When I need background noise while writing, more often than not I turn to The Office. And rewatching a show as often as I have means you have thoughts and opinions.
These are the last of mine.
Preparing for the End
The final episode of The Office takes place one year after the release of the documentary (which happened in the previous episode), as the crew returns to Scranton (just in time for Angela and Dwight’s wedding) to film some bonus material for the DVD. I could spend this last Office blog just walking you through all the ups and downs, twists and turns that lead to that point, but instead I want to talk about endgames. When you know you’re into your final season, you get to decide how you want to go out. Where the final leg of the journey is going, and where your characters will be at the end of it. Clark becomes Superman, Buffy destroys the Hellmouth (and Sunnydale), JD leaves Sacred Heart, the humans and Cylons make peace and settle on a new… no, screw it, God doesn’t know what was happening in that finale. Then, you figure out the best way to get there.
No one in The Office’s ensemble gets neglected in season nine, even the new guys, but the big finale of The Office was always going to revolve around the leads, or at least the firsts among equals in the cast. With Michael gone (and Ryan, who despite being in the opening credits, was never really a “lead”), that’s Dwight, Jim, Pam, and Andy. Now, as melancholy as the early seasons were, and as ongoing a theme as self-deception was, they weren’t going to go out on a sad note like the entire branch being shut down or something. The melancholy days were well past by now. Greg Daniels himself moved past them before stepped back from showrunner after season four. Jim and Pam were together, Michael had met Holly, and the threat of downsizing was massively reduced, if not yet gone completely.
Not everyone gets a happy ending, no. Andy, as we discussed, is at most bittersweet, and his ending best fits the theme of self-deception. Sorry to jump back on Andy, but my latest rewatch has been opening my eyes to the fact that, despite his actual vocal talent, Andy’s not actually that good at a capella. Witness his “guitar solo” in season five’s “Heavy Competition,” his reliance on “Root doo da doo” and awkward falsetto, or just how much worse his attempted father/son duet in “Garden Party” is compared to Walters Sr. and Jr. And in the name of Buddha and all his wacky nephews, for his make-or-break reality show singing audition, he picked the Cornell fight song? Oh, Nard-dog. Success was never yours to claim.
Where was I. Right. Some characters don’t even get an “ending,” per se, because Dunder Mifflin lives on and some people (Phyllis, for instance) just keep on as they were. But they were still aiming for a big, heartwarming ending, and that required two ingredients: Jim and Pam happy ever after, and Dwight K. Shrute as regional manager.
At least, I’m 90% sure that was the plan. After all, Dwight’s British equivalent, Gareth, ended up manager.
So… let’s see how they got there.
Jim and Pam: Marriage in Crisis
As I’ve said in the past, nothing they threw at Jim and Pam’s relationship ever felt like a legitimate threat. Distance only made their hearts grow fonder. No outsider could ever lure them away from each other, be it Mad Men’s Rich Sommer or… Cathy? That was her name, right? Man. She’s like the Silence from Doctor Who, once she’s out of your eyeline you forget she was there…
So in order to create a real conflict for the Halperts to drive their final story, they had to get a little more creative. They had to create a situation in which neither of them is 100% right, neither is 100% wrong… but one of them has to lose. That situation? Athlead.
An old college buddy of Jim’s decides to push forward with a sports marketing company he and Jim had discussed back in the day, and Jim, staring down the barrel of spending the rest of his days selling paper, decides to reverse what he and Pam had decided and jump in. The catch? In addition to soaking up $10,000 of their savings (instead of $5000, which Pam had eventually agreed to), the new company is in Philadelphia. Which would mean uprooting the family and leaving both Dunder Mifflin and Scranton.
And Pam did not spend nine years with Roy because she’s great at change.
In the premiere, while Jim is seeing Pete’s lack of life plan and wondering what happened to all of his own career dreams, Pam is telling Dwight “I happen to like my boring life, and will do what I have to to keep it.” Admittedly she was saying this to explain why she wasn’t going to help with an extremely dangerous and ill-thought-out high wire routine, but still, here we have the seed of their conflict.
