A series finale is a unique piece of television because it not only needs to function as a self-sustaining episode, but it needs to provide adequate closure to the stories the series has left unresolved. The Office’s “Finale” didn’t really accomplish the former, but it did everything in its power to cement as much closure as it could to the few ongoing stories it’s kept alive till the very end, and even some it hadn’t. There was truly no reason for anyone who hasn’t been a long-time fan of the show to bother watching the finale, but as one of those devotees who hung in there, I was mostly satisfied with it.
I could be bitter about the decline in quality story-telling or character arcs the last few seasons saw, or resentful that NBC wouldn’t let the series end gracefully when everyone from the fans to the actors were looking to jump ship, but life’s too short for anger. Yes, the show could have ended more satisfyingly after the third season, or more fittingly with “Goodbye, Michael,” but despite the post-Michael Scott seasons feeling more like a painfully long epilogue than a continuation of the series, “Finale” worked to close the curtain with more smiles than winces.
The episode was broken into four parts: the catch-up, the documentary panel, Dwight and Angela’s wedding, and the good-byes. The structure makes sense and mostly works, but as mentioned, as opposed to feeling like its own episode, “Finale” is very transparently just that; essentially consisting of a series of extended call-backs and goodbyes, not that I necessarily minded. The last two seasons were so especially marred by various missteps and random moves that a kind of sappy, near-hour-long hug was just fine by me.
The episode picks up a year after the previous one and much has changed in the halls of Dunder Mifflin Scranton. Its current state reflects both Regional Manager Dwight K. Schrute’s flair for effective, efficient business practices, as well as unconventional methods – profits are high, but there’s also a Tai Chi morning ritual and what I hope would become a new tradition of firing people with cake. I love that Kevin is finally fired after too many seasons of incompetency beyond reason. I would have been happy to have known Kevin was finally let go, but his embarrassing departure actually made for the episode’s most complete stand-alone plot of Jim’s final guten pranken of getting him and Dwight to reconcile. I also loved that Toby was fired without an explanation or even a legible message on his cake. I bet it was carrot cake too.
Oscar is apparently running for State Senate in what I can only assume is a stab at he and Angela’s shared ex. Although this aspect was only barely touched on and initially felt like a background fact which deserved more attention (though I didn’t actually want to see any of it), I like that it seems to say the stories and characters we’ve watched all these years won’t neatly end with the show. While I hated the love triangle arc among the Senator, Oscar, and Angela, which dragged on for far too long, briefly seeing it continue to play out feels right and authentic, perhaps for the first time.
In keeping with the sentiment of continuation, a couple new hires were given bits of screen time; Phyllis fattening up skinny Stanley was cute (her talking head while gushing over Stanley’s wooden sculpture of her was among the most genuinely heart-warming moments of the episode) and so is the actress playing Dakota, though she had no other actual contributions aside from being pretty in front of the camera and giving Creed an excuse to speed through his new back-story at the wedding. I’m going to pretend that Clark ends up with her; he seriously was criminally underused and the best addition to the series since Erin.
Nelly is no longer with the company. All we’re informed of her is that she now lives in Poland so that when she eventually steals Ryan’s abandoned baby she can say they’ll be somewhere in Europe – kidnapping, hilarious! I guess it is nice in a completely crazy kind of way. Her finally getting a kid was definitely one of the two, “Oh yeah, this was a deserted plot – so, resolution!” moments which I really resented.
The other biggest example of a neglected plot thread which this episode tried to tack some closure onto was giving Erin her birth parents played by Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr. This was so random and unnecessary I couldn’t not roll my eyes in disgust. Plus, Cusack and Begley weren’t even used well. It’s a real shame there couldn’t be a better use of Erin for the finale, but I suppose it reflects the weakness of the series when one of its best characters had nothing going on for a whole season beyond dumping Andy.
Speaking of, Andy is revealed to have become one of the many victims of humiliating internet celebrity. Sufficiently humbled, almost punished for chasing his dream so idiotically, Andy now works at the Admissions Office at Cornell. Though he got the very nice line about wishing one could be aware of his or her glory days before they’re behind that person, Andy’s crash and burn arc since Michael’s departure is without a doubt the worst handled debacle in the history of the show. I like that this was mirrored in a bit of meta-commentary from Kevin when he remarked with a chuckle at how hated Andy is by the public. Andy gets a morsel of mercy when at the documentary reunion panel he’s greeted with what has become his catch phrase, “RIDIT-DIT-DI-DO!” from a crowd of the documentary’s fans as opposed to internet haters. Nevertheless, every character seems to treat Andy like a leper throughout the finale, and it’s a shame because he was a great character before, as I believe Kevin remarked in a recent episode, he was thrown into a leading role the writers couldn’t sustain.
