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THE OFFICE -- "Andy's Ancestry" Episode 903 -- Pictured: Ed Helms as Andy Bernard THE OFFICE -- "Andy's Ancestry" Episode 903 -- Pictured: Ed Helms as Andy Bernard

swan songs

The Office and Andy’s Cruelty Problem

Is The Office's Andy a dick? Like, a complete dick or just someone with an underdeveloped sense of empathy? Malicious? Violent? Sadistic? Or is he just a banjo-playing dingus with an inferiority complex that sometimes makes him act out? Oh, he's all of these things, because Andy represents The Office's warped relationship with cruelty, which the show sometimes fetishizes and sometimes backs away from. With only seven episodes left, it'd be nice if they straightened it out once and for all.

Last night's Office had Andy at his most vindictive — punishing Erin and Pete (a.k.a. Plop) for getting together. He brought back another one of Erin's exes, Gabe, and sneakily hired Pete's ex-girlfriend Alice in an attempt to give them what he called a taste of their own medicine. The setup ended in a conference-room bickering match, to Andy's perverse glee. It's not that the lovelorn never seek vengeance, and it's not that heartbreak doesn't predispose one toward ultra-specific schadenfreude, but it seemed like a profoundly nasty move, even in the caustic world of Dunder Mifflin. For a show whose calling card was once a semblance of realism, Andy's wild-eyed cruelty stands out.

Particularly because The Office used to have a really cruel character in Michael Scott, and then it spent several seasons softening him, trying to make him sympathetic so we would root for his romantic happy ending. It worked, mostly. People enjoyed Holly, and people enjoyed Holly and Michael together, and a little swoony love story seemed to erase several seasons of racist, homophobic, body-shaming, lying, manipulative, petty, outrageous behavior. (I know, I know — it's a comedy, it's supposed to be heightened! Ruining weddings? Promising college tuition? Even comedy has its limits.)

Andy started off as the douchey-preppy guy, calling Jim "Big Tuna" and singing Indigo Girls songs. He's insecure and has rage issues, so much so that he punched a wall and was sent to anger-management classes. He was engaged to Angela back in season four, though he seems less burned about the end of their relationship than about the end of his and Erin's. He often behaved badly. But he sometimes behaved well, and his guiding attribute was his sincerity. He really wanted to be liked; he really wanted to be part of something. The best Andy episode was in season seven, when he was in Sweeney Todd and sang Macy Gray's "Try" in an attempt to win Erin back. So his transition in seasons eight and nine to full-on assbag means not only is the show insisting on having another jerk character, but it's also actively removing one of the decent people too. Bring back goofy Andy! Banjo Andy. Torn-scrotum Andy.

The Office likes its pettiness. Think back to the days of the Party Planning Committee or how snippy Oscar and Angela have always been with each other. But that mutual, low-level disdain sometimes escalates to a point where it's alienating, and that feeling of "Ha-ha, this reminds me of actual life!" vanishes and is replaced by "Jesus Christ, these people are sociopaths." (Like, say, Oscar cuckolding Angela, which is beyond … beyond.) In its best moments, though, the show is also generous to its characters, allowing them an honest level of humanity even when they seem like nut bars. This show made me care about Creed. I find Meredith fun and appealing, actually. Others might think of Jim and Pam as the heart of the show, but for me, that's Dwight. Big, weird Dwight with his creepy ideas and bizarre German folk wisdom and terrible mustard-colored shirts and possible mania — but God damn if I don't want that guy to be happy. The Office is so kind to its weirdos. Why is it so weird to its kind-os?

Photo: Byron Cohen/NBC