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We’re getting into the home stretch, folks. Only four episodes of The Office left (well, three after the newest episode), and the writers obviously understand that they have to wrap things up. “Paper Airplane” accomplished two tasks: it harkened back to the early seasons by gifting us with an enjoyable in-office competition, and it showed the growth and maturity of some key characters. Like so many recent episodes, “Paper Airplane” didn’t showcase every character well (Does Meredith still work at Dunder Mifflin?), but some lesser-used characters got a chance to shine, and Andy’s subplot wasn’t too terrible.
The main action this week focuses on (what else?) a paper airplane contest. It reminds me in some ways of the season 2 classic “Office Olympics,” in which the DM employees ignore work for a whole day and bond over absurd made-up games. But this particular competition is sponsored by a paper supplier who wants to demonstrate a new product; it isn’t arranged by a pre-haircut Jim, and nobody’s playing Flonkerton. The prize is a $2,000 check, not Yoplait lids made into medals. (Ah, memories.) We get some much-needed fleshing out of characters in the airplane scenes. Toby is wearing an eye patch due to Pam’s errant airplane, but all Toby really does in this episode is walk around with one eye covered. Honestly, the gag was only nominally funny, and the writers didn’t do anything with it. (Not even one pirate joke!) We actually get some background on Erin in this episode. Apparently, during her time in foster homes, she learned to be competitive about absolutely everything. This has carried over into her adult life, and she is concerned about Pete seeing her ultra-competitive side. So we can assume that those two are dating. Good to know, and I still really don’t care. Ellie Kemper does a terrific job with Erin’s strange combination of naiveté and street smarts, but the character just isn’t very interesting. I’m thrilled I no longer have to see her with creepy Gabe, but that’s mainly because I loathe Gabe. Erin=snooze.
Let’s talk about Kevin for a second, shall we? He’s eliminated almost immediately for cheating and using a paper airplane purchased off of Craigslist, and then he appears to be almost painfully stupid as he attempts to assemble his own airplane and fails over and over and over again. Then he glues one to his finger. I know, I know – Kevin is the token dumb character. And Brian Baumgartner deserves a ton of credit for so effectively conveying Kevin’s drawling ignorance. Somehow, Baumgartner gives the character some endearing qualities. That said, I don’t think Kevin was always so stupid. Seriously. How does he even have a job? There’s no way he’s a decent accountant. It surprises me that season 9 Kevin (because he’s gotten dumber as time has gone on) is able to dress himself. Sheesh.
Anyway, back to the competition. Angela is apparently separated from the Senator and living in a studio apartment with little Philip and no less than 16 cats. Man, I’m feeling sorry for Angela again. The Senator humiliated her on television (calling the female body “charmless” was just cruel), and now she’s broke, lonely, and raising her son on her own. She informs the camera that she still has her dignity, but seeing as how she’s stealing toilet paper from the office, I’m not sure I believe her. Since we have three episodes to go, and even though Angela sure could use a ray of life in her bleak life, we can't get Angela and Dwight back together just yet. Enter Esther, Dwight’s cannon fodder girlfriend. She shows up at the airplane contest to make out with Dwight, who attempts to throw the competition because Angela needs the money. Angela can’t take Esther’s condescension (and who can blame her?), so she throws the competition and tells the camera that Dwight has shown a weakness that is unbecoming. And you know what? Finally, we have classic Angela. Welcome back! We all know she’ll end up with Dwight, now that the Senator is conveniently out of the picture, and Esther’s best qualities, according to Dwight, are that she’s sturdier and more comfortable with the scent of manure, so…yeah, Angela and Dwight for the win!
Jim and Pam are back in the office, temporarily at least, and counseling is…well, influencing them. You know those really annoying couples that go to one session of counseling and then walk around spouting obnoxious, meaningless platitudes? Well, that fate has temporarily befallen our beloved Halperts. They’re spouting BS about acknowledging one another’s sacrifices and speaking their truths. At first they do it for the most mundane things, like Jim bringing Pam some tea, but the whole ridiculousness finally comes to a head when Jim answers the phone during one of their fake discussions, and Pam snarks that she appreciates Jim’s sacrifice (i.e. hanging up the phone). At long last, these two have it out, and Clark looks on wide-eyed. Oh, Clark, I wish you would’ve been around a few seasons ago instead of some of the Stamford branch staff. (I could’ve done without Karen). This is the truest moment of the episode: these two imperfect people walking on eggshells for fear of upsetting an already tenuous situation, but finally let it all out. But Jim’s ready to leave before they’ve made up, and when Pam runs after him with an umbrella, it looks like these two are going to part on bad terms again. Jim hugs Pam who doesn’t look impressed, and…I don’t cry, but it’s a struggle. I admit it. We get a lovely flashback of their wedding vows, and Pam throws herself into Jim’s arms for a passionate kiss. Ah. I know this doesn’t mean everything’s rosy for the Halperts, but they’ve made real, tangible progress. This moment reminds us of how gifted John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer are at conveying their characters’ emotions wordlessly. Remember the stolen smiles and wistful glances designed to show us how perfect they were for one another during the Roy years? When Jim shows his vulnerability by hugging a stiff, uncooperative Pam and then holds her anyway, willing her to give him a chance to make things right, Pam/Jim enthusiasts worldwide are holding their breath. And when she finally collapses into his arms, it’s obvious she’s remembering why she fell in love with him in the first place. All of this, without any words. Bravo.
