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This episode is so self-referential that it’s practically a rerun, but it’s a great way to show how all of the characters have changed throughout the series.

The first episode of Archer Season 6 made it explicitly clear that the series would go back to its spy parody roots. The second episode is proving how literal that statement is. “Three to Tango” doesn’t just reference classic material, it literally resurrects part of a 2010 plotline and plays it out exactly the same way.

For most shows, this would be a sign the series can’t generate new material. After all, the entire reason Archer Vice happened was because four years of the same story arcs were starting to feel a bit stale. But Archer is one of the kings of self-referential humor on television, and “Three to Tango” is a prime example.

Sure, it helps that this is the first case we’ve seen Archer and Lana complete since 2013. But the writing, pacing, and performances are so well-refined that the jokes still hit the mark, even though you see them coming a mile away. At the same time, there are just enough new twists to remind you that Archer and Lana aren’t the same people they were five years ago, no matter how much we wanted the good old days back.

Want to know more without being spoiled? Then you should catch the latest episode via FX, Hulu, or buy it on Amazon. And if you’re behind on our Archer reviews, check out our thoughts on the first episode, “The Holdout.”

The episode opens as Slater, the CIA agent from last season, offers a job to Not-ISIS: Retrieve an operative from Argentina whose cover has been blown during an important assignment. But the reason Slater needs these particular freelancers is that they worked with the operative before. We quickly learn the agent is Conway Stern, the “diversity hire” from wayyyy back in Archer‘s third episode. You know, the one who lost his hand after betraying ISIS and stabbing Archer in the back.

Except it turns out the situation was more complicated than we knew. According to Slater, Conway is one of the good guys, and ISIS bungled his mission to sell fake plans to the Chinese. Realizing the error (except for Archer, who still isn’t over literally being stabbed in the back), the team sends Archer and Lana to Argentina to extract Conway before he’s captured. But once they actually find him, Conway’s not willing to leave – Argentina has a list of undercover CIA agents it’s considering selling to the Soviets, and he needs help getting it back before then.

Last week’s episode was good, but since Archer mostly worked alone it didn’t have the team dynamic previous episodes did. But now that Archer and Lana are working a case together? We can get back to the character interactions that make Archer great. H. Jon Benjamin and Aisha Tyler have an absolutely fantastic chemistry, balancing two clashing personalities who have worked together so long they can’t help but trust and care for each other. Mix in the fact that Archer and Lana now have a child together, and their relationship can only deepen.

And after six years of experience, Archer and Lana’s jokes have been refined to hit each beat perfectly. Lana can get pissed off at Archer using his name as a verb (Archerizing!), but also can turn around and start using the term herself. Archer will try to justify his ridiculous escapades to Lana as logically sound (using “Lando Calrissian” as a cover name) even as he realizes that she was right all along.

The best moment of the episode barely even requires dialogue. When Archer first encounters Conway and goes on an inexplicable “revenge rampage”, Lana barely bats an eye. Instead, she takes her sweet time making tea while Archer and Conway savagely destroy the apartment, stepping in at just the right time to break it up with a well-placed blow. The entire scene is absolutely insane yet so perfectly normal for everyone involved that you just accepts what’s happening even while laughing.

Of course, Archer‘s also very good at balancing insane comedy with surprising character moments, which brings us to the emotional center of the episode. When the mission begins, Archer quickly realizes that if he and Lana are both killed, someone else will have to step in and raise Abbiejean. But when he suggests his mother adopt the baby, Lana quickly dismisses the notion for what seems like obvious reasons (to everyone but Archer anyway). But as Archer presses the issue, sometimes in between gunfights, Lana eventually reveals the truth: If she were to die, Abbiejean would live with her parents instead of with Archer and his family.

Archer is understandably stunned by the response, even though his between-season escapades should have proved he’s a less-than-ideal single dad. It’s a pretty safe bet this matter will come up again in the future, even if Archer and Lana didn’t already have a fairly tumultuous relationship.

Of course, Lana apparently isn’t against Malory babysitting Abbiejean while she and Archer are away on assignment. The episode’s subplot deals with Abbiejean being left with the office staff, and if you think that’s frightening you’d be right. While Malory is refreshing her drink, the baby disappears, sparking her ferocious maternal instincts as she tries to figure out what happened. It takes a little too long to find Abbiejean than anyone should be comfortable with, but it prompts some great moments as Malory, Cheryl, and Pam try to find it while simultaneously harassing each other.

Of course, thinking about the matter for two seconds should reveal who Abbiejean is with: Krieger, who is studying her on his lab table while disturbing baby skeleton chalk drawings fill up the nearby board. The whole affair seems to be a misunderstanding, so don’t expect Cyborg Abbiejean to appear anytime soon. Not that it stops Malory from covering up the incident while making very overt threats to Krieger’s manhood if he steps out of line again.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, history mostly repeats itself. Conway reveals that he’s a traitor after all and shoots Archer in the back to mix things up. But sparing Lana because she’s a mother wasn’t a great idea, and Conway horrifically loses another hand for his trouble. On principle, I want to say Archer is unnecessarily repeating itself, but this show has always had some level of self-awareness. Besides, the scene is far better executed thanks to a half-decade of experience among Archer‘s cast and crew. Even if the joke wasn’t five years old, it’s referential humor done right.

Although now we have to see if the rest of Season 6 will go the same way.

Bottom Line: “Three to Tango” perfectly replicates the spy formula of Season 1 (right down to repeating plot points from an earlier episode) but the comedy formula is so refined that everything feels fresh and exciting. Well paced, solid jokes, and an emotional reveal that will definitely impact future episodes makes this mandatory viewing for any Archer fan.

Recommendation: Did you miss my “mandatory viewing” remark? This is Archer at its best.

[rating=4.5]

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