“Initiation” (season three, episode five; originally aired 10/19/2006)
In which a temp becomes a Ryan…
Though it was produced at a time when The Office was at the height of its powers, it’s weirdly easy to overlook “Initiation.” I did when I was assembling the TV Club 10 article about the series, skipping over the episode as the best representation of season three in favor of the funnier, post-merger installment “Benjamin Franklin.” I undervalue season three because of the Scranton/Stamford split in general; in this case specifically, I don’t think its first seven episodes are all that representative of the series as a whole. It’s an interesting detour, and there are new dynamics at play that would resonate throughout the rest of the show’s run, but even as I watched these half-hours for the first time, I couldn’t buy into the notion that Jim was setting down roots in Connecticut. And that makes it difficult to invest in the main source of tension in these episodes.
But “Initiation” is different from all that, because “Initiation” has such an effortless setup. It takes in what’s happened in the weeks preceding it, but the script by B.J. Novak is like the platonic ideal of a standalone Office story. If it weren’t for the “two Dunder Mifflins” framing device, I’d readily recommend it to someone who’d never seen the show before. Even with Jim in Stamford, “Initiation” gets at what’s humorous about these characters and how the faux-documentary format is perfectly equipped for naturally draing that humor out of them. And it does it in the most elementary, least flashy fashion: It shows what these people want.
Dwight wants an ally
Like a lot of ensemble sitcoms, The Office is about a group of characters trying to figure out where they belong—and slowly realizing they’ve already found that place. Opportunistic, obsequious Dwight Schrute is committed to the cause of Dunder Mifflin (assuming another, more lucrative cause doesn’t come along and curry his favor), but that’s nothing to him unless other Dunder Mifflin employees have his back. For the most part, they don’t: Dwight’s the kind of megalomaniac who could really only influence himself. His grand tragicomic arc involves the never-ending attempt to recruit soldiers in the “Dwight Army of Champions,” a group to which only he, Angela, and Mose truly belong.
In Jim’s absence, The Office gave itself an opportunity to explore the “getting to know you” portion of his relationship with Dwight. Stepping into that role was Ryan Howard, who feels in “Initiation” the full brunt of Schrute behavior that got Jim to where he is in season three. That’s the delicious irony in Dwight’s talking head about Ryan’s first sales call: Jim isn’t 100 percent responsible for being a “slacker loser wise-ass”—Dwight helped make him that way. It’s a symbiotic, Batmam-creates-the-Joker/Joker-creates-the-Batman arrangement, one in which Dwight would be all to happy to slather on the greasepaint.
That’s appropriate, because Dwight’s actions in “Initiation” are wildly theatrical. This is one of those plots that threatens to strain the credulity of the documentary setup—surely production has a vehicle nearby that could take Ryan back to the office—but the pure expression of the way Dwight views business and friendship (and business friendships) puts those doubts out of my mind. Everything’s grand and metaphorical in Dwight’s approach to paper sales, a practice Ryan surely can’t conquer without first conquering the bearded, physical embodiment of Fear. (Future Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine boss Michael Schur makes his first onscreen here, looking impossibly young as Mose Schrute.)
The failures of this method are rich: It’s only after Ryan reminds Dwight that they have a legitimate sales call to attend that Dwight starts spouting off worthwhile, useful information. He wants to put on a show for Ryan (and, through The Documentarians, the whole world), but the true keys to sales success aren’t so extravagant. And neither are the true keys to making an ally: It’s in sharing Ryan’s retaliation, rather than feeding off of his fear, that the two salesman finally bond. “It’s called bull-crap,” he tells Ryan at the beginning of their long day together, “and a customer can smell it a mile away.” Dwight should listen to himself more often.
Ryan wants respect
Dwight’s choice of words also gets Ryan to his goal at the end of “Initiation”: Though his chugging begins to a chant of “Temp, temp, temp,” it finishes with “Ry-an, Ry-an, Ry-an.” Removed from the big to-do on Schrute farms, Ryan Howard experiences a figurative rebirth—it’s just not the one Dwight plotted.
