Over the past number of days, a collection of pieces have emerged which ponder the legacy of Michael Scott, a character brought to life by Steve Carell and a character who departs The Office in “Goodbye, Michael.” As an actor moves on from a television series, and as a television series moves on without its lead character, these sorts of televisual obituaries are quite common.
However, what I would caution against is the notion that Michael Scott’s legacy is in fact something that can be generalized in this fashion. While many of these pieces tell us important things about this character, the truth is that Michael Scott’s greatest legacy is the way in which he is discursively constructed within each individual viewer’s experience. Alan Sepinwall made a compelling case for why Michael has evolved “from jerk to beloved boss,” but I know a lot of people (including many regular commenters here, and many commenters on Alan’s piece) would vehemently disagree with this analysis of the character.
If you were to ask 100 people who watch The Office to give you a single word to describe Michael Scott, you would get a wide range of answers (even if some, surely, would repeat). Some of these words would emphasize his worst qualities: buffoon, ignorant, fool, offensive, delusional, childish, cruel. However, others might use words that have at times been equally representative: optimistic, decent, loyal, supportive, romantic, honest. And every one of those people could point you to a moment where Michael was embodied by their words, and every one of those people would be right. If Michael Scott is anything, he is multitudinous, so diverse in his characterization that every viewer has a fundamentally different image of the character in their minds as they watch the series.
From the beginning of the season, when I took over writing about the show, I have made my own version of Michael Scott quite clear (even if I never actively laid it out in plain detail). My Michael is a dreamer, someone whose excesses are driven by an unfailing (and often damaging) belief in his own ability. He is someone who promises to send an entire class of elementary school students to college not because he’s playing a practical joke, but rather because he has to believe that he will some day be rich enough to do so; his inability to tell them the truth before it’s too late is yet another defense mechanism, an unwillingness to admit that he found himself so far away from the life he was supposed to lead. As terrible as this may have been for those children, and as uncomfortable as “Scott’s Tots” made me, I felt that Michael’s behavior was a consequence of a deeper psychological problem of being unable to give up on his dreams rather than a sign that he was a horrible person. While he may often be delusional and foolish, ignorant and childish, much of that behavior is driven by misjudged optimism, or misplaced honesty, or hopeless romanticism: even tonight, he tells Kevin that “you should never settle for who you are,” which sounds to me like something a dreamer would say even if it’s kind of horrible in context.
As a result of this image of Michael as a dreamer, the romanticized conclusion being built towards this season has been tremendously satisfying from an emotional perspective. His actions are always driven by a desire to be happy, or to make things “right,” and as much as his psychological limitations may lead to awkward/offensive/terrible behavior there’s an inherent sadness that I think most in the office would be able to identify with. While some have been skeptical that the entire office would help Michael propose, to me they would recognize that one of his greatest dreams was finally coming true, and understand that his good intentions were finally being rewarded with the true love he always wanted.
Of course, I am sure that many of you consider this psychoanalytic bullshit meant to justify what has been a syrupy sweet conclusion to a show that was once acidic and acerbic. And thus we come to “Goodbye, Michael,” an episode that must face the discursive disagreement surrounding Michael Scott’s character head-on. While the proposal and last week’s song drew this disagreement to the surface, now The Office needs to play their final hand: is Michael Scott a romantic hero who will ride off into the sunset with his employees’ love and respect, or is Michael Scott a hapless boss barely tolerated by his employees?
What “Goodbye, Michael” tackles this problem extremely well by placing Michael Scott in control of his own goodbye. It’s best exemplified, in comic form, by his unwillingness to give up on his vision of his departure from the warehouse — he won’t leave until he hits the behind-the-back shot, the exit he finds most poetic. At first, when it was revealed on his phone call with Holly that he was flying out later that day, I presumed Michael had got his dates mixed up and was going to have to suddenly rush his goodbyes into a single day (creating something more of a comic scenario for the episode to deal with). However, the truth was far simpler: he just wanted to be able to avoid the final goodbyes that he knew would become too emotional for him. And so his goodbyes became a methodical process, planned out in vivid detail and in part planned for his own enjoyment. Some characters were given gag gifts designed to let Michael have a good laugh at their expense (like Oscar, who smiles and praises Michael’s purposefully low-rent scarecrow doll), while other characters were given awkwardly sincere gifts that felt more in line with Michael at his most obnoxious (like the caricatured drawing of Kevin as a pig which Michael ripped up to inspire him to stop being so fat).
