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“Branch Closing” (season three, episode seven; originally aired 11/9/2006)/“The Merger” (season three, episode seven; originally aired 11/16/2006)

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In which it’s simple dollars and sense…

There’s an old-fashioned November sweeps eventfulness to “Branch Closing” and “The Merger,” one that goes beyond the super-sized running length of the two-parter’s second half. (#ThanksJeffZucker.) After laying seed for the first six episodes of the season, these episodes harvest the crop: Dunder Mifflin is closing a branch, Jim will have to face down the problems he ran away from following the events of “Casino Night.” For most of “Branch Closing,” the demise of Dunder Mifflin Scranton is treated as a certainty, and the episode proceeds like a pseudo series finale, with breakups and farewells and last-ditch efforts to save the “family.” It’s a good-faith measure that reaches back to a previous Michael Schur script, “The Alliance”: All the downsizing talk was real, and it becomes a palpable source of tension throughout “Branch Closing” (also written by Schur) and “The Merger” (written by Brent Forrester).

But it also takes back the big leap of “Casino Night” in an unsatisfying fashion—one that’s presumably tied to the conventions of producing a television series. The Office thrillingly blows up its premise at the top of season three, but it’s evident from the start that there’s no future in Stamford. Jim’s new workplace is never the setting for an A-story, and it always feels eerily underpopulated. Even when Josh is around, it’s as if Jim, Karen, and Andy are the only people that work at Dunder Mifflin Stamford. That makes everyone who comes to Scranton with them appear even more disposable than they’ll prove to be—but while they’re here, they’re excellent outlets for demonstrating the dysfunction that defines the Scranton branch and powers The Office.

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The roots of that dysfunction run directly to Michael Scott. A man with no family to call his own—save for his mother and stepfather, whose introduction in “Branch Closing” tells us all we need to know in the space of a first name—he’s mapped his ideal home life onto his 9-to-5 existence. At the thought of losing that connection, he panics, his fatherly impulses kick in, and he does what he can in his limited power to keep the family together. That escalates when the Stamford transfers arrive in Scranton, presenting a spectacular challenge for Steve Carell’s sad-clown depiction of Michael. He pulls some incredible faces in these two episodes—say what you will about the way The Office’s talking-head confessionals undercut subtext or serve as narrative shortcuts, but it’s worth it for the mix of furrowed-brow rage and dead-eyed pessimism in the screenshot below:

That trickles down to the other ways the people at the Scranton branch view their jobs. Kelly treats the closing news like a second high-school graduation, her company directory standing in for a yearbook; for Meredith, no paycheck she received from Dunder Mifflin was ever as important as the freebie she arranged for her last day there. (If only she could remember who she made that arrangement with…) What distinguishes these characters from their Stamford counterparts is that the transfer crew treats Dunder Mifflin like its just another job in an economy full of them. (Oh, 2006, you and your optimistic employment outlook! If only you knew what horrors lie ahead!) Tony Gardner’s resignation-turned-dismissal draws a line in the sand—one Michael inadvertently began drawing himself—and initiates the halfway decent running joke in which the Stamford transfers are whittled down to… the only three people who seemed to work in that office in the first place.

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That thread is another illustration of the win-some, lose-some prospects tied up in “Branch Closing” and “The Merger.” Jim’s return to Scranton always feels like an inevitability, and “The Merger” kicks season three into a new gear, but those six episodes in Stamford are already leaning toward irrelevancy. It’s a lot of work to induce the Jim-Pam tension introduced in the second of this week’s episodes, an honest note of discord sounded among the noise of Josh’s betrayal, Michael and Dwight’s salvage effort, and the minor conflicts arising between the merging staffs.

More succinctly: We can start to see The Office losing the thread. In de-complicating its third season, the show makes the rest of its run a whole lot more complicated. But like Dwight-as-Wallace says, it’s just business: As the first act of season three came to a close, the show was a cult favorite transforming into a legitimate hit. Legitimate hits tend to run for a lot longer than three seasons, and The Office was beginning to grow the world and redefine the storytelling methods that could sustain (for better and worse) six more years of the show. “The Merger” is the beginning of the soapiest passages of the Jim-and-Pam saga, a source for compelling drama and swoon-worthy romance that also got unnecessarily convoluted in the show’s final season. Both of these episodes mark the first steps in Andy Bernard’s rise to prominence, forging the path that would take a decent foil for both Jim and Dwight and warp him into the crooning maniac of seasons eight and nine. Poor Ed Helms: He’s so funny (in an annoying way) as a light seasoning in these episodes, but the overwhelming flavor of Andy just might linger throughout the rest of his career.

Change is inherent in “Branch Closing” and “The Merger.” If the first episode comes across like a finale, that’s because it sort of is a finale: It’s the last episode of The Office as it existed for the first two seasons. It’s a fitting farewell to that version of the show, with so many of the characters finding relief in the closing: Stanley’s going to retire, Pam is going to fully commit to art school, Creed is going to wring every last dollar out of Dunder Mifflin. These are two of the last episodes that I can remember committing themselves so fully to the faux-documentary setup, too. Michael uses “Branch Closing” to playact as Michael Moore (but not Bowling For Columbine Michael Moore, because that movie wasn’t the type of bowling movie Michael Scott prefers), and both episodes carry the vibe of a documentary that would actually be about turbulent times in the average American workplace. With more characters to track and a greater world outside of the office to explore, that sort of thing would soon fall away from what The Office did on a weekly basis.

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But that could be a bit of a boon to the series as well, because The Office is on Michael’s side: This is the story of a surrogate family more than it’s the story of the staff at a regional paper supplier. “Branch Closing” reinforces the bonds between these people; “The Merger” demonstrates the uniqueness (and/or insanity) of that bond. Those relationships and the chemistry of the cast mean more to The Office than any overarching story or filmmaking technique. Is that part of why the middle and later seasons of this show would prove so messy? Absolutely: Long-term storytelling on The Office was always a crapshoot (Hello, Charles Miner! Goodbye, Charles Miner!), a fact illustrated by the attempt to reintegrate the documentary concept into the show’s final chapters. A neat concept is only going to get you so far in network comedy. The more rewarding shows, the ones that would go the distance, are the ones where a cast of characters has a reason to stick together through a screening of “Lazy Scranton.”   

Stray observations:

  • True to form, Michael puts together a “Lazy Sunday” parody well after the original saturated YouTube with imitators like “Lazy Muncie.” Truer to form, it appears that Michael’s definition of rapping is “yelling to a beat.”
  • Dwight should’ve worked on a book with Perd Hapley. “When you become close with someone, you develop a kind of sixth sense. You can read their moods like a book. Right now the title of Michael’s book is Something Weird Is Going On: What Did Jan Say? The Michael Scott Story by Michael Scott with Dwight Schrute.”
  • I’ve always appreciated the seasonally appropriate decorations in front of the Wallace house. It’s fall, they have the money—their front yard should reflect a harvest theme!
  • Revisiting a pet theme from season two: Just look at the chaos that consumes the Scranton branch after Michael blurts out the secret about the branch closing.
  • I don’t even know how to begin explaining why Karen’s “more Italian” outgoing message wormed its way so deeply into my brain, to the point that it’s probably the only non-“The Injury” Office dialogue I quote on a regular basis. Just a sucker for over-the-top comedy accents, I guess.

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