The Characters Of Archive 81, Ranked

Halfway through the very scary 4th episode of Netflix's surprise smash "Archive 81," an artist named Cassandra (Kristin Griffith) glibly observes, "[all humans] are performers — in one way or another." I concur, Cassandra! Humans learn to walk, talk, and do almost everything through imitation. All the world's a stage. What Rebecca Sonnenshine's show terrifyingly posits is that the act of performance opens anyone up to spirits that might move through them — creative or otherwise

In "Archive 81," the line between creative and otherwise is razor-thin. From Rebecca Thomas and James Wan to the white-hot team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, there are many talented filmmakers involved in "Archive 81" — all of whom have channeled terrors to screen on many occasions. But in the world of "Archive 81" and the Visser apartment complex that is its setting, the very act of watching or consuming art — not just making it — is a way of receiving spirits. To watch the show is to let its characters in and risk their entering your head and lingering there. And honestly? That's one of the primary reasons it's worth binging.

Here is a ranking of the best characters from "Archive 81."

14. Kaelego and John Smith (tie)

Both Kaelego and John Smith (Eden Marryshow) are triumphs in their own ways. The former is the malevolent entity at the heart of both the Visser apartment complex and the mysterious disappearance of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). His mere appearance is terrifying, and the show deploys him mercilessly. The demonic presence haunts the protagonists' dreams and thrusts his limbs through TV screens like Samara in "The Ring." 

Meanwhile, John Smith is a low-key character that suddenly becomes a menace. In Episode 1, he is merely the Visser's abrasive manager. By Episode 6, he's backhanding Melody's cheek and playing accessory to child endangerment. Marryshow sells the character's every shift, and the results of his work are terrifying.

So why are both characters bringing up the rear? "Archive 81" takes pains to explore (and explain) its characters' motivations. The show is as interested in why someone lets the devil in as it is in showing demons walk through that opened door. Still, we learn precious little of Smith or Kaelego's motivations. That isn't objectively bad, but it makes them both less fleshed-out and fascinating than many of the show's other key players.

13. Chris Lee

Living on borrowed time, Chris Lee (Zach Villa) is an addict sequestered on the Visser's sixth floor. He scrambles to purchase rehabilitation from Melody Pendras in the show's 5th episode, "Through The Looking Glass." Yet, as an artist lost to drugs, Chris also wants to buy his life back. It's been lost to a building that inspires many through what they believe to be divinity but is actually a supernatural mold. Chris, an abuser of this bizarre growth, just wants to untangle his existence from the building's omnipresent poison. Who on Earth could blame him? 

Many, apparently. Chris meets an unfortunate end at the hands of Samuel (Evan Jonigkeit) and his lackey before he can tell the truth or blossom into greatness. Still, the impression he leaves is indelible. The protagonists of "Archive 81" parse tapes for truth and document real life. That's what Chris wanted to do, and he doesn't sell his soul to accomplish it. Unlike the artists on the Visser's livable floors, Chris battles for his heart. Ultimately, that battle gets him killed. 

12. Bobbi

"Archive 81" is ostensibly two shows. Episodes 1 through 4 are a slow burn that builds from a chilling premise to a full-blown terror-fest. The season's second half, though, hues closer to Netflix's "Stranger Things," becoming a generation-spanning tale of emotional redemption that uses horror as a jumping-off point, not the endgame. The two halves are somewhat discordant, but the divergence in tone is a feature, not a bug — except for Bobbi (Jacqueline Antaramian). 

During the first half of "Archive 81," Bobbi is a red herring. She's a groundskeeper who may or may not be an ally of the insidious Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan). She might even be Dan's (Mamoudou Athie) hallucination. But by the show's conclusion, Bobbi is revealed to be a witch. Although Bobbi proves integral to "Archive 81" (she's Melody's Mom), it feels as though she's carrying the weight of a season's worth of plot developments. If the show wasn't teeing up a likely second season, it would seem that Bobbi existed solely to be a load-bearing device for narrative twists. Clearly, there's more coming for her, and that potential helps her rise up this list. The first season's story demands, however, cap her ascendance at No. 12.

11. Steven Turner

Steven Turner raised a good man.

That shouldn't necessarily be a character's defining trait, but it is what lingers about the psychiatrist played by Charlie Hudson III in "Archive 81." As seen through old video footage, Steven is connected to the Visser's sinister mythos. Yet, as remembered by Dan and Melody, Steven is a concerned and cautious man who remains open to the possibility of paranormal influence even as he holds on to logic. He takes massive risks to extract Melody from the Visser, and his research unlocks the plot to bring Kaelego back to Earth's realm. There's a lot that makes Steven notable.

