Pam Poovey: A Lesson in Subverting Stereotypes

Following on from last week’s blog about Lana Kane, this week I want to discuss one of my other favourite Archer characters, Pam Poovey.

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When I watched Archer for the first time I initially wrote Pam off as just another ‘fat girl’ stereotype. She’s the head of HR at ISIS (International Secret Intelligence Service) and seems to take her job seriously, but given that none of her co-workers take her seriously her effectiveness is limited.

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Once the show got off the ground Pam slowly got more and more badass. They hint in episode two that she’s bisexual when she watches Lana walking past–

 Cheryl: …are you totally just gay for her?

Pam: I’m the Human Recources Director, little miss ‘hostile work environment’.

Cheryl: [whispers] she’s riddled with herpes.

Pam: Hey! Innapropriate workplace topic! … and also a dealbreaker.

 She gets steadily more inappropriate from here, egged on by Cheryl who’s just plain nuts. The episode Skytanic begins the long-running trope of Pam and Cheryl turning up unexpectedly on away missions; over the run of the show they’ve snuck aboard a ridged airship, a space shuttle and a submarine. In Skytanic, Cheryl tricks Pam into sneaking aboard the airship and at first she’s angry about it, but her attitude toward these things completely changes by the end of the season.

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The episode that I see as being Pam’s real turning point, in the eyes of both her co-workers and the audience, is season two episode ten – El Secuestro. It begins with Pam and Cheryl walking to work and being attacked by a bunch of guys in balaclavas. They’re trying to kidnap Cheryl but grab Pam by mistake. Cheryl is then forced to reveal to her co-workers that she is in fact an heiress, and hires ISIS to protect her and recue Pam. Pam, to her credit, copes with being kidnapped fairly well.

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Kidnapper 1: [Looking at Pam’s identification] You idiot! This isn’t Cheryl Tunt!

Pam: That’s what I’ve been trying to tell ya, between this little gal’s love taps.

[Kindapper 2 punches her in the face]

Pam: Seriously, maybe see if your daddy will give you a roll of nickels.

Kidnapper 1: First of all, how are you still even conscious?

Pam: [Laughing] How do ya think I paid for college?

[Flashback to a few years ago, Pam is wearing a white tank top and is splattered with blood. She’s counting money.]

Pam: Two-sixty, two-eighty, and Jackson makes three. And sorry about your homie…homies.

[Camera pans out to show Pam surrounded by a bunch of tough looking dudes, and a body covered with a sheet at her feet.]

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Yeah, Pam kicked arse at underground fighting to pay her way through higher education.

Anyway, when Mallory tells the kidnappers that she’ll only give them $5000 for their hostage they decide they should probably kill Pam, until she convinces them that she’s the only person who can help them kidnap Cheryl. Once they break into the ISIS underground car park they make like they’re going to shoot her again, but Pam keeps her cool.

Kidnapper: Hey, thanks for getting us inside, Pam. Somebody shoot her.

Pam: Oh, okay. Then good luck getting past all the biometric scanners. I mean, unless you wanna chop off my fingertips and slice out my retinas.

[silence]

Pam: Oh, don’t be dicks.  

Instead once they break into the building, the kidnappers decide to use Pam as a hostage/human shield.

Kidnapper: Drop your weapons or she dies!

[Archer, Lana and Ray raise their weapons higher and take aim]

Pam: Oh, seriously?!

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This leads to a firefight. All of the kidnappers die except for the one holding on to Pam. He steps back and raises his hands in surrender, but Pam has finally had enough. She snaps the guy’s neck.

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Pam: Do you people even give a shit? Cheryl’s dumb ass gets me kidnapped and the shit kicked out of me all day and nobody even tries to rescue me?!

Ray: Archer’s fault.

Archer: Shut up.

Pam: YOU shut up! Mr ‘Pam’s not worth it’! Then you stupid a-holes shoot a jillion stupid a-hole bullets at me.