Let’s talk for just a minute about the Halperts. I’ve seen an awful lot of people as of late comment that Pam is the unsympathetic one in this situation. Jim, they say, is the one forging ahead, trying to do worthwhile things for his family. It doesn’t help that we only see talking heads with Pam, as she complains to the cameras about her de facto single mother situation. But I think it’s worth remembering that while Jim might be ensuring a brighter future for his family, both Halperts are making sacrifices, and Pam’s stuck doing the grunt work (dealing with two kids who don’t get to see their dad), while Jim is doing the fun part. We also know that Jim has a history of making impetuous, rash decisions (buying a house without telling Pam!). That lack of foresight made Jim loveable in the old days, when he was incasing Dwight’s office supplies in Jell-O, and let’s face it – John Krasinski can sell any action with that devilish smile of his. But it’s understandable that a more mature Pam, one with kids, prefers some stability, and I don’t think we can blame her for being annoyed when Jim assumes that she’ll just go along with whatever he has planned at the moment. Both members of this couple have made poor decisions, and both of them are responsible for saving their marriage. It isn’t fair to lay the blame solely at the feet of poor Pam.
And I suppose I have no choice but to mention the obligatory Andy subplot, do I? Okay, let’s keep this short. Andy’s agent Carla has gotten him a job in a chemical safety video, and Andy, typically, is making a huge deal out of it and being an ass. The video director hates him, and it’s only the presence of Darryl that makes these scenes bearable. Andy is not an actor, and his huge ego is seriously affecting my enjoyment of this show. Ed Helms does puffed-up buffoonery so well, but I wish the writers would give the character some humanity once again. Remember how Michael Scott was such a jackass, but then we’d see him answer the door for trick-or-treaters or close an important sale, and we’d realize that deep down he was a sweet guy? The writers used to do that for Andy, too, and I wish they’d do it again. That, or make Andy transfer to the Dunder Mifflin Buenos Aires branch.
There is nothing revolutionary about this episode, but then The Office has never been a show about taking huge risks and redefining the comedic genre. Rather, it’s always been about ordinary, simple people who have relationships, get into conflict, and go to a job that pays the bills, even if it isn’t terribly exciting. “Paper Airplane” doesn’t stray from this formula. It deftly mixes painfully funny moments with overt sentimentality, and both facets work reasonably well. The only bum note was Andy’s subplot (not the fault of Ed Helms!), but I’m still hoping for a smidge of redemption for Andy. Something involving Here Comes Treble, maybe? We haven’t heard his sweet harmonies in awhile. Make it happen, writers.
Notes & Quotes
-- Office weirdo Creed doesn’t understand paper airplanes, and throws what looks like an orange. Um, okay. Creed is the perfect background character. He’s strange enough to be too interesting, but he’s not around enough to become tiresome.
-- How kickass is Darryl these days? Back in the first few seasons, he was a non-descript warehouse worker. Now he’s suffering Andy’s foolishness with the best of them and helping Jim make Athlead a success. Craig Robinson does deadpan brilliantly, and he’s made Darryl’s transformation totally believable. Well done. Also, Darryl was apparently in The Wiz?! Awesome throwaway line.
-- Kevin thinks Orville and Wilbur Redenbacher were responsible for the first flight. I know I complained about Kevin’s stupidity, but at least the line was funny.
-- Best line of the episode belongs to Nellie, who looks right at home barking out orders at the paper airplane contest. “It’s time for a little T and A! I give you Toby and Angela!” Tee hee. I admit I’ve been unsure about the Nellie character, but she’s starting to grow on me.
-- Side note: the Angela-in-a-tiny-apartment plot device requires a pretty major suspension of disbelief. Angela is an accountant. We can assume she makes a decent salary. Okay, so she probably can’t afford a mansion like the Senator’s, but surely she can swing a one-bedroom at the least. But then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the cruelly hilarious shot of Angela and baby Philip knee-deep in cats.