“The Secret” (season two, episode 13; originally aired 1/19/2006)/“The Carpet” (season two, episode 14; originally aired 1/26/2006)
The U.S. Office isn’t a farce in the classical sense—its plots, though occasionally twisty, never threaten to tie the viewer into knots in the manner of The Importance Of Being Earnest or even Fawlty Towers—but its best season draws much of its power from a farcical pattern of keeping certain characters in the dark. I’m only half kidding when I refer to season two as The Office’s “season of secrets,” because the threads that pull us through these 22 episodes and into the next all involve hidden actions and private thoughts. The Documentarians see and hear most of these secrets, and that’s a double-edged sword for the employees of Dunder Mifflin. By telling Michael of his feelings for Pam in “Booze Cruise,” Jim hasn’t “confided in the world’s worst confidant.” Technically, that happened the first time he tipped his hand to the people behind the cameras.
So where do you go when the secret’s no longer, you know, secret? As a phonetically pleasing double feature, “The Secret” and “The Carpet” find The Office’s writers suddenly operating without a restraint they placed on themselves from the word “go.” There’s a quick out available—in the first of the two episodes, Jim covers by saying his crush has long since subsided—but in this setting, there’s always a wild card. And that wild card is usually Michael Scott.
There’s also always (at this point in the series, at least) another secret ready to take the place of the one that was just revealed. There’s a whiff that something’s amiss in these episodes, and it’s not the “package” Todd Packer leaves on the floor of Michael’s office—it’s the red herrings placed throughout both “The Secret” and “The Carpet.” The former’s quite the bait-and-switch, the title seemingly alluding to information the show has already let the viewer in on (Jim loves Pam; Dwight and Angela are loving each other on a regular basis), before veering unexpectedly to the left to a discovery about Oscar’s sexuality.
Look: It’s 2013, so the fact that one of the secondary players in a primetime sitcom is gay shouldn’t be that surprising. And it probably shouldn’t have been played for a “surprise” in 2006—“The Secret” was made nearly a decade after Ellen’s “The Puppy Episode,” and the Oscar-Gil reveal would unfortunately lead to one of the show’s uglier installments. (Misgivings about some of the jokes aside, I’ve never had much of a problem with the season-three première, “Gay Witch Hunt.” Though that could change once these reviews get around to season three.) But the moment still works because the joke is on Dwight, wannabe gumshoe, so devoted to gaining leverage that he’s unable to read the actual clues laid out in front of him. Oscar is choosing to show Dwight a side of himself he’s kept from his other coworkers, but all Dwight sees is a chance to get ahead (by a meaningless increment) by sitting on the truth behind Oscar’s absence—and it’s not even the actual truth!
Contrast that with Jim, who, even before he’s exposed, falls into a sad-bastard malaise. It’s not just that he has to overhear Pam planning for the wedding—he has to stay on his toes to make sure Michael doesn’t open his fat trap and ruin Jim and Pam’s friendship. (It doesn’t, as shown in the sweet, “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” coda of “The Carpet.”) But Michael inevitably does spill the secret, leading to Jim’s flimsy cover story and initiating an arc that maintains the character’s puckish spirit while tasking John Krasinski to take on a quieter, more pronounced mopiness. “The Carpet” begins with Jim longingly looking over at the seat where Pam would be if she wasn’t on vacation, but he doesn’t fight that hard against taking a leave of absence from his usual desk. And then he winds up the emissary of Kelly and Ryan’s flirtations, and though neither instructs him to relay their true feelings to the other, it still comes across as a twist of the knife. He’s saying things for other people he never had the guts (or the opportunity—because of an engagement) to say himself, even without that full disclosure
That’s the other reason I wanted to step back from the nitty gritty of these episodes to discuss how they approach one of the second season’s main themes: While the office grapevine airs news of Jim’s crush as if it were part of the communal early-spring-cleaning effort (“If you do your spring cleaning in January, guess what you don’t have to do in the spring: anything”—Michael Scott), there’s still a thread in these episodes of coworkers helping one another to keep certain things hush-hush. Dwight agrees not to tattle on a truant Oscar (while unwittingly helping him conceal something else he’s not prepared to divulge), and no one, not even the volunteer sheriff’s deputy himself, jumps to pointing fingers in the search for the office’s Mad Pooper. There’s an inconsistency there—though I contend Dwight’s simply distracted by the chance to cut up around the office with Michael—but the loyalty Dwight and his coworkers exemplify provides a great, silent rejoinder to the words of erstwhile regional manager Ed Truck.
In an attempt to help his former employee understand why someone would take the Browns to the front office rather than the Super Bowl, Truck bemoans vanishing boundaries between life and work. “Why can’t your workers be your workers, family be your family, friends be your friends?” he asks Michael, who, for reasons personal and societal, believes the opposite. The Office’s truth exists somewhere in the middle: The “surrogate family” provides the underpinnings of any ensemble TV show; as this particular ensemble TV show developed, the interactions between its characters became more like those between aggrieved family members and less like those between combative office-mates. Still, it was with real partners and real families that the characters found true happiness—the argument “The Secret” and “The Carpet” make is one for loving and respecting your co-workers almost like you would your own family. Because, like your family members, you typically can’t pick your co-workers—so you’re only making matters worse for yourself by throwing them under the bus.
Which brings us back to Michael, who won’t receive the love and respect he craves if he doesn’t at least treat his employees as well as he treats Todd Packer. “Why would somebody ruin a perfectly good carpet?” he asks during the second of this week’s episodes, never once considering that it could’ve been something he did. Michael’s not the type to think too deeply below the surface: He doesn’t consider the implications of Packer’s pranks, “boobs” and “legs” are the only sample answers he can give to the question “What do you like best about Pam?”, and his attempts to bond with Jim begin and end with aping his style and beverage choices. (Cue Michael to Dwight in “The Carpet”: “Don’t ape me.”) He at least sees one of the deeper meanings in being asked to care for a secret—a friendly expression of trust—even if he doesn’t weigh the responsibility. This is part of what gives The Office’s second-season secrets such weight: that desire to belong that underlines so many of Michael’s actions. (Cue season three’s “The Convention”: “I love inside jokes. I’d love to be a part of one someday.”) He wants so badly to keep a secret with someone, he’s willing to risk it by accidentally extending the courtesy to other people.
“The Secret”: B+
“The Carpet”: B
- Is it just me, or is “The Secret”’s cold open as funny as updog?
- Clearly, Michael has seen and heard his share of the Hooters birthday song before.
- Kudos to “The Carpet” director Victor Nelli Jr. for choosing to block Steve Carell and Ken Howard in such a way that Ed Truck seems like such a larger physical presence than Michael. The old boss just looms over the new boss in those shots.
- Michael wants Stanley to scram, so he makes his soda-machine choice for him: “Peach iced tea. You’re gonna hate it.”
- The first person to tire of the Jim-Pam tension was Jim: “I used to have a crush on Pam, and now I don’t. Riveting.”
- Kelly gives Jim a very Kelly reason to return to his old desk: “You just asked a girl out on the phone!”
- One of Pam’s voicemails reveals a secret talent: “Hey guess what: I moved my computer so I can’t see Michael’s head. It’s working. I think I could make a career as a very specific kind of decorator.”