The second episode of Archer, “Three to Tango”, picks right up from the previous, with Christian Slater (playing himself as a the head of the CIA) saying, “Wait, what happened? I thought you were going to renovate this place?” Malory sends ice cubes into her glass with resigned frustration and mentions being betrayed by a “country music wannabe!”. With the span of two lines, we have a reference to last episode, and last season. An apt way to begin an Archer that’s at least 50% about referencing the series itself.
Archer has done this before, bringing back recurring characters and picking up on old storylines. It’s a familiar sitcom trick, and nothing particularly innovative in and of itself. In this case, Archer and Lana must “extract” a contract agent for the CIA named Conway Stern. Stern appeared way back in season one of the show, in the third episode, “Diversity Hire”. As an African American who also happens to be Jewish, that episode hit many of the points you would expect about ethnic stereotypes and racial humour. (It should come as no surprise that the women in the office, with the strange exception of Pam, swoon over this handsome black fellow. Or that Archer would feel threatened by his looks or his friendly competence. And Lana, a much paler black person, is the butt of many jokes regarding her racial heritage.) The payoff in that episode is that Stern betrays the team, and winds up getting his left hand cut off by Lana.
Since Stern officially “made the list” of enemies in that long-ago episode (watch it now and see how much Pam’s character has changed), it is something of a shock when “Slater” sends them on a mission to rescue him. (Slater, by the way, insists on going by the mononym. It’s one of the random, oddly specific concerns Archer characters sometimes have.) Right from the start, Archer and Lana are skeptical of Stern, who double-crossed them before, and even more skeptical of Malory’s cooperation with this shady “Slater” character.
Stern winds up posing as the President of Brazil, Lana as the first lady, and Archer as their devoted driver, practicing his Portuguese. (The name he cooks up contains the words “Lando Calrissiano”, another nice throwaway gag.) Stern, naturally, turns on them in the end again, and after insulting Lana’s “baby weight”, she sends him to his ironic fate, once again losing a hand.
Back the office, meanwhile, AJ has been left in the immediate care of the office staff. That situation goes pretty much as one would expect. (10 minutes into the show, the baby is missing, Pam is semi-nude on the toilet and Malory is strangling Cheryl in the next stall, while Cheryl explains that she doesn’t hate babies, “Just baby people!”) A search of the office takes the rest of the episode, and involves some highly suspicious Krieger experiments involving infants and teddy bear suits.
But the whole Stern plot is actually a device to bring up the most pressing overarching narrative issue in the show at the moment: the baby, AJ. The simple facts are that AJ was born out of Lana’s self-insemination with Archer’s banked sperm, not out of a tangible, long-term relationship between the two of them. This puts Archer into an odd situation, and it hits upon some of his deepest “issues”. (Oh yes: Archer has issues. Does he ever.)
The issue is so “real” for Lana that she won’t even discuss it with Archer until right at the end of the episode. The fact is, Archer is under the mistaken impression that AJ is his child, but legally, and in many ways morally, she’s Lana’s baby alone. Archer’s clumsy stabs at fatherhood are really all about his own ego, as always. AJ is a symbol of his virility and power, not a person. His long-standing and obvious unrequited infatuation with Lana is also in the mix, as he imagines a future of making a little family with her, the only woman besides his mother who he’s ever loved. (As much as Archer is capable of love in his monumentally adolescent mindset.)
In any case, the argument of the episode, and really its major contribution to the long story arc of the show, is over what would happen to the baby should Lana and/or Archer be killed in the line of their very dangerous duty. And Lana makes it clear that the baby would go to her parents, or her sister. Not any of Archer’s family. Archer has a moment of being brokenhearted before retorting in classic Archer fashion, “You have a sister? Is she younger?”
Archer is really a classic example of a character that’s superficially horrible, but it’s difficult to hate him. His bravado is so clearly born out of childhood neglect and deep insecurity, and his desperate need for a genuine relationship, combined with his complete inability to have one, make him ultimately a bit of a tragic character. But then, of course, he says or does something so insensitive and selfish that one’s pity melts away. The best character-driven episodes of this series focus squarely on that, and this one is a great example.