A friend of mine once told me that writing about The Office after Steve Carell left was like writing about R.E.M. after drummer Bill Berry left. There was no denying that the glory years were over, and plenty of people felt that both entities should have ended then and there. But neither did. Put lightly, there were ups and downs with R.E.M's post-Berry run and the post-Carell years. Both were artistic entities missing an essential piece (Berry was an important part of the band's writing and editing process), and both struggled to reinvent themselves. But both eventually proved that they still had things left to show us, and still deserved to exist. (I'll rein this analogy in before we get too off course, but I will throw down for Up any day of the week.)
In many ways, this penultimate episode of The Office felt like the real cap to the season, while next week's appears to be more of an overall look back at the series. While I suspect that history will largely regard The Office as a show that lost steam after the fifth season and should have ended after the seventh, I'm glad we got this final go around, and I hope it helps rehabilitate the series' critical reputation. What hampered this show in the past was a tendency to recycle plots (Andy and Erin was basically a more manic version of Jim and Pam) and keep characters static. Which fit the subtext of this being a show about a small town where not much happens, but makes for frustrating viewing over the long run. This season largely corrected that.
Even in its lower moments, The Office was usually amiable enough (unless Andy or Robert California were really on a tear), often funny and still occasionally hilarious. But what made season nine work was a renewed commitment to character. Though the writers kind of gave up on finding much for Nellie or Jake to do, they dug in deep on a few key characters, and showed us things about Jim, Pam, Oscar, and Erin that we didn't know before, making the characters and the show feel much more vital than it had in a while. And if they never did quite land on the right take for Andy, well, there's only so much one writing staff can do. It's not like anyone was expecting miracles at this late date.
This was a fun, sweet episode that drew heavily on the affection that the audience has built up for the characters over the years, and offered lots of nice callbacks and long-awaited pay offs to thank us for sticking around … and possibly to cover up some of the plot holes. (I did notice them, and you did, too, but this episode made me so happy that I won't carp too much about them. I will only carp a little.) Also, the paranoia and excitement everyone was feeling about the premiere of The Office: An American Workplace inspired some spectacular talking head interview one-liners, with Meredith taking first prize for: "I better come out of this smelling like a rose. I've been on my best behavior for nine years. If it wasn't for the cameras I would have done some truly vulgar crap."
Jim is back full time at Dunder Mifflin, and he insists that he's fine with staying here and not going on the three month Athlead road show. ("I almost lost Pam over this business. I'm not risking that again.") If he's sad that he's basically given up ever being Philly Jim, he's hiding it very well. At first, Pam couldn't be happier ("He's certainly been goofing around a lot. I love goofy Jim."), but when she runs in to Daryl (totally ruining his Irish Exit), he's incredulous that Jim could possibly still be happy selling paper in Dunder Mifflin instead of following his dreams. ("Hope he doesn't regret it.") For most of the season, Pam has been hurt because she's felt that Jim was putting his needs before his family. But now that she's been reassured that she's the number one priority, she's begun to think about why Philadelphia was so important to him. While the people who have had a problem with Pam this season no doubt wonder what took her so long, it's a very human reaction for people to be primarily concerned with their security (in this case, emotional security). Plus, Jim wasn't a very good communicator about the entire thing, and there was a season to fill and moments of realization had to come about gradually.
After talking with Daryl, Pam watches Jim pull his shenanigans through a different lens. Maybe she's worried that Jim is backsliding, or using his latest prank as a coping mechanism, but she eventually storms away upset. "I'm afraid I'm not enough for you," she tells him. "I'm afraid that you're going to resent me."
To prove to her that she's wrong, Jim gets the camera crew to make him a Jim and Pam Highlights Reel DVD. Now, I can maybe buy that since this the documentary was finally airing, this was the camera crew's last day and they thought they could bend the rules about interfering, but someone certainly went through a lot of footage really quickly to make that thing. But hey, do you want airtight storytelling logic, or do you want a moving character moment? Because Pam watching that tape and then Jim giving her the note he almost gave her seven seasons ago was one of the most romantic moments this show has ever given us, and a worthy resolution to the season-long test of their marriage. Kudos to whomever on staff remembered that note and decided to bring it back. (Though wouldn't Jim have given it to her after they finally got together? Sorry, sorry, I'll quit nitpicking this tearjerker.)
