When it’s on its game,The Office can do elegant long-form character arcs and carefully constructed joke setups and make it look as easy as Meredith. But sometimes this show is at its best when it doesn’t do much at all.
The plot of “Dwight Christmas” is pretty slight when written out: Dwight throws an insane Authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas party straight out of an episode of Grimm. (Just like regular Christmas except dirty and worse.) Jim leaves early. Dwight gets his feelings hurt and whips Jim in the ass. Jim misses everyone and comes back. Erin and Plop watch Die Hard. Everyone is together for the holidays. (Everyone but Andy, anyway. I know we’re long past the point where we we can reasonably carp that no one ever works on this show and I know that the boss gets a decent allotment of vacation days, but can he seriously just do no work for two months?)
Storywise, it’s not much, but that’s okay. We don’t always need a lot of things to happen on this show. Sometimes, like tonight, it’s enough just to hang out with some characters we’ve grown to love over the years and will soon never seen again.
We’ve had Benihana Christmas. We’ve had Moroccan Christmas. We’ve had Classy Christmas. We even had that annoying episode where Andy tried to make the 12 Days of Christmas happen for Erin. But somehow we’ve never had a Christmas where Dwight was in charge. I’m as surprised as you. “Dwight dresses as a Bearded Holiday troll and steals Christmas” feels like the type of idea that’s been on a whiteboard in the writers’ room forever, and someone on staff realized that it’s now or never with that one, especially with Angela’s will being broken and all that. (At least she has Oscar to agree with her about everything.) My favorite part of this austere Christmas was the traditional Christmas whipping stick for the impish children, though the combination wine and medical instrument sterilizer is a close second. Bizarre as it all was, Oscar is right that this is apparently a real thing, because German children’s stories are exceptional.
Jim has gone out of his way to bring a nonstop parade of humiliation into Dwight’s life. After his family, it’s basically what he lives for. And strangely enough, Dwight rarely seems to mind all that much. Part of that is just a structural issue: If Dwight were so mad over constantly getting pranked that he quit or got Jim reprimanded, there wouldn’t be much of a show. But really, it seems that on some level Dwight knows Jim pranks because he cares. (Strangely enough, Jim is Dwight’s best friend, and vice versa. Note the hug Dwight gave Jim when he returned. What will these two even do without each other? It will be like Tom without Jerry.) So it was actually startling to see Dwight get upset that Jim was leaving the party early to get a good night’s sleep (and plenty of panic vomiting) before his first day at the Philawhatever firm. While The Office is not an overly touchy-feely show (at least when it’s been written properly), one of its main themes is that everyone who works there is basically part of a family whether they like it or not, and the main joy of this episode was just watching everyone hanging around and playfully ribbing each other and then falling backwards into the punch bowl, the way real families do it when they get together.
Part of the charm of this episode was that the writers didn’t try to stuff it with too much plot. Other than the party, we just had Pete and Erin talking about Die Hard and not talking about their growing feelings or her anger at Andy (Andy probably would jump off a burning building while tied to a hose for Erin, but then ignore her a week later. He’s great at desperate grand gestures and bad at the day-to-day stuff); and Daryl getting mad and chugging whisky punch because he thinks Jim forgot about his promise to bring him on to the new gig. Daryl might be the coolest character on this show, but he sure has a hard time just directly asking for what he wants. (Just ask Val. Or have we already forgotten about Val?) One of the main problems The Office has had for a while is that we can often feel the writers straining way too hard to establish Andy as the new main character, when he clearly works better as part of an overall ensemble. These past few episodes have benefitted from that lack of strain more than they’ve benefitted from the lack of Andy. Hopefully the writers will notice this as well and not try so hard when Ed Helms finally gets back on set.
One of the slightest and oddest subplots of this episode and season has been Toby going on and on about the possible innocence of the Scranton Strangler. (“Forget everything you thought you knew about fingerprints.”) He’s brought it up so often this season that I’m beginning to wonder if the writers are building up to something, like maybe the Strangler is someone we know, like Todd Packer or Gabe or Cousin Mose or Toby in a severe dissociated state. Unlikely? Sure. But so is the idea of Toby and Nellie hooking up, but that happened at the end of this one, though she probably only kissed him to get him to shut up already. (“I could start at the beginning, but I think I need to go farther back.”) Nellie’s cartoonishly crazy Benny Hill thing hasn’t really jelled with this show’s tone, but maybe her mania will muss up Toby’s buttoned-down demeanor in an unexpected way. It’s always fun to watch Flenderson get flustered.