However, it is his relationship with Dan that lingers above all else. Steven is killed in a housefire before Dan can truly come to know him, so the fact that he embodies so much of what made his father wonderful (his attention to detail, his quiet warmth, and his relentless pursuit of truth in the face of danger) bolsters our understanding of Steven. "Archive 81" doesn't have many opportunities to show Dan and Steven together, but the fact that it shows Steven through Dan is radically effective and telling. Steven is a good Dad on a show that sorely needs one. 

10. Iris Vos

Iris Vos (Georgina Haig) seemingly has it all.  A wealthy socialite living in New York City during the Roaring '20s, Iris and her family are buttressed against economic hardship. Whether they're staging extravagant parties or acquiring demonic statues, Iris' family has the means to pursue whatever impulse they please. 

However, in a cruel twist of fate, Iris is infertile. As a woman living in the 1920s, Iris' status and wealth can't buy more advanced medicine or quell omnipresent misogyny. Is it any wonder that she would be drawn to a pan-dimensional god who's capable of doing anything, including solving all of humanity's problems? 

"Archive 81" doesn't answer these questions. It lets them linger through Iris' every action from her acquisition of Kaelego's totem to her multiple acts of murder. Her humanity makes us realize how lost the Vos Society of the 1990s really is. Iris' predilection for violence reminds the audience that she's crossed too many lines to count. If Iris Vos can have it all and be that far gone, what hope do the rest of us have? 

9. Cassandra Wall

Insulated from the world, Cassandra Wall (Kristin Griffith) is an art collector. She invites objects and art of strange import and questionable power into her apartment, presenting them with a casual reverence that reveals the depths of her wealth.

Let's get something out of the way: Cassandra could crack the top 10 of this list based solely on the scare she anchors in Episode 3 of "Archive 81," "Terror in the Aisles." I don't jump easily, but there is a moment that hinges on Cassandra's icy stare (and then some) that sent me across my living room. It is riveting, incredible stuff. The power of this scene is a testament to the directing prowess of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and to Griffith's deeply-felt performance. It's proof Cassandra, with very little screen time, has established herself as a force for spine-tingling terror. 

Cassandra's most frightening trait is her privilege. It excuses her to behave inappropriately and has numbed her to all but the spirit world. Given her progressive past, Cassandra's story is a cautionary tale about how good intentions can blind one to burgeoning bigotry and menace. That makes her dangerous. 

8. Tamara

To talk about why Tamara (Kate Eastman) is fascinating, we have to look at where her story ends: She lets herself die out of spite.

That's not the only reason she's compelling. To be fair, Tamara is a true believer who has studied the ways of the Vos Society. Her art is entirely dedicated to Kaelego. Attending a seance and becoming the key to opening a door between dimensions, she spends the entire series getting as close to Kaelego and the spirit world as possible, 

Still, there's a pettiness in Tamara that's made her an early fan favorite. She loathes Melody Pendras. When Melody catches the eye of Tamara's paramour, the bookishly evil Samuel, she isn't shy about throwing shade Melody's way — even in the moment of her death. Tamara's attitude provides a fascinating (and necessary) counterpoint to the feverish devotion of the Visser's scarier residents. We're conditioned to think zealotry has a certain appearance and feel. Tamara is proof that blind devotion comes in many forms. Rest in peace, Tamara.  

7. Jess

There's a tendency in horror entertainment dealing with demonic possession to depict the person possessed as a victim who needs saving. Their agency is removed, and their humanity becomes merely a reason to root for the good guy trying to save them. That's not the case in "Archive 81." Yes, Jess Lewis (the precocious child played by Ariana Neal who is occasionally a vessel for Kaelego) does eventually need to be rescued by Melody Pendras. Yet, up until that moment, Jess is the driver of her own destiny. Every resident of the building (Vos Society members or otherwise) attempts to sway Jess to their side. She is often unmovable. Jess has grand designs and huge dreams for her life (that she charmingly shares on camera for Melody), and not even a sinister cult is going to get in the way of them. 

That's why Jess is so endearing and ranks high on this list. Although evil moves through her on more than one occasion, it motivates her to consider her situation. Jess will fight for herself whether anyone is there to help her or not, and that makes her a unique character both in "Archive 81" and in the horror genre as a whole. 

6. Mark

According to Aristotle, a true friend is virtuous. That often means having to share hard facts or tough love at an inconvenient moment or make sacrifices for those you are close to. Friends are a part of Aristotle's "good life." 