Mallory: Not me! I wasn’t shooting!

Pam: Aaaand YOU! [Pam advances on Mallory, poking a finger into her chest] The worst of the bunch.

Mallory: Me? Why me?

Pam: Five thousand measly dollars?

Mallory: Well, maybe I low-balled him at first but I had some wiggle room!

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Pam: Yeah? Well let’s see how much you wiggle when I’m whippin’ five thousand bucks of your ass!

Lana: Hey, woah!

Archer: Lana, let her have this one.

Mallory: Sterling! Anybody?

Pam: Yeah? Anybody? [Pam pulls off her tank top, revealing a Lord Byron poem tattooed across her back] Anybody want a piece of this?

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[Long pause]

Lana: Nope.

 

This is the episode where all of the tiresome fat jokes directed at Pam finally turn around- Pam is a certifiable badass, and she only gets more awesome as the series continues.

Aside from having sex with everyone in the core cast, and Archer saying that she is the best he’s ever been with, Pam also has a rich life outside of the office, which you rarely get to see for secondary characters.

In season three, episode seven, Drift Problem, Archer gets a supped-up Dodge Challenger for his birthday. When it goes missing he asks Lana for help infiltrating the gangs that steal the best cars in the city, but it turns out that Pam knows way more about this topic than anyone else. Why? Because Pam races drift cars with the Yakuza. Not only does Archer have to pretend to be Pam’s subordinate, he has to trust her to rescue them by driving like a pro.

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By this point she’s finally able to come out of her shell and, like all of the other characters, finally be herself. Pam is confident in herself as a sexual being, something which Mallory struggles with. In season three, episode ten, Crossing Over, Mallory is upset because she never gets to go out anywhere with her boyfriend Burt Reynolds (yes, really). Apparently she thinks it’s because he’s ashamed to be seen with her, and he wants to keep their relationship quiet. During this episode Pam is going through the same thing with Archer, but she doesn’t mind at all.

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Pam: My point is, if you’re confident in yourself as a woman, who cares if he wants to keep it on the D.L?

Mallory: Well, yes, but…

Pam: But nothin’, because who’s to say you’re not using him for sex?

Mallory: Pam, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not nearly as stupid as you look.

 

Pam then goes to see Archer again, but she lays down some ground rules. We don’t know what they are, but that she has no trouble with a secret friends-with-benefits relationship and she’s able to keep Archer in line shows remarkable fortitude and self-possession.

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Still, you can’t have a character who’s only identifiers are being the tough and sexually-adventurous fat chick who makes gross-out jokes. Really good character depth comes from vulnerability and insight, which we get to see in season five, the Archer: Vice series. In this series ISIS gets shut down by the government, so they decide to try running cocaine. Unfortunately, Pam gets hooked on their product. Her cocaine addiction causes rapid weight loss, but it doesn’t properly get talked about until episode five, Southbound and Down.

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This episode is one of my favourites for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a parody of one of Archer’s favourite movies, Smokey and the Bandit. When they have to drive a tour bus from New York to Texas in 24 hours, Archer buys a Trans Am for a blocker car and dresses up like Burt Reynolds. They get chased by bikers and cops. Cheryl (now called Shirleen) sings ‘Eastbound and Down.’ It’s beautiful.

Secondly, while Archer and Pam are trying to outrun the cops in the blocker car, they have this beautifully written exchange.

Pam: Oh my God, I can’t feel my face.

Archer: Gee Pam, I wonder if that’s got anything to do with your cocaine only diet.

Pam: Well…It’s a small price to pay for beauty.

[…]

Archer: Back up a sec. You’re endangering your life for beauty?

Pam: Yes. Duh! Look, how hot am I now? Let me answer that for you: AS BALLS. That’s why everybody likes me now.

Archer: Who, your trucker buddies? They only like you because you have coke, Pam.

Pam: Well, and the snowballs, but…

Archer: And for what it’s worth, we all kinda liked you the way you were.

