Archer Season 11’s New Direction for Sterling Explained

Producer Casey Willis helps break down the many changes in the busy Archer Season 11 premiere.

Archer Season 11 Premiere
Photo: FXX

Any television show that has been on for 11 seasons is bound to change. Archer has gone through so many metamorphoses that it’s surprising that Franz Kafka isn’t in the writers’ room. The most recent seasons of Archer have attempted to reinvigorate the show’s formula through genre pastiches like a film noir or sci-fi space adventure. All of this has been justified by the lengthy coma that Archer has now been in for several years. The series’ efforts to distance itself from generic spy missions has been a curious experiment, but Archer season 11 brings with it the biggest changes of all by returning back to the basics.

Archer finally returns to its “prime timeline” as Archer wakes up from his coma and experiences a very rude awakening to how the world, and those closest to him, have moved on in his absence. The season premiere, “The Orpheus Gambit,” isn’t just a reintroduction to how much these characters have changed during Archer’s coma, but it’s also an excellent example of the series returning to spy-based missions, but in a way that feels challenging and different than before. Casey Willis, Archer executive producer, helps break down the many changes in this busy premiere, what could have been, and where Archer’s head is at during this difficult period of transition. 

Episode 1 – “The Orpheus Gambit”

“Archer’s back in the spy game and his first mission is to guard a priceless statue. His second mission, to tell Lana his true feelings. His third mission, to get blind drunk.”

DEN OF GEEK: Adam Reed, the creator of Archer, has slowly been taking a reduced role in the series and this season marks the biggest example of that. Did he help provide a framework for the season at all, or weigh in or character and plot decisions?

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CASEY WILLIS: Absolutely! For the past few seasons, Adam and I get together and discuss the season, plot out storylines, and pitch episode ideas. It’s been very enjoyable bouncing ideas back and forth and surprising each other. There were more story ideas than episodes, so I hope we get to explore some of our other ideas in the future.

Considering that Archer went into the coma for three years, did you consider the idea that some of these characters would perhaps no longer be a part of the Agency, or that there would be new members on the team?

We went through a lot of iterations of the team and their personal and professional lives. We had different characters quitting and working in other fields, but in the end we liked the idea of the Agency continuing and being successful. We liked how it alienated Archer even further from the group. Additionally, keeping them all together lets them have their own inside jokes and stories of which Archer isn’t a part. 

Adam and I both remembered an odd moment from an episode of Growing Pains. Mike is watching TV and turns it off to go and catch the bus. A bit later he walks back into the shot (having missed the bus) and turns the TV back on. He is confused that the show had kept going without him watching. We wanted to give Archer that same quality. He can’t comprehend that the world has moved on while he was in a coma for three years. It’s the ultimate in self-centeredness.

Did you always have the idea for time to have passed in “real time” during these past few seasons, or did you ever consider that maybe Archer had been in a coma for a much larger span of time and even more had changed in the world?

Just like the composition and jobs of the team, we had a lot of ideas regarding the length of Archer’s coma. We toyed with the length being really short in real time, but that felt like a bit of a cop out. The idea of a much longer coma, and Archer being in a future he doesn’t recognize, felt like just another season not based in our reality. We didn’t want things to have changed too much so three years felt like a pretty good sweet spot. Things feel familiar, but there has been enough time for characters to have made real changes.

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I really love that the mission in this episode is more so just the framework to explore Archer’s pain and transition back to the team. Did that seem like the most important story to tell in this premiere?

We needed Archer to have time to process his new surroundings and for the viewer to do the same. We skipped over the weeks of Archer getting back to his apartment and just staying there, depressed, afraid to come out. We hint at that in the beginning of the first act with the remnants of a party still strewn about Archer’s place. Malory is concerned about Archer, but also needs to give him a bit of tough love. Providing security for a museum gala seems like the right level of risk to ease Archer back into work. Malory knows being a spy is a large part of Archer’s identity and she wants to give him a win. However, she thought the job would be easy and didn’t expect such an explosive reintroduction for Archer.

Archer finally grieves over Woodhouse in this episode, even though his death was seasons ago. Did that seem like an important anchor for the character during this difficult transitory period?

We really only saw Archer deal with Woodhouse’s death in the Dreamland season. We wanted to show Archer dealing with it and also show that Woodhouse is irreplaceable. Could anyone ever come close to filling his shoes? Probably not. Is that a hint about an upcoming episode??? Maybe.

Archer and Lana’s on-and-off romance has been a tenet of the show from the start. This episode dives right into Archer’s feelings for her, but also her new husband, Robert. Were you always leaning in the direction that Lana would have “moved on” during Archer’s coma?

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We always wanted Lana to move on, but we had many ideas about how this would happen. Lana has a lot on her plate and we wanted to make sure she was thinking about herself and AJ. Also, we wanted Lana to be happy. After all these seasons, Lana deserves to be in a kind and loving relationship. We wanted to explore sides of Lana that we hadn’t seen in a while on Archer. We also wanted to explore how Archer could screw it all up.

Since it’s established that Tobolowsky’s character was in Archer’s hospital while he was in the coma. Did you ever consider using an actor for Robert who appeared in the coma seasons as some kind of commentary on how he was still in Archer’s subconscious on some level? 

We had some great guest stars during the coma seasons and the thought did cross our minds to connect Archer’s subconscious to reality, but we wanted more of a separation between the coma seasons and this new season. Also, timeline-wise, it didn’t work out for us (more on this in future episodes). Finally, we enjoyed the idea of characters making deep impacts on Archer’s psyche and that is who shows up in his coma dreams. Some examples are Trinette in Dreamland and Charles and Rudy making an appearance in Archer: 1999.

I think it’s incredible that Pam is the only one who’s there for Archer in the end and the person who may be his sole friend throughout this season. Archer has occasionally flirted with the idea that Archer and Pam are more endgame material than Archer and Lana. What’s your take on their relationship?

Archer and Pam have always had a special relationship. In fact, we often refer to Pam as the heart of the show as she is the kindest character. Sure, she can be brazen and raunchy, but at the end of the day she is very caring and will always have her friends’ backs. We wanted Pam to be excited that Archer is back. Sure, the Agency may have been successful while he was away, but Pam feels it was missing a level of excitement and chaos that only Archer can bring.

The tactile-cane is a glorious joke and a wonderful callback to Archer’s tactleneck. Did this James Bond-like angle come into the picture fairly quickly once you knew Archer would have a limp, or was it a later development?

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The idea of the spy cane came very quickly. We knew we wanted to show some physical change in Archer and a remnant of those three years in a coma. Additionally, the spy cane is the perfect way for Krieger to work on new gadgets and for Archer to always have a weapon at hand. If you notice, the limp is more perceived because of Archer holding the cane rather than actually animated. It was a nice trick because there are times where Archer will need to run, jump and dive, and we were having a hard time figuring out how to represent that.

Holy Hell, the action sequence that kicks off the premiere is maybe the best cold open that the show has ever done. The show always looks gorgeous, but did you really want to kick this season off in an explosive way?

Definitely! We wanted the season to kick off with a bang. We put extra time and effort into the first sequence and spent a little extra money to license the Judas Priest song. We have shown it to several people who were surprised at Cyril’s reveal. That was really satisfying to us and we hope many viewers are just as surprised.

This Archer Season 11 post-mortem will resume with the season’s fourth episode.