Therefore, it's easy to call Mark (Matt McGorry) an Aristotelian friend in the truest sense of the Greek philosopher's conception. In a show where almost every character has an ulterior motive or is swayed by dark spirits, Mark remains loyal. Despite offers from Virgil Davenport, the increasing madness of paranormal influence, and having to commute upstate to a terrifying mansion, Mark always comes through for Dan — not because he's in love with Dan but because he loves Dan as only a true friend can. Mark has nothing to gain from his devotion to his friend. Mark and Dan's friendship is lovely, uncomplicated, and deceptively deep. It's unlike any other relationship on the show.  

5. Samuel

Samuel's true identity in "Archive 81" is largely unknown. As Melody discovers in "Through the Looking Glass," Samuel has operated under multiple aliases and has a penchant for smooth deception. What is clear about Samuel is that he's a textbook gaslighter and manipulator. 

The ease with which Samuel tears into Melody's sanity over the course of "Archive 81" is scarier than any malevolent god, ghost, or otherworldly dimension the show employs. Samuel's beguiling cluelessness masks his evil intentions. He milks his good looks for all they're worth to gain both Melody and Tamara's trust. Samuel seems like the opposite of a true believer, and that is precisely why he proves so effective. 

When Dan's journey into the underworld ends with him facing down Samuel and not Kaelego, it's refreshing to the fullest. "Archive 81" always understands who its big bad really is and that human monsters are the scariest ones of all. 

4. Melody Pendras

If Melody didn't get swallowed up by the plot developments in the back half of "Archive 81," she might sit atop this list. A doctoral student whose project is more complicated than it appears, Melody is empathetic enough to connect with almost every resident at the Visser yet wise enough to exercise caution. She is steadfast in her aims even as horrific forces take hold of her. Early in the show, when she is navigating the Visser's spooky subculture, a crush on Samuel, and the complicating presence of her former roommate (and lover?) Anabelle (Julia Chan), Melody is as compelling as any heroine we've seen in horror TV in recent memory.

That said, "Archive 81" chooses, for the time being, to be Dan's story in its final installment and puts Melody through a ringer of nonstop twists and turns. Unfortunately, that temporarily stunts her growth as a character. I look forward to who she becomes in the likely second season of "Archive 81" when she can finally catch her breath. 

3. Annabelle

Every time Annabelle can zig on "Archive 81," she zags. That's a bit broad, so let's get specific. Annabelle is introduced as Melody's roommate and initially seems to be a minor character. Instead, she becomes integral to both the Visser and Melody's journey. Annabelle could have been jealous of Melody and Samuel. Nevertheless, she's encouraging. When Annabelle is poisoned with the mold at the heart of the Vos Society's plans and begins painting Iris' portrait manically and without end, she could reasonably lose her mind — but she doesn't

Instead, the portrait of madness Julia Chan portrays in depicting Annabelle's story gives insight into an artist who has communed with the chaos inside them. Though Annabelle lashes out at an art gallery owner in Episode 6, "The Circle," the core of her humanity never wavers. She doesn't sacrifice her soul to become great. She isn't transformed into a true believer just because she got a taste of fame. The Vos Society wants to summon Kaelego because he will purge the world of chaos. Annabelle is a counterbalance. Through her every action, Annabelle reminds the audience that to be chaotic is to be human. How we manage that disorder makes us who we are. Embrace the zags. 

2. Virgil Davenport

Virgil Davenport is an enigma. He is a man of means and consummate people skills whose source of wealth is a mystery and whose faith in people is slim. Walking into a room with him means trouble. And if he enters a room you're already in, it's too late — things have gone off the deep end.  

It's a testament to how rich, fascinating, and layered Virgil Davenport is that he can be a walking, talking sign of trouble and still be viscerally compelling. Davenport is transparent about the surveillance state into which he thrusts Dan. He hides less than he has to despite disguising the labyrinthian nature of both his company and what he knows about the Vos Society. There isn't a single thing he says during the season that I was willing to believe outright, but when more than half of his words rang true, I had to rethink the Virgil I thought I'd figured out.

That's why Virgil Davenport is so high up on this list. Every great mystery show needs a character whose puzzle is as intriguing as their endgame. Davenport, with his southern drawl and grinning sense of menace, is fantastic.

1. Dan

Dan Turner is a man out of his time. Spending his days searching for old TV footage on obsolete media, he belongs to a different era altogether. When he winds up back in the '90s at the season's end, it isn't surprising. It's almost fitting.

Yet, this is what makes Dan such a special character. There's a tendency to portray old souls as relics or individuals who are lost and out of sync with the world around them. In contrast, Dan seems to feel all of time at once. He is grounded in the present but transformed by the past. He takes advantage of modern tech even as retro devices prove useful to his pursuits. Dan is proof that the best of humanity is timeless. Through his quiet gestures, he invites all of us to watch more closely, dig more deeply, and live more honestly. He's a tremendous horror protagonist and "Archive 81's" best character.