These scenes work because they feel like a goodbye without falling into sentiment. With only the audience and Michael even aware that these are goodbyes, we get a real sense of who these characters are and what their general relationship with Michael has developed into. The idea of a goodbye list is perfectly in character for Michael: he considered these employees his family, and would want to share one last moment with all of them. However, Daniels splits the difference by having the other employees react as they always have to Michael. He still horrifies Angela by asking whether she thought they would sleep together, he still can’t please Stanley, and he still doesn’t exactly have anything to say to characters like Meredith and Creed who never really get to develop into characters. These are conversations that mean everything to Michael and nothing to someone like Kelly (who just wants to be left alone), which a really effective way of emphasizing the sometimes one-way relationship that has persisted throughout the series.
The moments where Michael broke down were the moments where he looked and saw that the office was going to go on without him. That moment in the break room, as Kevin talks about the challenge of shredding magazines in a shredder not designed to shred magazines, is the kind of minutiae that he will never get to experience again. When he isolates each person, and when he can focus on having one last moment with them (as he did with Dwight, giving him a letter of recommendation and challenging him to an alley paintball battle), he has something to hold onto that he can continue to experience through emails, phone calls, Facebook, etc. However, when he gathers the entire office together in the conference room for the last time, or when he looks back and sees them all working at their desks, he has to know that he will never experience that again (and I should note here that “never” might just be “until they get desperate for ratings and bring him back for a Sweeps guest appearance,” but let’s pretend for a moment that they won’t resort to such a thing).
Steve Carell is tremendous throughout this episode, delivering the kind of performance that I sincerely hope wins him the Emmy he deserves for seven seasons of superb work on this show. Vulture argued earlier this week that this felt more like a farewell to Steve Carell than to Michael Scott, but I think “Goodbye, Michael” would stand up to any such criticism (even if one argues that “Seasons of Michael” would not, an argument I’m more willing to entertain). Carell’s superb performance tapped into all of Michael’s best and worst qualities to deliver an emotional performance that always felt grounded in a practical joke-loving, young-at-heart boss who considers his employees a family and his workplace a bit of a playground - this was perhaps no more evident than when Michael, unable to say goodbye to his employees without breaking down, has the reviled (or, for Kevin, beloved) Ping say goodbye instead. It’s a devilish scene, forcing at least this audience member to tear up over a racial stereotype, but that’s both tremendous writing and precisely what I would imagine Michael would do. This never felt like it was just Steve Carell’s exit when scenes like this one were referring back to all of those words that those 100 people would use to describe Michael Scott.
It also felt honest in that the most emotional Michael became was when dealing with the two people with whom he shared the most meaningful relationship. While Dwight may have been Michael’s greatest admirer (which was evident in how he responded to Michael’s letter in a great scene for Rainn Wilson), it was Jim and Pam who he worked with most closely, whose lives he saw change before his eyes. He lived vicariously through their courtship, relied on both for guidance during his numerous hijinks, and was more impacted by them than anyone else in the office. And in turn, Jim and Pam know Michael better than anyone, which is why it is so fitting that they are the only two that are aware of Michael’s decision before the next morning when he doesn’t show up for his own party.
Those final scenes featuring Jim and Pam are the episode’s finest, and the way the episode built towards them was sheer elegance in its simplicity: They are the only goodbyes where both parties are aware that this is actually goodbye. Whether it is Carell’s failed effort to truly capture his pride in Jim’s progress in life, John Krasinski’s really wonderful work portraying Jim’s appreciation of what Michael has given him (which some might argue is limited but I consider fairly tangible), or Jenna Fischer’s run down the airport corridor holding her shoes, it was just beautifully executed. Greg Daniels’ script toyed with the idea of Pam not getting her goodbye, but that was the goodbye that was most important. Thinking back on their relationship, my first thought is always Michael showing up at Pam’s art show. It was one of those moments where Michael supported one of his employees who had a dream, showing a level of compassion and pride that demonstrated that he had a tremendous amount of heart for someone who had a fairly minimal amount of brains. And so it felt perfect for Pam to be the last to speak with him, the person to pass along his final words that went unrecorded by the camera crew’s microphone as he heads off “home” to Colorado.
It was a tremendous farewell for Michael Scott, and it would have been a tremendous farewell for the series as well. Now, this is not to say that I’m entirely against the idea of The Office continuing (I like a good experiment, after all), but this would have been an undeniably ideal conclusion for the show, right down to Michael’s quip about when the show would air and the use of the missing microphone as a device. But as the coda made clear, returning to D’Angelo Vickers’ struggles with obesity ruining Michael’s cake, the show will continue on in the weeks ahead.