Pam: Really?

Archer: Well, we hated you less. You’ve kinda turned into a ginormous asshole.

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Pam: Yeah, with ginormous big tittays!

Archer: Pam, who cares? That’s just subcutaneous adipose tissue. Albeit a shitload of it. But I can’t bang you if you die from an overdose.

Pam: Aw, you wanna bang me?

Pam spends the rest of the season addicted to coke or, as she calls herself, ‘a cocaine enthusiast.’ She becomes skinnier and more emaciated until finally, in the next season she goes to a therapist and kicks the cocaine habit. She replaces it with food and sex, so really she’s back at square one, but at least she’s not endangering her life.

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We also get hints throughout the series about Pam’s childhood growing up on a dairy farm. Aside to numerous references to Poovey farms cropping up throughout the show, in the final episode of the Vice season Pam helps Lana give birth in a war zone, because she has helped plenty of cows (and her sister) give birth in a barn.

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We get to learn more about Pam’s family in season six, episode four Edie’s Wedding. The episode begins with Pam crying because her sister is getting married and she asked Pam to be a bridesmaid. Pam is upset because she has no date. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for our self-assured Pam but, as we come to empathise through the episode, going back home to the people who judged you throughout your vulnerable teen years can make you feel fragile all over again. Archer volunteers to go with her to the wedding with barely any prompting, because Pam is his friend and she’s visibly upset.

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Unfortunately, when Archer and Pam get to Wisconsin, Pam and her sister Edie revert to the same roles they had as teens- with Edie tearing shreds off of Pam and Pam not being able to defend herself. But, right before the rehearsal dinner, Pam gets kidnapped by Barry (a cyborg working for the Russians who has a vendetta against Archer). When Archer and Edie eventually find Pam, Barry has strung her up with ropes in an old grain barn. While Barry is beating the crap out of Archer, Pam asks her sister for help.

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Pam: Edie! Cut me down!

Edie: Oh boy, where to start… Even in a new dress, you still look like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. The whole town thinks you’re a giant asshole for moving to New Your City.

Archer: [while being thrown around by Barry] You can just say New York.

Edie: Oh, and Dad was right, you’ll never find a husband unless you convince a blind man that you’re a seeing-eye pig.

Pam: [Sobbing] I meant cut me down from here!

Edie: Yeah. Duh.

Barrie: [While trying to crush Archer’s skull with his bare hands.] Yeah, but you know you’re no prize, right?

Edie: Excuse me?

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Edie then tackles Barry, who easily overpowers her and begins to strangle the life out of her. Using sheer strength and willpower, Pam manages to literally break out of her bonds, pick up a shotgun and shoot Barry in the chest and face, rescuing her sister. Edie doesn’t thank them. She just tells Pam, yet again, that she’ll never find a husband.

The end of the episode, however, is sweet. Edie gets a phone call saying that the wedding is off, because her fiancé got tired of waiting for her at the rehearsal dinner and wound up getting a blow job from Midge Olerude (Edie’s best friend, and the girl who did the same to a guy Pam liked back in high school just to upset her).

Pam is finally happy. So is Archer.

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Yes, Pam could try rising above her awful sister’s behaviour and hurtful barbs, but Pam isn’t written to be perfect. The writers for Archer begin with awful people as characters and have them very slowly overcome their flaws, but also try and explain their flaws to a certain extent. They also begin with stereotypes (the sad fat woman, the angry black woman, the deranged scientist, the sassy gay man, the man-child with mummy issues) and then set out to subvert them. These methods create compelling, layered characters that keep the show interesting for seven seasons and beyond.

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Lana Kane: A Lesson in Subtle Character Development

I’d like to take this moment to state that while good female role models are necessary, not every female character has to be a good person. I’d rather watch a funny show where everyone is flawed than something that puts women up on pedestals. I’ll also be the first to admit that Archer is a fucked up show. A cartoon by FX Network, the show follows the world’s number one secret agent Sterling Archer and his mal-adjusted co-workers. Episodes equally revolve around the character’s personal lives as well as the inner-workings of the International Secret Intelligence Service… or ISIS (yeeeah…this show is about seven years/seasons old).

