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The Office Recap: Damn. Jan.

This was a particularly busy episode of The Office, which can often be troublesome for the show. Often, when the writers pack in too many subplots and shenanigans they end up with everything feeling too thin. Important character beats will get rushed and solid jokes that could have used time to simmer will land with half the force. So what a pleasant surprise that the script Carrie Kemper (sister to Ellie) wrote managed to smartly sidestep this problem by doing just enough. Instead of trying to pack in every idea possible, "The Whale" had a sense of when to say "it's about time we end this silly mustache thing here before it drags on too long."

We start with a cold open that sees Andy Skyping, somehow, from his boat trip. Two days in and he's already gone mad from dehydration. He's not seen for the rest of the episode, probably because Ed Helms is busy filming the highly anticipated sequel to Cedar Rapids. With the boss gone, everybody gets to step into the spotlight for a few minutes at a time and then cut out while their bit is still funny. Well, Stanley doesn't get much too do. It's this tightness of structure and deft use of editing to maintain a snappy momentum that are signatures of a superior Office episode, and it's impressive to watch Erin's sister sharply juggle so many plots.

With Andy out sailing away, David Wallace asks Dwight to try to land a potentially huge new client for Dunder Mifflin, The Scranton White Pages. If Dwight could land this whale, it could bring back Pizza Fridays or, dare to dream, the halcyon bagel weeks from the nineties. Dwight is, obviously, psyched. But Phyllis is worried that a man who ordered Erin to run into the bathroom to tell Stanley to "eat it" (hearing Erin do this in the background was the best part of this episode) might not have the delicate sensibility necessary to schmooze the White Pages' new female boss. That Dwight creepily talks about the White Pages' "Sexy Blubber" doesn't help the situation.

The women of The Office do their best to soften Dwight up in a plot line pleasingly reminiscent of classic episodes like "Boys And Girls" and "Women's Appreciation." An Alpha Dog Warlord Conquer in his own mind, Dwight needs help with some basics, like learning to smile and nod when women are talking. Unfortunately, he has a hard time doing these at the same time, and all of the couching and hands on help can't get him to do much better than just sort of move his head back and forth with a rigor mortis grin. (He kind of looks like the Dwight Bobblehead that's sometimes in the credits.) This is one of the creepiest things the incomparable Rainn Wilson has ever done on this show, and that's saying something.

There's an interesting subtext here of Dwight being confronted with subconscious prejudices and getting forced to deal with his unexamined privileges ("I will tell her what her needs are and then fill them"), but the script is wisely not heavy handed about this. It looks like we're heading for a story where Dwight tries too hard to be a good, supportive listener and ends up blowing the sale. Instead, the show zags where we expect a zig. We discover that the White Pages's new boss is Jan Levenson, Michael Scott's former lover/boss and "the most erratic and terrifying" person Pam has ever met. She's still crazy (and crazy about candles) after all these years, and not at all happy that she doesn't get to confront David Wallace, the man that fired her back in the day. Dwight quickly leaves to get reinforcements, leaving Pam to make awkward small talk (Pam: "Could I get some more water?" Jan: "No.") and watch a slideshow of Jan's baby Astrid, featuring a live soundtrack. ("Mommy you're a princess/how could I ever fill your shoes?")

Tipped off by Pam that Jan has a thing for fresh meat, Dwight returns with Man Boy Clark, the Ace Of Babes. Dwight promises that Clark will be her official Dunder Mifflin Liaison and will provide "total client satisfaction," which means that Jan will soon destroy his soul. Good. Clark Duke hasn't been given nearly enough to do, and Melora Hardin is still this show's Gold Standard for Difficult To Work With Weirdos.

Angela wasn't able to help discover The Softer Side Of Dwight because she had roped Oscar in to helping her figure out if The Senator is cheating on her. At first Oscar tries to throw water on her suspicions, but when she mentions that he's always doing yoga with someone named Blake, he agrees to help her out. This is clearly a dumb move for someone in Oscar's position, but his character has been established as being both driven by his ego and also in love with The Senator, so he has to see if he's getting two-timed. (Three-timed?)

This is the type of plotline a show can only really do in its final season. We don't have to be too overly concerned with realism and logic on TV shows (realistically at least a third of these people would have been laid off around 2009 or so), but there are limits to what the audience will accept. Angela has been well established as judgmental and unforgiving. Barring an extraordinary event or change of heart, there is no way she would forgive Oscar for wrecking her dream marriage once she finds out about the affair. She would either quit or become so passive aggressive that Oscar would have to quit. If they just kept working together year after year it would just strain credibility too much.

But they certainly are in for a frosty relationship in the short term. Oscar could have gotten away clean, but he had to stay and see what the deal was with The Senator. Oscar, incensed that The Senator would betray him the way he betrayed Angela, lets loose. "This could be the affair that you're scared of. Politicians are wonderful liars, you never know who they really are." She looks at him, worried. He looks ashamed, for once. Maybe he finally realized how much he's hurt her. And then she sees The Senator make a call, and Oscar's phone rings. She finally knows. It's hard to tell who looks more afraid. Kudos to Angela Kinsey and Oscar Nunez for nailing the moments between the words, and for the writers for taking the time to make this plot really build up the tension that it needed.

After this gut-punch of a moment, the rest of the episode's stories are wisely treated as fun diversions. Toby and The Annex Gang have grown mustaches for the Men's Prostate Cancer Awareness campaign Movember. ("Smile if you love men's prostates.") It's a trifle of a plot, but it's for a good cause, and it's cute to see Toby get psyched that he has a posse to pick up babes with. The poor guy just really wants people to like him. Also, based on how quickly Luke shaved his mustache after Erin calls it "an eyebrow in the middle of your face," it would appear these two haven't hooked up. Yet.

Elsewhere, Jim tries to participate in a conference call, but he can't seem to escape eavesdropping co-workers or car alarms. At the end, Jim's new partners tell him the long-distance work relationship isn't working. Whether this means that he has to move or that he just got kicked out of a job he actually liked remains to be seen.

On the whole, The Office has seen a remarkable uptick in quality this season since executive producer Greg Daniels returned as the day-to-day showrunner. But it's not quite a complete return to form just yet. Some episodes hum along with the vibrant patter and muted pathos of the Ol' Scott days, others flail manically or just kind of shamble about. In particular, it seems like Pam and Jim plot has been sputtering a bit. She forgave him far too quickly, and it reeked of the writers backing off so as to not escalate to the inevitable confrontation too soon in the season. But now that the Oscar and Angela blow-out is about to go down, it's suddenly no longer the most interesting plot the show has going at the moment.

Photo: NBC