The Office Pulls Off a Shocker: An Incredible Last Episode

A fitting farewell for the Scranton gang.

Finales are hard. Seinfeld, Sopranos, Sex and the City, Sister Sister: all shows with infamous mediocre series finales. (Okay, I don’t really know about that last one; presumably shows that didn’t begin with “S” had bad finales, too.) A TV series is rarely meant to be a self-contained entity, at least in America. Even in this era of binge-watching shows on cable or the Internet, a TV show should continue for months and years (unless it’s Do No Harm, I guess).

By any standard, though, The Office bucked the trend and had a great last episode last night. It reminded me of an American (so, happy) version of the U.K. Office Christmas special, which caught up with the characters after the documentary aired. By setting it months after the penultimate episode, it made the episode less rushed. Plus, a lot of people who hadn’t seen The Office in a while were tuning in tonight; there was an excuse to fill in a lot of back story for old fans and ones who had stuck with it until the end. Clever!

The big point of last night’s episode, of course, was Michael’s return to be the best man (bestest mensch, in Schrute vernacular) at Dwight and Angela’s wedding. What’s funny is how emotional it was for my friends and me watching at my house. No matter how much the show attempted to turn him nice, I’ve never felt Michael was a sympathetic character. He treated his employees horribly. He had no respect for women. In “Golden Ticket” he tried to get Dwight to take the fall for his massive mistake. In “Frame Toby” he tried to send Toby to prison for drugs (he had a brief change of heart at the end of the episode, but it was too late—fortunately, he had purchased salad from the warehouse workers instead of weed). “He has a sensitivity of a five-year-old,” B.J. Novak (who played Ryan Howard) said of Michael on the pre-finale retrospective.

When Michael left the show, I was angry that he had a happy ending. He deserved to be fired. He didn’t deserve to move to Colorado with his beautiful fiance. It’s network TV, and they weren’t going to end with Toby shooting him, but I thought he got off way too easy. Jerry and the gang went to prison at the end of Seinfeld, and they were way better people!

And yet he had some moments where I truly wanted to root for him in the series: The cruise where he told Jim not to give up on Pam. When he finds out the branch is about to close and drives to David Wallace’s house to save it. His proposal to Holly. And last night, returning—of course he came back for the last episode!—to see Dwight get married. I may or may not have teared up a little.

One of the amazing tricks of The Office is how much you feel for all the characters—yes, even after Michael left—despite none of them being very likable. Jim and Pam’s arguing made me want to throw them in front of the Scranton Limited. Dwight is the most obnoxious person on the planet. Ryan Howard was the closest thing the series had to an evil super-villain. Oscar had an affair with his office mate’s husband. Angela was a pompous jerk. Kevin was somewhat sympathetic, but would you really want to work with someone that bad at his job?

It’s fitting, I think. We’re at our worst in the office. We’re forced into cubicles and offices with people we don’t really know, and might not like, for 40-plus hours a week. And when we’re unhappy, we act out. But it’s a testament to the quality of the writing of the show that this does not really make us hate everyone. No other show full of unlikable characters—say, Family Guy or Community—creates such moments where you really care for all these terrible people.

The Office finale was the opposite of the last Seinfeld episode. A cast of favorite bit characters coming back to testify in the trial of the “New York Four” only made us remember what terrible people they were. But The Office‘s last episode played it up as a reunion: We just learned what our old favorites were up to, and everyone was nice to each other for once. The throwbacks were cute and understated—Dwight re-hires Devon, fired by Michael in season two; the stripper for Dwight’s bachelor party is the same one as in “Ben Franklin”; show creator Greg Daniels shows up in the final group photo—and for some reason, I didn’t mind everything working out for everyone (well, except Toby).

I felt like this woman shown in the pre-show retrospective, bursting with excitement at The Office‘s wrap celebration in Scranton.

And, yes, I was wrong. Jim and Pam move to Austin instead of Philadelphia. But there’s an upside to that: Pam’s terrible murals will now be in Texas instead of here.

Still, I think it would have been funnier if Daniels moved Jim and Pam to Arlen, but I suppose he knew what he was doing.