How is it that Sterling Archer has grown more as a person than Don Draper?
Those familiar clichés: The debonair womanizer with a self-destructive streak. The drunk careerist barely keeping it together. The rakish asshole with an existential crisis. From Tony Soprano and Rust Cohle, to Walter White and Don Draper, these days it seem like we want our heroes mostly (but not all) bad—you can be as mean as hell, so long as you’re a white male searching for meaning in a harsh world. Of course, we don’t actually like these people. This is entertainment! If they showed up at our doors, we’d call the cops. Still, we continue to watch, and take comfort in the fact that our heroes, through the seasons, rarely seem to learn all that much about themselves.
Which is what makes the fifth season of Archer, which wrapped this week, all the more special.
When Adam Reed's Archer debuted on FX, the show’s subtle genius stemmed from a mission to skewer the White Male Protagonist with ruthless efficiency. (It was pretty clear from the beginning that Archer was basically Mad Men's Don Draper with a license to kill.) With mounting meta-joke on meta-joke, ISIS’s super-spy buffoons boasted a gleeful incompetence unmatched on television. While Don Draper or True Detective's Rust Cohle are defined by their professional mastery (compared to their failed personal lives), Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his team—with the key exceptions of Lana Kane (voiced by Aisha Tyler) and Ray Gillette (Reed)—revel in how little a shit they give about the task at hand. Compare this to season six of Mad Men. Don’s firing from SCP represented the absolute bottom of a years-long downward spiral. But when ISIS got shut down by the Feds, Archer didn’t seem to care at all: He was already fantasizing about his new life as a coke dealer on Archer Vice.
And as bad as his surrounding team was, Archer was, of course, the worst of them. Here was a man so outrageously dickish, so unapologetically awful, that no one could possibly see him as a guy worth rooting for. Archer worked so well because, when we laughed, it was at Archer, not with him. Sure, Sterling has the uncanny ability to keep track of the bullets left in an enemy's gun, but when it comes to finishing a mission, he couldn’t care less.
Unlike Jon Hamm's Don Draper, who appears wracked with guilt after bedding yet another lover, Archer’s animated baby blues twinkled with glee every time he got laid. He reveled in debauchery, bragged about his conquests, and felt no apparent guilt. The Sopranos spent six seasons trying to decide whether or not Tony was a sociopath, but Archer never even tried to hide it. Even at his most sensitive moments, like when he's teased about his quasi-Oedipal relationship with his mom, Mallory (Jessica Walter), his emotions are born of pure selfishness. When Ray gets paralyzed, Archer usually just thinks it’s hilarious. Even if it were possible to mistake Sterling for a classic antihero, Lana and Ray are there to remind us of just how much of a moron he's being.
But near the end of season four, something began to change: Archer, a literally two-dimensional character, began to show some depth. He started actually caring about people, even going so far as to volunteer to nearly drown himself to save his team after realizing that Lana's pregnant. Most importantly, he didn't yet know he was the father. (If you’ll remember, things were looking very bad after Captain Murphy was trapped under a vending machine in another ingenious inside joke.) Archer’s evolution didn’t stop once the show morphed into season five’s outrageously over-the-top incarnation, Archer Vice. In “House Call,” Archer tries to convince Lana to leave the whole group behind to save her unborn child; in "Baby Shower,” Archer’s attempt to create the perfect party for Lana by inviting Kenny Loggins comes from a genuinely sweet, if misguided, place. By the time Archer’s current coke-dealing incarnation ended this week with the birth of his baby (Archer is, apparently, a licensed doula), Sterling seemed to be on the path to near-enlightenment.
To get a handle on the unlikely trick that Adam Reed just pulled, just take another look at the guy that Archer set out to lampoon in the first place. As Mad Men hit the second episode of its final season, Don was still floundering, still drinking, seemingly further from happiness than ever. Even at his best moments, like his recent diner dinner-date with Sally, it would be impossible to call Mad Men a hopeful show. We keep tuning in because its vision is so well crafted, but there’s little expectation for resolution this late in the game. Don's selfishness and anhedonia are as much a part of the show's fabric as Roger Sterling’s bespoke suits. This is just how life is, Matthew Weiner seems to believe. But does it have to be?
Reed is doing something different than Weiner—his show is a comedy, after all—that goes beyond generic differences. Over the years, Archer has managed to pull a move so unexpected, it was hard to even see it happen. For a series built around overtly outrageous plot mechanics (cyborgs, Hitler clones, outlaw country singers), Reed continues to hint at a legitimately positive view of human nature. Rather than swirl endlessly around a drain or munch onion rings into oblivion, Archer is learning how to care for the people around him. Which isn't to say that he isn't still mostly the idiot we know and love. (Just two episodes ago he slept with a dictator's wife after swearing-off anonymous sex. Justification: "I thought she was the maid.") But even though Archer may be a cartoon, his new traits and love for Lana feel like the work of someone with an optimistic view of a person’s ability to change. Archer’s current foibles aren’t the mistakes of a cartoon caricature, they're missteps we might make—if only our lives were a little bit sexier.
Reed may just have told The Daily Beast that he didn't think the new baby, A.J., will change the show's dynamic. I find that hard to believe. I mean, is this the face of the same goofball from season one?
Nathan Reese (@NathanReese) is the News Editor at Complex City Guide.