image“The Archer Sanction” is so good, you’ll almost wish it had been used for the season premiere.

“The Archer Sanction” is technically a filler episode, something that audiences can watch and enjoy without offering any groundbreaking reveals. It is also, hands down, the best episode of Season 6 so far. Sure, the premiere had its moments, and “Three to Tango” was a hugely succesful return to spy parodies. But this week’s episode, despite doing little of lasting significance, is refined to near perfection: The premise, the dialogue, the side plot that exists solely for the purpose of watching everyone be drunk or hungover. And even though no one really develops as characters, it integrates everything we’ve seen in past episodes (including Archer and Lana’s awkward relationship) very well.

In short, these are the kind of episodes that will make you happy that Archer Vice was a diversion, even if you loved Archer Vice. If that intrigues you, you can watch “The Archer Sanction” via FX, Hulu, or buy it on Amazon. And don’t forget to check out our thoughts on the previous two Archer episodes, “The Holdout” and “Three to Tango”.

This week, Archer, Lana, and Ray have accepted a new mission from the CIA: Assassinate an assassin who is taking part in a mountain climbing exercise. It’s a new direction for not-ISIS that Lana’s rather less than thrilled with, a detail that Archer is naturally less than concerned with. Another detail Archer wasn’t concerned with? Reading apparently the only copy of the mission briefing in full, leaving the entire team in the dark about who their actual target is. Thankfully, just before reaching the lodge, Archer remembers a small detail he committed to memory: The assassin’s home country was an Axis power during World War II.

Then the team enters the lodge, where they are greeted by climbers from Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Perhaps you think you know where this episode is going: Archer, Lana, and Ray try to deduce the assassin’s identity while coping with the hostile elements and their generally abrasive attitudes towards each other. It’s a solid premise for a spy plot after all, except for one thing: Not really much deducing the assassin’s identity in this episode. While finding out the assassin’s identity gets brought up occasionally, the episode actually focuses far more on the hostile elements and friction between the team… which turns out to be more interesting than the investigation could have been.

First of all, this isn’t just some ordinary mountain. Translated from German, it’s called the “Death Peak,” a treacherously unsafe peak that kills one out of every seven climbers. (If you’re counting, between not-ISIS, the mountain guide, and the three potential assassins, that’s seven climbers.) It’s filled with deadly crevices and the weather can shift on a dime, which really raises the question why anyone climbs mountains like this for fun in the first place.

Thankfully, the team’s guide is Crash McKerrin, a dashingly handsome mountain expert and team leader who has survived many such excursions. And here’s where we get into the team dynamics – Lana and Ray are both instantly charmed by Crash’s physique and demeanor (it’s been a while since we had a “Sploosh” joke, let alone a simultaneous one), and Archer is immensely jealous. Not entirely surprising, considering Lana is the mother of his child.

What’s interesting is that even those team dynamics don’t quite go the way you’d expect. While Ray is (uncomfortably) forward about his advances on Crash, Lana is more interested in poking fun at Archer’s insecurities. Perhaps that’s simply because there’s not enough time to have both Lana and Ray hit on Crash in humorous ways, but it does highlight that Lana’s still very aware of Archer’s feelings, even though she acts like the bridge was burned last season. I’m really enjoying this version of Archer and Lana that harp on each other, without going so far as to be emotionally scarring. It’s more interesting than the outright hostility they had in earlier seasons, plus it makes the prospect of them raising a child together far more reasonable.

Just like the past two episodes, “The Archer Sanction” has a subplot about what the rest of not-ISIS is up to. (Seriously Archer, this agency really needs a name by now.) But unlike “The Holdout” and “Three to Tango,” this subplot has no interest in advancing Archer‘s backstory, just laughing at the crew’s shenanigans. In short: It’s all about watching them be drunken idiots. Cheryl, Cyril, Krieger, and Pam all get excessively drunk in the secret hot tub, then stumble hungover to Malory’s apartment because she’s not answering anyone’s calls. It’s a solidly written sequence with several great touches but nothing happens here that has a lasting impact. My theory? Archer needed to include the full cast to fulfill contract obligations, but had nothing for them to do this episode, so they wrote five minutes of “Can we get away with this?” dialogue and ran with it.

Seriously, the whole thing just plays like throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Share the hot tub with one of Krieger’s abominations? You bet! Imply that Cheryl and Pam are having sex with Malory as part of her open marriage? Why not? Have everyone start spontaneously vomiting blood and assume it’s from a spiked drink? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Everything here is about reveling in the joy of watching these characters behave like, well, themselves, which is what many viewers watch Archer for anyway. It also made me realize something: We haven’t had an episode this season where the entire office staff sneaks into the mission to justify their presence. What’s more, that’s making Archer a more tightly constructed show – why come up with ridiculous reasons to bring everyone together and derail the plot, when they can just be ridiculous on their own? It lets Archer and Lana stick to the spy parody themes while the rest of the cast has adventures in their own corner of the universe. We’ll have to bring them together eventually, but when we do it’ll feel more natural, and I’m digging that so far.

And that’s only a sliver of the fantastic elements this episode puts forward. The visuals are gorgeous, including a snowstorm and inevitable avalanche scene that are perhaps Archer‘s best effects to date. The writing is absolutely top-notch, including a phone call between Archer and Malory that sets up a perfectly-timed punchline. The only real disappointments for me were that this episode was so good for something that’s clearly a filler, and that everybody rags on Archer about messing up even when he saves everyone’s life. But I guess it wouldn’t be Archer if they changed that detail.

Bottom Line: “The Archer Sanction” is the best episode of Archer Season 6 so far, so much that I almost wish FX opened with it. We have a structurally solid spy parody plot to riff on, but the show plays loosely enough with it to focus on more interesting action and dialogue sequences. We also have a subplot that’s entirely about watching the office staff be ridiculous with little context, which is perhaps the most refreshingly honest way the show has treated them so far. It may only be a filler episode, but it’s the best kind of filler episode that will keep you laughing and wondering how Archer will top it.

Recommendation: Sploosh.

[rating=5]

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