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The Office Recap: Play the Right Notes

THE OFFICE -- "The Target" Episode 909 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ellie Kemper as Erin Hannon, John Krasinski as Jim Halpert

There's just no point in starting with anything other than naked Dwight, is there? After finally finding out about the Senator's stepping out, Angela told Dwight she needed to meet him in the old place. Dwight misinterpreted what this meant. There's no real way of playing this off, but bless him for trying. ("I always work out without my clothes.")

Dwight's nude gymnastics may have seared eyeballs even with the pixilation, but the fact that it happened "at the old place," a.k.a. the secret sex location Angela and Dwight were using a few seasons ago, felt significant. At its best, The Office was more than just a funny show. It was a show where there was a sense of history, that these characters lived in a real world and things that had happened in the past mattered. It gave the characters weight and rewarded you for following along.

A strong but not overbearing sense of continuity and just the right number of callbacks helped distinguish The Office in the early days, but were downplayed as the show became more about functional but ultimately less satisfying stand-alone comedy. But this episode had so many continuity nods that it felt like screenwriter Graham Wagner was making up for lost time. There was Pam's Pratt T-Shirt from her season-five adventures in art school. There was a callback to our public school system's failure to explain the basics of human sexuality ("Where are gay men's vaginas?") to Dwight. Heck, someone even remembered that Jake had originally been hired to take care of all the customer complaints Kelly Kapoor couldn't be bothered to deal with.

These felt like implicit reassurances to the audience that, for as many times as this show just drops things (remember that woman who hit on Jim and then just disappeared? Or Gabe?), we were in careful hands for this half-hour. And certainly, director Brent Forrester deserves a lot of credit for this episode's success, as he found room for small touches (like the downward angle shot of Dwight sneaking up behind Oscar in the stairwell and wordlessly going from "what is going on" to "OMG" in five seconds) that helped give the shenanigans more impact. But what really put this episode over the top, and what has been true of the successful episodes this season, is that it seems like the writers have made an effort to remember who these characters are supposed to be.

In all of the good enough to terrible episodes of The Office, the characters have personalities that are so benign they can be molded to suit any plot or are exaggerated to cartoon levels for the sake of a laugh. Kevin gets the worst of this treatment, but Angela is a close second. But Angela Kinsey was given more to work with on this episode than she has had in years, and she delivers. At heart, Angela is a person who believes that there's A Way Things Ought to Be. (Usually a very old and conservative way that doesn't involve jazz.) So as much as Angela is mad at Oscar for cuckolding her, she's just as mad at him for proving that her perfect marriage is a myth. She might also be mad at herself for previously proving that said marriage was a lie with Dwight, which this episode also smartly acknowledged and which Rainn and Kinsey played with an admirable restraint. Rooted in these emotional truths, you understand why she wants to murder Oscar. That said, it's still hilarious when, after she asks Dwight to help her out, she bluntly reveals that she wants to, you know, actually murder Oscar. (Kinsey's blunt reading of "murder" might be the single funniest thing her character has ever said.)

Although Dwight's old Volunteer Sheriff friend Trevor is taken aback at first ("that's the biggin"), he eventually psyched himself up for it before Dwight talks him down to just a simple knee-capping. This seemed fair to Dwight when it was just someone he didn't know ("A woman with damaged knees can't scrub worth a damn"), but when he figured out via a crumbled cookie and eavesdropping that "Oscar and the Senator are gaying each other," he can't let Angela attack one of her own. For as much as Dwight is an over-the-top weirdo, when written correctly he has a strong if skewed moral code. Though it's never been stated outright, it’s been implied that he grew up in a family with a strong military tradition but was too geeky and unfit to make the armed forces. As such, he can't leave a man behind.

So Dwight grabs Oscar before he can receive the lead-pipe in a sandwich Trevor was delivering. (This gag felt just a bit too broad for me, though I did like Kevin's attempt at a Mexican accent. Generally the sillier bits work when they're tied to a character's established eccentricities, like Kevin's willingness to do anything for food.) Though he doesn't condone what Oscar did, he won't let Trevor hurt him either. ("He's a Dunder Mifflin man. He's my tribe.") But a knee-capping would probably be getting off light compared to facing Angela. Oscar has been established as an arrogant intellectual, and on some level he feels it's okay to sleep with Angela's husband because she's too stupid to realize he's gay and therefore it's her fault and not his. But when finally confronted by Angela, he realizes the pain he's caused her and how little his excuses matter. "If you want to blame me for the whole thing, go ahead; I won't stop you." (He then tries to stop her from hitting him with a lead pipe, because he's only so noble.)

There were nice character moments all around, even for the minor plotlines. The writers have been doing a good job recently with zeroing in on the idea that Jim is a guy who is just a little less charming than he thinks he is, and who tends to panic when he can't smooth everything out. After his sports company picks a stupid name, he realizes he has to cut his hours and work part-time in Philadelphia. (Pam seems supportive of this. I really thought this plotline was going to cause more friction with these two, but maybe Greg Daniels is saving that for February sweeps.) To convince David Wallace that this is a good idea, Jim needs to persuade Stanley and Phylllis to help him out. This requires buying them Ron Swanson–size portions of surf and turf and more surf. ("How much wine do you have?") There wasn't much to this, but it was nice to see Jim panic after getting his grape busted, and Phyllis's "We love you guys" was one of the sweetest moments the show has allowed itself in a while.

Not only did the writers bring back Pam's Pratt T-shirt and pay off the idea of her painting a warehouse mural, but they also remembered that Pam has a core emotion of insecurity. She might have landed her dream man, but she never made it as an artist. More accurate, she never really tried all that much. So when given an opportunity to actually try, she chokes. (Impatient warehouse rubberneckers didn't help the situation any.) While wandering around looking for a way to procrastinate, she stumbles upon the tower of useless customer comment cards Jake built. ("Don't give me a pointless office chore, because I will build a little paper house.") After Jake accidentally ignores her, she steps up when everyone needs one more complaint form to make the tower touch the ceiling. Though she later feels bad about the mama joke (how was she to know the customer's obese mother had recently passed away?) and the whole losing-a-client thing, the incident did a nice job of getting her to accept that mistakes are nothing to be afraid of. It's not a major turning point or anything (though it did lead to one of the creepiest Creed Faces ever), but for longtime watchers of the show, it feels good to see Pam get the courage to take painting seriously again, and for the writers to remember that this is the sort of thing that fans of the show care about.

Photo: Byron Cohen/NBC