"Best prank ever," indeed. Jim Halpert's final scam on Dwight Schrute was also the series' biggest payoff, a climax that arrived 43 minutes into the series finale of The Office last night. Just before Dwight weds Angela Martin, Jim acts flustered, saying he must relinquish best man honors to someone older. His eyes meet ours, and the camera swivels across the room to reveal a smirking Michael Scott.
"I can't believe you came," a stunned Dwight says.
"That's what she said," Michael replies, choking up, and the two embrace.
Jim's prank fit within NBC's own effort to throw fans for weeks, squashing rumors that a Steve Carell cameo would wrap the show's run. We knew it was coming, even demanded it. But two seasons after his exit from The Office, Michael's return last night felt distant, even out of place. Once the bumbling boss, he's now a father, trimmer and grayer and living the picket-fence dream in Colorado with Holly Flax.
As the finale opens, we drop in six months following the premiere of the long-in-the-works documentary that followed Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch. Much has happened since: Dwight now manages the place; Andy Bernard's failed audition tape for America's Next A Cappella Sensation has gone viral; Oscar Martinez is running for office; Stanley Hudson has retired to Florida; and Creed Bratton has faked his death to evade police. The cast reunites at a community center for a Q&A, where a member of the audience asks, "Do you find your life pointless now, now that nobody is filming you?" Toby Flenderson, without hesitation, responds, "Yes."
Three "That's what she (or he, or they) said"-type moments offered plenty more with few words:
"I feel like all my kids grew up, and then they married each other. It's every parent's dream!"
It's the only other line Michael Scott utters all night, but it says everything about how he values his former staff. No longer the Dunder Mifflin patriarch, he's spent the past two years making the family he always wanted and deserved. The parenting theme rears its head in song as Phyllis hoists Angela, the bride, down the aisle to "Sweet Child O' Mine."
The flighty Erin Hannon finally meets her own parents, played by Joan Cusack and Ed Begley Jr., who approach the microphone during the Q&A to confront their daughter. Only after several moments does Erin realize the connection, and leap off the stage and into their arms.
"I've finally mastered commitment!"
This is the last we hear from Ryan Howard, the pompous office womanizer, as he runs off hand-in-hand with ex-flame Kelly Kapoor. He's a dad desperate for the single life, so much so that he gives his son Drake a rash by way of a strawberry, hoping to distract Kelly's doctor husband. Drake ends up in Nellie Bertram's care; they grin as Nellie tells the cameras they're headed to Europe, where she has been hiding from Toby for months.
The flipside of Ryan's "commitment" is the one Jim and his wife Pam have worked all season to strengthen. Their marriage suffered while he pursued a sports venture with Darryl Philbin. But behind the scenes, Pam listed their house, eager to move as a family to Austin. When a couple buys their home, Pam and Jim approach Dwight to resign, but he fires them – only so they can collect severance pay.
"There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things."
The final quote of the series comes from Pam as we watch her remove the framed Dunder Mifflin sketch from the office. Ricky Gervais' British comedy inspired a U.S. network to break the fourth wall, ditch the tripod and kill the laugh track. Other shows imitated this style, one that rejected structure and came close to flopping after only weeks. Pam's colleagues wax about how the documentary experience improved their lives despite the daily intrusion, and her own line is a sentimental one. But she's right. Because for nine seasons, The Office perfected the art of dissecting the ordinary – the dusty cubicles, the corporate malaise – and underscored the beauty we often miss in the mundane.