For an artistic endeavor that’s lasted as long as The Office—and been touched by as many hands as this series has—finding a good, satisfying ending is an Ahab-Moby Dick-type scenario. At least when that end is in sight. The Office has survived the departure of major stars and behind-the-scenes overseers due to basic TV Darwinism. When it’s making money for the network broadcasting it and the production company that owns its syndication rights, a TV show’s No. 1 priority is not finding an ending. But now that the final call has been placed, the elusive prey has surfaced, and in episodes like “The Whale,” from hell’s heart The Office stabs at it.
But the show should take heed of what happens after Ahab spits those famous last words at his mighty metaphorical adversary. (Spoiler alert for a 160-year-old book the author hasn’t read.) After all, the guy ends up dragged to the briny deep, tangled in his own harpoon line. One interpretation of that fate: Our obsessions shall also be our downfalls. (Another interpretation: Giant sea mammals will straight-up murder you.) And in “The Whale,” the writers and producers of The Office seem awfully obsessed with the series’ endgame. There’s another fun storyline for Dwight that points toward his no-longer-happening personal exit, but there are also less-enjoyable continuations of ongoing storylines where the signs of strain indicate they’re not made to last to the series finale. At the start of the season, Jim’s mythical sports-marketing job looked like something that could keep the character occupied in the background while he messed with Dwight and teamed with Pam to give The Documentarians further reason to stick around. In “The Whale,” as in “Here Comes Treble,” the new job pulls all of the character’s focus, placing John Krasinski in situations where he must play straight man to seemingly the entire world.
And that’s a difficult task, because as “The Whale” illustrates, eight seasons of The Office haven’t done much to color the landscape beyond the boundaries of the Scranton Business Park. When it comes to the work that’s done at Dunder Mifflin, the show has always painted in broad, timely strokes: a failing company at a time of mounting economic anxiety, developing a way to sell “infinite paper in a paperless world.” It’s rare that the show ever gets into the specifics of what it means to be this failing business amid the mounting economic anxiety of Scranton—but the show wouldn’t have lasted past its first six episodes if it was tightly focused on the subject of selling paper to the businesses of northeastern Pennsylvania.
And this is why it’s at turns bracing and refreshing to learn that the Scranton White Pages—an obsolete and unwanted paper product that is nonetheless published three times a year—is seen as “the white whale” to the paper sellers of the greater Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area. It’s an intriguing little tidbit of mythology that, while invented specifically for tonight’s episode and ultimately used in a game of narrative bait-and-switch, nonetheless highlights a part of these characters’ lives we’ve never seen or heard about before. It’s new information, and while that’s not necessarily something you’ll want to stretch across the course of multiple episodes in the show’s final seasons (the way some viewers feared The Scranton Strangler might when his name was invoked during “The Boat”), it’s a decent device to relegate to a self-contained episode.
And even if it’s only there as the lure to temporarily draw Dwight and Pam into the clutches of Jan Levenson, at least Jan serves as the ultimate specimen of the one type of person to whom Dwight Schrute can’t sell paper: a woman. Beyond that, there’s little reason to justify Melora Hardin’s presence in “The Whale.” When she’s not sparring with Dwight, forcing him to forget all the advice about treating women like human beings that he’d learned back at HQ, Jan feels like an obligation of The Office’s final-season victory lap. The details of the episode do well by the impression Jan left. She’s been gone long enough to evidently necessitate an introductory talking head from Pam, but director Rodman Flender does an excellent job of letting more-engaged viewers confirm for themselves that skydiving photo + gaudy candles + photo of a toddler = Jan Levenson’s new office. This is certainly the cartoonish, post-breakdown, dancing-with-herself-in-the-living-room version of the character who stormed out of Michael Scott’s life in season four. Her appearance might not feel justified, but it is consistent with what came before it.
