When I first came across Archer—FX’s animated series about suave spy Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and his team of, let’s say, equally colorful agency cohorts—it began as all great love stories do: with a happy accident. Late one night well over a decade ago, on the precipice of graduating high school, I was doing a little thing that nobody does anymore called channel surfing. I happened to stumble across a marathon of Archer reruns, and the show’s strange animation style, boundary-pushing jokes, and obscenely vulgar characters were the perfect thing to keep me up well past the witching hour.
I can no longer stay up that late without wanting to kneel before God and repent the next morning, and much like my fondness for being a night owl, my affection for Archer waned somewhat over the years. The show stumbled through the later seasons while trying to keep itself fresh, as all long-running animated series do at some point. (Though, credit where it’s due, the more high-concept, fantastical seasons that take place inside Archer’s comatose mind were far more creative than, say, a musical episode.) Though the series had its extended convoluted stint, Archer always remained a fascinating look at how far ribaldry can take a television show.
Now, having pushed just about every button it can—and after losing the driving wit of the brilliant Jessica Walter, who voiced Archer’s cantankerous mother and agency head, Malory, in 2021—Archer is finally closing up shop. The series’ fourteenth season, which will air on FXX Aug. 30 and stream on Hulu the following day, will be its last. But now that the show has shed the need to keep itself afloat for god knows how long into the future, Archer has returned to the original form that viewers fell in love with from the jump. The series’ final season is leaner, deliciously meaner, and more consistently outrageous than it has been in years, making Archer’s last missions the perfect cap on a truly rare television gem.
Season 14 opens just months after the last season left off, and also settles the show nicely back into its original formula. Free from their ties to the intelligence firm that recruited (and then tried to frame) our favorite team of spies in Season 13, the staff forms their own agency, simply titled The Agency—a far more stylish name than ISIS ever was, before that whole terrible coincidence happened. Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) has taken up the post as head of the Agency, taking Malory’s old office after the character was written out of the show following Walter’s passing.
Losing Malory stings less this season than the last, but Walter’s absence is still sorely felt in the scenes where Archer, Lana, Pam (Amber Nash), Krieger (Lucky Yates), Cheryl (Judy Greer), Ray (Adam Reed), and Cyril (Chris Parnell) meet to discuss their upcoming missions in Malory’s office. There’s just something about the wood paneling of that setting that looks as though it should reek of the booze and Chanel that always seemed to be permeating Malory’s gray bob. But given that Malory was always more of a figurehead to Lana’s quick-thinking field intelligence, Lana’s new post is the ideal position to keep Archer’s final season more mission-focused, as opposed to getting caught in the mire of rote jokes about office politics.
The fieldwork is where Season 14 really flourishes, with the series still finding unusual ways to get Archer and the rest of the spies into trouble. The Agency links up with Interpol early in Season 14, to enlist Archer and co.’s unconventional (and cost-effective) intelligence tactics. A new collaboration means a new character, this time in the form of Zara Kahn (Natalie Dew), one of Interpol’s top agents and the ideal foil to Archer’s incessant smugness. Where Lana was always the more level-headed complement to her partner, Zara is essentially a gender-swapped Archer, who’s similarly reckless and self-important.
It’s no surprise that someone with as many insecurities as Sterling Archer would immediately see his new partner not as an addition but as competition. Watching Archer spin out as he tries to quantify who is the better spy with ridiculous rivalries—like who can concuss more henchmen in an international burglary ring—is the kind of classic antic that longtime fans of the show will be delighted to see persist in the show’s final season. But it’s not as simple as Archer working himself into a lather, either. Zara is a formidable opponent for Archer, the kind who he might have been seeking this entire time to match his outlandish shenanigans and lewd wit.
Drew voices Zara with all of the English haughtiness and self-importance of someone like Jameela Jamil, if Jameela Jamil were ever to stop getting stung by bees and become a spy. Zara’s skill set is keenly imbalanced by the rest of the Agency doting over her, only making Archer more jealous and continuously hindering dangerous missions. With Zara and Archer at each other’s throats, Lana’s insistence that they transform their business into one that does good for the world and makes money is increasingly difficult to attain.
That’s all the better for us viewers, though, as it sets Archer on a droll and pleasant journey to its eventual finale. The first half of Season 14, five episodes of which were made available for critics, is a genuine return to form in every way possible, with the series never losing its bite, despite the culture surrounding it being very different from when Archer first began its run. The show hasn’t lost any of the hypersexed, hard-drinking, bloody violence that makes it what it is; if any program has successfully navigated the ever-changing social mores of the modern era, it’s this one.
If anything, its final season has perfected the ways to display these things while hammering down that they are merely parodies, and that the characters who perform such acts are deeply awful people. Archer will make a misogynistic joke, Zara and Lana will throw it back with a jab about impotence, a bad guy will get their throat slit, and we’ll all have a good laugh.
Over the course of 14 seasons, Archer’s writers have fine-tuned each character down to the minutiae. And though a lot of deliciously acerbic lines could play well among the Agency’s wealth of different personalities, the writers have a knack for always placing them in the right hands. The show’s final season turns the dial up to its final notch, letting the fringes of each Agency member’s archetype go wild for one last hurrah. Pam is absolutely bawdy; Cheryl’s penchant for fetishized violence is utterly shameless; Krieger’s scientific experiments should have him thrown in jail; and everyone gets to make fun of Cyril several more times before the series bows its head.
But, as they always have, Lana and Archer still keep things on track even when everything surrounding them is going haywire. Tyler and Benjamin’s rapport is as sharp as ever, and watching their characters go toe-to-toe despite Lana ultimately calling the shots makes for a gratifying beginning to Archer’s end. For so many seasons, Archer’s mission-of-the-week formula was a knockout, each episode a surefire success. But audiences can only crave so much of the same thing before a series starts to feel stagnant. While legitimate plot and character development were never Archer’s strongest suit, the show succeeded by being boldly unafraid to experiment with its style.
Whether it came to writing shocking jokes or trying to find fresh ways to reinvent itself, Archer was always dauntless. But its final season manages to straddle those lines in a fashion as proficient as its titular spy has always claimed to be. It’ll be tough to bid Archer adieu, but like he always said to his colleagues, there will never be another spy who can do quite what he does.