“Halloween”/“The Fight” (season two, episodes five and six; originally aired 10/18/2005 and 11/1/2005)
At the end of “The Fight,” Michael Scott delivers a soundbite that could be inscribed on his tombstone, if such things were done for fictional characters: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy: both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
In Steve Carell’s time on The Office, the writing for his character could vary wildly from week to week: Michael’s arc is one of redemption, but he relapsed into childish buffoon and unfeeling caricature (sometimes both, as in the controversial and painfully funny sixth-season episode “Scott’s Tots”) many times along the way. It’s in the high quality of Carell’s performance and the “feared/loved” binary that any rendition of Michael is grounded, however—even in the path of destruction he cuts during “Halloween” and “The Fight.”
The return of the downsizing plot forces Michael into the role of a villain this week—fitting, because the first of these episodes takes place on Halloween. But even in “The Fight,” a pall is cast across Dunder Mifflin. These are the first two episodes of the season to air in the order in which they were produced—a practice the show wouldn’t adopt full-time until the strike-shortened fourth season—and the anxiety of Devon’s firing hangs over at least one significant talking head in “The Fight.” Things look bleak around the office: The Halloween decorations were swept up by the cleaning crew, co-workers are coming to (sensei-moderated) blows, and the boss is terrorizing the temp through a string of unfunny crank calls. Actually, they’re pretty funny, but not in the way Michael intends.
Director Paul Feig and credited writer Greg Daniels had a lot of fun dressing the show up for “Halloween,” framing Dwight like a shrouded Emperor Palpatine and making John Krasinski step into Steve Carell’s shoes for a couple of great punchlines. That carries over to the juxtaposition of Pam and Angela’s choices of costumes and desserts, similar concepts that are just different enough to get under Angela’s skin—and then cause Angela to get under Pam’s skin. At times in this week’s episodes, Dunder Mifflin Scranton is a workplace at war with itself, nowhere clearer than when coworkers are physically engaging one another in “The Fight.” The title of that episode refers to the sanctioned sparring between Michael and Dwight, but you can also apply it to the cold war Pam initiates after Jim takes their flirtatious roughhousing to an uncomfortable level.
I like that most of what goes down between Jim and Pam in “The Fight” goes unspoken: Jim composes an apology email but doesn’t send it; the way the spectators are blocked during the main event at the dojo, there’s practically an entire office standing between Krasinski and Jenna Fischer. Pam’s ambiguous motivation for breaking away from Jim brings the romantic intrigue to a new level: Is she generally uncomfortable, is she afraid of what Meredith might assume, or is she afraid of her own feelings? There’s an answer somewhere, though “The Fight” is smart not to give it to us.
Meanwhile, Michael and Dwight’s interactions in this week’s episodes raise one of season two’s favorite questions: Who’s the real authority here? At this stage, The Office grounds much of its humor in status, in a presumably high-status character like a boss finding himself unable to take action or an ostensibly low-status figure like an assistant to the regional manager tromping around like a deadly, magical space samurai. Unconvincing testimonials about “running with a tough crowd” notwithstanding, Michael does yield legitimate power: He’s the one who can fire Devon, he’s the one who needs to make a fairly violent gesture to uphold the chain of command in the office, he’s the one who holds the department heads hostage with his procrastination. “The Fight” does a great job of reinforcing this notion, especially during Michael and Dwight’s “I’m-a callin’ you out” exchange in the kitchen. The staging in this episode is terrific across the board (though the cornier aspects of Ken Kwapis’ sensibility tend to creep through, like when Pam and Stanley direct the cameras by rolling their eyes toward Michael), and there’s something about where all the actors are standing and the way the light is hitting their faces that makes this the Spaghetti-Western sendup it needs to be.
But you know who wields the true authority in these parts? Who finally manages to get Michael to take action? His employees. The boss can’t pull the trigger unless there’s another finger (or fingers) alongside his, and all of the ugly mistakes and bad decisions he ultimately makes in this doubleheader are collaborative efforts. Creed fires Devon. Jim and Pam get Michael to fight Dwight. Some of these messes he cleans up—some of them will fester beneath the surface for years. (Though let’s be grateful to Michael’s lack of decision-making skills for “Creed Thoughts” alone.) When Michael’s a villain, it’s usually because that behavior is enabled by the people who work for/with/against him.
Yet the great courtesy The Office afforded Michael Scott involved giving him moments like the one at the end of “Halloween,” where he can show a little humanity after spending 22 minutes acting like a selfish child. It wasn’t the only show doing this for its characters; to piggyback on a theory from critic Jaime Weinmann, the trick-or-treat kicker at Michael’s house is part of a return to “open sentimentality” ushered in by Arrested Development. There’s a bit of “treacle cutter” in the character’s talking-head rundown of his previous Halloween costumes, but the rest of the sequence is presented free of comment, with the documentary cameras capturing a wounded, isolated man’s transformation into a sincere, warm citizen of the world.
Scenes like the “Halloween” coda or the conciliatory gestures that close “The Fight” (how long do you think Pam held onto that bag of Sun Chips?) make this a softer variation on The Office’s predecessor. But like so much we’ve already seen in these early episodes—and I think I’m starting to repeat myself on this count—it makes for a better version of this Office. A cut of “Halloween” that ends with Michael scraping pumpkin scraps off the Sebring might be braver or less-compromising, but those characteristics don’t always guarantee quality. In order for the U.S. Office to reach its full potential, it needed to show that there’s a good reason for all of the mortifying behavior Michael Scott exhibits in his 9-to-5 life. If that means a form of Michael Scott who was a victim one week and a villain the next, so be it. It helped The Office be a show that could be as touching as the end of “Halloween” and as bitingly hilarious as Ryan hanging up on Michael in “The Fight.”
“The Fight”: B
- On the acting end of things, no one uses the blocking and staging in “The Fight” as well as Brian Baumgartner, who hangs awkwardly in the background of Ryan’s phone call from “Wonderland,” then smiles deviously between Michael and Dwight as they head out to the dojo.
- I could’ve sworn that Michael’s “Why do you ask?” talking head about his lone hunting experience went longer and darker, and involved a rhetorical question about “How hard it is to hit a living thing in the face with a shovel for an hour.” Was I mistaken, or is there an alternate take that features that quote? Or am I conflating it with a different talking head?
- Michael has his reasons for procrastinating. Pam: “Why did you put it off until Halloween?” Michael: “Because it’s very scary stuff”
- Some fun stuff from the accountants in “Halloween,” including this little trip round their desks: Angela: “Well, I looked through all the budgets, and there is one department that has three people doing the work that can be done by two” Oscar: “This is great. Oh.” Kevin: “Yeah, oh.”
- Dwight makes an educated guess about how his résumé leaked onto the Internet: “I’m just not sure that it’s my official résumé or if it’s something that maybe a satisfied customer posted online.”
- Jim has a quick reply to Michael’s assertion that he knows a ton of 14-year-old girls who could beat up Dwight: “You know a ton of 14-year-old girls?”
- Dwight has a unique understanding of his job description: “Did I want to harm Michael? The one man I’ve been hired to protect?”