And before you leap onto Jim’s side, and I know how easy to do that is, he did not really consult Pam. He joined the company without asking Pam (or more accurately, after Pam and he had agreed against it), doubled their investment without asking Pam, then started living in Philadelphia for half the week, leaving Pam alone with their two young children. Pam was kind of an afterthought in Jim’s new big career/lifestyle, and wow, I have been staunchly pro-Jim in this plot for years but I’m starting to talk myself out of it.
Also Brian the boom mic guy clearly had a thing for her but that didn’t really go anywhere.
The Athlead situation comes as close to splitting up Jim and Pam as anything had since her wedding to Roy drove him to Stamford. At what seemed like the 11th hour, Jim, who had been torn between his dream career and his dream wife, had a moment of clarity as to which of those he could live without, and stepped away from the company he helped found to rededicate himself to his wife and kids. And to subtly pranking the newly promoted Dwight.
Which led to a revelation for Pam. Between disbelief from Darryl (who Jim took with him to Athlead) that Jim could really be happy selling paper, hearing that the company was finally becoming a big success but Jim was passing on being part of it, and seeing him regress from having pride an ambition in his work to slacking off and devoting his energies to pranking Dwight, she had a revelation of her own. Jim saw what Athlead might cost him, Pam saw what asking him to stay at Dunder Mifflin meant giving up. But Jim, being confident in his choice, enlists the Documentarians in pulling off a reassuring gesture you just need to see.
That said. Having seen that Jim was willing to sacrifice his dream career for her, Pam decided that maybe she could sacrifice her safe, stable, boring Scranton life to take a risk with him (even before the fans at the reunion panel PBS organized were firmly Team Jim). Pam sells their house (with the help of Michael’s ex, Carol), and the Halperts leave not for Philadelphia but Athlead’s (now Athleap) new home in Austin, Texas. All is well for the Halpert family.
So they kind of pulled a Gift of the Magi. In order to sail into a new, better life (for Jim because of the dream career and for Pam because after a few months of not having to live with Angela’s snipes and Meredith’s calls of “Little Miss Thing wants attention” she is not even going to miss these people), they each first had to prove that what mattered most was each other. Jim by sacrificing Athlead, and Pam by giving it back.
But the problem with hanging a happy ending on Jim and Pam is that Athlead and Austin don’t change the fact that they got their happy ending way back in season six. New city and better career (for Jim) is a nice bow on an ending that basically just re-affirmed the status quo. So Athlead became the finale’s B-plot, and the Big Happy went to Dwight.
The Face Turn of Dwight K. Schrute
Now there are a couple of issues with hanging a happy ending on Dwight and Angela. The first is that some of the producers (and actor Rainn Wilson) wanted to keep the Dwight train rolling, and were pitching a spinoff called The Farm, which would have involved Dwight and his previously unseen non-Mose family running a new, larger Schrute Farm (Michael Schur was far too busy running Parks and Recreation to play Mose on the regular). So while they waited for word from NBC on whether or not that would go forward, a large part of Dwight’s endgame was put on hold… that part being whether or not Dwight and Angela would ever find their way back together, as all appearances were that Angela was not heading to The Farm.
The other issue is that these are not characters who, by and large, had thus far earned a happy ending. Dwight may have become more beloved by viewers than we would have expected at the beginning, but every time he’d been handed authority he abused it instantly. And Angela has been straight up awful. So some steps would need to be taken to pave a path to happily ever after.
The main one, and that fact that it starts happening early is the reason I think Dwight was always meant to end up regional manager, was getting Dwight to a point where he could be in power and not be a train wreck. This happens in episode four, “Work Bus.” It begins with yet another Dwight-as-authoritarian overstep, but as he and Jim butt heads in a more intense fashion than anything since the snowball fight, Jim actually breaks Dwight, and triggers a rare moment of camaraderie between the old nemeses. Dwight believes himself to be infertile, having been deceived about the parentage of Angela’s baby (while The Farm was still in play, we were all led to believe Dwight wasn’t the father), and Jim convinces him to view his coworkers as his family. Something Dwight even had a German word for to encourage him. And so begins a change in Dwight, from the would-be dictator out to crush or eliminate the staff, to a benevolent dictator who only trims off the truly deserving.
