Spoilers for the series finale of The Office follow:
When Ricky Gervais’ UK version of The Office ended with a movie-sized episode, it had significant plot business to take care of: David Brent’s post-firing spiral into the worst kind of fame-chasing, Tim and Dawn’s relationship status, the effect that the airing of the Wernham-Hogg documentary had on the characters. It resolved storylines, and ended a bitterly, darkly funny show on a note of redemption and hope.
The oversized finale of the American The Office was also focused on the aftermath of the documentary, but it captured the differences between the two incarnations of this series. The wasn’t much plot business hanging over the finale (with the exception of Pam and Jim’s story, which I’ll get to). It put a period on a lot of journeys (Erin finding her birth parents, e.g.), but it wasn’t really crucial to the story: we saw Dwight and Angela’s wedding, for instance, but we already knew they would end up together.
This Office, after all, had nine years to wrap up its business; its central character, Michael Scott, found his dream and made his exit two years ago. Mostly, the work of “Finale” was emotional: to hit the warm, big-hearted notes that distinguished this series from its parent, and to remind us why we fell in love with the characters individually, and why they came to love each other collectively over the course of a “stupid, wonderful, boring, amazing job.”
It used every device in the emotional-comedy playbook to do it: a wedding, reunions, flashback footage, a romantic gesture, a goodbye song. It was touching, sweet, funny, messy, a little manipulative.
And in the end, it worked.
I suspect that, if I go back and re-watch this finale a year or two from now, I’ll find it worked more as a farewell to the previous nine seasons than as an episode in and of itself. The stuff that was like latter-seasons Office (the Andy-centricity, the Dwight zaniness) was all right; the stuff that recalled the sweep of the whole series was wonderful.
The show’s mockumentary format was built for that kind of nostalgia: it was a series finale shot literally as a reunion special. In another sitcom finale, cutting to montages of the characters over the years would have felt like a cheap, button-pushing device; here, it would have seemed peculiar if The Office hadn’t done that. We saw the characters, in time-lapse, get older, grow, make choices and get their acts together, and felt the years of our lives pass along with theirs.
The way the show-within-a-show framing device played in the finales marked another big difference between the shows. Gervais (as he later did in Extras) had a critique to make of the reality-TV, celebrity culture; the TV show about Wernham-Hogg was portrayed as, if not sinister, a much more mixed blessing. It allowed David Brent to become famous, or infamous, and thus to hit bottom that much faster, pimping himself out as a reality-TV has-been and convincing himself that meant success.
It was, maybe, a little more plausible in the British media culture that a documentary about a paper company could have that kind of effect, could get people recognized on the street. In America, Dunder-Mifflin was on public TV; it made a little, local splash and that was it. (It’s fitting that Andy’s 15 minutes–roughly the equivalent of Brent’s post-documentary fame–came from a viral video out of an audition for a commercial-TV reality show, not the PBS show.)
So the experience of making the show and seeing it–fitting a comedy that was about finding meaning in small things–was much more private than public, more personal than social commentary. For David Brent, being filmed was at least half a curse; here, as Jim put it, it was a “gift”–the ability to get a rare outside perspective on your own life.
The finale, then, worked mostly as an epilogue, largely pulling off the tough job of giving a huge cast final moments that gave them both ridiculousness and dignity. Kevin finally lost his job to his incompetence–the “keleven” is maybe the episode’s funniest invention–but he came to terms with it and found a better place. Meredith is still a wreck, but she’s also got a psychology degree and a stripper son she’s damn proud of! Creed got a suitably bizarre run-from-the-law story–which acknowledged the real Creed Bratton’s actual background in the Grass Roots–and sang a gorgeous original goodbye song. Angela rode Phyllis’ back to her wedding, and somehow it was lovely.
And Michael. Michael Scott returned, in a way that as best as possible walked the line between overplaying and underplaying Steve Carell’s cameo. Michael had his ending; it would have been bizarre to give him a new one. But the way the script had him come on scene–call me a sucker but I totally fell for it–was pitch-perfect, with a choked-up “That’s what she said.” (From that moment, really, it felt like the finale shifted into a higher gear.)