While the Jim and Pam story was the most emotional, this was also an equally poignant look at Jim's other main relationship, the one he has with Dwight. Over the years these guys have gone from always being at each other's throats to a weird form of friendship. Jim still gives the camera that look when Dwight does things like insist he use the Out/In folders instead of just taking a form, but he has real affection for the guy. It's just that normally the way he shows that affection is by encouraging and subtly mocking Dwight's weird flights of fancy. It's just what he does, and he did a fine job of turning Dwight's obsession with the importance of position and authority on its head, so that it was only logical that Dwight become the Assistant Assistant Regional Manager. Clearly, no one else was up for the task.
The A.A.R.M. race was just one last bit of tomfoolery before these two got serious. The Jim and Dwight relationship has mostly been played for laughs, but it got poignant here, as Dwight asked Jim if he should propose to Esther, she of the genes so clean you could like them, or Angela, who insists that Philip is not his son, even if he does show an affinity for beets and Battlestar Galactica. (His position on bears is unclear.) Jim sets Dwight straight, and Rainn Wilson plays it straight, looking more serious than we've ever seen his character look as he just sits back and listens to Jim's advice. "You gotta do everything you can to get to the one woman who's going to make all this worth it. At the end of the day, you gotta jump."
And jump he does. After Dwight began to suspect anew that Angela's little diaper blaster Philip, he of the gorgeous, widely set eyes, really is a Schrute after all, he makes a lovely business proposal. ("He needs to be accorded what is his. An enormous farm, and inheritance, and the right to be raised under rigorous Schrute traditions. You will be compensated with a marriage proposal.") With Jim's prodding, Dwight tries again, literally running her off the road, and then yelling at her with a bullhorn to express how loudly he loves her. He tells her, "I will raise a hundred children with a hundred of your lovers if it means I can be with you," and then gives her his grandmother's buttock bullet ring. She accepts, and tell Dwight that Philip was his son all along, but she needed to know he wanted to be with her for her, and just to have a child. Which completely contradicted the DNA test Dwight took at the end of last season, and is also just a crappy thing to do to someone. I almost started fanwanking the first time I saw this ("Maybe The Senator had the DNA tests switched?") before throwing my hands up. Ah, but it's been a long time coming with those two. Let's just be happy these soul mates finally worked it out.
Jim and Pam and Dwight and Angela took up most of this episode, but there were purely comedic bits around the side that hit with varying degrees of success. Kevin getting jealous of Philip was a new low of stupidity for that character, which I guess is kind of an accomplishment. (Brian Baumgartner’s "harumph" hand gestures were convincingly childlike, so credit for that.) Andy auditioned for "America's next A Capella Sensation, which is different from all the other singing competition shows, because in this one, all three judges are mean. After being told he wouldn't be able to audition, Andy pushed his way in and proceeded to embarrass himself in front of Aaron Rodgers, Clay Aiken (who does bitchy really well, it should be said), and Santigold by singing the Cornell fight song. This story wasn't particularly funny, but if you've grown to hate Andy and want to watch him cry as he's told he's not talented and his dreams won't work out, well, here you go.
Finally, we have Daryl. He snuck away on his last day (he's bad with good-byes), but got caught by the group when he came back to return the truck. Erin demands that he stay and have fun with them one more time, dammit, whether he wants to or not. ("I didn't realize we were this close.") They finally settle on a dance party, which is basically an excuse to watch a bunch of characters we've loved for close to a decade goof around one more time. Nothing wrong with that. Plus, Kevin grinding on Daryl really was a more accurate tribute to his years over there.
At the end, everyone gathers to Poor Richard's to watch the start of the documentary. As the episode ends, we hear Michael and Jim's dialogue from the first scene of the pilot. The end is the beginning is the end. But not just yet. I'll see you guys next week for the grand finale.