Malory Archer: Mad Femme Spy Executive of Tomorrow
By Genevieve Citron | 13.11.2017
The first episode of FX’s cartoon series Archer fades in to find its hero, Sterling Archer, tied up against the wall of a KGB torture cell. In this initial scene, he is taunted by his Russian captor, who threatens to shock him with high voltage electricity. The picture is intense, dark, and agonizing to watch, before being loudly interrupted by Malory Archer; Sterling's mother and the director of the espionage agency where he is employed. Malory’s appearance reveals to the viewer that Sterling’s torture is actually meant to be a training simulation. In this moment, Malory also communicates that she is not just another spectator of Sterling’s distress, but its orchestrator. Here, she subverts the narrative, changing the tone of the scene from serious to ludicrous. Positioned behind a double mirror, Malory sips on a cocktail as she watches over Sterling’s torture with upcurved lips. This introduction acts as the chief blueprint for the rest of the series, wherein Malory Archer controls the rules and results of the game.
Malory’s role in Adam Reed’s espionage-sitcom is unsuspectedly yet completely that of the director. The show’s series of impossible happenings are consistently proven to be the meticulous planning of Malory. Her diegetic omnipresence is seen time and time again throughout the series; beginning with her initial introduction behind the double mirror and continuing into the current season. Malory’s actions – in their crudeness, their eccentricities, and their hilarity – succeed in dictating the series’ narrative trajectory absolutely.
While Malory’s presence as the show’s in-story maestro is undeniable, it is not initially obvious. Throughout the series, Malory is continually overshadowed by her man-child son, Sterling. Dubbed in the diegesis as ‘the world’s greatest secret agent,’ Sterling stomps around like a whiskey soaked James Bond who is starved for female — especially maternal — attention. His outrageous narcissism and incredible (granted, cartoon-like) ability to dexterously survive dangerous espionage operations is what more often than not steals the narrative punch lines. As the show’s foremost protagonist, he is deeply involved in every plot and is often the forward-facing hero who resolves each twenty minute episode. Despite this, Malory’s actions are at the crux of these fanciful missions as she, with the force of her bony hand, pushes the narrative forward.
Having graced the diegesis of many early twenty-first century rom-coms, the calls-the-shots career-gal character is nothing new to visual culture. Despite working to dominate a capitalist enterprise, Malory is worlds away from the on-screen power women played by Kate Hudson in 2003 (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), Jennifer Garner in 2004 (13 Going on 30), or Anne Hathaway in 2006 (The Devil Wears Prada), to name a few.
In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Kate Hudson plays a disappointedly typical version of Hollywood’s career woman who — in contrast to Malory — is ultimately controlled by outside forces. In pursuit of a promotion at the magazine where she is employed, Andy (Hudson) builds up a whacky persona for an investigative piece about warding off romance. Throughout the majority of the film, she spends her time harassing and manipulating her soon-to-be love interest, Ben (Matthew McConaughey), in an attempt to drive him away. In an exceptionally disorganized climax, Andy embraces her desires; abandoning societal expectations of how she should act by aggressively singing Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” at Ben. Despite her best efforts, Andy eventually surrenders to Ben and stops ‘acting crazy.’ At the film’s conclusion, all of her hard work is forgotten as she relinquishes her previous role as a journalist for her new role as ‘girlfriend’ in a normative Hollywood relationship. The narrative forgets Andy’s true desires and the happy ending changes from her initial goal, which was to advance her career, to her re-routed goal, which is to be in love.
Archer’s Malory is the antidote to the ‘femme fatale turned femme ordinary’ characters of these romantic comedies. While Andy’s actions are communicated in the film as being a temporary lapse in judgement for which she later apologizes, Malory’s particular brand of quirky madness is unconditionally unapologetic. Malory refuses to beg pardon for her behaviour and allows herself to be driven by her needs, desires, and neurosis. As seen through her many schemes, Malory steps on men, cheats systems, and utilizes every possible resource to propel herself, her career, and Archer’s narrative trajectory forward. Reed’s careful calculation of plotlines and character developments throughout each episode – and more largely each season – positions Malory and her female conspirators as the large, in charge, authors of the story world. This authorial power exists despite Malory’s incongruence with typical feminine roles seen in mainstream Western culture. Conventionally, grey-haired single mother characters like Malory are barred from leading roles for a variety of sexist and social reasons. However, Malory’s incongruence has less to do with her status as an old single mother and more with how she is completely aligned with the ‘negative’ characteristics of the rom-com women mentioned above. In stark contrast to these characters — who are retributively punished for their individualistic actions — Malory’s mad behaviour is positively reinforced and encouraged by Archer’s narrative trajectory.
