At the end of “Turf War,” Jim and Dwight are sitting around with Harry—a salesman from the Syracuse branch played by Chris Bauer—after having struck out trying to land a big client, and their conversation turns to what they would do if they weren’t selling paper; after Jim reveals that he would like to own a bike shop, and the show misses an opportunity for Harry to reveal a wistful desire to work on the docks in Baltimore, the show turns what starts as a hypothetical into a reality. Harry reveals that, in his estimation, Robert California is going to run the company into the ground in six months, which means Jim should start thinking about clever store names before the two incomes in the Halpert household become zero.
And thus reality returns to The Office in one fell swoop, with an entire season of incompetent managing originally framed as zany and fun rendered destructive by declaration of a character we’ve never met before and may never meet again. While the Scranton branch has always been in something of a bubble, “reality” was once a constant threat against their antics: There was always Jan around the corner to keep Michael in check, or Toby there to enforce the rules as they had been set forward by corporate. “Turf War” seeks to make the argument that Scranton has become so much of a bubble that none of the characters realized that their CEO was destroying the company, looking to write off an entire season’s worth of storylines as James Spader’s time on the series comes to an end.
It’s the definition of a retcon, albeit packaged in such a way that the show gets to pretend it always intended to reach this conclusion by suggesting that its fruitless, consequence-free revelry in Robert’s wackiness was a reflection of the insulated nature of the Scranton employees, as opposed to the writers' failure to craft a successful season of television. While I’m not exactly convinced that this was always the writers' plan, and fully believe the show was willing to embrace the sillier tone and eschew realism altogether, the shift to a world with actual consequences is certainly a step in the right direction for the series, and one that slightly elevates “Turf War,” if not the season as a whole.
In order to elevate the season as a whole, something a penultimate episode should probably be interested in, “Turf War” would have to be about things we care about. The conflict between Jim, Dwight, and Harry is introduced by the elimination of the “Binghamton” branch, which Robert California drunkenly closed after finalizing his divorce. The episode uses it to pit Jim and Dwight against Harry for their biggest client, Prestige Direct Sale Solutions, whom Andy then poaches in an effort to hold Dunder Mifflin hostage so he can either get his job back or convince David Wallace—whose appearance last week was up there in the list of least subtle pieces of foreshadowing in television history—to buy the company and put him back in charge. Just like that, the finale has stakes through Andy and Robert’s fight over the future of the company.
However, acknowledging that’s more interesting than most of the rest of the season put together, let’s back up for a second: Robert California fired a bunch of people for no reason, and all the Scranton employees did was try to poach their clients. No one in that office thought “That was weird; maybe we should tell someone that Robert California just destroyed people’s lives in a drunken stupor and seems to be completely fine with this decision?” While the characters express confusion, they never express anger, perhaps because they, too, didn’t know Binghamton existed. Did they not know anyone at Binghamton? How was no one from Binghamton among the people banging down Scranton’s doors in an effort to get justification from Robert?
Now, this isn’t a question of a “plot hole”: I fully accept that the plot of the show remains tied to the Scranton branch, even if the show would be more interesting were the writers to expand that focus. However, this storyline would be far more effective if the closing of the Binghamton branch was more than a cheap segue into the larger plot. The closing of a branch has been an event the show has never treated lightly, making a major impact in the third season with the closing of the Stamford branch and reverberating through the entire company at the end of the fifth season in “Company Picnic.” Here, however, the closing of Binghamton has no human consequence and no fallout other than creating petty infighting among other branches looking to pick at its carcass.
Perhaps this offers definitive proof that the people at Scranton are all selfish, horrible human beings, an argument I’ve seen people making for a while now. The problem is that the show does clearly have a moral conscience, as evidenced by Pam’s efforts to discover the nature of Robert’s drunken phone call to Nellie. While she’s willing to steal her phone, she’s less willing to peer into her private life, and is ultimately ingratiated to Nellie as she learns about her struggles with credit card debt, depression, and loneliness (as her attempts to adopt a child are rejected). In that moment, Pam feels some empathy for a character who has otherwise been an absolutely horrible human being. Yet she felt nothing for an entire branch of people, some of whom could also be young mothers supporting families, that Robert just fired for no reason, and that he seems entirely uninterested in returning to their jobs after realizing he did this in a drunken stupor?