And though the episode devoted scarcely a minute to it, it neatly wrapped up what had been his real ongoing story arc, Michael as the lonely, misfit child of divorce who never wanted anything more than kids of his own. And got them in more ways than one: “I feel like all my kids grew up and then they married each other. It’s every parent’s dream!”
All right. Let’s talk Pam and Jim. I’m conflicted, when it comes to their final arc as a whole. Bigger-picture, I loved what Greg Daniels and company tried to do with them this final season–showing how tough a working marriage can be, after the happy-ending wedding–and mostly, I admired the subtlety and lack of moralizing in how they told a common story of two people who love each other, but don’t necessarily want the same things. (A kind of story, by the way, that Friday Night Lights resolved beautifully in its own finale–oddly enough, also featuring a job choice that involved Philadelphia.)
It’s when I look closer that the joints and connections of the story don’t always seem to fit. It made perfect sense how Pam and Jim got into trouble with Athlead in the first place, through an everyday chain of miscommunications, false assumptions, and unvoiced feelings. (In particular, Jim’s propensity for big “Jim gestures” and Pam’s natural reticence were a crisis waiting to happen.) They struggled, they went into therapy, they didn’t fix everything perfectly, but they realized that they wanted to stay together.
Then the problem re-complicated itself exactly the same way, as Jim declined the offer for the roadshow and Pam let him quit the company. And at some point, I had to wonder: isn’t there a five-minute conversation they could have had to figure out how each other really felt about the situation? And is there a reason, other than the needs of the plot, that they don’t just have it? (Given that they were in therapy for precisely that?)
And the finale raised the further question: if Jim was really as fine with staying in Scranton as he made out in the penultimate episode, why be so glad to take off to Austin as soon as Pam gives him her late blessing? (Side note: Why do Athlead’s remaining partners take him back now? Did he keep a stake in the company?) Does Pam still mistrust him for the high-handed way he got into Athlead in the first place? Was he actually a seething ball of resentment under that smiling exterior? And if so, isn’t it a missed opportunity for the show not to explore that?
As I say—details. But if the details don’t all add up, the emotions do, and I have to give a lot of credit to Jenna Fischer’s fantastic performance, here in the finale and through the entire series. It’s not an easy thing, making a romantic-comedy-lead character out of someone who’s essentially an introvert. And her bearing in the panel-discussion scene was really something. You can see her struggling not to just say, “It’s not that simple! I’m not the bitch! It wasn’t as perfect as you think!” because that’s not something Pam Beesly does.
And so when she brings herself to do something that Pam Beesly doesn’t do–put their house on the market secretly, just like Jim bought it secretly–it feels not just like a solution to Pam and Jim’s problem as a couple, but a significant step forward for Pam as a person. Indeed, if there’s one thing the last season of The Office changed for me, it’s to make me see the show not as Michael’s story, or Jim’s, or Dwight’s, but Pam’s, and it made perfect sense that she got the last word.
Which is why, even if some of the final speeches of the episode might have sounded corny out of context, they were utterly fitting. Live your life as if you were a character you’re yelling at on TV. Embrace love and possibility. Say what you really feel, to the people you love, not just to a camera.
As Pam–the muralist of the mundane–says, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things,” but that doesn’t mean you should get complacent. Life is an amazing thing. But it’s not that long.
That’s what she said. That’s what she said indeed.
Now for one last hail of bazooka shells:
* ” Well, well, well, well, well. That’s six wells! Did I get that number right, Dwight?” It was five.
* “Good song choice, Jakey! A stripper’s only as good as his song!”
* “I let him suck on a strawberry. He’s allergic. But he’ll get over it fast.”
* Related to that: OK, not the sort of plot detail I should probably be fixating on in this finale, but do they just let you fly to Poland with strange babies now?
* “You did good.” “Thanks Dad. Er, Darryl.” See, now that’s Andy’s story, in one elegant exchange.
* Oh, that Creed Bratton original song toward the end of the finale? Here he is performing it. At some point I’ll be able to watch it through the end without crying: