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Midway through the penultimate episode of The Office, my husband turned to me and said, “Why couldn’t the writers have been doing this for the last three years?” I think that question just about sums up my feelings about this season in general, barring a few missteps, and about this episode in particular. The second-to-last episode of a long-running TV show is in an unenviable position. This is the time to start wrapping things up, but you can’t wrap up everything or the last episode will feel like filler. “A.A.R.M.” achieves an impressive balancing act: neatly setting up the final episode while providing enough laughs and quirkiness to be entertaining all on its own. At a few points during this almost final episode, I found myself harkening back to the early seasons of the show, but we were also treated to the sort of character growth one would expect from a show that’s been on for nine seasons.
Of course it wouldn’t be The Office circa 2013 without a few clunky notes, so let’s get them out of the way fast. Remember last week, when Andy (sigh) defecated on David Wallace’s car on his way out, not just burning his bridges but blowing them up so they’re totally unusable? Well, I stupidly thought we’d seen the last of Andy. We’d finally gotten one sweet moment of redemption: an office bonding scene set to Andy’s rather enjoyable falsletto. But for some reason, the Dunder Mifflin film makers are still following him, and we find him pursuing yet another chance at “fame.” He’s auditioning for a televised a capella talent show (sort of like American Idol, but with physical challenges and a mole), and of course he has to make an ass of himself. (Seriously, Andy, no one cares that you were in an industrial safety video. Including me.) While waiting in line, he meets another aspiring auditioner who’s as delusional as he is. They’re not impressed by the sob stories of other aspirants (“All you’ve gotta do is risk your life for this country and everyone goes gaga over you.”? Geez, Andy.) But the auditions end before Andy can debut his own sob story (an old man costume?), and Andy does the only logical thing: he storms in anyway and makes an idiot of himself. The judges (who include Clay Aiken) don’t like either song (I can’t say I blame them. The Cornell fight song?), and he breaks down in tears upon being rejected.
Which means…well, I’m not sure. Okay, I think I know. Andy will somehow end up back at Dunder Mifflin, even though, and I can't say this enough, defecated on his boss's car, with a bunch of people who hate him. What a sad arc for a promising character. Andy is the only former-Stamford character who’s stayed on the show long-term, and he was always my favorite. The bow ties, the constant references to Cornell, the proposal in the parking lot to tight-lipped Angela – Ed Helms has always imbued the character with a warmth and sweetness that made him loveable even when he was acting like a jackass (which was often). But the writers have made him so awful as of late, and there’s really no point in sending him back to the office now. Make him a star, make him a homeless person – I don’t care. Just get him off my screen.
Whew. We’re finally past that unfortunate arc, and it’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the episode is pretty great. We get an awesome cameo from little-seen Darryl, who’s moving to Philly full-time, but doesn’t want any long, protracted goodbyes from his soon-to-be former coworkers. Remember when Darryl was just a warehouse worker who dreaded Michael’s frequent drop-ins because he’d have to spend the entire day cleaning up? Craig Robinson’s sly, deadpan acting has really given the character a noticeable presence in the past few years. He’s bracingly honest and funny, and I love that little smirk he gives the camera. Darryl’s coworkers in the office aren’t too happy to see him try to slip out, and they demand the rest of the day to hang out with him. (Oscar wants to make dinner reservations.) This seems…a bit odd. No one has ever expressed any interest in wanting to be Darryl’s pal before now. They’re all treated him with respect and camaraderie, but not as a friend. This sudden attachment feels like the setup for a gag later (which it is). To celebrate Darryl’s departure, the Dunder Mifflin folks have an awesome dance party. The setup isn’t too believable, but at least the dancing is hilarious.
Darryl’s story arc dovetails nicely with the Halperts’, because Darryl is off on a three-month promotional tour with Athlead – you know, the tour Jim turned down to stay at Dunder Mifflin with Pam. Pam tells Darryl Jim is happy in Scranton, but Darryl isn’t buying it, and deep down, I don’t think Pam is, either. However, miracle of all miracles, Pam decides to ask her husband if he’s happy. Finally! Let’s face it: these two have always been great at casual interaction and joking, but not so great at just being honest with one another. So it’s terrific to see a real marital discussion, with tears and everything. Jim insists that he is happy and that he loves her, but Pam is worried she’s not enough and that he’ll start resenting her. Jim plans a secret mission to prove that she is, in fact, enough.
Meanwhile, Angela’s son has been kicked out of daycare, so she’s forced to bring him into the office. Oscar, Angela’s roommate, is acting as a sort of father figure, helping Angela pack Phillip’s snacks and critiquing his outfits. How cute are these two? Sitcoms often focus only on romantic pairings, so it’s awfully nice to see a real friendship developing between these two. I mean, let’s be honest: they have a lot in common. They’re both fastidious and kind of judgmental. (And they’ve both slept with the Senator. But I digress.) As for the Senator, he and Angela are divorcing. Good riddance. He was always a wooden, uninteresting character, more of a plot diversion to keep Angela away from Dwight than a real person. I’m not sorry to see him go.
I’ve always suspected (with ample evidence) that Dwight’s desire to ascend to the manager’s chair was really a thinly-veiled quest for power. I was right, but at least Dwight tempers his baser instincts with some hilarity. First, props to the set designers for the great décor in Dwight’s new office. The painting of Dwight posed like Lenin is a great touch. Dwight wouldn’t be Dwight if he didn’t needlessly complicate things, so the staff meetings every day, the inspirational quotes, and the obsession with eradicating nonsense are unsurprising. That said, insanity aside, Dwight is a better manager than Michael or Andy ever was. He’s efficient (ruthlessly so), and he works perfectly with Jim.
