There’s a long history of shows that, when a finale came, just couldn’t pull the trigger and kill off the season’s main villain. Sometimes, it’s an inspired choice to keep the antagonist around, and it ends up moving the show in a different direction, like Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; other times, keeping the Big Bad around becomes a weight that drags the rest of the show down when it becomes clear that producers liked the actor but there was nowhere left for the character to go. (The main example of this would by Sylar on Heroes, but to be fair that was only like the third biggest problem that show had.) This is more of a problem with dramas than comedies, but it does pop up occasionally and was bound to happen on The Office, a comedy particularly dependent on antagonists.
Now, Nellie Bertram wasn’t the Big Bad of last season like Robert California was. She was more of the Big Bad’s No. 2. (One could say that she was the Drusilla, if one were inclined to relate everything back to Buffy.) Her character should have been written off along with California at the end of last season, especially because there’s no way that Andy wouldn’t have just straight up fired her once he got his position back. But apparently the producers really liked Catherine Tate and contrived to bring her back, which has been the most puzzling decision for this otherwise surefooted season. Nothing against Tate per se, but her broad energy has been a weird mix with the more quotidian vibe of the characters. She never seemed to fit, and at times, it’s felt like there have been two Dwights on this show, and that’s one Dwight too many.
But this season has been all about righting the ship and fixing the problems, and as such there’s been a noticeable effort recently to bring Nellie down to earth and make her likable. Tate’s delivery has been dialed back to eight from eighteen, and her hunger for power has been swapped out by a need for love and acceptance, exemplified by her budding friendship with Pam and desire to adopt. Tate’s even managed to make us feel bad for Nellie whenever Andy is a dick to her, which is an impressive feat.
“Customer Loyalty” is the best use of this new version of Nellie yet. She had assigned Erin and Pete to a social media youth task force, which so far has been a hit with fake people. While watching the two of them celebrate their success with an adorable fist-bump, Nellie sees what’s going on. (Erin: “Not that I’m into Pete.”) Having pushed the pair to “go at it vigorously,” Nellie works to save her own ass by hijacking Dwight’s meeting about loyalty (more on that in a sec) to publicly shame them.
While Pete’s character could use some more development (we mainly know that he likes Die Hard and doesn’t like Clark), his hangdog, aw-shucks charm is readily apparent, as is his and Erin’s mutual attraction. In a fun left turn that I didn’t see coming, the entire office already knows that these two have a thing for each other and cuts through Nellie’s attempts to talk about Erin flirting with some hypothetical Mr. X (or, shudder, Creed). And not only does everyone know, but they’re not even all that scandalized. Well, Angela’s mildly annoyed (Erin: “Didn’t you cheat on Andy?” Angela: “Yes, and he didn’t like it”) and Oscar prefers to congratulate himself for suggesting that Erin doesn’t need a man.
While there wasn’t much shame in the public shaming, it still made Erin and “Peter” feel guilty enough to leave each other alone. But then Nellie, either feeling guilty or lonely (though it seems something is going on with Toby, which probably isn’t helping the situation), forces them back on to the task force (“You have no choice in the matter and everybody knows it”). Pete and Erin can’t skate by on just being cute and a knowing call back to the early days of Jim and Pam forever, but for now it’s hard to harumph at how happy they looked to have no choice but to work together again.
Speaking of undeveloped relationships, it would appear that Dwight is having a hard time with Daryl’s plans to eventually leave Dunder Mifflin. This plot ine felt forced, because we never got a sense as to why Dwight cared so much that Daryl was leaving. Fear of change? Jealousy that his co-worker has a better opportunity? A need to treat his co-workers like family members who will never leave him? That Dwight couldn’t deal with Daryl leaving just seems to be something the audience has to accept for this plot to work, which is never a sign of good writing. After Nellie hijacks the meeting Dwight planned to shame Daryl to do her own shaming, he decides that his best shot at keeping him around is showing him how much fun the paper business is. Unfortunately, this involves throwing a milkshake at a fast-food cashier. (That this is apparently an actual YouTube trend is yet another blow to my faith in humanity.)
The characters in this show, especially Dwight, can be petty, but they’re rarely outright mean. We’ve been shown that as hungry for respect as he is, Dwight is not ultimately that bad of a guy, so this attack on some kid getting paid minimum wage felt out of character and off-putting. (Though to be fair, this show has long-established that all of these characters are weirdly susceptible to online viral video trends.) Daryl has a problem with this also, and makes Dwight clean up the mess. That Dwight eventually gets hit with his own fire in the hole helped make this plotline only slightly easier to swallow.
At first, Pam and Jim’s plot seemed like some Modern Family shit. Jim can’t make it to Cece’s first ballet recital, and he’s crushed because he worked so hard with her on her “Spin and Kiss.” Pam’s annoyed that he canceled last minute, and even more annoyed when he double-checks that she knows how to take video on her phone. (“I think I know how to point a rectangle at something.”) Then when she gets to the recital, she gets a phone call informing her that she’s going to get to do Scranton’s Irish American Cultural Center Mural. (Take that, Tracy Fleeb.) It later turns out that this caused her phone to quit taping. As Oscar, always helpful, says, it’s a “user error, I’ve heard it happen to other people.”
Though she’s not always given enough to do, Pam is probably the most fleshed-out, well-rounded character on this show. She tends to act as the emotional ballast that anchors all the rest of the crazies, and therefore is rarely the driving force of any particular plotline. But when called upon to carry things, Jenna Fischer is always up for it. Her monologue about how she was happy to get the mural job, but was really happy because she knew it meant she would get a supportive “Beesly!” from her husband was so sweet and unguarded that it was clear something bad was about to happen.
And of course, it did. This entire season has been building toward the inevitable Jim and Pam blowout, and the writers didn’t flinch. This fight was ugly and real. Like, Jason Katims or cable-drama-level real. I was honestly surprised at how uncomfortable I felt while watching it. After losing a main investor, Jim just wants a pick-me-up and does not take it well when he hears that Pam screwed up the taping. Jim’s natural temperament is to be flip, but like Dwight he’s almost never been flat-out mean. But the stress of losing a major investor and worrying his big dream job will fold before it starts must be weighing on him. Unfortunately, he reacts the way many people do in times of great duress, by taking it out on the person he’s closest to. (“That moment’s just gone. I just missed it.”) To John Krasinski’s great credit, he doesn’t try to make Jim look charming in this fight, just terrified and exhausted. It gets worse when Pam, understandably, tells him he just should have been there, and he replies that he’s doing this all for them. It culminates in a statement that reveals the tensions and cracks that have slowly worked their way into the Halpert’s marriage.
Pam: “I’m trying to make everything perfect here, so that you can have everything that you want.”
Jim: “I’m doing it just for me? If that’s what you think then this is a really sad night.”
The conversation ends with a sad but perfectly true “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Jim looks worn out, and Pam looks shamed and broken. She starts crying, and asks, “What am I doing wrong, Brian?” And then we see something that we’ve never seen before on The Office. The camera pans around over to the crew, and a handsome (too handsome?) boom mike operator named Brian goes over to Pam to reassure her, and tells the camera to stop rolling. While it would make sense that after all these years these characters would view the documentary crew as sympathetic ears that have no choice but to listen, I don’t think I was the only fan who never expected to see them, much less see them take an active role in the story. We’ll have to see where this all goes, but I will admit that the last five minutes of this episode genuinely startled me, which is an impressive feat for a series on its ninth and final season.