Farewell Michael Scott, and thanks for the already-traumatic memories. It was a historic episode last night for The Office, as Steve Carell’s bumbling boss left Dunder Mifflin for the last time, offending everyone in the office one last time on his way out. As Dwight put it, “I’ve given up expecting Michael to do the right thing, or the decent thing, or even the comprehensible thing.” But seeing Michael throw out his World’s Best Boss mug — the one he had to buy himself — it was like Prospero breaking his wand at the end of The Tempest.
In the old days, when a star left a still-thriving hit show, they’d celebrate by killing him or her off. But The Office dispatched Michael Scott in a crueler and more final way: they made him normal. Since we’re talking about Michael Scott, “normal” might be stretching it, obviously. But one of the season’s many boffo surprises is how The Office threw in so much late-in-the-game development for Michael as a full-fledged human being. You even halfway believe he’s taking a brave step into maturity by moving out to Colorado, so he can live in his kooky fiancee’s mom’s house and search for some other job. As he heads off to his uncertain future, he’s in reflective mode: “They say on your deathbed you never wish you spent more time at the office. But I will. Gotta be a lot better than a deathbed.”
Carell’s Michael Scott has been the most influential sitcom character of the past decade, because he defines what we’ve come to see as an American archetype: the bumbling-overdog boss. If he weren’t the authority figure, there would be no show at all, because he’d be unqualified to hold down any actual job. As with Will Ferrell in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, or Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the whole joke is that he’s on top with no explanation and no climbing-the-ladder backstory. He’s just a likeably pompous fool whose power is how in love he is with his delusions. In traditional TV comedy, Michael Scott would be the klutzy underling, constantly infuriating his level-headed superior, whether he calls him Chief or Skipper or Sarge. But not in this era. Like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, he’s a man who can only count to Number One.
Michael’s final episode was as slow and cringe-worthy as any actual office goodbye party, full of awkward moments, though none quite as awkward as the network running ads for the upcoming Steve Carell romantic comedy Stupid Crazy Love. Pam almost missed her goodbye, since she was off playing hooky to see The King’s Speech — another tale of an unqualified leader who isn’t sure how he floudered to the top. The episode peaks with her surprise appearance at the airport for a touching microphone-free hug, a clever echo of the similarly emotional climax of the U.K. Office finale. (“She said no, by the way.”) I got so choked up, it took me an hour to wonder how she got through airport security without a boarding pass. Maybe she passed through a time portal, like on Fringe? And maybe when she gets back to Dunder Mifflin she discovers it’s 1996 and her new boss is Walter Bishop? Hey, it could happen.
The Office still has three episodes left this season, with the future of Dunder Mifflin still a mystery. Will Ferrell was pure magic this episode, whether he was attacking a cake or just hanging out in the break room, whistling “Music To Watch Girls By” as he heats lasagna on the coffee machine. (For some reason, his character really reminds me of Jack Warden in Shampoo, humming “Born Free” on Julie Christie’s porch.) Nobody knows where The Office will take the story from here, but Carell’s exit was a typically audacious highlight from yet another unimpeachably great season of this unpredecentedly awesome show. So why do people buy deathbeds, anyway?