It wouldn’t be an Archer episode without someone getting bullied into subservience. The seventh season’s third episode, “Deadly Prep,” is no exception, only this time, we see Sterling himself being reduced to a stuttering mess. It all starts when, hot off the botched Veronica Deane mission, the Figgis Agency is hired by a certain Richard Stratton the Fourth — a rich, besuited douchebag Sterling recognizes as Ivy, a vicious bully from his prep school days.
Decades after he nearly drowned an adolescent Sterling — or “Swirling” — into a prep school toilet, Ivy needs his old victim’s help. Wracked with terminal cancer, Ivy’s ready to pay Sterling a huge sum to kill him before the tumors get him first. Sterling’s conscience, still sore from years of abuse, doesn’t really object: He’s ready to pull the trigger when he realizes his gun isn’t pointed at Ivy at all — he’s actually about to kill Trent Whitney, an even more ruthless bully from prep school. Caught in a feud between the two men he hates the most, Archer winds up killing them both and making his escape together with a needy Cyril, tagging along at the last minute.
He’s got only one regret: Right after the shootout in the glass mansion, we get a glimpse of what was in Whitney’s safe: The Longwater files, including Veronica Deane’s private disc, right before they get blown to pieces.
Caught off-guard by his adolescent demons, Sterling is too rattled to muster up his characteristic bravado. Ivy has no idea that his old frenemy has become a world-class spy/drug dealer/private investigator, but by the looks of it, he hasn’t changed much: Archer’s still stumbling over his words — “Still got that stammer?” Ivy sneers — and feeling victimized. In a flashback, Archer recalls, ruefully, why didn’t make the varsity “lax” team freshman year. He was a scrawny, pale teen cornered in the prep school field house, held up by his ankles over a toilet full of piss. Ivy and Whitney, three years older, take turns punching his gut; breaking young Archer’s nose with a final blow to the face, Whitney howls, “You think I won’t beeping kill you?” Choking on his blood, Archer is lowered headfirst into a bath of urine, and he loses consciousness. That final swirly resulted in a year-long case of pneumonia (no, it wasn’t “complications from AIDS,” Archer clarifies) and a decades-long plan for revenge.
All that pent-up adolescent angst comes bubbling up in the episode’s final, thrilling car chase. Cyril’s egging Archer on, reminding him that he’s been running from his bullies his whole life (here, we get a sweet glimpse of Cyril’s deliciously sick revenge fantasies, in which he “puts the lotion in the basket”). As his racing car clings precariously to the L.A. mountainside, Archer leaps onto Ivy’s convertible. “Imagine what it was like,” he says, punctuating his words with swift right hooks to Ivy’s face, “for a lonely, skinny 15-year-old kid, who’s been to 63 boarding schools since he was five. Hint: It wasn’t great.”
Meanwhile, Archer and Lana are in the midst of deciding where to send young Abijean to “pre-pre” (school, that is). Mallory has totally dismissed the prospect of sending her granddaughter to public school — “Instead of a lemonade stand she can have a teeny little stripper pole!” — but the memory of prep school’s twisted elitism forces Archer to reconsider. Though he tells Cyril he’s learned nothing from his revenge rampage, it’s hard not to feel like he’s selling himself short: Archer’s evolving, whether he realizes it or not, and watching the process has been endlessly surprising.