“Cocktails” (season three, episode 18; originally aired 2/22/2007)/“The Negotiation” (season three, episode 19; originally aired 4/5/2007)
In which Roy intentionally destroys a bar and Michael unintentionally crossdresses…
A full month passed between the debuts of “Cocktails” and “The Negotiation,” which is an unthinkable amount of time in our ongoing binge-watching era. (In cartoon-montage terms, that’s 42 pages falling off the animated page-a-day calendar.) I have faint memories of the suspense; I mostly remember missing “Cocktails” in order to attend a concert and then finding out that the episode ended with Roy and his brother trashing Poor Richard’s. It sounded like an out-of-character moment for the show, so I wasn’t frustrated when the cliffhanger wound up being resolved with a heavy, stinging dose of comic anticlimax. Dwight’s pepper spray flushes one bad relationship out of The Office’s system while making way for one of the best episodes of the show’s third season–and arguably its finest use of a “super-sized” 40-minute time slot.
“The Negotiation” is a prime example of The Office having just enough story to justify what amounts to six or seven extra minutes of the runtime. It doesn’t exhaust the beats of its episodic storylines—and most impressively, it runs those storylines through and over material that explicitly originated in the inciting incident for Roy’s little Poor Richard’s tantrum: “Casino Night.” From the self-destruction (Jan’s continued insistence that her relationship with Michael is actually good for her) and standard-issue destruction of “Cocktails,” the show forms an episode that’s worth the extra advertising money its unique, Jeff Zucker-championed format pulled in.
But time effects drama differently than it does comedy: Deflating month-old expectations at the top of “The Negotiation” is hilarious, and so is Michael wanting to honor his six-episodes-old relationship with Jan by framing a piece of HR paperwork. To me, both of those moments hold more weight than what happens between Pam and Roy at the end of “Cocktails.” The characters have history, but they’ve only been back together for one full episode prior to this one. Calling off a wedding is emotional trauma of the highest measure, but there just isn’t enough time re-invested in Pam and Roy to make this confession mean anything. It rings false, in spite of Pam’s newfound commitment to honesty: “I kissed Jim” is the least feeling Jenna Fischer ever put into an Office line reading. And then it’s all overwrought emotion and prop-flinging chaos from there, captured in the weird lighting of the Poor Richard’s set that doesn’t even afford director J.J. Abrams one lousy lens flare.
I don’t want to knock “Cocktails” on the merits of its climax; it’s merely an episode that fails to mix its bathos and pathos as cleanly as other Office installments. There’s plenty of funny stuff to be found in the party at David Wallace’s house, a fish-out-of-water scenario for the regulars that mirrors the “bad match” chemistry of Roy-and-Pam and Jan-and-Michael. The funhouse-mirror, cocktail-party-versus-happy-hour setup is thematically rich, too, particularly back-to-back with “The Negotiation”’s trips up and down the corporate ladder.
What I like most about “Cocktails” feeds into “The Negotiation” as well: The idea that Jim’s losing his prankster’s poise. Karen gets his goat so thoroughly with all of her fake exes at the party; forced to express sincerity toward Dwight, he suddenly forgets everything he knows about the guy. The relationship with Karen is changing Jim for better and worse, and that expertly played against the growing distance between Jim and Pam. Just look at how they’re blocked in the vending-machine sequence: No eye contact, separated by the gray sea of the break-room wall. That’s a disconnect The Office can make us feel, and it’s been working for nearly 50 episodes to do so.
The same goes for Michael Scott’s yen for blind followship (to use a 30 Rock term). A man whose negotiation tactics of three parts Wikipedia, one part “I saw it in a movie once,” Michael has no concept of what he truly wants—and that’s a bad characteristic to bring into a negotiation situation. The biggest laugh of “Cocktails” involves Michael’s conception of the American dream, in which husband and wife and 2.5 kids engage in “ketchup fights,” a perfectly absurd vision of a life no one has ever really lived. It’s that same characteristic that feeds the big gag in “The Negotiation”: Caught up in a mad rush for discount clothes, Michael buys and then wears an elegant ladies’ pantsuit, completely overlooking such obvious tipoffs as the screaming fuchsia lining, buttons sewn on the lefthand side of the jacket, pocketless pants, and the “MISSterious” label. In a situation where he should follow his own instincts and stand his own ground, he’s humiliated by his inability to identify a suit jacket with an unflattering cut.
The path to Michael Scott’s destruction, in other words, is a path someone else laid for him. The unspoken joke about Michael’s TV-and-film informed outlook is that he is a character on a TV show, one that’s being filmed in his office everyday, catching embarrassments as small as “Everyone here is extremely gruntled” and as big as getting trapped in a straightjacket in front of all of his employees. The silver lining there: He presumably didn’t fish that straightjacket out of a giant bin.
- And so we wave goodbye to David Denman, who would reprise the role of Roy three more times before the end of The Office—but not in any episodes that will be covered in this space. Farewell, Roy: I hope you and your brother were able to buy back those jet skis in TV heaven.
- Another fun part of watching “Cocktails” and “The Negotiation” in quick succession: The big, humorous distinction between Dwight shouting “HELLO JAN” over speakerphone in the first episode and Toby muttering “Hi… Jan” in the second, after it’s revealed that he too has overheard more about Michael and Jan’s relationship that anyone ever should.
- Amid his gathering panic at Wallace’s party, Michael has only one group to whom he can reach out: The Documentarians. “It’s funny: I wish I could make potato salad that good. It’s just potatoes and mayonnaise—there’s something wrong with Jan.”