So Dwight landing Jan as client (by using barely mustachioed Clark as a sexual pawn) isn’t the same as Jim confronting some hard truths while pranking Karen in “Branch Wars.” (An episode that also hung jokes on bad/fake mustaches.) But Hardin’s cameo does highlight something deep and difficult (and mildly humorous) about The Office: For many of these characters, genuine personal change fits the Moby Dick analogy as much as a White Pages sale. The Jan encountered by Dwight and Pam is the True Jan: To a fault, she’s domineering, manipulative, and convinced of the transformative powers of scented candles. And Dwight has her number—he has since demanding a meeting at the Liz Claiborne outlet in the third season—because his only role models in life have been similarly overbearing. The main difference between these two characters is the chink in Dwight’s armor: He cares about other people. He won’t admit it, but if he ever becomes a father, he won’t soundtrack a photo slideshow of his kids with a solipsistic ballad about himself. Dwight will always have communication problems with a majority of women, but he’ll also always care about friends like Pam. He’s learned a little bit by the end of “The Whale,” but nothing’s really changed.
And nothing really can change on The Office. Mustache or no mustache, Toby will always be Toby. (“Smile if you love men’s prostates” might have been the line of the night, but a small part of me misses the version of Toby who did nothing to explain Michael’s disgust for the man.) Except that the show’s coming to the end, so there’s the sense that the characters who weren’t given a triumphant, departing arc like Michael Scott need one right now—or else there’d be nothing to show for the efforts made in some 100-plus hours of television. Jim, for instance, is finding it harder and harder to telecommute to the planning stages of the sports-marketing gig. It’s not getting any easier with phone conferences being interrupted by a lingering Kevin, a jumpy Hank, or a baseball-bat-wielding Meredith. At some point in the next few episodes, change-resistant, ham-and-cheese Jim will have to choose Scranton or Philadelphia. To heighten these stakes, “The Whale” smartly isolates Jim while demonstrating how Pam has become an increasingly integral part of the Dunder Mifflin ecosystem. She was a helping hand for these people for so long, it makes perfect sense that they would look to her for support—or for something as simple as that sweet moment at the end of the episode where Dwight calls her his friend. Hell, she might even miss Dwight if the Halperts pull up stakes and head to Philly.
So while there’s frustration to be had with “The Whale,” there’s also the promise of a conclusion to the plotlines that are pushing Jim or Oscar or Angela to the fringes of the ensemble. I’m all for more Pam-and-Dwight time, but the Oscar-Angela plots in particular have kept those two characters separate from the main action within the office for a while—to the point where the accounting department feels like it’s on a different set from everyone else’s desks. (A set where the desk drawers are hilariously easy to pull off of their slides, given the correct, startling phrase.) What I found so delightful about “The Boat” was the way the phone prank with Dwight involved contributions from a manageably larger selection of the cast. Their roles within those scenes maintained a nice equilibrium, even if, like Phyllis, there were just there to laugh at the depths of Dwight’s loyalty. Sure, the show can’t devote every week to ensemble pieces that stoke the fire of an episode while the long-term plots chug along. But material like that is an acknowledgement that life at Dunder Mifflin will carry on after the documentarians finally pack up their equipment and, say, embed themselves at an Olive Garden in Michigan for the better part of a decade. But in the continuing arcs that either wrap up or begin to wind down in “The Whale,” The Office strains for endings. It cocks its arm and aims the harpoon at closure for Jan Levenson. Personally, I’m having a better time watching episodes that keep on sailing, rather than latching themselves onto some big, bold piece of symbolic punctuation.
- For the IMDb “Trivia” page: Credited writer Carrie Kemper is Ellie Kemper’s younger sister.
- I wonder if any postpartum film criticisms from Pam were left on the cutting room floor. How has the experience of giving birth informed or re-informed her opinion of David Cronenberg’s oeuvre ?
- There aren’t a lot of memorable lines in this one—though, in addition to creepy Toby’s Lunchtime Street Beef act, I did enjoy Nellie’s feedback for Dwight’s mock-sales call: “Have you ever killed a woman? How many women have you killed? Please sir, will you not kill me?” That has a lot to do with Catherine Tate’s matter-of-fact delivery, though.