I suppose the good news is that the writers are making a concentrated effort to not let the series end with its preeminent romance having faded into contented mediocrity. That’s the direction Jim and Pam had settled into during the sixth and seventh seasons. Last year there was that whole non-love triangle in which despite their efforts the writers convinced no one that Jim might actually cheat on Pam with her maternity leave replacement, but at least there was some effort to raise the stakes between the couple again. This season, however, has refined that effort to depict situations that are less phoned-in than merely dropping Jim into a situation in which he can hook up with another woman. Additionally, Jim and Pam’s latest relationship challenges are more layered than their previous period of distance when Pam was attending art school in New York during that summer in season five. It’s one thing to not see your boyfriend or girlfriend for a significantly extended time, especially if he or she is in a substantially more exciting environment than usual, but those issues of trust are much more profound when the physical distance amplifies and already present emotional distance as opposed to the insecurities of two people who actually are quite happy with each other. Neither Pam nor Jim are worried the other will carry on some sort of affair during their time apart when Jim stays in Philadelphia half the week; their concerns at this point – or at least Pam’s – are those of communication and honesty.
Pam is visibly exhausted at the onset of the episode, Erin immediately mistaking her for Phyllis when she first walks in the office. Pam and Jim’s daughter, Cici, somehow acquired lice, as children tend to do on occasion, and she pulled an all-nighter cleaning every piece of linen in their house. Meanwhile, Jim is taking a limo to have a meeting with his hero, Julius “Dr. J” Irving, on his private basketball court to sink three-pointers and reenact cherished past performances. This contrast works on an immediate comedic level but not as well as if the cuts between Jim’s dream meeting and Pam’s very bad day were a bit tighter. Because the scenes of Jim and Dr. J lingered their efficacy was dulled so that Jim almost came off as smug in his revelry in this dream come true when really he has no reason not to do so.
In terms of pathos, however, Pam’s plot works quite well. By failing to immediately disclose where the lice outbreak most likely came from, letting Meredith take the blame (which she did like a champ), Pam of course exacerbates the situation and when the truth is inevitably revealed it completes the portrait of a perfectly awful day – what ended up being a strong set up for the episode’s final scene in which Meredith invites Pam to have a beer with her and the two share some genuine feelings with each other, the exact kind of release Pam needed. During this story both Pam and Jim each express during their respective talking heads their efforts to keep the truth from each other. Though it’s out of consideration for each other’s feelings, the moral of the story is that even when it may be considerate to not rub some painful truths in the face of those one loves, omitting the truth will only cultivate further distance between two people as evidenced by the voicemail Pam leaves Jim, a nearly identical device used during the fifth season when the two characters couldn’t find a good opportunity to have a long-distance conversation.
Besides serving as a means to explore Jim and Pam’s growing distance, the lice plot provided plenty of solid gags and visuals like Dwight accidentally chemical-bombing himself (twice) and hallucinating despite his hazmat suit and yelling “LYE!” when someone actually said, “Lie,” or Erin jumping on Stanley’s back to keep him from leaving the office and spreading the infestation. The plot also provided opportunities for Erin and Pete to grow closer while Angela exercised some anger toward Oscar for having an affair with her husband. While Pete and Erin’s budding romance is a cute enough if not transparently obvious attempt to recreate the Jim/Pam situation (as was when Andy pined for Erin while she was with Gabe), the potential humor to be found in Oscar and Angela’s pairing is completely lost on me as there’s simply not enough context to their circumstances. I can’t laugh at Angela lamely messing with Oscar because all I’ve seen of their situation is the bare facts which aren’t inherently funny on their own. If the writers can’t make something of a story then they shouldn’t include it and the Oscar/Senator/Angela triangle has dragged on for far too long already.
Speaking of unnecessary plots, apparently Daryl is dead-set on relocating to Philadelphia once Jim’s company gets off the ground and is already thinking about avoiding a long-distance relationship with Val, the woman he spent so much time pursuing that his sudden distaste for their relationship feels completely unearned and consequently ineffective on every level. The only decent element to this plot was Nelly’s speech on the profoundly self-destructive effects of loneliness which resonated with me personally and was not only hilarious but heartfelt as well.
This final season of The Office will never bring the series back to its glory days but it’s good to know the writers are at least trying, if not a little too much. “Lice” was a pretty solid and funny episode but certainly suffered a bit from overcrowding, which is ironic considering Clark and Andy are still nowhere to be found (did Ed Helms get out of his contract early after all?).