A while has passed since my last series review. The date was October 23 when I dissected Alice in Borderland. Fourteen posts later, I will delve into one of Netflix’s shining stars. I finished streaming Archive 81 last week. The eight-episode first season was released on 14 January. Eventually, it rose to the number one spot on NF. The story is based on a podcast and has supernatural elements. In all, an eerie atmosphere pervades the show as Dan Turner (the protagonist) tries to make sense of the past. He is hired to remaster the tapes that were destroyed in a New York apartment twenty years past.
The programme alternates between the present and a foreboding past. We are introduced to Melody Pendras, the grad student who shot the tapes. Cheery and idealistic, she moves into the Visser apartments to chronicle an oral history of the place. When she first enters, the groundskeeper warns her that the sixth floor is off-limits. She soon finds out that most of the residents are tepid at contributing to her project. Little Jess Lewis is a notable exception. Apparently, the teener runs errands for some recluses in the building. She becomes Melody’s primary source of info about the Visser.
In the first ep, a mysterious company named LMG hires Dan. He is your ordinary New Yorker: he takes the subway and comes from a diverse background. He is instructed to move into a research compound. He soon discovers in the tapes that his deceased dad had a connection with Melody. His job becomes personal, as he uncovers a connection between his deceased dad and Melody. His new workplace is remote, but he manages to call Mark, his friend. The latter, who has a podcast, pushes him to continue his work and peel his dad’s onions. Meanwhile, Melody becomes more acquainted with the rest of the shadows, including Samuel, who asks her out. Melody heard some weird chanting, ultimately tracing it to the basement. There, she sees Samuel and the whole building chanting before a statue.
Melody reveals the real reason of her stay: to find out about Julia Bennett, her lost biological mother. Someone told her that the absentee parent had lived at the Visser. She also meets Beatriz, a medium who performs a seance for the curious. When Julia tried to connect to her mother, Beatriz ends up bloodying her face. She is rushed for emergency surgery. The scene made me remember one from Alita: Battle Angel. When the baddie was hurt, he clutched at his physiognomy, screaming, ‘My face!’ My ex-neighbour, who was beside me, chortled. Props though to Beatriz for giving a really ominous turn, especially while repeating Dan and Melody’s conversation word for word. I wonder if that happens in real life…
As Melody continues to document the events, the situation with the worshippers worsens. One of the residents, one Mrs Wall, calls them a cult while giving Annabelle (Melody’s pal) a jar of paint. The latter, previously so skeptical of the edifice, suddenly takes to painting portraits of the same woman. Her work is later exhibited in a gallery, which she detests. When a painting of hers is sold, she tries to take it back. Melody is told that there’s something wrong with the building. There is also an appearance by Fr Russo, a Catholic priest. He interprets Jess’s seizures as the work of the devil. This, he tries to exorcise the demons, which disgusts Melody. Meanwhile, Dan makes grim discoveries of his own – not just from the past but in his temporary workplace. Mark becomes indispensable as Dan navigates this enigma.
Towards the end of the season, things become clearer. We learn why Melody was led into the building. We glean who Annabelle is drawing about, and what is really in the moss-like paint. We even get to see Annabelle one last time, as an old maid that still paints. We realise why Melody wasn’t killed in the fire and where she’s at currently. We comprehend why fires destroyed the Visser and the mansion that stood before it. There is even a time warp to 1924, where the previous owner sacrificed a lamb. This comprises the snuff film that residents have been searching for.
We understand the connection of Virgil, Dan’s boss, to the tapes, why he was so intent on getting them retouched. The tapes bridge the gap between Dan’s family’s demise and his employer’s lust for answers. The protagonist spots a nexus between the Visser, his family, and Virgil. We likewise grasp Dan’s predecessor, who lost his mind trying to get some answers. The difficult work and the isolation ultimately got to him. We uncover the identity of Melody’s mom. Apparently, she has been there all along. The ceremony, a big part of the process, is once again captured, this time with better equipment.
A scattershot approach
The series is a bit of everything: scares, thrills, retro, mystery, drama, and surrealist. The shifting between past and present adds colour to the narrative. Like all good mysteries, it keeps you hooked until the very end. In particular, there is a Ring-like scene where a monster charges out of a computer monitor. The infusion of imbalance and absurdity cements the series’s uniqueness. The whole season is not just about finding answers or investigating cults or resurrecting lost history. The main character contends with loneliness and anguish as he treks a very desolate situation. At times, he seems like the last man on earth, guarded by a mysterious lady. He finds solace in the tapes and falls in love with his subject. The viewer could cull that he’s good at his job – regardless of his flaws.
This was my first encounter with most of the cast. I learned that Mamoudou Athie (Dan) is an immigrant from the Sahara. He gave quite the convincing turn. Meanwhile, Dina Shihabi (Melody) is Saudi-born. Julia Chan (Annabelle Cho) is of Asian descent as well, while there is an Aussie among the cast. Martin Donovan plays Virgil and his veteran’s moves are clearly on display. The show is rated very highly on review sites. The first season closed in a cliffhanger. No doubt, the show’s got some capable writers AND cast members.
The series does deal with some issues, including privacy, death, loyalty, and religious freedom. One thing that isn’t as highly discussed: living in an apartment. I guess it’s not an issue in itself but it shows that, as early as 1991, being in the wrong place could spell down. Having decent neighbours is a boon, just as having abusive neighbours is a curse. The situation is merely a stand-in. It doesn’t have to be New York and a cult. While money motivates people like Dan, they end up searching for the truth. These are merely metaphors to consider as we traverse another year.