The Office: “Paper Airplane”
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The Office: “Paper Airplane”

I wish the final scene of “Paper Airplane” made me feel something deeper.

It’s certainly positioned to evoke a strong, gut-level reaction, placed, as it is, at the end of a very, very tense half-hour for Jim and Pam and layered under some audio-visual trickery from The Documentarians that calls back to “Niagara.” And for a millisecond, there’s a sincere stomach-drop ambiguity to the nature of Jim and Pam’s embrace. Does the hug say “goodnight” or “goodbye”? Has Pam come down to the waiting cab—that stubborn new presence in the Halperts’ life—to tell her husband that it’s over? The tag of “Paper Airplane” could either be the last of many temporary separations or the first tear of a permanent split—but before the vanity cards play, it’s made apparent that Jim and Pam are going to be together forever. In those seconds, the tag goes from emotional cliffhanger to narrative cliffhanger. It’s now less a question about how and what these people feel for each other, more the notion of “Where will they live?” If you’ve been invested in this couple for more than eight years, that rings a bit hollow. There’s no mystery to it—it’s not the “Casino Night” kiss of Aught Six. We know how these characters feel about one another: They spent their prior scenes speaking those feelings in clear, if Clark-confounding terms. If anything, what this moment between husband and wife conveys is an apology. 

It’s a bit pat, but The Office is running out of space and time to be patient and nuanced with its romantic relationships. Three episodes remain after “Paper Airplane,” and it was revealed today that the last one of those episodes takes place after the documentary airs. That creates a time-crunch, even if there are only two or three ongoing storylines that are worth seeing to their conclusion. One of those, in spite of all the hiccups is Jim and Pam; the other is Angela and Dwight.

The tables have turned in the Martin-Schrute romance. Dwight is the party to good fortune now, with his newly acquired land, a budding relationship with a woman who towers over Angela in many respects (only one of which is height), and a novelty-size check that entitles him to $2,000. Estranged from Senator Lipton (and his financial assistance), Angela has hit the skids, renting a place that’s more cat than apartment and swiping toilet from the ladies’ room at Dunder Mifflin. As low as his breakup with Angela laid him, Dwight was never in a bind the way Angela is in “Paper Airplane.” 

But Angela’s way of lashing out at Dwight hits him where it hurts. She refuses a pity win during the company’s paper-airplane contest, making out her former beau to appear merciful, considerate—any quality that would chip a few pieces from his austere exterior. And if that can happen in the presence of his new girlfriend? All the better.

The namesake storyline of “Paper Airplane” involves a contest to determine which Dunder Mifflin employee  can most capably follow in the footsteps of Wilbur and Orville Redenbacher. (Kevin’s words.) It’s a workday blow-off plot of a season-two or three vintage, but it’s only right that the final throw comes down to Angela and Dwight. Even without those 2,000 smackers, they’d have something to fly the furthest for. For Dwight, it’s bragging rights and another jewel in his crown; for Angela, it would’ve been the episode’s second apology, a request for forgiveness after sticking by The Senator until he cast away her and Oscar. But if Dwight’s going soft, the contest doesn’t matter. Angela can tank both her throws in the final round and still come off the winner.

“Paper Airplane” is another entry in The Office’s ninth season that offers a chance to compare and contrast the way the show has utilized two of its central couples. With regard to Jim and Pam, relative stability gave way to serious conflict, but its sudden onset and easy solutions make it difficult to get wrapped up in these new developments. In a way, it’s almost too different to have any effect: There was a slow build, and Jim keeping Athlead a secret for such a long time hinted at an eroding foundation, but these little issues escalated to major problems in a whirl of boom-mic guys and couple’s therapy. It’s only natural to assume they’ll conclude a swiftly and dirtily as those arose.

Angela and Dwight, meanwhile, has been an off-and-on, hot-and-cold arrangement for such a long time that it’s hard to recall the initial shock of learning they were hooking up—not to mention the added shock of going back to earlier episodes and noticing the breadcrumbs Greg Daniels and company left toward that conclusion. Dwight still holds out hope of fathering a child with Angela, and that might be enough to power the character through one or two breakups. It serves the same function as Pam’s reluctance to move to Philadelphia: a very tiny character note that hasn’t managed to pick up any fresh facets over the months and/or years. It’s a pattern, a rut, something that’s difficult to ignore when you’ve watched nine seasons of a show and can, by extension, predict the characters’ every last move.

That capacity to surprise is what had me enjoying Andy’s day on the industrial-safety film—much more so than I anticipated. I’m a sucker for the unintentional hilarity of productions like the one in which Andy plays Older Male Lab Assistant No. 1 (do you think he knows Frightened Inmate No. 2?), but some of the credit here goes to Ed Helms, too. Andy’s a no-good cipher, but the actor who portrays him still knows the right places to channel the Dunder Mifflin manager’s geeky energy: Consider the joy with which he reads the line “These protocols can save you from severe injury, even death,” followed by the small-mouthed conviction of his Tom Brokaw impression. Andy’s small-town quest for stardom is very much a Michael Scott (and even David Brent) story, but the circumstances speak to Andy’s unique dorkiness.  

And it’s in the unique-to-Jim-and-Pam quality that I can find the tiniest twinge of the heart at the final minutes of “Paper Airplane.” Theirs has been a story of two people taking turns reaching out to one another, whether it’s as simple as Pam saving Jim from death-by-boredom or pivotal as Jim popping into the talking head at the end of “The Job.” And it’s not like I wanted “Paper Airplane’s” big moment to feel like those highlights of past episodes—I just wanted it to feel like something. It didn’t feel like a place the show’s been before, but it also didn’t feel like a destination it did all the necessary work to reach. In terms of couples’ therapy-speak, I appreciate it, but it comes off as a wasted opportunity.

Stray observatiosns:

  • One of the episode’s credited co-writers, Warren “Brother of Paul” Lieberstein, was married to Angela Kinsey for eight years, but the couple separated in 2009. I wonder if any of the couples therapy material draws on real-life experience—and if it was difficult for either Lieberstein or Kinsey to be around.
  • Creed, on Dwight’s paper-airplane winnings: “I know a guy who can turn that into $800. Hint: It’s me.” This is a good Creed episode all around: In the cold open montage, it’s shown that he brought a cantaloupe to the paper airplane contest.   
Filed Under: TV, The Office

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