy, I suppose—and I’m not sure the sandbox was ever built to those specs.
It’s a good opening act: Archer, having recently suffered Lana’s very badly thought out trial of his childcare skills, went on a particularly mad bender in Las Vegas, forcing him to call the office and demand they get him home. It’s not as simple as sending him a plane ticket, as his drunken insistence on getting into the pilot’s cabin permanently landed him on the No Fly List. So, Cheryl offers to send him a train ticket instead, but it turns out he’s not allowed on any of those, either. ("I had no idea there was a No Train List!") Luckily for Archer, Cheryl’s family fortune includes at least one luxury jet (the Sky Tunt) that the entire staff (minus Lana and Malory) take advantage of to pick up Archer on their way to Branson. Archer assumes it has to do with
> Cherlene, Cheryl’s country music star alter ego from last season, but in an amusing development, it seems she’s blocked out all memory of that period. "It’s not just a country music festival," enthuses Krieger, "there’s Tony Orlando… Charro…" Pam seems most excited about the appearance of Yakov Smirnoff, which makes sense, given her many "In Soviet Russia…" riffs.
Flying close to Area 51, the gang pesters Ray (who’s accruing some flight hours toward a pilot’s license. Good for him!) into moving closer so they can get a better view. Sterling, incredibly, is the sole voice of reason here, reminding them that—alien harboring conspiracies or no—it’s still an active, restricted military base with anti-aircraft ordinance. Naturally, their plane is shot down. Everyone survives (Ray’s a pretty damn great pilot, too, it seems!), but they’re immediately taken into custody, until Archer bluffs the officers by impersonating Slater and using his CIA credentials. It’s funny, and totally in line with what Archer might do just to piss off Slater and the gang (he makes them strip and tells them to pretend they’re his prisoners), but as we saw in previous episodes, his spy creds tend to already override at least conventional law enforcement, so it probably wasn’t necessary.
Meanwhile, with the office otherwise abandoned, Malory can at last have a heart-to-heart with Lana about her baby’s name. (I guess I can stop simmering about the show not addressing it… for now.) Malory offers Lana $100,000 to name the baby after herself. But Abijean is Lana’s grandmother’s name, so she’s unmoved by the proposition, but she does relent to accept "Malory" as a middle name for the baby. It’s a nice moment between the two of them, even if it involves bribery. (A middle name’s worth substantially less to Malory, but she’s willing to "kick in another $5K to have her Christened in an all-white church," lest one has forgotten she’s still an awful, awful person.)
But everything thus far is good comedy grist for the Archer mill. Things take a turn for the "Whaaaa??" when, as the gang splinters during their attempts escape (all in naught but their underwear, for the second week in a row), Pam and Krieger have an actual extraterrestrial close encounter. I guess space aliens just have unrestricted access to the run of the base…? It’s not a hallucination, and it’s not any kind of elaborate prank. (A flying saucer makes an appearance right before the closing credits.) The two alien beings (the usual slender, grey-skinned, big black eyed variety agreed upon by conspiracy nuts the world over) bestow upon Pam and Krieger knowledge of the Universe so beautiful, it causes them to openly weep. None of the others witness this, at least, so I have a limited amount of hope it won’t be brought up again. Meanwhile, Sterling is the only one actively trying to get them out of there. After a healthy dose of Archerising the escape plan, he beats the bloody hell out of several military personnel who were about to shoot him, and steals their uniforms. Impersonating officers allows them to easily escape by simply stealing a bomber from a locked-down secret military base. (Archer: "Not as hard as I would’ve thought!")
Much like the aforementioned issue with last week’s episode, it’s a fairly major spanner that throws off an otherwise excellent half hour of Archer-style comedy. But expanding the boundaries of what is and is not the "accepted" reality of a franchise is a double-edged sword: It can open up new frontiers in which to take future stories, but it can also (pardon the pun) alienate longtime fans who suddenly have to cope with a sandbox that could previously contain only as much as a Die Another Day at most.
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.