Jessica Walter made drinking look like a spectator sport.
“Get me a vodka rocks,” she says, playing Lucille Bluth in the intricately plotted comedy Arrested Development. Lucille speaks, as ever, to nobody in particular and everyone — she has voiced it, so the universe must do her bidding and fill her hand with a suitably chilled glass. “Mom, it’s breakfast,” says her son Michael, trying to change her mind. She looks down for an instant, but doesn’t miss a beat in amending her initial order: “And a piece of toast.”
The veteran actress passed away earlier this year, and while Walter shone in classic films like Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut Play Misty For Me and Sidney Lumet’s The Group, she delighted new generations of admirers with her turns in the beloved Arrested Development and, perhaps most of all, the animated comedy Archer. The new 12th season of Archer (finally streaming in India on Netflix) paid tribute to the actress with a delicious episode, and an even better chaser.
Created by Adam Reed, Archer is an ambitiously crafted — and gloriously goofy — spy romp, that has changed gears and genres more than one would have imagined given its sincerely spoofy origins. The earliest Archer episodes follow a straightforward premise: What if James Bond worked for his mother?
The question sets up a Freudian hand grenade. Mallory Archer is an incredible character. More than just a take on M, the cipher-like boss of the 007 world, Mallory is a scheming, sexually voracious, profoundly self-obsessed mercenary who — like Lucille Bluth — always needs a drink. Also like Lucille, she is a world heavyweight champion in delivering a withering line, doing so with such tossed-off contempt she could make Logan Roy flinch. Perpetually — and gloriously — disdainful to the world around her, Mallory always seems a whim away from reigniting a Cold War skirmish or starting up an affair with Burt Reynolds.
(Curiously, James Bond films may themselves now be inspired by the animated series: the current ‘M’ in the 007 films — the first one to take the desk since Archer began — is played by Ralph Fiennes and named… Mallory.)
We almost always see Mallory Archer kitted in a grey Chanel suit, but in ‘London Time,’ the 3rd episode of the 12th season, Ms Archer gets her own fantastic flashback episode showing her rebellious secret agent youth where she wears a catsuit as she plants bugs inside 10 Downing Street. Given Mallory’s timelessness — and much to her son’s extreme, and understandable, discomfort — she wears the same outfit now as she takes her staff to London. “Was the catsuit really necessary?” asks Sterling. “For me? No,” replies Mallory. “It’s more for the public.”
Watching Mallory physically take charge is tremendous fun, and while she obviously trades in the barbs we love (at one point she calls butterflies “overly decorative pests” and says they should be killed as caterpillars) the episode goes out of its way to show that she once operated with a sense of noblesse oblige. “Remember why we got into this?”, she reminds a former operative from back in the day, a man now as wrinkled as she is uncreased. “To bring down the powerful. No one could afford not to be afraid of us.” That delivers an immense amount of character clarity for Mallory, showing us how she started out in the spy game, hunting for leverage to make her way ahead, and how smoothly that quest devolved into blackmail and opportunism.
The episode gives her an uncharacteristic moment of absolution as Mallory decides not to trade or weaponise the leverage the agency ends up with. “You never know when you’ll need to knock the powerful down a peg,” she says. “Wow, mother,” says a stunned Sterling, “I thought the only principles you stuck to were dry martinis and never tipping the help.” “Apparently,” Mallory smiles, “I have a third.”
The rest of season 12 features classically Archer hi-jinks and verbal innuendo, but the season ends on an odd, beautiful coda. Mallory Archer has left the agency behind and is away on an exotic, expensive beach, drinking perfectly tempered cocktails and lounging about in the sun. It is a wondrous creative choice, allowing the crew — and the audience — to sentimentally bid their beloved den-mother goodbye, while simultaneously declaring that a presence like Walter’s can never die. Mallory will always be out there somewhere, drinking and insulting, in peace.
Archer, as a show, bears Mallory’s name on the door. It is hard to picture the gang uniting for their varied shenanigans — set across space and time — if not for the sarcastic spymaster shoving them into some cockamamie cash-grab or other. Sure, the series is ostensibly about her son, forever failing in new directions, but Sterling is destined to keep trying to move vaguely upwards, finding footholds in romance and espionage to appease his own gigantic ego and to occasionally earn his mother’s approval. He needs her to look up to. Sterling is a mere climber. Mallory towers.
Streaming Tip Of The Week:
Robert Eggers’ haunting drama The Lighthouse dropped on Netflix this week. Both a psychological horror film as well as a rich character study, The Lighthouse features Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in stunning form as they circle each other in unpredictable ways. Superb.