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The agency is run by Sterling’s mother, Mallory, and the two have one of the most messed-up relationships on TV. Sterling is an overgrown man-baby, but as the show goes on he does change and grow. Still, after seven seasons you’d want the characters to show some growth, otherwise the concept gets stale.

The characters in Archer spend a lot of time tearing each other to shreds, but they all still manage to triumph in their own ways. The comedy comes from a mix of witty one-liners, completely ridiculous situations, and from the cast’s mix of personalities, not from lazy writing.

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Take Pam, for example. She starts out kind of how you’d expect; made fun of for being overweight and conventionally ‘un-fuckable,’ but by the end of the show’s run she has slept with everyone in the office, is revealed to be a fierce bare-knuckle boxer, drift-races against the Yukuza and rescues her sister from being murdered by a psychotic robot.

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Anyway, one of the best characters is Lana Kane, voiced by the magnificent Aisha Tyler. She’s a highly intelligent, tall, sexy black woman who kicks serious arse at her job. She carries two fully-loaded tech nine’s as a matter of course, which I normally wouldn’t count as a positive except her job makes it necessary.

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Lana is arguably the least mal-adjusted of all of the whole cast, but that doesn’t mean she lacks depth. She spends a lot of time reigning in Archer’s antics and making sure that they come through their missions in one piece. She’s incredibly smart and strong, but has a very short temper. This can probably be put down to growing up as a tall and gawky teenager, as she doesn’t tend to let insults slide. Having said this, she doesn’t just slip into the stereotypical ‘angry sassy black woman’ trope, and they don’t just make fun of her anger. The seven seasons (so far) show Lana trying to find the right balance between her work and her femininity, eventually having a child by IVF because dating is shitty when you work 24/7 and your office is full of jerks.

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At the beginning of the show she’s dating Cyril, the ISIS comptroller and resident wuss sack. I’ll admit, when I first watched Archer I felt bad for Cyril, but as time went on I came to the conclusion that although he seems kind and smooshy on the outside, on the inside he’s an entitled, misogynistic shit-bag. Yes, I know, Archer is also an entitled misogynistic shit-bag, but unlike Cyril Archer doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Cyril actually thinks he’s a nice guy and maintains that he’s nicer than his co-workers, but then he goes and does something super dickish like abandon his friends for dead or cheat on Lana or slut shame her or become a South American dictator and force a woman to marry him at gunpoint. But anyway, enough about Cyril the shitbag…

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Lana dates Cyril because he’s the exact opposite of Archer and she can control the parameters of the relationship. Cyril ends up cheating on her because he’s a hugely insecure jerk, a condition which he self-diagnoses as being a sex-addict, and Lana dumps him right away. When she finds out the extent of his cheating (season one, episode 10, Dial M for Mother) she exacts revenge specifically targeted at Cyril’s possessive ego.

Lana:  Okay, get out.

Cyril:  Of my own office?

Lana:  Yup.

Cyril:  Why?

Lana:  Oh, you don’t want to be here when I bang every last dude in the building…

Cyril:  WHAT?!

Lana:  Right here, on your blotter.

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Cyril:  NO!

Lana: Yuuup!

Cyril:  You can’t do that!

Lana:  Really? Is it opposite day already?

Lana then presses the intercom button and makes an announcement to the building –

Lana:  Hi, this is Agent Kane, and if you want to have ball-slappy sex with me on Cyril’s desk, please line up and take a number.

 A crowd immediately forms outside of Cyril’s office, and Lana charges them all $600 to say that she had sex with them.

Brett: Wait, what?

Lana: What what? What part of ‘you pay me $600 do you not get?”

Brett: The part where we don’t have sex?