And when Dwight’s new Assistant to the Regional Manager suggests a contest (complete with an obstacle course) to determine a new Assistant to the Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dwight, who adores bureaucracy, can’t resist. Jim’s ideas are characteristically silly (“What number am I thinking of?”), and this return to goofy Jim feels bittersweet. On one hand, this is the Jim we (and Pam) fell in love with. John Krasinski does a great smug aside to the camera, and it’s amusing to see him pranking Dwight in a more mature, fond way, but I share Pam’s horror at seeing Jim, who’s become a husband, a father, and a businessman, crowning Dwight just like he would have nine years ago. Pam may have missed goofy Jim, and we may all love goofy Jim, but isn’t it possible goofy Jim has been replaced by adult Jim? We are treated to a moving bit of sentimentality, when Jim shows Pam a compilation of scenes from the documentary, all of them focusing on the two of them and the development of their love story. Not only does it bring Pam to tears, but it reminds us of how these two really were made for each other from the beginning, which makes their recent problems all the more poignant. There is just no way that the Halperts end the show in Scranton. No way. Part of the reason Jim was so loveable from the very beginning is that he was able to tolerate a crappy job because Pam was there. We’re seeing that again, but it isn’t as moving anymore. The Jim who needed only Pam, flirting and scheming when they were supposed to be working, has grown into a bonafied adult, and while his willingness to stagnate in a lousy job is endearing, it can’t possibly last. Pam knows that. At least I hope so.
And finally, I’m happy to report we’ve seen the last of Esther. Okay, I know she’s not so bad, but the placeholder characters really bug me. No one really thought she’d end up with Dwight, right? The episode sets us up nicely for the inevitable Dwight/Angela endgame. Dwight is prepared to propose to Esther, and has been carrying around a ring that was once removed from his grandmother’s buttocks. (I wonder what Schrute Thanksgivings are like). And as he explains to Jim, he’s got good reasons. Esther weaves, her dowry includes cow sperm, and she’s his third cousin, which is just the right position on his family tree. But Jim tells him to forget logic and reason, and to find the one woman “who’ll make this all work.” And we all know that person is Angela. In true Dwight fashion, he chases her down with a bullhorn and delivers a very loud (and odd) proposal. Kudos to the writers for making these two believable. I wasn’t too fond of the pairing at first. I thought Angela was too uptight for Dwight’s unrepentant weirdness. But Rainn Wilson and Angela Kinsey really make these two a loveable set of weirdos. And after some machinations, we find out that Dwight actually is baby Phillip’s father, and really, who didn’t see that coming? I don't want to rain on anyone's parade here, but does anyone else find the fact that Angela kept Phillip away from his father for an entire year rather cruel? I know we're supposed to gloss over it because Dwight and Angela are so perfect for one another, but ouch, Angela.
We’re into the homestretch when the whole gang (including Andy, sigh) gathers at Poor Richard’s to watch the documentary. We hear Michael on the tape! And with that, we’re off to the races…
Notes & Quotes
-- It wouldn’t be a proper Office review without a shout-out to Dwight’s strange – and strangely appropriate – marriage proposal. Cue a bullhorn. “I love you, and I don’t care that Phillip’s not my son. I will raise 100 children with 100 of your lovers if it means I can be with you. This expresses how loudly I love you!” Tee hee.
-- What on Earth was up with Kevin’s strange storyline this week? So Angela’s baby is in the office for a whole day, and now Kevin is jealous and throwing tantrums? He’s acting like a jealous toddler who’s gotten a new baby brother. I hate to repeat myself, but I remember when Kevin was just a bit slow on the uptake, not criminally stupid. Props to Angela and Oscar for endearing the baby to Kevin, so at least he’ll shut up.
-- The cold opening is pretty amusing. Dwight has instituted a secret code system for admittance to the office, and we get this gem: “Something’s that been really missing from my life has been writing secret codes. It’s not the KGB, but it’s a start.” Love you, Dwight.
-- The office folk are nervous about the documentary. Meredith says she’s been on her best behavior for nine years. (Um, what?) Stanley has had three affairs and says if anyone finds his body in a ditch, his wife did it. Nine years ago, Oscar was still having sex with women. Creed says that if his parents see the doc, he is toast. Creed has parents?! I always figured he hatched from a misshapen egg.
-- Some sweet moments from Jim’s video. Pam on Jim’s shoulder. Smiling at each across the office. Pam checking out Jim's form in the basketball game. Pam as a cat on Halloween. Jim’s yearbook photo! Ice skating. First kiss on casino night. Proposal. Cecelia born. Beside Niagara Falls. Pam with teapot. Says Jim, “Not enough for me? You are everything.” Aw.
-- Dwight and Jim’s tests don’t go so well, and Jim realizes that the only person who can fulfill the all-important role of Assistant to the Assistant to the Regional Manager is Dwight. Of course. How great is it to see these two getting along (in a frenemies sort of way)?
-- When did Erin become such a take charge person? We’ve put up with three years of her cheery, semi-milquetoast personality, and now she’s barking orders at Darryl. Ellie Kemper plays high-strung well, but this feels like a too little-too late character development.
-- And one more time, with feeling: Is Meredith still on this show? Other than one line about the documentary and some grinding on Darryl (ew), she doesn’t do anything in this episode. I think the writers just aren’t sure what to do with her. Too bad. I’d love to see what Meredith is like when she’s acting like herself. (Eek!)