Lana Kane is the Real Protagonist of Archer

The star of a show, or the protagonist, is the character with the best arc; one whose character goes on a journey, learns a lesson, and connects the other characters into a narrative whole. In the hit show Archer on FX, this is assumed to be the titular superspy, but this is not so.

Lana Kane is the real protagonist of Archer.

At first glance it would be reasonable to assume Archer to be a sort of James Bond parody with Sterling Archer himself being a Flynt or Man from U.N.C.L.E style character. The formula seems familiar enough: most jokes are told by him and he stands as yet another example of the immature manchild, a bumbling clod dominated by the presence of smarter, more competent, responsible females.

Archer shares many things in common with other animated men-children on television: he is a raging alcoholic; emotional manchild; gratuitously violent; and obsessed with pop culture. He is also completely dependent upon an all-forgiving maternal presence; One that cleans up his messes, acts as a voice of reason, and is clearly more than he deserves. This formula has been repeated many times because of its capacity to please a wide-ranging audience, portraying women as civilized and responsible is flattering, and treating men as self-indulgent manchildren allows men to live vicariously through those characters. Children who stay up enjoy the screwball comedy and violent antics. Everyone is happy.

It is easy to imagine the show being pitched to producers in this vein, with Archer being compared to Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin; a lovable buffoon who never emotionally matures, obsessed with pop-culture and entertainingly violent. Unlike those shows, Archer has an ensemble cast; a family unit where the same characters reliably appear in every episode. This is in contrast to The Simpsons were entire episodes pass where Maggie does not even appear. In Archer, the relationships are the core of the comedy.

In general, there’s little character progression in these shows. Their episodic nature demands things return to the status quo by the end of the episode.  When progression occurs, it focuses on one character at a time, treating each one of its characters in turn as each goes on a journey and learns a lesson. For example, Lisa Simpson becomes a vegetarian and starts to judge the people around her, particularly her Baboon of a  father. Then she encounters a vegan Apu, who, along with Paul McCartney, doesn’t judge her cheese eating ways  Lisa learns the lesson that sanctimony is not an argument. Her vegetarianism, like her Buddhism, does not serve as an obstacle to her family unit. In another episode, Moe has plastic surgery making him physically handsome. At first his new appearance makes him happy, landing him a job on a soap opera, but the happiness is short-lived when he learns that his inability to trust and his own cynicism are the real sources of his unhappiness. Characters like Lisa and Marge have become caricatures of themselves through a process known as Flanderization. This phenomenon is a reference to substance character that Flanders himself who started out as a simply somewhat conservative alternative to Homer’s libertine ways, but over time became a sink into which every joke about evangelicals, conservatives, and traditionalists could be poured. The result? Flanders has become a religious fanatic, refusing to vaccinate his children, speaking in tongues, and building bomb shelters for the coming Rapture.  Common criticisms include observations such as the portrayal of women as fun killers and of men as imbeciles is tired and beginning of the question: Are we preparing people for a family unit where women are responsible for everything but in control of nothing? One where men need, but do not want, a wife?In Archer there are no such hero’s journey’s, save for Lana Kane.

Lana alone is on a journey, and that journey is to make her peace with loving a man who needs a mother more than a mate. In fact, the first time Archer used his famous catchphrase “danger zone” it was in reference to Lana’s obsession with him. From then on, Archer uses it almost exclusively in her presence. His capacity to annoy her stems from a deep understanding of what would, and that intimacy is a promising sign indeed. Lana’s struggle is primarily against her own better judgment, and aided by her hope that her attraction to Sterling Archer is simply physical, or that she can have, on some level, revenge against him by means of simple professionalism. Lana does, however, pull double duty as a straight-man character, joining more familiar tropes for the sole black character in other franchises; like Dule Hill in the West Wing or Ernie Hudson in the Ghostbusters movies. Her role is often reacting to the absurdity of the others.  So many absurd characters and situations require rational actors, sympathetic to the audience. Otherwise, the audience disconnects.

More subtle is Lana’s relationship with Ms. Archer, the overtly racist harridan who met Lana when she participated in a anti-fur protest group. The gun she pulled on Lana, who didn’t flinch, demonstrated a fearlessness  the other woman and she immediately offered her a job. When we finally meet Lana’s parents we gain some understanding of her background and motivations.

As intellectuals, they no doubt tried to prepare her for an academic life that she rejected for a life of adventure and danger. This is in sharp contrast to Archer who is entirely the creation of his mother. It’s easy to see how his mother’s narcissism has kept Archer emotionally immature, but it is also obvious that through years of training or torture she has honed Archer into the “world’s most dangerous spy.” Archer has confessed to having no sense of his own mortality. It is often said that childhood is over the moment you know one day you will die. Archer does not know and remains emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually a child.

Animated shows are not known for the growth of their characters. Early seasons of The Simpsons, which featured better writing, would occasionally have Homer learn a lesson. There was a point in the show’s history when they decided that Homer would no longer learn lessons or try to help the family in any particular way. Writers of The Simpsons have pretended this was to open up comedic possibilities for the character and have less schmaltzy episodes but one suspects it was simply an excuse to write out those elements of The Simpsons  people found heartwarming and replace them  with increasingly random elements to compete with more experimental theater-of-the-absurd shows like Family Guy. It is interesting to note that the decline of conventional storytelling on The Simpsons coincides with a  decline in quality. It’s possible both effects have the same causality: a general lack of creativity. One element the Simpsons writer did innovate was the tendency for Homer to break character and say something intelligent beyond his means. This affectation has been picked up by Sterling Archer, although in his case it remains more in character: a reference to what might be low-grade autism.

Lana is the only character connected to every other character. Mrs. Archer would not admit it but she relies on Lana more than anyone else in the agency, leaving most of her insults fall on other characters, and surprisingly tolerant of her mixed-race grandchild. The unique deference and dependence Malory Archer shows Lana can only indicate that she considers Lana her true successor as an agent, and not her son. When Malory Archer dies, the unfortunately named ISIS may survive, but only with Lana in charge. 

Ms. Archer’s relationship with Lana is also the closest to what could be called healthy in the show. In fact, It’s implied that Malory made the suggestion that Lana use Sterling’s sperm to impregnate herself. This can be seen as another extension of her narcissism, (the baby will eventually take the middle name Malory, just as her father did) but it is also tacit admission that Lana is the only woman she has not actually discouraged Archer from pursuing. As an aside, the baby name, Abbijean, is taken from Lana’s grandmother. Additional aside, it is also the name of show creator Adam Reed’s Grandmother.

Show creator Adam Reed revels in the creative process, and has concocted a new season where Archer, probably in some sort of coma, resides in “dreamland.”  Presumably Kruger is making him into some sort of cyborg, but in the meantime, this Film Noir world of hardboiled detectives and femme fatales is another reinvention of the aging franchise. Yet the dew is not off the lily. The viewer gets an impression that we may be in a Golden age of Archer goodness, a string of legitimately funny animated comedy seasons not rivaled  rivaled since the Simpsons Golden age of seasons two through nine.

Unlike The Simpsons, Archer is probably not immortal, if for no other reason the cast and showrunners at some point will probably find something better to do. (sorry Yeardley Smith)  The question arises how the series will end. If Archer were the main character series within with him knowing who is true father is in this revelation bringing him some closure with his mother that will probably happen but it will not be the emotional conclusion to the story because Archer is not it’s emotional heart.

The conclusion to the Archer story will be the maturity he gains from loving Lana; this is her story, and it’s a love story. Her missions, and she, at last, chose to accept it, is love an imperfect man. Let’s hope it’s not a suicide mission.


Archer Season Eight premieres April 5th on FX.