My objection is not that this renders Pam’s character inconsistent, but rather that it renders the show’s characters as subservient to the narrative whims of the writers. In a moment when the show needs to very quickly establish a plot direction moving forward, logical character actions are forced to the back burner, popping up only when convenient for the larger aims (like the ongoing campaign to humanize Nellie). In fact, characters are forced to the back burner in general, as only Andy has anything to do with the larger storyline from the perspective of individual agency. Everyone else is just floating around in their own worlds, with the show failing to provide any sense of narrative convergence with the few threadbare storylines the show managed to introduce and then abandon this year. This storyline is driven exclusively by the sheer unpredictability of Robert California, a wild card element that the writers are using to back their way into a season finale without actually doing any work to connect it to the characters as more than employees whose jobs may now be in jeopardy.
“Turf War” spends much of its running time on far less important issues, primarily Andy, Dwight, and Jim all fighting for Prestige’s business. The show gets its usual mileage out of Dwight and Jim as partners-in-crime, with the unorthodox strategies of the former awkwardly taken on poorly by the latter, but the stakes are so artificial that the silliness of Dwight’s pants falling down is more damaging than usual. The entire scenario feels cheap, a too-simple setup that fails to capture the spontaneity the show was once known for in these circumstances. Meanwhile, although I appreciate any instance in which Dan Castellaneta appears on my television, Andy’s efforts to win his paper business without actually being tied to a paper supplier are obnoxiously stupid—open door policy or not, the “largest junk mail distributor on the eastern seaboard” would not sign up with Andy were it not necessary to advance the plot forward. And yes, I’ll admit that here I’m basically just making a logic-driven “Nuh-uh, that would never happen!” argument, but the show was asking for it in this case.
And there’s the rub: At the end of the day, The Office is asking us to take a hastily sketched out narrative development at face value over the course of 20 minutes. “Turf War” is asked to do too much and has no possible fate but failure, capable of setting up interesting developments for the finale but incapable of making it seem like anything but a late-season Hail Mary pass. And, if you’ll indulge me the sports metaphor, a Hail Mary is all about faith: The quarterback throws up the pass and hopes that it lands in the hands of the right player when it comes back down. Normally, the entire stadium holds its breath as the ball sits in the air, but it feels like we’ve passed the point where anyone is holding their breath for The Office. In fact, one wonders if most of the people in the stands aren’t already on their way out the door before the pass even leaves the quarterback’s hands.
Regardless, the pass has been thrown; next week, we’ll see where it lands.
- Wouldn’t it have been far more satisfying if Andy had gone to David Wallace’s house without the character randomly showing up and delivering some exposition about his newly-established wealth? I know the show needed to retcon Wallace’s financial status to justify the storyline, but do that next week and let us be surprised by an ending instead of finding it wholly predictable.
- After a few great cold opens, this one was just nonsense: The setup was ridiculous, the jokes were lame, and the Photoshop was contrived with no comic value. If this episode was out to argue these people have terrible senses of humor in addition to being entirely selfish, it was successful, but that was a long way to go for something so unfunny.
- Tonight’s brief scenes with Catherine Tate suggest that she would be capable of capturing a more nuanced, intriguing version of Nellie—the damage has already been done, ultimately, but repositioning her confidence as a sad façade won me over more than I expected.
- Perhaps evidence for the “Everyone is selfish” pile: The sales team did admit to scamming the company out of commission money by creating a fake salesperson, although I have questions about the logistics of that too.
- We long ago established the slippery nature of the documentary aesthetics, but the decision to shoot Jim and Dwight’s scene in the car from a magic floating camera above its hood was one of the most egregious examples in recent memory. Remember the dashboard cameras? Those were great.
- “I’ll still be talking about geishas long past their bedtime”—say what I might about the uselessness about Robert California, he’ll leave us a great out-of-context YouTube compilation.
- Dwight’s list of nearby weapons in the conference room: Chair, Lamp, Plant, Table Leg, Jim’s Leg.