‘The Office’ – ‘Goodbye Michael’: And goodbye Steve Carell

Thanks for the kind thoughts last week, folks. They were much appreciated in a difficult time.

Like I said, I’m going to skip over most of the shows I missed while I was away, but I knew I would want to belatedly weigh in on Steve Carell’s final “The Office” episode. (Though Fienberg did a great job with his own post-game review while I was away.) Some thoughts on “Goodbye Michael” coming up just as soon as my improv credits transfer…

“And then tomorrow, I can tell you what a great boss you turned out to be. Best boss I ever had.” -Jim

Last week, I posted an essay and a gallery about the evolution of Michael Scott over seven seasons, from the jerk who pretended to fire Pam in the pilot (and who got slapped by Kelly in the first episode with an original American script) to the guy who got serenaded by the staff after the Dundies. Some of you (and some critics elsewhere) said they felt the “Seasons of Love” moment wasn’t earned, that most of these people probably still think Michael is an idiot – because even in his final season, he spent a good chunk of time acting like one – and that these emotional moments the last few weeks have been more about everyone’s real-life love of Steve Carell than about how the characters would honestly feel about Michael Scott.

The thing is, Michael’s a complicated – if not outright schizophrenic – character. Where most comedies have a consistent vision of their main character – or at least have a consistent vision under each showrunner (case in point: the many faces of Homer Simpson over 20+ years) – Michael Scott has been many different personalities, not just season to season but week to week. Sometimes, he even fluctated within individual episodes. (In the gallery, I cited season 4’s “Money” as an example of a relatively normal, not stupid Michael Scott, but that’s also the episode where he decides the best way to solve his financial problems is to march into the office and yell, “I… declare… BANKRUPTCY!”)

You can call that kind of characterization complex (everyone has good and bad qualities), or you can call it inconsistent, or something in between, but there have been many different Michaels on display over these past seven seasons. And what was great about “Goodbye Michael” was the way that Greg Daniels(*) managed to create a kind of Grand Unified Field Theory for Michael Scott.

(*) With his first “Office” script since Jim and Pam’s wedding, which he co-wrote with Mindy Kaling, and his first solo credit since the season 4 premiere, “Fun Run.”

Virtually every one of Michael’s faces was on display here: the oblivious (not knowing what town he’s moving to) and the astute (his cackling talking head about Oscar’s reaction to the scarecrow may be the most self-aware Michael moment ever), the kind (encouraging Andy, complimenting Phyllis and pretending to be grateful for the mittens) and the unintentionally cruel (his entire “gift” to Kevin), the petulant kid (wanting to use the bailer) and the wise parent (giving advice to Erin). There were times where he was sensitive to the needs of others (pretty much every interaction with Dwight) and others where he was just Michael being Michael (bringing the staff into the conference room for one last offensive character, because he couldn’t just bring himself to say goodbye). Even some of those individual interactions contained multitudes, like the way he briefly kept trying to push Kevin onto Erin even as he was being a comfort to her.

I don’t know if all these different versions of Michael quite click together over the life of the series, but within this episode, as written by Daniels, directed by Paul Feig and played so spectacularly by Steve Carell, they all did. I believed this was all one guy, and that his best behavior could rub right up against his most frustrating behavior – that he could be wise and serene one moment, and then in the next a quivering mess who needs to hear Holly’s voice on the speaker phone to know that he’s doing the right thing in leaving.

And it’s because Michael is so many things that his final scene with Jim worked so well. Jim and Michael have had a complicated history(**), and I think on one level, he says what he says just as a kindness to Michael. But on another level, I think Jim has come to believe it. Yes, he rolled his eyes at Michael, mocked him, got him in trouble with the superiors (the “That’s what she said!” scene at the end of “Sexual Harassment”). But he’s also witnessed the good side of Michael many times over. He learned to appreciate Michael’s loyalty when Josh Porter bailed on the company for a better job with Staples. He recognized that it’s much harder than it looks to be the cool boss in “Survivor Man.” He saw Michael keep the staff’s spirits up during the bankruptcy news in “Murder,” and he saw the branch survive Sabre’s purchase of the company thanks in large part to the work Michael did with sales. And I think over the years, Jim learned to recognize that he and Michael had a similar attitude to the job, in that they wanted it to be fun, wanted to be able to play games, etc. Jim initially did it because he was bored and didn’t want to think of this as a career, and Michael did it because he was lonely and wanted to think of the branch as a surrogate family. And, of course, Jim was (usually, but not always) more aware of both himself and others, but he wasted as much time, say, moving Dwight’s desk into the men’s room as Michael did on Pretzel Day before he closed the deal with Coselli. I think Michael drove Jim nuts, just like he drove everyone there nuts, but Jim did ultimately learn to like and respect him, just as Michael himself got (somewhat) better at managing people.

(**) And in hindsight, I wish I had included both “The Dundies” and “Booze Cruise” in the gallery, since the former marked the beginning of Jim’s “He may be an idiot, but he’s our idiot” attitude towards the boss, while the latter featured Michael being the one who pushed Jim to keep going after Pam.

Even the last day as a whole was the many faces of Michael in a nutshell. On the one hand, his decision not to tell anybody that he won’t be coming in tomorrow is selfish (if understandable, given what an open wound Michael is, to borrow a line from the Fienberg/Feig interview) and somewhat hurtful. Not everyone will mind that they didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Michael, but Erin will, Dwight will, Andy will, and Pam clearly would have if she hadn’t raced to the airport(***), among others.

