“Sons And Daughters” closes The Decemberists’ 2006 LP, The Crane Wife, on a note of uplift. After nine tracks of pillaging raiders, two-faced criminals, and sectarian-motivated mass murder, Colin Meloy and his bandmates make a promise to the listener: We don’t have to dwell on all of this. We can give up the things that separate us, dismiss our petty disagreements and differences, and start all over again, together as one. Fittingly, it’s one of the most ensemble-based songs in the band’s repertoire, its verses sung in round by voices that normally don’t turn up on Decemberists records, building toward a gorgeous, hymn-like coda. In concert, the coda is bracing; it’s a trite sentiment, but there’s a breathtaking quality to hearing crowd of people repeating the phrase “Hear all the bombs fade away.”
I’ve been a part of that sing-along a couple of times; I’ve also seen friends walk to their wedding altar to “Sons And Daughters.” And yet, it’s always struck me as a profoundly sad song: It’s a lovely thought, this idyll by the shore—but it’s also an illusion. No matter how much cinnamon you pour into your mouth or how thick the aluminum lining the walls of your home, you can’t hold back the subjects of the other nine-tenths of The Crane Wife forever. Reality trumps optimism every time, and even if Dwight Schrute was granted a full season to preserve his family’s legacy, it wouldn’t truly grant him escape from Scranton’s Todd Packers. And since NBC (wisely, but not for the reasons you might think) chose not to pick up The Farm, there’s an added tinge of sadness to that scene where Dwight and his siblings march into a new chapter of their lives to the strains of “Sons And Daughters.” It’s a promise of renewal that will go unfulfilled; three characters stepping into an unknown that only exists as vague notions in Paul Lieberstein’s head.
The Farm is not what an ailing network like NBC needs right now. Even if it shows more wit and heart than any of the broad comedies Bob Greenblatt and Jennifer Salke are currently courting, the series that would’ve sprung from the seeds of this episode would’ve just been another stone around the drowning Peacock’s neck. It’s too weird, too frequently still to live.
“The Farm,” however, is the kind of episode The Office can use at this point in its ninth season: a temporary detour from the season’s major arcs, a half-hour breather before the final spate of episodes. It’s a break from the Jim-Pam-Brian nonsense, an opportunity to take an alternate look at a figure who buoyed the show in boom times and was over-utilized during the lean years. The window for a Dwight Schrute-centric comedy closed long before Lieberstein turned in his first draft of “The Farm,” but that doesn’t mean the character didn’t deserve a shot, once upon a time. At the very least, doesn’t Michael Schur deserve one last chance to do that goofy, stiff-armed Mose run?
Schrute Farms has long existed as a Twilight Zone on the fringes of the Dunder Mifflin world, though it’s in the curious position of being the shabbier counterpart to the show’s main setting. Dunder Mifflin is the Eagleton to the farm’s Pawnee, not vice versa. Yet for all the wackiness that’s ensued in The Office’s many visits to Dwight’s homestead, the location’s customs and inhabitants have been typically treated with more writers’-room dexterity than what’s on display in “The Farm.” It’s well-established that Schrute Farms and the surrounding area operate by an archaic set of rules, but the episode’s script just can’t help but speak Pilotese about beak-based courting rituals and the stipulations from beyond the grave that would pull all three Schrute siblings together in order to keep Aunt Shirley’s neighboring fields within the family. And backdoor pilot or no, someone involved with the show should’ve spoken up before Oscar Nunez was allowed to say, without a hint of irony, “Dwight has a sister?”
He has a brother, too—and a cousin played by Breaking Bad’s Matt Jones, though all of that was covered in the trades back when The Farm was on track to become a full-fledged spin-off. It’s clumsy in its introductions, but “The Farm” gives off a good sense of how Dwight Schrute became the man he’s been for almost 200 episodes: the former volunteer sheriff’s deputy who used a stray roach to institute a mini police state has a brother who runs a pot farm. (A pot farm he didn’t mean to buy, but a pot farm nonetheless.) The paper salesman who abhors the creature comforts and perceived immorality of urban living has a sister who fled to the big city to write crummy poems and raise a kid on her own. It’s obnoxious when a television show introduces a character’s family members two months out from its series finale, but the absence of Jeb and Frannie from Dwight’s life makes sense, and they slot well into our understanding of the character. And Jones earns some of the biggest laughs of “The Farm”—his dry read of “Dwight was obviously the cool one, Mose was the visionary, which left me to be the comedian” makes a powerful case for further sitcom roles for the man who was (and maybe still is?) Badger.
Too many of the scenes set on the farm place all of their bets on the peculiarities of the Schrutes and their kin, though. (I don’t know what connects the guy with the pickup full of maybe wives/probably daughters to Aunt Shirley, but I’m guessing it’s not blood, based on Dwight’s flirtation with former Greek co-star/Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros accordionist Nora Kirkpatrick.) I’m more partial to the lighter touches like the barnyard bonding between Dwight and his nephew and the authentically playful teasing that persuades Frannie to check out Aunt Shirley’s place. The Farm could only have been a product of the broader, zanier, Todd-Packer-doses-everyone-with-cupcakes Office, but that would’ve set some early challenges for the show—ones its predecessor didn’t face until it was several seasons into its run. “The Farm” features a scene where Dwight perforates his aunt’s body with a shotgun; it would be next to impossible for The Farm to heighten from that point. For variety, it would have to rely on the smaller, quieter moments like those seen in tonight’s episode. And if there’s anything that makes viewers flock in droves to a network comedy, it’s muted, well-observed comedy. </sarcasm> It’s good for the viewer in the short run, but would’ve been poison to the show in the long run—at least as far as life-sustaining ratings are concerned.
It’s difficult to think critically about an episode like “The Farm” and not switch instantly into autopsy mode. One half of this episode is a televised corpse, and hypothesizing about its cause of death is simpler than surveying its merits as an entry in a series at its twilight. Running alongside the Packer’s revenge plot, the material concerning Dwight and his family exposes themes about these characters’ true natures and their inability to deny them. Pam Halpert, generally the most perceptive person on the Dunder Mifflin staff, has a feeling about those cupcakes and Packer’s apology, and she can’t bring herself to accept either. Packer will take his pettiness and narcissism to his grave. Dwight’s business card may read “head of sales,” but he conducts himself in that position with the work ethic, austerity, and pride of a farmer. Much of this final season has been about getting in touch with the fundamentals of The Office’s characters, and that’s one song that cuts through the expository bombs of “The Farm.” Like “Sons And Daughters,” the episode sets up something of a mirage, an idea that will never come to fruition. But there’s a tangible core to that idea, and while it won’t form the basis for a new addition to the NBC primetime lineup, it will be around for another six episodes.
- It never occurred to me during Blake Garrett Rosenthal’s arc on New Girl last year, but that kid’s basically a mini Rainn Wilson, isn’t he?
- In one bit of Schrute arcana that goes unmentioned, I’m assuming the tux Dwight wears during the cold open is the one he exhumed from his grandfather’s grave.
- Creed can’t remember a name or a face, but he’s great with numbers: “I have a gift. That’s why I’m an accountant.”
- The likeajokes and called-out punchlines really pile up in this episode, though Wilson, seated behind a goat, pours the proper amount of incredulity into “Did you just ask me if this was a cow?”