NBC seems terrified by the sense of conclusion here, offering up a lengthy promo for the rest of the season that spoiled every guest star who is lined up for the finale (in case you haven’t been following that ever-growing list online). The show, meanwhile, shows similar interest in the one real B-Story running through the episode. You could argue that Gabe’s obsessive bathroom stalking constitutes such a plot, but it really just allows for a bit of context for Michael’s super sweet discussion with Erin (where he quite charmingly positions himself as a surrogate mother, rather than father). The real B-Story was Andy trying to handle keeping Michael’s clients with D’Angelo as his sales partner, and discovering the gruesome truth: D’Angelo is incompetent.
In an episode that had an immense sense of history and purpose, the D’Angelo stuff was a momentum killer. As we all expected, it turns out he is a terrible salesman, and we’re even told (complete with shelter dog-aided demonstration) that he only has a job because he rescued Jo’s dogs from a would-be dognapper. It’s a silly, uninteresting story development that simply lays the groundwork for Ferrell’s inevitable exit, adding nothing of value to the character in the process.
However, as much as the D’Angelo side bugged me, there are two clear purposes for this storyline. First, there was some clear groundwork being laid for Andy to take over as Michael’s successor, if not now then at some point in the future. The storyline mirrored “Traveling Salesmen,” when Michael takes Andy on the road and discovers that he can’t sell paper to save his life and is forced to step in to save the meetings. The way Andy steps up in the moment, overcoming his sales struggles in order to close the deal through simple principles of good customer service, shows the character coming into his own and stepping up when the pressure is on. The moment also shows, of course, that D’Angelo is a failure in the one space where Michael was an unmitigated success: selling paper. And to be honest, it was the one point in the episode where I felt like I was being shown who Michael Scott was instead of seeing Michael Scott, the one break in the fairly organic storytelling that seemed as though it was being driven by Michael as a character and not Greg Daniels as a writer.
However, on the whole, “Goodbye, Michael” was as classic an episode as it aspired to be, and as we would expect it to be given the context. It did not shatter our expectations, unable to resist the emotional and heartfelt conclusion that the writers have set up for the character throughout the seasons, but it also didn’t allow the emotions to entirely drive Michael’s actions. Everything felt like something that would come from the mind of a man that we all imagine differently, beautiful while maintaining an undeniable sense of chaos. It is possible that those who don’t see Michael as a dreamer will feel differently about the episode, but I think Daniels did as much as possible to give everyone a glimpse of “their Michael Scott” before that plane took off for Colorado.
And before many viewers might take off with it.
- I know there are always some questions about the inconsistency of the camera crew's presence in the comments over the course of this season, and I think this episode answers your question. When they have jokes they want to tell with it or scenes that are designed around it, it is a plot point; when they don’t, it isn’t. I had some logic questions here (like why we didn’t hear Pam’s side of their conversation), but I can honestly say I do not care one bit whether they get answers: it was an effective dramatic tool, and that’s all that matters to me.
- We presume Pam pulled a "Every other character who needs to meet someone through airport security" and bought the cheapest one-way ticket she could find, right?
- Note that Hank was on Michael’s list but never gets a goodbye (at all, it seems, given that his name is not crossed off in the final shot — I’d have thought it would be a deleted scene otherwise).
- Enjoyed Phyllis’ unfinished mittens as a metaphor for the partial goodbye — a simple device, but an effective one.
- I liked that Creed is the last person other than Pam to say goodbye to Michael — he kind of got brushed over in the actual goodbyes, so it was a nice moment for the character (and so nicely paired with his appearance in the women’s bathroom).
- Anyone else get Lost “Greatest Hits” vibes from Michael’s list?
- Curious to know if anyone was dropping in on this episode having stopped watching the show in previous seasons, and whether it played better or worse without the endless season seven buildup.
- I give Daniels most of the credit above, but some fine direction by Paul Feig as well here.
- Not sure what the point with Toby’s brother was, but I sort of like that Toby is ultimately supportive of Michael and has an equally well-meaning brother who will no doubt became Michael’s new arch-nemesis.
- “I still need something to drink out of, though.”
- “I thought he knew about the baby I gave away.”
- “You sold us all on Andy, a product nobody wanted.”
- “I’ve given up expecting Michael to do the right thing, or the decent thing, or even the comprehensible thing.”
- “All the channels are going to be different there!”
- “T-Shirt idea: goodbyes stink.”
- “The people that you work with are just, when you get down to it, your very best friends.”