Kevin’s remark wasn’t the only example of meta-commentary in “Finale.” The documentary reunion panel, though only a scant eight minutes long, was surprisingly solid. I was expecting this to take up a much larger and more significant portion of the finale, but it’s probably better to have avoided too much naval-gazing at this point. Instead, there were a few throw-away gags such as Meredith mentioning that she also earned her PhD in educational psychology in addition to drinking like a fish, Toby’s line that yes, life had become pointless without an audience, and David Wallace’s contribution that watching the documentary was kind of disgusting, like watching how processed food is made. The rest of the segment focused on what the writers felt were the actual viewers’ most pertinent questions concerning Jim and Pam. In bits of audience surrogacy, the women in the crowd swooned over Jim and asked Pam how she could have doubted his devotion to her. Jenna Fischer actually delivered great performances explaining Pam’s inability to watch the documentary and see her relationship they way audiences have, which set things up for the couple’s additional resolution revealed after Dwight and Angela’s ceremony.
Turns out, after all the conflict and miscommunication and sacrifice, Pam’s now willing to relocate herself and her family so Jim can pursue his dream job. I guess it makes sense; Pam needed to know that Jim still loved her, and giving up his work at AthLead (now AthLeap) demonstrated this, which gave Pam the confidence to feel comfortable uprooting herself, but it all felt kind of abrupt to me. I thought after the last episode the couple’s conflicts were put to rest, but apparently the writers wanted to even things out a bit between the two, which I can appreciate. Now Jim doesn’t have to settle for being Dwight’s Assistant Regional Manager and the whole Halpert clan can live without resentment or stagnation, happily ever after. This is an ending that feels a little too good to be true, but that’s okay. Jim and Pam deserve happiness. The series has earned their happy ending, just as it earned Michael’s, and it doesn’t take away the authenticity from the characters’ earlier struggles.
With what little there was in the way of plot for this episode out of the way, the rest of its space was filled with nice little call-backs to better moments throughout the series: there was Jim riding his bike to work much less sweatily than when he tried it in season three; Meredith’s son, Jakey, making a reappearance as a stripper; the same stripper that made everyone uncomfortable at Roy’s Dunder Mifflin bachelor party tasted like cigarettes at Dwight’s; there was Dwight’s penchant for 80s hair metal; Toby’s writing; Creed’s oft-alluded to past catching up with him; Kelly and Ryan’s reunion, which was clearly dumb and beyond ridiculous, but Ryan’s line about finally mastering commitment while abandoning his child made me chuckle; Dwight and Angela’s wedding ceremony taking place in graves (“Why so shallow?”); Carol as Pam’s realtor; Pam’s water painting; Jim’s “quantities and types” reference to his first talking head from the pilot; live, adult cats as Angela’s wedding gifts; and I liked when Pam responded to Toby crying by asking, “Is it me?” acknowledging his former long-time crush on her. Plus, Jim’s bestest mensch guten pranken were really nice to see; after all these years Jim and Dwight have earned some moments of genuine friendship and I loved seeing this without any irony or tongue in cheek.
Clearly though, the best call-back was Michael Scott himself. I love that the finale didn’t overuse him. His contributions were far and few between, which is exactly what they needed to be. Michael Scott had a fantastic departure in “Goodbye, Michael,” and they did not need to redo that here. Instead we got the best “That’s what she said,” in years and a couple lines about how happy Michael is with his kids (and to finally have a family cellphone plan) and how proud he is of his former co-workers.
Comparisons to the British Office have always been abundant throughout The Office’s run, but now that it’s finished the temptation to hold side by side both completed series is inevitable. For a masterful examination of the American Office and its essential conflict of personal versus professional fulfillment, with some comparisons to its British predecessor, I cannot recommend highly enough “How The Office became one of the greatest television series about the American dream” by The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff. (The site has a host of Office material looking at the American show’s cultural impact and rise from the gutters of quiet, mid-season replacement to its network’s flagship product.) Anytime these very different, yet of course quite similar, versions of the same basic premise are compared the usual primary conclusion drawn appears to be that the British original did it better and with greater efficacy, humor, pathos, and dignity. While I certainly won’t contest this claim, I can’t help but feel the need to defend here the American series for having gone so far beyond its predecessor’s length.
Of course longer doesn’t necessarily mean better (That’s what she said), but The Office should be commended for being based on a foreign series and becoming so distinctly its own entity, even despite its later shortcomings. The Office truly has become an American television institution and like the best TV shows, it’s earned itself as permanent a place possible in the collective consciousness of a generation of audiences. While the later seasons were plagued by a curious mix of complacency and eventual desperation, the majority of the series, and the characters which constituted its best moments, should be remembered and enjoyed for the rarely paralleled ability to evoke pathos in the midst of humor, and humor in the midst of tragedy. I believe the highest art can often simultaneously display seemingly oppositional forces such as these, as well as genuinely connect to the masses, authentically portraying the struggles of common people, while making honest statements about the potential for individual greatness. The Office deserves to be considered among this class.
This article was first posted on May 22, 2013