The highly anticipated supernatural thriller Archive 81, loosely based on the podcast of the same name, has finally arrived on Netflix! We’re diving into Archive 81 episode 1, “Mystery Signals,” with a comprehensive recap and breakdown.
The episode’s title is a reference to the in-universe podcast Mystery Signals hosted by Dan’s best friend, Mark Higgins (Matt McGorry). The first time we meet Mark, he’s recording a new episode that deals with another dimension.
Mark spends a lot of time studying the supernatural, including everything from pirate radio station signals to demon sex cults. Given what happens in this episode, we can draw immediate parallels from the title and the content, especially as “alternate dimensions” are mentioned twice, once by Mark and once by Jess.
Then the opening of Archive 81 episode 1 introduces us to Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) in a brief look at the footage she took while at the Visser in 1994. The footage shows a desperate Melody begging for help in finding someone named Jess, but more on that later.
Archive 81 episode 1 recap: Who is Dan Turner?
After the opening credits, we meet Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), one of our main protagonists. Dan is a videotape archivist who carefully restores old VHS tapes and cassettes. Not only does Dan restore videos for work, but he also enjoys hunting for lost footage to add to his extensive collection. The first scene we see with Dan shows him purchasing a few tapes from a street vendor who pawns off footage he gets from auctions and old storage facilities.
Dan and the vendor are on a first-name basis, indicating how often Dan visits. Most of the tapes feature labels with blurry titles like Dances with Wolves from the days people would record movies on television with their VHS players. But considering their age, you never really know what you’re going to get.
In the past, Dan’s gotten everything from 16 hours of a T-ball tournament to an “uncut version of Phantasmagoria off channel 7″—which appears to be something made up for the show. However, the term “phantasmagoria” is a real concept that typically refers to bizarre and scary imagery shown using projection techniques, like what you might see used at Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction. I doubt that’s on accident.
At work, Dan receives two videotapes from two different women to restore. The first comes from Evie Crest, whose father, William Crest, died with many of his tapes subsequently disappearing. Evie hopes Dan can restore one she managed to get her hands on. It’s a clip from a 1958 horror anthology acted by William called The Circle that never made it to air. We see a short clip that shows characters conducting a ritual of some sort.
Archive 81 episode 1 recap: Dan gets a lucrative job offer
The second tape comes from Karen, who works for the mysterious company LMG. That tape, circa 1994, serves as Dan’s first introduction to Melody, showing Melody chatting with one of her friends about her plans to create an oral history on the Visser building as part of her doctorate thesis. From there, Dan conducts a little research into the Visser building and learns it burnt down in 1994, leaving six injured and 13 people unaccounted for.
Thanks to his excellent work, Dan is extended a personal invitation to LMG, where he meets Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan). It’s hard not to infer something from the name “Virgil,” a name shared with the poet who guides Dante through the nine circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno.
Virgil offers Dan a lucrative job opportunity. Restore an archive of tapes they discovered at the Visser after it burnt down, and he’ll get paid $100,000. But the catch is he’ll have to do his work at a remote facility in the Catskills to ensure nothing happens to the tapes. Dan, an admittedly paranoid and private person, is immediately taken off guard because Virgil mentions a connection between Visser and Dan’s past—both involve a fire.
Archive 81 episode 1 recap: Did Melody know Dan’s family?
We find out that Dan’s family died in a fire years ago and he’s disturbed that Virgil knows that since the fire isn’t public knowledge. But Dan can’t help himself. He’s inextricably drawn to Melody’s story, and upon taking a second look at the brief clip he has access to, he notices a picture of Melody and a dog that looks suspiciously like his old family dog, Cleo, pinned to her mirror.
What are the odds that some random graduate student from the 1990s was hanging out with Dan’s old dog? Mark points out that it doesn’t seem likely, but Dan believes it is his dog because he recognizes the collar, one he saved up money to buy for Cleo as a kid. It’s enough to get Dan to accept the job if only to learn more about Melody.
As Virgil noted, the facility is as remote as it gets, plus it doesn’t even have internet, and the cell service is spotty at best. But they do have a landline and a panic button if Dan gets injured or has another mental break, so that’s something.
Archive 81 has already established that Dan has a history of mental illness and paranoia, something Virgil knows because they conducted an extensive background check into Dan’s life, much to his annoyance. Being alone in a place like this for who knows how long as he investigates a creepy old story doesn’t seem like it’ll be in his best interests.