Lana: You get to say we did, which is like half the reason men have sex

Brett: But that’s a lot of money

Lana: Not compared to rotator-cuff surgery, which you’re going to need after the jillion high-fives you give your little bros.

Brett: Okay, I’m in.

Lana’s condition with all of these guys is that the first person they tell is Cyril, and that they make up the sickest story they can think of, purely to get him mad. Because, dammit, he has no right to be petty and possessive and jealous of Lana after cheating on her multiple times.

So while the better course of action may have been for Lana to take the high road, she makes the low road look fantastic.

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Still, Lana eventually grows out of the need for petty revenge. By season four she decides she’s ready to start her own family, but given the void of stable men in her life she decides to get pregnant by IVF, which she finally reveals at the end of season four in the episode Sea Tunt part 2. After this her priorities change, as you’d expect. She still has her moments of being completely out of line, however, which proves she still has some growing to do. Take, for example, the first episode of Archer: Vice titled White Elephant.

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Lana:  I could start smoking crack TODAY and [the baby] would still turn out better than you!

Archer:  And why is that? Because I never had a father, Lana. So why don’t you shut up and then also marry me.

Lana:  Whaaat?

Archer:  I’m serious. We can go underground, get new identities and spend the rest of our lives together, Lana. Be a family. You, me the baby and your not-that-weird-looking vagina.

Lana:  Okay, don’t take this the wrong way… but I would rather lose the baby.

Archer:  But-..I…

Lana:  Wait that wasn’t… I didn’t…

Archer:  Excuse me.

Archer leaves the scene, visably hurt.

I actually like that they threw this in there, because it means that Lana doesn’t always say or do the right thing – despite her growth she is still a flawed character, and it keeps her relatable. She is completely out of line, and the expression on her face says that she knows this immediately, but there are some things you can’t take back. That Archer then comes back into the room and laughs, saying, “come on, you idiot” as though completely unfazed by what she said, but that doesn’t mean that Lana isn’t freaked out by her own behaviour.

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After her child is born at the end of season five (the Archer Vice series) Lana reveals to Sterling that he’s the father. After some initial panic, Archer actually steps up and tries to be a father, albeit in his own functional-alcoholic kind of way. He even agrees to meet Lana’s parents in the season six episode The Kanes. This episode is probably the most overt in Lana’s character progression, because she finally tells her parents what she and Archer do for a living. The following happens during a car chase through the streets of Los Angeles.

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Lana: You see? This is why I never told you! I knew you wouldn’t understand.

Dr Kane: Because you could have been a great scientist, Lana. How could you have just thrown away your God-given talent?

Lana: But it wasn’t my talent, Daddy. You and Mom just wanted it to be.

Dr Kane: Oh, come on now! You used to love going to all those science fairs!

Lana: I used to hate it! Remember I always threw up in the car on the way there?

Dr Kane: From excitement!

Lana: From terror! But I was always so afraid of letting you and Mom down that I could never tell you how I felt.

Dr Kane: Hey, come on now. You could never let us down, honey. I hope you know that.

Lana: Really? Dr Kane: Oh, Lana, we’ll always be proud of you, and we’ll always love you, even when you make stupid, stupid, stupid choices like him.

Dr Kane glares at Archer.

Archer: Aww. Well I think we’ve made some real progress here.

 During this same car-chase and shootout Dr Kane invites Archer to the Kane family reunion, because even though he’s an idiot he’s still the father of Lana’s child.

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So, since the start of the series Lana has been slowly learning to trust people again, especially Archer. But as Archer becomes less of a douche Lana is able to very slowly let her guard down.

Archer is a show that masks its character development behind horrific jokes and innuendo, but long-term viewers are rewarded with characters that grow and change by subtle degrees without losing their core personalities. This is more realistic than a lot of other characterisation – people don’t drastically change overnight. That all of the characters in Archer are seriously dysfunctional is less realistic, but it makes for great TV.

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