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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