Archive 81 episode 1 recap: Melody’s first few days at the Visser
Archive 81 episode 1 takes us to 1994, where we see the start of Melody’s time at the Visser. Her first day at the apartment building isn’t as welcoming as she’d like. An employee named John Smith (yes, that’s his real name!) shows Melody to her room and warns her to stay away from the sixth floor before leaving her to her own devices. During her first night at the Visser, Melody wakes to an eerie song mixed with some disturbing chanting and rhythmic huffing coming up through the vents.
The next day, Melody has better luck after she meets Jess (Ariana Neal), someone we know will become essential to the story based on how this episode opened. Jess is a young and ambitious kid who does a lot of miscellaneous errands and tasks for the residents of the Visser. Melody hires her for $25 a week to introduce her to the residents, starting with Tamara Stefano (Kate Eastman), an opera composer who scored that unsettling tune we heard the night before.
The score is called “Purgatory,” and it’s meant to sound like human suffering. When it’s performed at the opera, the singers even wear scary white masks to go along with it. Not long after the music starts, Melody has a physical reaction to it, almost passing out. Why does the song affect her so much but not Jess or Tamara?
After talking to Tamara, Melody decides to interview Jess and learns she was actually born in the Visser. Then a playful Jess flips the tables on Melody and asks her why she’s exploring this building. Melody notes that before the Visser, another building in this exact spot also burnt down. Interesting. She doesn’t go into much more detail before Jess starts acting weird, saying that “something” pulled the residents of the Visser here and then looking off into the distance before collapsing into a seizure.
Archive 81 episode 1 recap: What is happening to Jess? Who is Samuel?
Back at the facility, Dan watches all of this unfold via the restored footage. With Jess seizing, the camera becomes distorted and turns to static in which Dan sees a terrifying entity or creature of some kind appear. Seriously spooked, he bolts out of the facility, desperate to find a place where he calls Mark from his cell. He had already tried the landline once and quickly realized that it was being monitored.
Seeing as Dan is without the internet, Dan asks Mark to look up the composer Tamara Stefano. Dan recognized Tamara’s score from the tape but isn’t sure how.
Via flashback, we see a young Dan and his sister playing the same song on the piano. For some reason, Dan’s father gets scared and angry when he hears them playing it. Not long after, Dan takes Cleo on a walk. Young Dan returns to find his family home on fire! All of this has to be related somehow.
When he returns to his work, Dan manages to fix the next tape, and it picks up shortly after Jess’s seizure, no more creepy face in the static. Did Dan imagine it?
Archive 81 episode 1 recap: Who is Dan’s father? Why was he at the Visser?
Next, Melody continues her interview with Jess, who starts talking about all kinds of strange things, like another dimension, “like this one, but different.” She also mentions someone named Samuel, who we haven’t yet met. Jess asks Melody if she thinks she could ever be more than an outcasted kid.
“Do I seem strong enough to hold a new world inside of me?” What could that mean?
Seconds later, the tape skips over to that frantic footage we saw at the episode’s beginning showing Melody pleading for whoever sees the video to find and help her because someone took Jess. Several men, including John Smith, close in on Melody as if she’s crazy, and then from the hallway, someone steps out into the corridor: Dan’s father! What was he doing at the Visser? How did he know Melody? Virgil has to know about Dan’s dad; is that why he recruited him?
And, as expected, the episode ends by showing Virgil at LMG watching everything at the compound via cameras. So for once, Dan’s paranoia is 100 percent justified.
Odds & Ends from Archive 81 episode 1
- The character Jill is mentioned a few times throughout this episode. Jill seems to be Dan’s ex-girlfriend. It’s not yet clear how she is relevant to the story.
- Dan finds a rat in the facility and ends up saving it and keeping it as a pet after trying to trap it. At least he won’t be completely alone in there anymore, I guess?
- Before leaving, Melody asks John about a woman named Julia Bennett, someone she’s trying to reconnect with: who is Julia, and why is she so important to Melody?
- Archive 81 has lots of easter eggs and references throughout its eight-episode run, this episode gives us a nod to The Shining, (Mark jokingly refers to Dan as Jack Torrance), and we see Dan watching Solaris. We’ll get into those connections and more later in follow-up pieces, so stay tuned to 1428 Elm!
- While browsing through the bookshelves at the facility, Dan finds a composition notebook filled with handwritten notes that you’ll want to keep in mind for later.
- I found it interesting that the symbols Melody notices on the Visser building (triangle in a circle) looked pretty similar to the etching on the ground in The Circle footage.
- While outside talking to Mark, we see someone in a red hoodie watching Dan from the trees.
Archive 81 season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.