Sterling Archer and the rest of the scrappy, unscrupulous spies at The Agency find themselves suddenly with an unprecedented amount of attention after they made waves at the end of the last season with a little project known as “saving the world.” Sterling and company have a newly inflated ego after their recent success, but they learn that they’re not the only ones in the spy game that have sincerely upped their game. The members of Agency struggle with a new freelance approach to their missions, perpetual financial woes, and a highly competent spy threat who’s ready to beat Sterling at his own game. And that’s all to say nothing of the psychological and emotional pain that these characters attempt to deal with while they strive towards self-improvement or deluded repression. However, whether they’re drowning their enemies in a fjord or drowning their own sorrows at the bottom of the glass, the same old Archer is back and ready for more.
It’s rare that any television series is able to last for 12 seasons, but Archer has consistently felt like a show in search of a story throughout its middle years. Archer absolutely deserves credit for its ambitious turn to indulge in different genres for its “coma seasons,” but now that it’s returned to reality there’s been an even greater sense of urgency on this show’s mission and what it wants to say. Seasons 11 and 12 have worked together to tell a powerful, necessary story that’s gotten to the very nature of Sterling Archer’s character. Now the series has begun to apply the same approach to other crucial characters, like Lana and Cyril.
With season 13 now confirmed to be on the way, it’s fascinating to consider that it’s likely that Archer will have just as many post-coma seasons as it does fantastical years that were set entirely inside Sterling’s fractured subconscious. Each season may no longer receive the same stylistic and genre-hopping facelift as before, which makes it even more important for each “normal” season to have a clear message that helps make these adventures feel justified and worthwhile rather than these spies just going through the motions because what else would they possibly be doing? Season 12 of Archer even has its characters directly address these growing pains and malaise as they reexamine their priorities and where fulfillment for them truly lies.
The start of Archer’s 12th season begins slightly scattered and leans into how nearly every episode features a mission that’s set in a totally different corner of the world. This global scope to the season definitely helps provide a greater sense of variety and even a basic story or scene of exposition can pop more when it’s cast against a stunningly detailed African landscape or the busy streets of Paris or Japan. It’d be very easy for Archer to fall into a repetitive pattern here, especially with a season that’s only eight episodes long, but it thankfully avoids this hurdle. Most of these missions are also tied to a public relations team that are determined to improve The Agency’s reputation in the eyes of the public. This PR team is ever-present, but they become more of an afterthought in certain episodes. They never feel necessary, but they don’t hurt the season either or steal away focus that’d be better redistributed on other characters.
This season of Archer exhibits some real creativity when it comes to the premise that surrounds several of their episodes. There are satisfying spy missions at hand, but episodes strive to break free of genre expectations. “Lowjacked” is an excellent installment that’s nearly entirely set on a grounded plane and the introspective nature of “Shots” where The Agency go out to connect over drinks, only for the night to emotionally snowball out of hand, are both standout entries. There’s a slightly shaky nature to some of the season’s first few episodes, but the final run of entries is incredibly satisfying and contains some of the best content that Archer has produced, especially the flashback-centric “Dingo, Baby, Et Cetera.” This look into Archer’s past and what built him is such a success that next season would benefit from another return to this territory. There’s still room to explore when it comes to Sterling’s first mission as “Archer” after he’s internalized the pain of betrayal that the episode goes out on.
Sterling is still hardly a beacon of honorable behavior and compassion, but he does seem to be at the healthiest place that he’s ever been when it comes to Lana, Cyril, and Barry. This season works hard to prove that Archer isn’t willing to give up on these relationships. He’s no longer interested in taking the easy way out when it comes to his progress as a human being and a friend. A surprisingly sweet peace is achieved between Sterling and Cyril that will hopefully continue to develop next season. Somehow Archer has reached the point where his two closest friends might be Cyril and Barry, yet this is something that he finds pride in, rather than embarrassment.
Alternatively, Lana is pushed down a progressively dark path this season and these episodes don’t shy away from her dysfunctional marriage with Robert. Robert has been a notable presence throughout the past few seasons and it’s appreciated that Archer portrays their relationship in a realistically flawed and raw nature. It’s a very authentic look at a couple who refuses to acknowledge that they need to address their shortcomings. This isn’t always the most entertaining thing to watch play out, especially in a comedy, but it’s a major component to this season. Archer’s character development has reached an admirable place, so the series goes all in on Lana’s denial and how it’s turning her into the “new Archer.”
As much as this season examines personal change in its exceedingly stubborn characters, the end of the season teases big changes ahead for the series. It’s likely no secret to Archer fans that the passing of Jessica Walter means that season 12 functions as the swan song for Malory Archer (who gets the perfect amount of attention throughout this season), but the season’s finale sets up who’s set to replace her as the head of The Agency. The team’s buyout by IIA and Fabian’s stranglehold over their operations is exciting from a “belly of the beast” perspective, but it’s too early to tell how much this shift will influence the show’s future.
Malory is for sure gone, but this might have been the perfect opportunity for Sterling to rise up into a position of leadership and follow in his mother’s footsteps. It’s possible that this could still happen, but hopefully the addition of a new character won’t overwhelm the series’ core cast. Malory’s absence unquestionably leaves a hole in Archer, but fresh blood isn’t the solution to filling it. Similarly, retaining Eric Andre’s character, Jeremy, would have been a fun, harmless decision that could have actually pushed Krieger’s character to develop in a meaningful way.
Naturally, the exit of Sterling’s mother also makes it the perfect time for Archer to pivot back to its eternal mystery regarding the identity of Archer’s father. The series has effectively moved past this question, but this schism is actually a great reason to return to this territory. The mysterious mover character that’s peppered throughout the season’s finale comes across as an explicit tease to Archer getting back to the daddy issues that are present in its central character. Whether it is or it isn’t, it’s something that’s worthy for the show to reconsider as it moves forward into what, finally, may be the series’ endgame.
It’s not easy for any series that’s in its 12th season to turn out their strongest material or for there to be a strong justification for why it needs to return to continue this story. Most would argue that anything that Archer has to say has already been said, but season 12 is proof that there’s still more to be done with these characters. Audiences may prefer Archer’s earliest seasons, or its weirder coma years, but season 12 of Archer attempts something special and leaves the series in a place where it’s actually encouraging that it will have at least one more season to mess around in the danger zone, thwart off tinnitus, and get lost in appropriate phrasing.