As the seasons have worn on, The Office has largely sanded away the melancholic strains it inherited from its U.K. version. But you can’t completely subtract the looming sense of crushing defeat from this show’s DNA, and touches of palpable sadness still pop up at unexpected times. Like last night’s cold open, one of the most unusual they’ve done in a while. (In general, this show has been on its cold open game for the past few months.) Pam calls us all in to watch a balloon, which has been floating around the warehouse since time immemorial, finally come down to Earth. Pam admits that it’s not that cool, really, but sometimes bored people pick mundane things–poetic symbols to entertain themselves because that’s all that’s around.
Then everyone begins to reminisce about how things were different when they first saw that balloon, back when Dunder Mifflin probably seemed like a stepping stone. Jim was just a paper salesman. Darryl was going to go back to school. Meredith’s kid didn’t have a face tattoo. Everyone then decides to deal with the weight of life’s merciless forward march in the only sensible fashion: Using the bailer to smash the balloon and all it represents. Go fuck yourself, unrelenting passage of time.
This isn’t a show that revels in downer vibes much anymore, but there were still some emotional ups and downs this episode. The A-story followed Andy’s vow from last week to go back to Florida and get Erin. (I’ll go ahead and admit that I was wrong about the amount of episodes it would take Andy to do this.) Sometimes, you’ve just got to follow your heart-map … even if it takes you many more miles inland than necessary. But at least Andy got a nice Oceanside shave. He eventually arrives at the five-room house that the braggart Erin gets to clean. (Uh, weird green screen shot outside the house, director Rainn Wilson. What is this, Ringer?) After popping out of a box sent signed, sealed, and all that from Cupid Express, Andy wastes no time, for once, telling Erin how he feels: “I am here to take you back to Scranton because I love you and I want to be with you.” Cue the first of many awws.
But Erin’s employer Irene — played by sitcom legend Georgia Engel — quickly throws shade on our Nard Dog’s handsomeness and plans. “How does your skinny brunette girlfriend Jessica feel about you visiting your ex-girlfriend?” Turns out Andy hadn’t quite broken up with her before she left, though it’s entirely possible that the show’s writers forgot they'd given Andy a girlfriend until a few minutes before the episode was shot. Despite his best efforts, Erin is unmoved, and can’t let go of the past. (If only she had a bailer and a balloon.) “Andy, you broke my heart. Do you know what it feels like to be constantly rejected by you? To have to watch you date someone else?” Well, Erin, if you hadn’t dumped him for a dumb reason that no one remembers and that’s never brought up because the producers must know it was a weak plot-based out, then this wouldn’t have happened.
Erin and Andy have often felt like a knowingly dumb, and often very funny, parody of Jim and Pam. Their connection has never been as fleshed out as The Office’s primary couple, and sometimes it seemed like the two characters were dating because, you know, they’re there and they’re attractive and it’s a TV show. But Ed Helms and Ellie Kemper have always been able to sell this under-developed relationship, and did some of their best work here. (See above.) Helm’s look of defeat and sadness when he realized Erin wasn’t coming back was one of the most recognizably human moments he’s ever given the oft-cartoonish Andy. It’s a disservice to Erin — though keeping with her need for surrogate parents — that she didn’t go after Andy until Irene told him that any man willing to lose his job in this economy, especially with Europe being what it is, isn’t something you should throw away. But I’m glad she did anyway.
Even if the relationship often felt perfunctory, it also often felt sweet, and Erin running after Andy’s Prius (once she found the right one) and telling him she loved him too delivered all the awwwwwws the producers were probably hoping for. I’m not made of stone here, people. And I’m glad they undercut the lovey-dovey stuff with a revelation that Erin constantly uses other people’s toothbrushes. Although, ew.
Over in the B-story in Scranton, Nellie has been transferred to the main office, much to Dwight’s disbelief. (“She stinks of failure. The fact that she could show her face around here is an embarrassment. I should know, I’m in an identical situation.”) Still mad about the entire Sabre Store vice-president thing going up in smoke, huh? After stealing Jim’s extra King James Breakfast Pie, the former Formula One driver sets her eyes on Andy’s office and manager title. “If the seat is open, the job is open.” You probably shouldn’t take legal advice from TV recappers, but I’m pretty certain you can’t lose your job just because you called in sick and someone stole your seat, though I’m sure that next episode we will learn that Andy was demoted for skipping town without warning.
To solidify her power, Nellie bribes the office with raises, flattery, and, in the case of Momma Halpert, naps. Jim, having already seen her incompetence in action, brings his concerns to Robert California, who is unmoved. California called Andy and told him to come to work, even if he was “sick.” So if Andy wasn’t going to come in and defend his position, the power grab is not really his problem. “You’re going to want to hear the sexual metaphor. All life is sex. And all sex is competition. And there are no rules to that game.” Helpful as always, California. If California had a pie chart explaining why he’s staying out of this, it would roughly be 40 percent a desire to sleep with Nellie, 20 percent a desire to stay on Jo’s good side, 15 percent disgust at Andy’s weakness in the face of such human issues as immune systems, 15 percent general disinterest in all things and 10 percent that could be chalked up to the general unknowableness of Robert California. (For the record, Spader’s stilted cadence and odd choices of pauses and emphasis were particularly off-putting this episode. Which I mean as a compliment.)
The Office has always had a humanistic bent. Todd Packer aside, no one on this show is truly a bad person, they’re just clueless, insecure, naïve, desperate, broken inside, and so on. (Okay, California is a creep, but he’s creep with multitudes inside him.) Nellie has started out as a spin on Ricky Gervais’s massively egotistical and dense David Brent, but as time has passed, it’s clear that’s she much more conniving. She’s upfront about who she is (“I don’t work especially hard, and most of my ideas are either unoriginal or total crap, yet I walked right in to a job for which I was ill-prepared, ill-suited, and somebody else already had, and I got it. If you ask me that’s the American dream right there.”) and has no qualms about telling anyone what they want to hear to get what she wants. She’s unapologetically power-hungry, and she’s got the much-too-easily cowed office on her side, which will make for an interesting showdown when the also dense but kind-hearted Andy returns to Scranton. Good thing he’ll have someone on his side.