(***) Post-9/11 airport security rules make scenes like that less organic than they used to be, unfortunately, Yes, Pam probably could have bought a refundable ticket, or the cheapest possible fare, or whatever it took to have license to pass through the security line, but it’s something we now have to actually step out of the scene to think about that we didn’t 10 years ago.

But on the other hand, he does get closure with most of the people who really cared about him. No, he doesn’t say goodbye to Dwight directly, but he writes him a terrific recommendation letter – and in the process gives Rainn Wilson license to act the hell out of a scene that made Dwight the most human he’s been in a long time – and finally, enthusiastically, plays one of Dwight’s beloved games. Some will be annoyed in the moment, as they were in the epilogue, but I imagine that in time, Michael’s mysterious last day, and the sometimes perceptive, sometimes tone-deaf, sometimes sweet and sometimes irritating elliptical goodbyes he had with everyone will become just one more Michael Scott story – one of many that these people dine out on for years to come. Depending on the person, and the event being described, some of these stories will be of the “can you believe this jackass used to be my boss?” variety (most of Stanley’s will be like that), but I think a lot will be wistful. These people may one day have a saner, more competent boss – though likely not until after the show is canceled – but it will be hard for them to ever have a more colorful, memorable boss, and I thought “Goodbye Michael” was a pretty fantastic tribute to that man on his way out the door.

Some other thoughts:

• As Mike Schur and Shawn Ryan and so many other people have continually pointed out on Twitter this season, Steve Carell has never won an Emmy. And that says a hell of a lot more about the Emmys than it does about Carell. I know Alec Baldwin got to play multiple Jack Donaghys a couple of weeks ago, but the naive part of me wants to believe that this episode might be enough to get him a nostalgic farewell trophy. Then again, so much of what makes his performance in this one great is something that might not be appreciated by a non-regular viewer, because some of the funniest moments are when you can see Michael trying to restrain his worst instincts (which was often where Carell shined brightest), like when he doesn’t cringe at Toby suggesting that he befriend his brother.

• Speaking of Rory Flenderson, I’m surprised it took the show this long to have Warren Lieberstein (who’s been on staff for a couple of seasons now) in front of the camera to play fictional brother to his real-life brother.

• The show in recent years has played pretty fast and loose with the idea of the documentary crew as an actual entity, but Daniels made repeated references to their existence – Jim complaining that they now film inside the bathrooms, for instance – which then primed the pump for both a bittersweet joke (Michael takes off his mic pack, meaning that his final “That’s what she said” is inaudible) and just a sweet, mysterious moment (Michael and Pam have a “Lost in Translation”-type final conversation where the crew can’t pick up what they’re saying, presumably because Pam didn’t bother to clip her mic back on after racing through the security line). And, of course, Michael asked when this thing is ever going to air. I think now that Michael’s no longer an ongoing character, it actually gives the show a greater license to have this thing released into the public, be it as some public television documentary, a long-gestating A&E show, maybe even a foreign documentary about American workers, and see people like Jim and Pam react to how they were then versus who they are now. The show really couldn’t do that so long as Michael was running the place, as he’d have to be fired in an instant just for the sake of PR.

• The less said about Deangelo getting another abrupt personality switch, the better, though he did facilitate a couple of nice moments for Andy (finally tapping into the salesman Michael insisted was inside him) and Dwight and Jim (their shared concern over seeing him freak out on the cake). But through three episodes, the writing for Will Ferrell has not exactly filled me with hope for how the show is going to handle the parade of guest stars in the season’s final episodes, even if most of them turn out to be glorified cameos. I’d rather the show just move on to what the permanent post-Michael arrangement is going to be than keep messing around with people we know won’t be sticking around.

• I also could have done without most of the material involving Gabe, and would like to think that would have been the first stuff cut had NBC chosen not to super-size the episode.

• A normal-sized episode almost certainly wouldn’t have had room for Michael’s endless attempt to score an overhand basket in the warehouse, but that also neatly summed up Michael Scott: he’s so determined to have a dramatic, movie-style exit to look cool in front of the warehouse guys that he just stands there and keeps shooting over and over, even though no one has cared at any point.

• Two hilarious Creed moments: the callback to his monologue from season 3’s “Women’s Appreciation Day” about how “I like to go in the women’s room for number two” (and Erin’s reaction suggested this is a well-known fact around the office), and then Creed having stolen Michael’s discarded (and no longer needed) “World’s Best Boss” mug.

• I saw in the comments to Fienberg’s review a few suggestions that the baby Phyllis gave up for adoption may be Erin, and when I went back later to rewatch a few scenes, I couldn’t help noticing the very purposeful editing, with a cut from Erin on the bench thinking about her mom to Erin at the reception desk followed by a quick camera pan from her face to Phyllis’. I’m not saying Phyllis is definitely her mom, but the episode sure laid the visual groundwork for it.

• Ah, the Party Planning Committee, an endless source of comedy, here with the “dream team… plus Meredith” arguing over everything. The only way those scenes could have better would have been for Karen (who was, after all, co-chair of the short-lived Committee to Plan Parties) to drive down from Utica to participate.

One advantage of posting a review this late is that you’ve all had more time than usual to contemplate this one if you so chose. So what did everybody else think?