Shortly after taking command (at an occasion where I’m not 100% sure who’s filming it, as the Documentarians should have wrapped), Dwight does fire a couple of people… Kevin (for gross incompetence) and Toby (who in fairness checked out years ago), but he also hires on new people, and treats the remaining staff surprisingly well. And he does eventually live out his old dream of firing Jim, but when it happens, it’s out of love… he fires Jim and Pam before they can quit to leave for Austin, sending them on their way with a year’s salary each as severance.
Angela has long been the most insufferable member of the ensemble. Judgmental, bullying, demanding that the staff live up to a repressive puritan lifestyle that she herself consistently fails at living. And she’d been extra smug ever since she got together with (State) Senator Robert Lipton. You remember this… the (State) Senator is secretly gay, and everyone on staff seems to know that except her? We talked about it in season seven, and the fact that this story had a long fuse. Well, the fuse reaches the gunpowder pretty quickly this year, as Oscar starts seeing the Senator behind her back. Which causes, shall we say, tension in the workplace when she catches on. With the documentary’s release imminent, an advance review makes it clear that everything is about to, excuse the expression, come out, and Robert makes a choice: he comes out live on television, and announces his relationship with… his press secretary.
It’s a little heartbreaking for Oscar, to be sure, but Angela loses nearly everything. First she’s forced to stand next to her husband on live TV while he says that marrying her helped him come to terms with his homosexuality, as she showed him how “charmless” he finds the female body. Then in rapid succession, she loses her husband, her home, whatever nanny or team of nannies was tending to Phillip so that she her to rub her perfectly poised supermom routine in Pam’s face, and after being forced into a studio apartment, she even loses her cats. And then the apartment. Plus she’s about to lose her moral Christian reputation, as her years-long affair with Dwight is about to be broadcast to the world. She’s left with nothing but her job and her son (who clearly means slightly less than her cats), and ends up living in Oscar’s walk-in closet.
That would have been an appropriate place to leave her. Lord knows she earned it. But having lost everything humbles her enough that when The Farm fell through, we could be on board with Angela and Dwight getting back together. She is a wreck of a human being when she tries to convince Andy not to quit his job in a futile chase for stardom, and by that point, even I think that maybe she’s suffered enough. And come on… those two dysfunctional weirdos belong with each other. And no one else deserves them.
Plus, the wedding of Dwight and Angela is just weird enough that it’s an appropriately “The Office” way to sign off.
At the time, I wasn’t certain how I felt about the finale. It gets most of its joy and sentimentality from characters who spent much of the series playing the villain, and so while it is a delight to watch, I wasn’t sure how earned it all was.
Following the wedding, there’s a farewell party back at the office thrown by PBS. While the network executives whoop it up in the warehouse, the Dunder Mifflin staff and the Documentarians head upstairs for a sweet little goodbye party. Sure, it’s not goodbye for everyone… six of them are back to work on Monday. But this farewell again for at least as many, even before we count the film people who’ve been around filming everyone for the last decade, and a new goodbye for two more, as Jim and Pam won’t be back.
It’s not as beautiful as the final moments of Scrubs’ eighth season finale (stupid ninth season keeping that from any “best series finale” list). But it’s sweet, and it’s funny, the return appearances are pretty perfect, there is the occasional moment to lure out tears. I couldn’t say it was perfect, but I also couldn’t think of a thing I’d change about it. Still can’t.
“New Guys” for the introduction of Pete and Clark, who are, as I said, delightful. “Andy’s Ancestry” brings Darryl into Athlead. “The Boat” writes Andy out for a while, and “Couple’s Discount” reveals that his return is nothing to be celebrated. “The Whale,” “Suit Warehouse,” and “Stairmaggedon” are the best team-ups of Dwight and Dwight Jr (Clark). “Customer Loyalty” is when Brian makes his entry and the Documentarians take their first full step beyond the fourth wall. “Promos” is when the existence of the documentary fully enters the story.
And “AARM” and “Finale” take us home.
Let’s talk “backdoor pilots.” A backdoor pilot is an episode of a TV show that exists to set up a spinoff, rather than give said spinoff a standard pilot episode. Take, for example, the episode of CSI where Catherine follows a suspect to Miami, where she meets up with David Caruso and his CSI team. Then years later, David Caruso followed a perp to New York, where he met the CSI New York team. That sort of thing.
