On the one hand, Archer frequently exploits the superspy tradition of exotic locales with typically hilarious results, even if said locations often amount to nice matte paintings to stage the gags in front of. On the other hand, when the show’s writing is as sharp as it normally is, you don’t need a backdrop of Morocco or the Kremlin. Hell, you don’t even need an entire room. The fifth episode of Archer’s sixth season proves it’s more than up to the TV tradition and challenge of its own ship in a bottle. The “bottle” in tonight’s episode is the elevator in the spy agency-formerly-known-as-ISIS, and its contents are both shaken and stirred.
The gang all arrive early to work at the behest of Malory, who’s planning a team building day for them. They all pile in the elevator (but not before a callback to last week’s best joke, involving Ray declaring a Maximum Overdrive malfunction as the reason he “can’t” hold the elevator door for Archer), which then immediately becomes stuck between floors. Yep, it’s 20 minutes of examining each of the characters’ reactions and behaviors during a minor crisis, and it’s damn fine entertainment. It’s the staff of the agency in their crystallized forms, up to and including Cheryl correctly guessing what each of them is thinking: “You want a drink, you want to lecture us, you want more bear claws, you want to smoke, you want to masturbate, and you’re afraid we’ll all find out you’re just a Krieger clone.” In one of the episode’s biggest laughs, Sterling points out to Cheryl that her “mind reading” is only common sense by way of knowing each of their addictions, but when Lana angrily objects to the idea she’s addicted to lecturing, the rest immediately share a comradely laugh. The animators perfectly capture the boiling rage in Lana’s expression.
But the density of jokes and the building upon them (including ones I know I’ve missed from the previous, spy-less season, such as Cyril’s apparent sex addiction) is as dizzying as it’s ever been, to the point where it’s almost too much to call out favorites. Coupled with the near-complete absence of a plot, there’s not much to review here, apart from generally praising the show for rising up to—and nailing—the bottle episode forced limitations and making it the strongest single episode of the season so far, comfortably slotting in as one of the best episodes overall. It’s got all the stuff established fans love about these characters and, even this late in the series’ run, is a perfectly-contained single half hour that can serve as an introduction to the highly dysfunctional team of Archer, Lana, Pam, Krieger, Ray, Cyril and Krieger.
So there’s nothing that moves the season’s arc (or series arc) forward in any way, but when the jokes are flying as furiously and landing as dead-on as they did tonight, who the hell cares? Other than the ones that also have lasting effects on the show’s cast and the world they occupy, episodes like “Vision Quest” are precisely the reason I impatiently wait for the alternately vulgar and sublime antics of Archer every week for 13 weeks of the year.
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @scottcwold, if you must.