Friday, September 21, 2012

The Office: Starting the Final Season

Only one episode in, The Office's swan-song season already feels more like an epilogue than a finale, and its aura of denouement started as early as Pam and Jim's "what I did over summer vacation" interview in the cold open. Perhaps these characters, and the office itself, have told all the story they need to tell. Pam herself admits it: sure, she and Jim had some entertaining drama in the first few years, but that's all over by now. Look at how far they've come, she emphasizes. They're settled down now. Pam's life is boring, and as she'll defend to Dwight later, that's how she likes it. It's a maturity that acknowledges things were more interesting in the past than they are now. And it's the first indication that finally, this adventure is about to be over.

Pam's next comment is even more striking: "How much more do you need? It's just a paper company." In addition to being a meta-nod to the consensus that the show should have ended by now--perhaps a long time ago--it's a deeply reflective rhetorical question, as if Pam and everyone but the documentary's filmmakers know that the yarn is spun out and the story told. It's followed by a comment from one of the filmmakers himself, a rare acknowledgement of their existence as characters, and a reminder that what we know as "real" in The Office is merely an impression of reality. That impression will soon come to an end.

If Pam was the first person to point out that the story has run its course, Jim is the first to emphasize that there will be life outside of Dunder-Mifflin. Even though his new business proposal sounds more like a Ryan Howard pipe dream than a solid career bet, it's the first time in years that he's actually made concrete plans for a job outside paper sales. Nobody (save perhaps Dwight K. Schrute) actually likes being a middle manager or paper salesman at Dunder-Mifflin; it's a stepping stone to an executive position or a sales job at a more prestigious company. Jim has liked it least of all. But his passive-aggression has finally turned to action.

And in what will certainly become a recurring theme over the course of the season, two of the office's employees have already decided to take their talents elsewhere. Though Ryan and Kelly haven't exactly been cornerstones of the story since season 2, their exit underscores how much the times are changing at Dunder-Mifflin. So does the hiring of new guys Clark and Pete. Promptly nicknamed Dwight Junior and Young Jim, meeting them took us back nine years when we met real Dwight and Jim.

If we're having to face the characters finally moving on from Dunder-Mifflin, the other side of the coin is that Dunder-Mifflin is moving on from its old cast of characters. After a few years of relative stability, followed by mergers and layoffs, executive scandal, and a buyout and company-wide restructuring, it looks like order might be restored in the office once more. David Wallace, long the lone voice of reason in the insanity of the corporate hierarchy, has stepped in to impose some structure. The company is obviously doing well enough to bring in new talent. And Dwight's client list is so long that he has leads he doesn't even have time to pursue. Even though we won't be witness to it for much longer, all signs indicate that Dunder-Mifflin is going to survive just fine without us, an oddly comforting notion.

Michael Scott's departure a year and a half ago hit hard, a more sincerely emotional moment than it even tried to be. Our final moments in the office are likely to be even more poignant. Until then, we can simply watch the season play out, a year-long catharsis, a retrospective as much as a commencement, a group of characters suddenly left without they reality that they--and we--have taken for granted for nearly a decade. But at least we'll depart knowing their stories have been told.