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The Office Recap: Dream or No Dream

THE OFFICE -- "Livin' The Dream"

"Your plan sucks. Nobody is going to hire you, ever. You're too character-y to be a lead, and you're not fat enough to be a great character actor."

Let's not get into how out of character it is for Kevin to start talking like a television blogger, and focus on his message. "What if"s are a fool's game, but you do have to wonder that if Ed Helms had clicked better as the new lead of the show, would this still be the final season? It's hard to say. The Office was already showing plenty of signs of age even before Michael Scott left, and nothing lasts forever. Cheers famously found a second life after Shelley Long left and was replaced by Kirstie Alley, but The Office never quite found a similar new burst of energy after its shake-up.

Half of the problem is that Steve Carell is one of the most gifted comic actors working today and quite a tough act to follow. The other half is that the show could never figure out what it wanted Andy to be. He started out as a rageaholic frat boy and later blossomed into a repressed WASP-y cuckold. As the show went on, he was, at times, Michael Scott Lite, a nice guy with a tendency to self-sabotage, an overgrown theater dork, or just a straight-up dick, depending on the needs of that week's plot.

Michael Scott was essentially a fatherless boy who was determined to create a new family that had no choice but to love him, even if said family just wanted to do their jobs and be left alone. There were various times when the show feinted toward the idea that Andy was a man desperate for the approval of his father and thus needed constant reassurance from all around him, but the writers never really dug in and did the same kind of character work on Andy that they did for Michael. To his credit, Ed Helms threw himself into every Andy he was asked to play and had no qualms about looking as pathetic as possible, though there were weeks when you could see him sweating to make his character congeal through sheer force of will.

Hour-long episodes of The Office work best when they feel like two connected stories strung together. They suffer when, like last night’s episode, they feel like a half-hour installment stretched out too long. This one felt like it had a first act preamble that took forever to kick in, and considering that it’s the third-to-last episode this show will ever air, it had a distressingly low hit to miss joke ratio. (I don't even know what was going on with the stale Lil Romeo and SpongeBob references.) But like most of this season, this episode got over because of a satisfying series of character moments, and gave Helms an opportunity for one of his best performances in a while.

With just a few hours left in the series, the writers have finally made up their minds about who Andy truly is. Turns out, all along he was a hopeless dreamer with an insatiable need for validation and/or fame. Hey, better late than never. After Jim tells Andy that he's learned "you can't give 100 percent to two things at once," Andy decided he has to quit Dunder Mifflin to focus on his acting. He owes it to himself, and he owes it to his future fans. And hey, it saves David Wallace from having to fire Andy. (For what it's worth, anyone who thinks that it's impossible for a man well past his twenties to find work as an actor needs to talk to former stockbrocker turned ominpresent That Guy From That Thing Andy Buckley.)

When Andy tells the office that he is leaving to try to make it as an actor, the response is not what he wants to hear. (Dwight: "I have nothing to gain from getting you to stay and everything to gain from you leaving, but please I have known you for years, I have seen you perform. Dear God, don't quit your day job.") Not what he wants to hear at all. (Erin: "I think you might become homeless, or maybe even starve.") After the umpteenth person points out that he has neither savings nor contacts in the industry, he gets his old salesman job back and watches as someone else finally gets everything they ever wanted.

While the sight gag of Dwight walking around with a black belt over his customary earth-tone clothing was a nice runner, the rest of his karate-based plotline felt like a waste of Michael Imperioli. Rainn Wilson air-kicking around the office was more frantic than funny, and it was unbelievable that Wallace would be okay with Dwight wanting his black belt ceremony to take place at the office, much less trust some random sensei named Billy to tell him about Dwight's work ethic. (Though Buckley's nonchalant, taking-it-all-in reaction to things is always a welcome addition to any Office bit.)

After lusting after it for eight years, Dwight finally gets the Regional Manager job. And they didn't even have to call in a bunch of guest stars this time around. Dwight, forced to do his own announcement after Wallace takes a call, jumps on a desk and revels in the moment. You gotta give it up to the guy — he put his time in. Erin is strangely pumped, Jim is clearly relieved that he didn't have to make a hard choice about taking the Regional Manager position versus following his dream, and Andy asks himself, "How did I just abandon my dream so quickly?"

Andy gets a rare burst of self-awareness (though not of a variety that would do him any long-term good) and realizes the problem is that he has a fallback plan. He remembers that Cortez motivated his soldiers by burning their boats so they couldn't retreat. A dick move, but Andy knows "I have to be that same kind of dick to myself." So after molesting Toby fails to achieve much of anything, Andy brags to Wallace about how he lost the Scranton White Pages. Eventually, he gets Wallace to stop forgiving him and finally fire him so he can take advantage of his "last chance to honor what is best inside myself" before all of his documentary fame dissipates.

After Andy craps on Wallace's car — just to be safe — he serenades everyone with "I Will Remember You." If you ever had a thing for Felicity or just walked by a graduation ceremony any time in the past twenty years, it’s possible that this song will make you have a moment whether you want to or not. Though it's mostly used for comedic effect, Ed Helms actually has a very gentle singing voice, and as he leaves, Phyllis and Stanley concede that maybe the Nard Dog won't end up in porn in a few months. This show isn't mean-spirited enough for Andy to end up on skid row or some bottom-feeding reality TV show, but it's too realistic for him to become an actual star, so I look forward to seeing where he actually winds up. But until then, godspeed former Regional Manager Andy Bernard. We hardly knew ye.

As Andy was packing up, Angela tried to talk some sense in to him. "Don't let pride ruin your whole life. It's not worth it." She should know. Her landlord, one of those "uptight, judgmental shrew" types, had two sacks of cats removed from her studio apartment, and then kicked her out. She looks like she's wearing a cat bed, her hair looks like a fur ball, and she's started day-drinking. Oscar, feeling guilty for his part in her breakdown, insists on taking her in after he sees her looking at tents online. She resists at first, but gives in when he mentions they'll have separate bathrooms. As they're driving away, she finally admits to him, and to herself, that she still loves Dwight. It would have been better if she had admitted this a few weeks (or a few years) ago, but I suspect that with two episodes to go there's still time for her to make things right.

"I leave here a regional manager with a black belt. It really is amazing how your life can change in one day." In this episode, Dwight achieved most of his dreams, Andy put everything on the line to achieve his, and Angela realized how empty life is when you don't admit to yourself what you really want. For his part, Jim decided that his dreams of being Philly Jim can wait while he works on his marriage with Pam. ("I really felt like I almost lost her, and nothing is worth that.") It seems like things are good between them (according to Pam, the mornings are really good. Beesly!), and after so much tension between the two of them, I'm sure a lot of you are happy just to see these two get along. (Though Toby doesn't seem to be having such a good time sharing the annex with those two.)

For most of this episode, John Krasinski played Jim like a man trying to convince himself of something. You got the sense that he loved Pam, but he also thought that he could still find a way to make everything work. But at the end of the episode, Daryl tells him that Athlead has been bought out, and in three months they'll be pitching players out West. And then Jim finally realizes he can't have it both ways and makes a choice. "I can't do it. I can't do this to Pam." He walks away, thinking his dream is over. But Pam overheard everything from the bathroom, and she may have finally heard something she's needed to hear since this whole thing started.

Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC