“Conflict Resolution” (season two, episode 21; originally aired 5/4/2006)
In which Michael opens a box he’ll never be able to properly seal…
There are plenty of good reasons to keep a secret; one of the best is outlined in a childhood rhyme (that Michael Scott interprets as a profound nugget of wisdom) in a third-season episode of The Office: Secrets are harmful. They’re harmful for everyone involved, but as toxic as it is to push thoughts and feelings and beliefs into a dark corner of the mind where no one else can find them, thrusting those quantities into the light initiates a potentially dangerous chain reaction. That’s why people in Toby Flenderson’s line of work exist: To give their co-workers a safe space in which they can relieve some of the pressure, get their private concerns out into the open, and move on. In a work environment, where everyone is part of a team ostensibly working toward a common goal, that’s a crucial service. Provided everyone’s onboard with that goal, and there’s not some mad man rigidly pushing everyone toward a win-win situation that’s actually nothing but losses across the board.
Michael’s win-win-win strategy yields poor results in “Conflict Resolution,” but in the greater context of The Office, he and Toby are actually working in concert to help the show move forward. There’s no momentum to the show without the developments of this episode, in which Michael once more tries to make everyone happy, but instead cuts a trail of scowls, hurt feelings, and potentially ruptured friendships. That look Toby shoots Michael while the latter is getting his ID photo taken is all we need to know: In spite of what he may think, in spite of the advice packed into that conflict-resolution manual he most assuredly hasn’t read all the way through, Michael’s been pursuing a lose-lose outcome the whole time.
As much as season two of The Office has a jones for secrets, it also has a thing for packages, objects that can bring great joy (as in the gifts in “Valentine’s Day”) as well as tremendous pain (like the gifts in “Christmas Party”). There are callbacks aplenty in these last two episodes of the season; “Conflict Resolution” hinges on two in particular: The creepy, imitation Anne Geddes poster Toby gives Angela for Secret Santa/Yankee Swap, and the suggestion box from “Performance Review.” Oscar’s complaints about the poster get the “Conflict Resolution” snowball rolling, and the only impediments in its way are boxes that are even bigger than the one that made Michael and Jan’s kiss public knowledge—literally and figuratively. The episode goes a long toward establishing the Pandora’s box nature of the complaints Toby keeps tucked away in the annex, and once the lids are off, there’s no cramming those feelings back into their containers. The Raiders Of The Lost Ark allusion that concludes the episode is a cute little pop-culture riff, but it goes deeper than that: Like the Ark of the Covenant, the contents of these boxes were not meant to be seen by mortal eyes. In a further Indiana Jones parallel, bearing witness to the complaints has horrifying effects on people’s faces.
The great evil that Michael foists on the office is confrontation—which is healthy in the long run, if it’s handled properly and not jammed into the rigid expectations of a Michael Scott. Dirty laundry is tossed indiscriminately about Dunder Mifflin in “Conflict Resolution,” leading to a bunch of great jokes—a lot of which come from Creed, who really comes into his own over the course of “Conflict Management” and “Casino Night”—and some critical character work. Both of those elements are synthesized into the confrontation that sinks in the deepest: The one Jim has with himself, facing down a stack of progressively pettier pranks that represent his actual workday output at Dunder Mifflin. It’s an all-time great sequence, and I have to wonder if all of the practical jokes rattled off within it were dreamed up specifically for this episode, or if the scene serves as a repository for pranks that had been floating around the writers’ room in search of the right script. It’s hilarious, but it’s also revealing. Look at all the time Jim’s wasted, all the energy (as seen earlier in the season) he’s poured into things that ultimately don’t matter. The conclusion is simple—there’s either a problem with him, or there’s a problem with the office—but the answer is complicated. Jim acts like a real jerk in “Conflict Resolution,” going too far with Dwight’s ID badge and not stepping in soon enough to tell Pam it’s his redacted name on the complaint about her wedding planning. But he needs to be taken to this point to make what follows matter. He makes the tough decision, deciding the problem is probably with him and the office, and that’s why he takes Dwight up on that suggestion to transfer.
The key line of dialogue in “Conflict Resolution,” though, comes from Michael, in the middle of his crusade to clear the air among his employees: “I love this place and it pains me to see all of the negativity festering.” It’s only apparent to him when he’s sharing a wall with that festering negativity—for everyone else, including the viewer, it’s been there since the pilot. Hell, it’s the comedic engine of the show’s first two seasons. And now that it’s been addressed so directly, it has to dissipate. In order for the show to stay aloft, the characters have to get over these tiny disagreements. Conflicts like these would always be part of the show, but “Conflict Resolution” is something of a watershed moment for The Office: In order for the series to proceed, the writers would have to start coming up with storylines where everyone’s pulling together in the same direction on a more consistent basis. There’s just one more thing that needs to be taken care of…
“Casino Night” (season two, episode 22; originally aired 5/11/2006)
In which these are people who have never given up on their dreams—and Jim has great respect for that…
In the DVD commentary for “Casino Night,” Jenna Fischer praises the gag (attributed to Steve Carell, who wrote the season finale’s script) in which Pam transfers a call to Michael, staying on the line long enough to make sure he doesn’t embarrass himself with his greeting. It’s a classic example of Pam showing The Documentarians who truly runs the office, but Fischer’s comments are telling on a deeper, structural level. She expresses fondness for that “extra little time” that her character gives to Michael, a sentiment that can be applied to The Office in general and “Casino Night” specifically. The show’s second-season finale is a top-tier episode, one that couldn’t have arrived if NBC hadn’t shown The Office a little patience and allowed it to cultivate the cult that would eagerly hang on the big-finish kiss between Pam and Jim for the whole summer of 2006. But the episode itself is a beneficiary of time, patience, and space, qualities afforded to it by the “super-sized” timeslot in which it first aired. In an episode where so much depends on slow, considered reactions, the extra six minutes or so of airtime really comes in handy.
That’s funny in and of itself, because the super-sized episode is one of mid-’00s NBC’s worst innovations. In their commentary track, Fischer and her colleagues are so grateful that “Casino Night” was able to go beyond its usual half-hour slot—the opposite of how they’d have felt if, say, The Office was airing in the spot after Friends when NBC boss Jeff Zucker was regularly super-sizing that show. But whereas that decision killed sitcom development at The Peacock Network and effectively ended the Must-See TV era, granting extra time to The Office would ultimately restore NBC’s comedy prestige. By the midway point of the following season, it would anchor—with the assistance of My Name Is Earl and a fading Scrubs—a revived Thursday-night bloc, with a wily upstart called 30 Rock pulling up the rear. (RIP Andy Barker, P.I.) Do we have super-sizing to thank for the quality sitcoms that popped up in the path of “Casino Night”? Sure, in that it helped The Office clear some important hurdles and illustrated how good the show could be with a little extra elbow room.
But do we also have the ultimate decline of the show to blame on these near-perfect 28 minutes? The answer to that question comes with qualifications as well—to borrow Fischer’s phrasing, “Casino Night” makes the most of its “extra little time,” without the meandering that would plague later, hour-long episodes of The Office. This was never the most disciplined show in terms of pacing and editing—when 30 Rock was at its rapid-fire peak, the two shows were a great fit from a programming standpoint, but seem like strange bedfellows the more I think about them. The longer running time gives “Casino Night” some much needed room to breathe, but the show’s shaggier tendencies showed through when “breathing room” became “padding room.”
Here, however, it’s essential for the episode’s two big Jim-Pam moments as well as the fine mess Michael makes when he accidentally invites two dates to the charity event in the Dunder Mifflin warehouse. Carell had to have known he was wading into clichéd territory when crafting this storyline for his character, because “Casino Night” makes no pretensions toward the hoary “multiple dates on a single night” trope. Instead, Michael comes clean as soon as Jan arrives, heading the farcical fallout off at the pass and initiating an atmosphere of anxiety that’s a much better fit for The Office. And with the advantage of extra time, everything in these scenes hangs a little longer, the pauses sink in more deeply. And the takes are allowed to go long, long, long—when Michael makes his initial faux pas, he does so in a single camera setup, interrupted only by a cut to Pam (which does an elegant job of bringing Jan’s call into the proceedings). It’s a feat of tremendous comic endurance on Carell’s part, The Office equivalent of a lengthy-but-killer guitar solo.
Which is a perfect way of segueing to an acknowledgement that I’ve gone some 700 words about “Casino Night” and barely glanced off of the episode’s big finish. When it comes to the big flourishes of emceeing the finale’s central event, Michael just can’t sell it—fortunately, the episode has better luck with the fireworks between Jim and Pam, as they release two seasons of tension (and pay off the transfer talk in “Conflict Resolution”) in one hell of a kiss. Until this viewing, I never picked up on the portent that’s laced underneath that release. The show doesn’t take this development lightly, and there’s a vague horror-movie vibe to the way John Krasinski lopes into the darkened office to plant one on Pam. As much as we’re watching a guy admit he has all these feelings he can no longer keep bottling up, we’re also watching a car wreck. Jim’s slamming into Pam and Roy’s relationship, upsetting his friendship with Pam, and essentially ending his life in Scranton. The show acknowledges how touching and romantic and bold (and, yes, slightly stalker-like, because how did he know Pam was up there, and there might be some issues of consent at play) the actions in these scenes are, but it recognizes they have consequences, too.
And it’s not even the biggest gut-punch of the episode. That comes a few scenes earlier, when Jim uses his words to let Pam know how he feels, and the unacknowledged truth that’s been simmering under the show’s lid boils over, startling both parties. It’s presented in a more jumpy fashion than the rest of the episode—the confession is shown in alternating over-the-shoulder shots, all the better to acknowledge, like the blocking of Roy’s truck between Krasinski and Fischer at the top of the scene, that obstacles to this love connection remain. (And they’re big, potentially dangerous, and built for hauling jet-skis.) But it’s as riddled with and elevated by pauses as any part of “Casino Night,” an honest (and earned) treatment of a painful moment between the two characters. Because of Jim’s laid-back nature, I have a tendency to undervalue Krasinski as a performer, but he certainly wasn’t coasting when that single tear tumbled down his face.
The confession is also the biggest moment of “Casino Night” on a thematic level, the most overpowering of the full-circle moments dotted across the episode. There’s mentions of Michael’s preferences for chain eateries; Billy Merchant returns (and is accidentally insulted by Michael); Michael’s condo is the reason for his phone call with Carol. And, as in “The Client,” there’s a big kiss that can’t be taken back, one that’s predicated on the reveal of the season’s last remaining secret. (Well, Dwight and Angela’s relationship is still under wraps, but they’re being less discrete by the second.) Bringing poker into the equation is such a smart way of returning to the season’s major themes and motifs after the explosiveness of “Conflict Resolution”: It’s a high-stakes situation that requires the characters to keep the truth out of the conversation. In that absolutely gorgeous sequence between Jim and Pam at the card table (the drawn-out suspense of which is another advantage of the super-sized runtime), there’s no telling who’s doing the most bluffing until the cards are on the table.
And the great heartbreak of “Casino Night,” the sharpest intake of breath that won’t be exhaled until the end of season three, involves the question of whether or not Pam’s still bluffing after she walks away from the table.
“Conflict Resolution”: A-
“Casino Night”: A
- Hey all: Thanks for hanging around these past few weeks to read and discuss The Office’s second season, surely one of the finest sustained stretches of quality TV comedy of the last decade-plus. TV Club Classic is taking a brief hiatus as the new fall season commences, but keep your eye on this space for the return of Home Movies reviews sometime in October or November. That’ll take us into the new year, at which point I’m then hoping to tackle another season of The Muppet Show in time for the release of Muppets Most Wanted. And after that, we’ll return to Scranton (and, six-year-old spoiler alert, Stamford) for season three of The Office. Though, as always, this schedule is subject to change.
- It’s too bad that “Bobblehead Joe” never caught on as a nickname for Dwight.
- All of the pranks that are in Jim’s complaint file get their laughs without being reenacted for the cameras, but I’ve always wanted to see the “nickels in the phone receiver” gag with my own eyes.
- The other great joy of listening to the “Casino Night” commentary track involves the cast and crew’s efforts not to spoil anything about the third-season premiere, which aired nine days after the release of the DVD set. You can tell Greg Daniels is especially wary of saying too much.
- More from the commentary track: The song that Scrantonicity performs in its audition video was changed during post-productions—and you can tell because Brian Baumgartner’s lips never quite sync up with “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”
- There’s a nice nod to the British Office in Michael’s choice of Comic Relief for his casino-night charity. Though Jim and Pam are correct about annual Comic Relief specials no longer running in the United States, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams would bring the tradition back the following October, in a 20th anniversary show benefitting survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
- Hey, it’s 2006!: Kelly references Kobe Bryant’s legal troubles, which magically disappeared in a haze of back-to-back NBA championships in 2000 and 2010.
- Of course cage matches work, says Michael: “If they didn’t work, everybody would still be in the cage.”
- This bit of “Conflict Resolution” dialogue certainly stings after “Casino Night”: Jim: “Well, what does Roy think about everything?” Pam: “I try not to bother him about this kind of stuff.” Jim: “You mean your thoughts and feelings?” Pam: “Yeah.”
- Michael Scott offers his definitive thoughts on Toby: “I hate so much about the things that you choose to be.”