Archer: Season 3, Episode 6
Last week, I talked about how Archer can manage to make an episode that is basically just standard plotting for the show on top of a fairly obvious parody work. This week, with "The Limited," I want to delve into that idea a little bit more to talk about what I think might be the best episode of the three since the return. On its face, "The Limited" is just a parody of oh so many "spies on a train" movies (the two that leap most readily to mind being From Russia with Love and Mission: Impossible, though there are many others). The show doesn't hide that, nor does it shy away from the fact that this is pretty much just a remake of its season one episode "Skytanic" on a train instead of a blimp. So what makes "The Limited" such an unabashed success? The way that the episode uses the characters, for both their history, and their quirks, to enliven a plot line that is hardly new. "The Limited" isn't working with character development as subtly as "El Contador," but it isn't really trying to. Where that episode had some lifting to do in terms of Cyril's character development, this one is mostly going for a flat out hysterical half hour of television. What sets it out is that it achieves this through our knowledge of these characters, instead of just through the writers admittedly large talent for joke-writing.
Here are the things we know going into this episode that make "The Limited" run as smoothly as it does: We know Cheryl is actually insanely rich. We know Archer is a drunk that has a weird soft spot for exotic animals. We know Cyril is a new field agent. We know Mallory and Archer are racists, even if they don't realize it. We know Archer is willing to forsake common sense for awesomeness. And we know that Canada is inherently ridiculous (this last one less from Archer's history and more from reality). All of these elements are used excellently in the episode, to the point where "The Limited" might have been funny even if you had never seen Archer before, but it is a special treat for long time fans, who watch the show's history pile on top of its current events to add layer upon layer to an already incredibly funny plot. Let's take these elements one by one and look at what they add to the episode.
Cheryl's insanely rich. Because of this, it is not all that surprising to find out her family owns a railroad, and that she has old-timey cars to attach that include two sleeping cars (one for her pet Ocelot Babboo), a dining car, and a skating car. This also lets her become obsessed with breaking the record time to Ottowa (which is a big deal among people who runs railroads, of course) and stick it to Mallory, an elitist who is obviously upset that Cheryl is excluding her from all of the extravagance.
We know Archer is a drunk with a soft spot for animals. This plays out in his hilarious reunion with Babboo, who becomes something of an absurd side-kick to our hero throughout the episode. They reunite, Babboo escapes, Archer hunts for him, and by episode's end they are bickering like Archer and Lana. There's something beautifully simple in this construction that is absolutely hysterical anyway. H. Jon Benjamin is a master of delivery, of course, but there's an added wrinkle of hilarity to Archer's obsession with the Ocelot first, and the dangerous Nova Scotian separatist at a distant second. Also, he's trained Babboo to pee all over everything when he yells "Serpentine."
Cyril being new as a field agent adds little to this episode, seeing as Cyril pretty much plays the role he might have in any episode prior to his promotion, but his involvement in the search makes for a few funny moments, like his foolish naivety in the bathroom and the fact that he thinks he's gone blind because his sweater is pulled over his head. Perhaps the episode could have done a little more with his advancement, but ultimately there were probably bigger fish to fry.
The latent racism of the Archer family is used wonderfully throughout, with Mallory abusing her porter (whose name actually does turn out to be George) not because he's black but because he's a "servant," and Archer having to continually disabuse Bilko of the notion that he killed George because he's a racist American. This is the sort of thing the show could do without having built in character tendencies, but it just plays out better when we know how easily Mallory and Sterling can be mistaken for racists (and how racist they really are). It also helps that the jokes keep piling on top of each other as the episode progresses, giving the whole joke a mad-cap energy of its own as it increases in speed and absurdity just like the train the characters are on.
One of the most oft-used Archer tendencies is his proclivity for being awesome, even when it makes no sense. OF COURSE he set off a grenade in that train car, because though he might have killed a ton of Mounties in the process, it was awesome. And OF COURSE he has to fight Bilko on top of the train, because it fulfills a long time dream of his. Archer thinks more like a man who has seen too many action movies than like a well-trained field agent, and the fact that this always works out for him is one of the shows most fertile comedic grounds.
Finally, we know Canada is ridiculous. There's a great tendency in America to denigrate and disregard our neighbors to the North for all of their polite, gun-controlled, socialist ways, to the point that this is a gag that can be pulled out in any American production and utilized for all its worth. Archer has never established Canada as a ridiculous, useless, absurd place, and it doesn't need to. American pop culture handled the heavy lifting for the show there, and it just utilizes the ridiculous stereotype to great effect.
"The Limited" could have succeeded as just a train-parody, or as a series of subtle call backs to the things we know about these characters, but it also takes things one step further in its blatantly silly plot, wherein ISIS is transporting a Nova Scotian separatist (who is part of a well organized movement and is wanted for blowing up a donut shop) back to Canada. With such a clever, strange premise to hang the episode on, it was unlikely that "The Limited" would fail, and in fact it succeeded amiably throughout.
Look, I'm not sure I have said much about "The Limited" that is incredibly enlightening. That's because it can be hard to critically disassemble a well-oiled laugh machine like this episode without just repeating gags line for line. Often-times Archer is doing more thematically and character-wise than meets the eye at first glance. Yet "The Limited" was mostly surfaces, a hilarious episode that yes, utilized the show's history for extra laughs, but mostly was just a very, very funny episode of television, which can make talking about it substantively kind of difficult. In short, "The Limited" was a hilarious episode of television, and while Archer can deliver more than just laughs, when the jokes are this good and this frequent, it often doesn't need to.
-"Ooh, thanks Freddy Foreshadowing. Who's this? Please tell me he's a renowned chicken and waffle chef. Because I am STARVING."
-"My boys are bad ass." "Well so am...Lana."
-"Lana, I have to taper off!"
-I was playing dominos with a Dominican biker gang. Or was it Mahjong? I can't remember."
-"Lana, check it out! Actual gas lamps!" Archer's enthusiasm is hysterically infectious.
-"Lana. Lana. LANA!" "What?" "HE REMEMBERS ME!"
-"Maybe they're together. Though I doubt it. Babboo is kind of a loner. Like Paul Newman in HUD."
-"I'm looking for a terrorist and an Ocelot. Not necessarily in that order."
-"Apparently my great grandpa was nuts for skating. And the Klan."
-"They look just like prints from a house cat, only bigger and awesome-er."
-"They still guard the border." "Lana, we're going INTO Canada."
-"What? They're Canadian! They don't even know what a gun...oh shit!"
-"What if they're real Mounties?" "Yeah, but...not to belabor the point, but Lana, they're Canadians."
-"Please tell me that's a smoke grenade." "Ok...Its not though."
-"I'm taking that as a tacit agreement!"
-"Everybody shut up! and then someone come over here to be my hostage."
-"I am going to fulfill my lifelong dream." "Meeting Mr. Greenjeans?"
-"Why do people do this? You're still just on the train..."
-"That's...racist. Jingoist. Whatever."
-"I was trying to catch an Ocelot." "In Canada? And I'm the idiot."
"K, wait. What if there's a helicopter." "Ooh, yeah. Or a dragon."
-"You hear that? They called you exotic. Which is just people talk for awesome."
-"Yes, all of it, you fox-eared asshole!"