Backdoor pilots can be weird for binge-watchers. On the one hand, Jess on Gilmore Girls travelling to Venice Beach to see his father makes perfect sense. On the other, if you’re watching Bones on Netflix and suddenly a whole episode gets handed over to someone called The Finder, that’s a little jarring. And it’s especially jarring when it’s a backdoor pilot for a spinoff that didn’t get picked up, introducing us to a bunch of characters we’ll never see again.
Which brings us to The Farm.
The Farm was set up through a backdoor pilot in the back half of the season. Dwight’s Aunt Shirley passes away, and her video will gives a challenge: she’ll leave her enormous farm to Dwight and his siblings if they run it together. This is our first time meeting Dwight’s farmer brother (“After I left the army, I bought a 9-acre worm farm from a Californian. Turns out “worm” means something else out there. And, I am now in the business of… pain management. Or, the smoking of pain management.”) and his single mom sister, and our second time meeting his non-Mose cousin Zeke. Some might see this sudden introduction of siblings as being out of left field, like when Frasier invented a father and brother for Frasier Crane that didn’t match and even actively contradicted what we knew about his family from Cheers, but the fact is that they’d always been clear about the Schrutes being a large family. Dwight obviously had siblings, this was just our first time meeting any of them.
First and only.
Between filming the episode and writing the finale, The Farm was rejected by NBC. And in the wake of it all, they began walking back everything that happened. Dwight’s new farm became a sidenote, as his rise to Regional Manager became his one, true endgame. Dwight’s new love interest became just an obstacle for Angela.
And Dwight’s siblings don’t even show up at his wedding.
Kind of makes that episode feel pointless. Although if you skip it, you will miss the final appearance of Todd Packer.
Notable Guest Stars?
So, so many. In terms of returning players, Pam and Jim have to attend Roy’s wedding at the beginning of the season (also appearing, his dolt brother); Jan makes two last appearances (one over the phone) as the new head of the White Pages, the county’s biggest paper client; Josh Groban returns as Andy’s younger, more loved brother; Nancy Carell makes one last appearance as realtor Carol Stills; Todd Packer turns up one last time with drugged “apology” cupcakes; the stripper from Ben Franklin and Fun Run works Dwight’s bachelor party while Merdith’s son (first seen in “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”); and of all people, Devin (unseen since season two’s Halloween, save for a deleted scene) gets hired back to replace Creed.
Also Kelly, Ryan, and even Michael are all back for the wedding. Michael only has two lines, one of which is a final “That’s what she said.”
Lucifer’s Rachel Harris turns up for the wedding as Angela’s sister.
Mr. Show/Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk turns up as a real estate office manager Pam interviews with, who turns out to be a carbon copy of early Michael Scott.
One last Daily Show veteran as Stephen Colbert plays Andy’s old friend/nemesis, Broccoli Rob.
Michael Imperioli turns up as Dwight’s new sensei.
A bunch of athletes someone other than me might recognise pass through Athlead.
Dakota Johnson and Better Off Ted’s Malcolm Barrett are new hires in the finale, replacing Kevin and Stanley.
And Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr. are perfectly cast as Erin’s long-lost birth parents.
Is The Office perfect? No, it drags in places and the cringe comedy can misfire. The cast is solid, but not quite the sitcom supercasts of Newsradio, Arrested Development, or Brooklyn 99. Speaking of that last one, The Office has left an impressive legacy, serving as the prototype for the knockout follow-up Parks and Recreation and its successor, Brooklyn 99, both from Michael Schur, who has now brought us the hilarious, if entirely different, The Good Place. That dude moves from success to success.
The Office may not be the most clever, nor the most touching, but succeeds at both often enough that it’s endlessly endearing and, to me and others, endlessly rewatchable.
Even if you may never, ever be on board with Angela and Andy as a couple. Jesus, Andy. Way to over-commit to a bad idea.
Thanks for joining me on this journey, those who did. Next time, let’s talk Oscar nominees. Or nerd stuff. A little of both to come.