Malory’s madness is mostly manifested in bursts of antisocial, self-centered behaviour, wherein she continually gambles US national security and millions of dollars for her personal gain. This is demonstrated in Jeu Monegasque (Season 2, Episode 11) when she risks the agency’s collective 401(k)’s by sending Archer on a mission to trade this money for a mysterious computer disk. In stealing this money, Malory triggers the resulting series of events wherein the agency employees steal, gamble, chase, and shoot in order to recover their savings. Malory’s actions prompt the agency’s administrative staff to pawn off stolen property, the field agents to commit fraud, and her son Sterling to rampage through his typical self-indulgent (probably hereditary) behaviour. Moments such as these are essential to the series, as they function to cement the individual fabric of each character. As the matriarch of the show, Malory’s idiosyncrasies fuel her colleagues’ by setting a new normal; her actions functioning as the tipping point in a crass and criminal chain of dominos.
Malory’s role as Archer’s in-diegesis director is even better demonstrated in Season 5, which is appropriately titled Archer Vice. In Archer Vice, the gang takes a break from espionage to pursue a brief stint as big-time cocaine dealers. This career change occurs after the agency is forcefully shut down for a string of treason charges followed by a mysterious event through which they come to possess a criminally high volume of cocaine. The season’s incredible adventures take the agency around the United States, to fascist dictatorships in the developing world, and even to country music’s Grand Ole Opry. All, of course, at the underlying will of Malory Archer, who is revealed to be responsible for the treason charges and related cocaine possession.
Malory’s understanding of the rules of the game is what allows her to coyly exist as the orchestrator of messy and seemingly random events. Even more than this, it is her willingness to disregard the rules of a gendered society that allows her overarching power. The off-putting and self-centered actions that position Malory as dually cold and crazy are the same actions that are expected and accepted in male characters. She accomplishes this unlikely persona by prioritizing her career over everything. Malory puts her work over her children, her lovers, and her colleagues. She looks out for her best interests, she calls a spade a spade, and she plays hardball like she’s throwing a rock. All this to say, Malory behaves in what is best described through the trite and tired words: like a man. Whereas women who attempt these manly roles are usually punished in popular culture, often revealed to be unhappy (The Devil Wears Prada) or unsuccessful and ugly (any Disney cartoon ever), Malory experiences a bounty of self-generated happiness and success.
Throughout the series, Malory’s narrative controls are gradually lent to the show’s other women, as they consistently overpower male characters in pursuit of their desires. These controls are given despite race and class, and accordingly fly in the face of dominant Hollywood narratives wherein white men own the world, and women just live there. Lana Kane (African-American academic turned professional spy), Pam Poovey (dairy farmer turned agency HR rep), and Cheryl Tunt (railroad heiress and Malory’s receptionist) continually work together and in tension with one another to control the narrative space. These controls are seen most commonly through Cheryl. Just like Malory, Cheryl’s quirky and mad behaviour is positively reinforced by the diegesis through her continued success. As an heiress and receptionist, Cheryl represents both sides of American capitalism at once. In her private role as the owner of her family’s vast enterprises, she controls the work pursued by a large bureaucratic company. In her public role as a receptionist, she executes bureaucratic demands ordered to her by Malory. Cheryl’s social and labour positions allow her to be a strategic candidate for the continued rule of female power in Archer’s diegesis. Her position as an administrator and an executive makes this a special case, as her power begins to seep into every corner of the story world; Cheryl’s presence often resulting in great delays from the highest and lowest levels of the bureaucratic chain. She halts meetings, races trains, and literally starts fires in order to influence the diegesis. With Cheryl, just as with Malory, it is her unwillingness to conform to social norms that lies at the core of these controls. In providing a second generation of power-femme (albeit mad) women, Archer promises to continue on a narrative path that prioritizes the re-branding of workplace women as decisive and authorial.
In a rather exciting way, Archer represents a new category of working women in visual culture. The series rejects expectations of normalcy and looks for an untapped way of representing gendered characters. The women of Archer are so conventionally flawed that they manage to be successful. This success arrives to the audience as a result of each female character’s creativity, which is able to run wild in the diegesis and exist free from the shackles of societal expectations. This creativity would be impossible if the women were to prioritize normalcy over their idiosyncrasies. These idiosyncrasies would be useless if they were made to apologize for them. Splendidly imperfect, Adam Reed’s Archer does the simple work of reimagining how visual culture looks at working women and portrays their flaws, specifically, through the mad femme spy executive, Malory Archer.
Click here for works cited in "Malory Archer: Mad Femme Spy Executive of Tomorrow"