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The Office Recap: Skull Vampires

THE OFFICE -- "Lice" Episode 911 -- Pictured: John Krasinski as Jim Halpert

Maybe it's just to reward loyalty and help the soon-to-be-out-of-work actors pad their clip reels, or maybe it springs from a sense of "Hey, the show's almost over. Why not?" but television series in their final season have a strange tendency to give major story lines to formerly secondary, if not tertiary, characters. Remember when Billy and Mindy Riggins were all of a sudden like main characters in the final season of Friday Night Lights?

This final season of The Office has already given Angela Kinsey, Oscar Nuñez, and Brian Baumgartner opportunities to flex their stuff in prominent story lines, which they all handled swimmingly. This episode was Kate Flannery's turn to shine. (We'll probably get a Stanley story line at some point, but I would imagine that Greg Daniels must know that Creed is a strong spice best used in pinches.) Now, "Lice" didn't give her anything to chew on quite like Oscar's shame or Angela's ice-cold rage, but it did allow a mostly one-dimensional source of promiscuity jokes to have two dimensions for once, and that's something.

Being a single mom a few days a week is starting to wear on Pam, especially when the documentary crew that's been following her for years can't even help out with a damn trash bin. She's already such a wreck that she gets mistaken for Meredith, and that's before she discovers that she's given her daughter's lice to the entire office. But luckily she gets an out to do what any sane person would do in her situation: blame the infestation on Meredith and then feel really bad about it.

Major props are due to Jenna Fischer, who is egoless enough to actually look like a person who hasn't slept in a while. There's a nervous charge to her performance; you see her trying her best to keep it all together, and you see the desperation breaking through. ("I'll buy her a wig; we'll have a few laughs. There's a right way to do this.") It would make for a terrific Emmy submission episode, though she'll probably wait and go with the inevitable full-on Pam And Jim Blowout Episode that we all know is coming.

Speaking of, Jim's Best Day Ever plotline where he got to ride in a limo to hang out with his hero Julius Irving was not particularly amusing on its own, but I don't think it was meant to be. (Though the out-of-nowhere smoothie was a nice touch.) But as a thematic contrast, it did the job of making Pam's Worst Day Ever seem that much crappier.

I've noted this before, and no disrespect to Ed Helms, but this show breathes so much easier when it's not straining to make Andy the lead character. Most of the main plot was just the characters blaming dirty, dirty Meredith for the lice and then rubbing mayonnaise in their hair, but there was an appealing looseness to the proceedings. Yeah, we had Dwight in a Heisenberg suit and Meredith shaving her head, but neither of these things felt like big, forced gags. Of course Dwight would own a hazmat suit ("If you rent more than four times a year, it just makes sense to buy"), and of course Meredith would shrug her shoulders and just shave her head like it was no big whoop, even if it made her look like a 50-year-old baby that got its life force sucked out of it. These characters are so well developed that all the writers have to do is remember how to write them correctly (I bet Oscar spends all day waiting for an opportunity to mention that he shops local) and give them room to bounce off each other. Or in Erin's case, jump on each other. And having Dwight accidentally blasting himself (twice!) with a hallucinatory bug grenade is just a bonus. But seriously, no one drove him to the hospital?

Eventually everyone finds out that Cecelia has lice and that the infection was Pam's fault. (I normally hate the gimmick of sensitive information inadvertently being discovered via things like answering machines or speaker phones, but it was set up reasonably well here. I mean, she had mayo on her hands. What could she do but hit the speaker button with her elbow?) After taking everyone's crap, Meredith is vindicated. She may have violated the paper shredder, but the lice are not her fault. And then she brushes the whole thing off. We know that Meredith's kid is a nightmare, and it's been implied that she comes from a rough background. She doesn't have time to stress about a thing like a shaved head. That's for princesses that get taken to the opera to meet the queen. She also doesn't have time to hold a grudge, so she cuts a fellow harried mother a break and lets Pam buy her a beer. It's a sweet moment from a character that's not prone to sweet moments, and Flannery nicely underplays it a decent enough way to kill time before boffing the next bartender.

The characters that didn't have lice got exiled to the warehouse (the bit with Kevin and the baler felt like the payoff to a years-long setup), where they had to follow Daryl's rules and deal with his annoying plotline. Last season, we saw Daryl follow Val around like a puppy dog. It was revealing to see Daryl's vulnerable, sweet side, but the plotline never really took off because the writers never bothered to give Val an identity beyond a Woman That Works in the Warehouse. It felt like a case of someone saying, "Let's have Daryl like someone he can't have, because it's The Office and that's what we do here." (It's a shame because Ameenah Kaplan seems capable. The near existential crisis she had after getting asked out by Kevin? Totally believable.) Now Daryl has decided he wants out of the relationship before he goes to Philadelphia, because the relationship "is going nowhere." It's fine to have a story line where someone pursues something and then realizes it wasn't what it was cracked up to be (this seems to be the case with Erin and Andy), but it's just frustrating that yet again they're going back to this plotline and not bothering to explain who Val is or why the relationship isn't working. Surely some time can be taken away from Erin and Andy drama to flesh this out.

Of course, Kevin, Nellie, and Phyllis decide they have to get Val and Daryl back together, because no one can ever be single on this show. But at least it led to the single funniest thing Catherine Tate has done on this show ("One day you're alone, tired. At your feet, a dying bird. Where did it come from? Why did you kill it? Is it because, in some strange way, it is you?"), so the entire subplot wasn't a complete wash.

Finally, a question for you guys: Do you think Andy will return one second before Pete and Erin kiss for the first time and thus blow the whole thing, or do you think he'll get back just in time to see them smooch? Place your bets now!

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC