As I’ve mentioned earlier, whenever David Wallace appears on an episode of The Office it is an omen that, in the parlance of the Real World, people are about to stop being polite and get real. Wallace is a harbinger of doom. Wherever he goes, heartbreak, awkwardness and agonizing silences follow.
Tonight’s episode was no exception. It was quite possibly the single most intense, painful and emotional episode of prime-time network television ever set at a company picnic/volleyball game. Last week’s episode was one of the fluffiest and most delightful in the show’s history. Boiled down to mere summary—the Dunder-Mifflin gang fraternizes with corporate and other branches for sandwiches, skits and volleyball—tonight’s episode look to follow suit.
But appearances can be deceiving. “Company Picnic” began with a cold open exploring one of its most fruitful and ubiquitous themes—the extraordinary lengths office drones go to in order to make their lives a little hellish. In this case, Michael fell asleep after eating a family-sized chicken pot pie during lunch and the gang decides to finagle their way out of a couple hours of tedious labor by moving all Michael’s clocks up to 4:50 so they can go home early. Michael's employees treated their cheeky stunt with the seriousness, determination and careful planning of the Marines executing a dangerous hostage rescue operation.
I could relate to Michael’s food slumber. The A.V Club went to Hot Doug’s for lunch a few days ago in honor of Noel being in town for a Bruce Springsteen concert (oh, but we are old and white) and the entire section nearly shut down for the afternoon as we all fought off fancified hot dog-induced comas.
Tonight’s episode was a season finale so the stakes were higher. The Office didn’t bring together a contemporary cast of musical giants—and also Wyclef—for the sake of a brilliant throwaway gag but it did bring back its two most heavyweight guest stars. The less consequential was Idris Elba as Charles Miner, who reached new heights of douchiness as he continued to ride Jim for his laziness and lackadaisical work ethic even when there was nothing to gain by doing so.
More importantly, the episode brought back Amy Ryan as Holly, the woman Michael loved and lost and never quite got over. Holly comes to the picnic with her strapping, egregiously non-geeky boyfriend (Rob Huebbel of Human Giant fame) but it isn’t long until Michael and Holly are alone together, oscillating between the strained awkwardness of exes catching up and the fumbling flirtatiousness and weird intimacy of people who still really dig each other.
Michael announces his intention to declare his love for Holly and convince her why they need to be together using a series of bullet-pointed talking points. One of the many things that made tonight’s episode hurt so good was that Michael was forever on the cusp of seizing the moment and declaring his love for Holly. He was perennially on the verge of making his big speech.
Instead silences seemed to last forever as Michael and Holly smiled nervously at each other and gleefully/abashedly re-entered a private universe of hokey pop-culture references, nonsensical wordplay and really bad jokes. The ostensible purpose of Michael and Holly getting together was to create, then rehearse a sketch about Dunder-Mifflin.
Granted, David Wallace is far more indulgent towards Michael than is practical or wise but even he had to realize that giving Michael the spotlight for his poorly improvised brand of junior high summer-camp-level comedy was a recipe for disaster. It’s long been established that Michael's self-censoring apparatus is forever on the fritz and that he is emotionally retarded when the situation calls for it, and that Holly enters the same zone whenever they’re together. But surely David would have known better.
After spitballing increasingly dodgy ideas—sketches riffing on Jaws and Back To The Future—Michael and Holly decide to go with a Slumdog Millionaire sketch. The skit started off awkwardly if inoffensively enough before quickly venturing into dangerous territory. First Michael and Holly make a stunningly tasteless reference to the suicide of one of Dunder-Mifflin’s founders to stunned silence and growing discomfort.
Then they awkwardly break the news that the Dunder-Mifflin Buffalo branch is shutting down due to the recession. The Buffalo branch is understandably distraught to find out about the closing that way. This is clearly a fireable offense for Michael and perhaps Holly but Michael gets off with a tongue-lashing from David Wallace.
Michael and Holly are surprisingly nonchalant about the disaster. Clearly bombing and traumatizing their colleagues is secondary to the furtive joy of being together again, if only as the world’s worst comedy duo. Despite the inconvenient presence of Holly’s strapping new boyfriend, there’s still obviously a lot of electricity and chemistry coursing through their relationship. Watching Michael wait and wait and wait for a moment that never comes was viscerally unsettling. Michael may be a goof who constantly says and does cartoonishly stupid things but it’s hard not to empathize with him and his puppy dog crush on Holly.
Meanwhile the Scranton branch faces off against another branch and corporate in a volleyball match with unmistakably personal overtones, and not just because Charles keeps taunting his former underlings. Pam reveals herself to a serving whiz but is sidelined after taking a nasty tumble.
Jim’s goal is to get Pam in and out of the hospital as quickly as possible so she can get back on the court and stick it to corporate but learns—dramatic pause—that she’s pregnant! The incident was handled artfully—with a silent sequence of Jim and Pam learning the news and first expressing trepidation and then elation before Jim calls his co-workers to say they better send in subs.
I had powerfully mixed feelings about this development. Again, it was handled with understatement and artistry but I was also reminded of the gag from the Simpsons Spin-Off Spectacular where Troy McClure says the show will remain fresh by introducing wedding after wedding after wedding. Only this time out it’s wedding, then pregnancy, then childbirth, etc, etc, etc. Part of me felt like it was a rather pat, heavy-handed way of ending the season on a dramatic note.
I was happier with a closer where Michael—still wearing a goofy smile despite his fuck-ups and failures of nerve—talks about how he and Holly might be separated by circumstances for years and years. They might come to the picnic with other people or work in different offices but that someday they’ll be together. I’ve always found Michael’s child-like faith and romanticism touching.
In a neat bit of synchronicity, when Michael is talks dreamily of co-workers separated by fate and other partners but irrevocably drawn to each other and destined to be together he could just as easily have been talking about Jim and Pam. Jim and Pam seem to have gotten their happy ending—it wouldn’t be in the show’s DNA to have Pam call off the engagement after finding Jim in bed with a trio of underage hookers. I hope Michael and Holly’s get their happy ending as well. Gosh darn it. Those crazy, kooky middle-aged kids really do belong together.
Tonight’s episode was long on pathos and awkwardness but short on laughs, though I did enjoy Dwight’s creepy best friend (speaking of which, are we ever going to see Michael’s best buddy David Packer again?) and the way Toby and the guy standing next to him spoke in the exact same laconic cadences. All in all, it was a very satisfying way to end a very satisfying season.
—Favorite lines, moments: let’s hear em
—OMG! That baby is going to be totes adorable! I can’t wait to see it smirk sheepishly at the camera for the first time or gaze adoringly at its parents