TV, Interrupted: Archive 81 Is Missing A Whole Other Box Of Tapes

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

Nobody likes to see their absolute favorite shows on earth being abruptly canceled (read: NBC's "Hannibal" and Netflix's "Mindhunter," which is currently "on indefinite hold," whatever that means). However, when a slow-burn found-footage horror with an intensely interesting storyline is felled before it is even allowed to bloom, hell hath no fury like a woman ... etc.

I'm talking about Netflix's "Archive 81," which was suddenly canceled after its one-season run. To make matters more infuriating, season 1 had ended on a massive cliffhanger, pointing towards life-changing repercussions for the central characters. "Archive 81" was a horror narrative that hinged on its soundscape and suspense as opposed to overt jumpscares or plot contrivances, assimilating everything I love within a horror setting: temporal mix-ups, ominous cults, an interdimensional demon, and two characters connecting on a genuinely humane level.

"Archive 81" opens with archivist Dan (Mamoudou Athie) being plagued by some sort of familial trauma, leading him to channel his feelings via a shady footage restoration project for an even shadier multinational corporation. His aim is to restore a string of camcorder tapes filmed by a woman named Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), who mysteriously went missing after a fire at the Visser building in 1994. What seems like a monotonous, secluded job turns out to be a portal to nightmarish conjurings, especially when Dan realizes that he and Melody are more closely connected than he thinks.

Before I delve into the nitty-gritties of my (extremely strong) feelings about the show and its eventual (and unfair) cancelation, here's a spoiler warning for what you're about to read.

Why Archive 81 was great

The reasons why "Archive 81" elicited great promise as a gritty horror show are multi-pronged: it incorporated some really cool mixed medium to propel its gripping storyline, allowed its characters to grow without hopping on immediately to the next big thing, and offered compelling lore about the mysterious demon, Kaelego. Now, I love a good demon storyline — the more bonkers, the better — and "Archive 81" managed to set up the right mix of dread and insurmountable anxiety, especially via the many cults devoted to the 14th-century deity, who is clearly up to no good.

Shihabi's Melody was a dynamic character worth rooting for — though the queer erasure in terms of her sexual identity within the context of the podcast "Archive 81" is based on was disappointing, to say the least. Nevertheless, Melody's arc, right from the moment she steps into the Visser and is subjected to the unsettling occurrences that dominate the building, is pure slow-burn horror, replete with genuinely disturbing sonic and visual elements, that added to the thrill of watching someone else's story play out on found footage.

This window to Melody's world was the heart of the show, and the moments during which Dan and Melody communicate in a limbo state are absolute standouts. Dan's jarring realizations in the present deepen the central mystery, while he needs to combat isolation and the prying eyes of his boss, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), who harbors his own nefarious intentions. And oh, do not get me started about the Visser cult and the 1924 Vos Society — two storylines that meshed together perfectly, offering insight into the gullible nature of the human mind, and the innate desire to defy universal truths like grief, loss, and death.

Watching "Archive 81" for the first time evokes the constant emotion of "what the heck is happening?" in a solidly positive way, as the show mixes ancient mythology, real-life ritual practices, and the idea of an untrustworthy, interdimensional demon in a rather haunting manner. Small narrative details such as the otherworldly Kharonite, which induces madness and feverish creative expression in people who come in contact with it, added to the thrill of the show.

As for Dan's astounding cliffhanger towards the end, wherein he is accidentally transported back to 1994 as a survivor of the Visser fire, affecting temporal outcomes forever ... that storyline remains unresolved. Thanks, I hate it.

Why Archive 81 was canceled

Is there a practical reason behind the cancelation of Netflix's "Archive 81?" Not that we know of. The news of cancelation came as a surprise, for sure, as the show was positively received by both critics and audiences, with much excitement surrounding the potential plot for season 2. In fact, "Archive 81" secured the No.1 spot on the platform for U.S. viewers and even made it to Nielson's weekly Top 10 list after its release.

Showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine had expressed her gratitude to viewers after the cancelation of the show on her official Twitter, revealing that they had "cool ... Kaelego-lore" planned for season 2:

"Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who watched Archive 81. Thank you to the reviewers who were so kind and thoughtful. We're surprised and disappointed that we won't be doing another season (we had cool new stories/found footage/Kaelego-lore planned). I hope you'll remember us well!"

The fact that a potential second season of "Archive 81" would have involved more found-footage and greater insight into Kaelego as a demonic entity is a constant source of disappointment for fans, especially keeping the ending in mind. Sonneshire's influences were multifold, ranging from "The X-Files" to "Rosemary's Baby," granting the show a unique tint in terms of tone and feel, while a narrative about dimension-hopping and time travel was being etched from a historic-mythological perspective.

Given Netflix's track record of canceling unique storylines even before they premiere on the platform, "Archive 81's" cancelation is not surprising — but it sure is frustrating.

Unfinished business

Towards the end of "Archive 81," Melody's mother reveals that she and her daughter belong to the Baldung bloodline, making them integral to the rituals performed to invoke Kaelego and thin the veil between the Otherworld and our own. As Melody is trapped inside Kaelego's realm, Dan ventures in and extracts her out — only to be surprised by a lurking Samuel (Evan Jonigkeit), who hurtles Melody to the present while Dan somehow ends up in 1994. 

While Melody is reunited with her mother, she had been trapped inside a literal demon's realm for 25 years, which is bound to mess with her sense of reality and her direction in terms of what comes next. We never get to see how she might work out a way to rescue Dan, who remains stuck in the past for some reason.

Let's also talk about Samuel, the most cryptic, interesting character in "Archive 81." Jonigkeit is one of my favorite actors in horror, as he is known to play off-beat roles in horror gems like "The Night House" and "The Empty Man," and his presence in "Archive 81" adds to the heightened anxiety that the show aims to create. Samuel presents himself as a seer with a vision to "elevate" the human condition via communion with Kaelego's realm, however, his personal motivations remain as mysterious as ever. Why did Samuel separate Dan and Melody, and what was he doing inside the Otherworld all this time? How does his brother, Virgil, tie into the equation, and what does he eventually gain from all of this?

Apart from this, not enough is revealed about the Baldung coven, along with the details as to how they came to possess their abilities in the first place. Why is Baldung blood so special, and the only way to open the portal through the means of a ritualistic blood offering? Moreover, now that Melody had returned to the real world, she would inevitably have to dig deeper into her ancestral ties, and possibly her powers, and why Kaelego wanted to hold on to her grief so badly.

Will Archive 81 ever return?

While one should never say never, it seems like "Archive 81" will not return anytime soon, unless the show is picked up by another streaming service (Shudder would be a great platform for it, in my opinion). There has been no official word on season 2 so far, although Sonnenshine had revealed prior to the cancelation of "Archive 81" that the show was never meant to be an anthology series, as there were "more stories to tell" (via The Wrap):

"The idea is that we continue on with these characters into a new season, should we be so lucky to get a second season. It wasn't conceived as a one-season show. I think there are more stories to tell. I think we end on a good cliffhanger that needs to be addressed, and we introduce a lot of characters that surround Dan and Melody that have very rich and interesting lives to explore further. So yeah, we hope to keep going."

While this is a bummer, there's still plenty of content to be consumed when it comes to the world of "Archive 81." I'm talking about the original podcast the show is based on, created by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger, which currently has three seasons under its belt and offers a much more dynamic, creatively-fueled storyline than the show. The "Archive 81" podcast utilizes unique sound design to its advantage while evoking a cosmic horror-laden world in which grisly rituals are an everyday occurrence, and so are otherworldly entities.

At the very least, the podcast is more than enough to fill the "Archive-81"-shaped void in my heart, and I hope the series finds a way to return — much like Kaelego showing up uninvited to our corporeal realm.