Nearly one year after The Office ended its run, I’m still working through my feelings toward Ryan Howard. After his spectacular corporate burnout in season four, the show never figured out how to properly use the character again, reshaping him into a mouthpiece for the worst impulses and aspirations of the Millennial generation. His most effective running gag involved supervisors who never knew where to put him; in the embryonic state presented by “Initiation,” he’s more firmly in the audience-surrogate role established in the show’s pilot. It’s a flavorless role, but Novak’s making the best of it here, acting above all of Dwight’s initiation drills while still affecting a believable lack of confidence in his salesmanship. Ryan’s heel turn was a result of flying too close to the sun, but “Initiation” demonstrates why he would attempt to reach for the greatest amount of power available to him at a nearly busted company. Starting from where he started, who wouldn’t yearn for bigger and better? Famous last words between two men who start the day on uneven footing but end it as colleagues: “Just think, that temp agency could have sent you anywhere!” “I think about that all the time.”
Pam just wants her friend back
Of course, if anyone’s feeling like they no longer know where they belong during “Initiation,” it’s Pam Beesley. She doesn’t even have the simple pleasures of Pretzel Day to forge an unlikely bond for her, as it does for Michael and Stanley. (The way those two put aside their differences in the service of a free snack is another example of “Initiation” being 22 minutes of pure delight.) Here she is with this ridiculous task—tracking Michael’s every activity throughout the day—and the only people she can share it with are the ones behind the cameras. It’s a minor thing, but it’s correspondingly minor with the battle over the squeaky office chair in Stamford. With four plots battling it out for screentime—The sales call, Pretzel Day, Pam’s tracking assignment, and the squeaky chair—“Initiation” is the type of episode that makes sense of The Office’s later reliance on an hour-long timeslot. That habit would eventually lapse into over-reliance, but expanding the scope of the show to include Stamford illustrated the way The Office was straining under its everyday constraints. There’s a lot of story and many characters to keep track of here, but the episode shows the type of restraint and prudence that would plague later doubled up episodes like the four that open the fourth season. All we need to see from Pam’s day are the close-ups of Michael’s time log; all we need from the squeaky-chair plot are periodic updates in its journey from Karen’s desk to Andy’s.
Those hour-long episodes don’t come back around to a coda as satisfying as Jim calling Scranton with a fantasy football question, but winding up in a lengthy phone conversation with Pam instead. This is the kind of thing too much of the first third of season three is missing, and it’s beautifully, cathartically handled at the end of “Initiation.” The acceptance, the kinship that other characters yearn for throughout the episode is something Jim and Pam can effortlessly strike up in a few seconds. But it’s a fragile thing, and its nerves are still rattled from “Casino Night,” and the electricity there rattles through John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer’s conversation—even though the actors are in separate rooms, and the distance between their characters feels so vast that one of them forgets they’re in the same time zone. This kind of thing is pure Office, and it’s too bad that the larger mechanics of season three make it easy to forget about it.
- Facts learned about Scranton Business Park in “Initiation”: There’s a PA system through which Billy Merchant can communicate with his tenants. And then there’s Pretzel Day, which would burrow so deeply into the lore of the series that it would receive a shout-out from the Magnetic Poetry rip-off that was one of the weirder pieces of spin-off merchandise produced in the middle of The Office’s run.
- This quote contains the perfect Dwight contradiction: “Michael always says K-I-S-S. ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ Great advice, hurts my feelings every time.”
- “Shut up. Mavis Beacon doesn’t even type 90.” Also, Mavis Beacon isn’t even a real person.
“Diwali” (season three, episode six; originally aired 11/2/2006)
In which we celebrate a festival of lights and a festival of slights…
“Diwali,” on the other hand, is more a small piece of a greater whole. In some respects, it feels like “Diversity Day” as re-imagined for the softer show The Office has become since the first season. Michael has ulterior motives, but his interest in Diwali and the culture surrounding it are the expressions of a man who’s maturing. He’s still not mature enough to keep himself from distributing copies of the Karma Sutra to his coworkers, but he’s also not screaming at Kelly in an Apu voice. In terms of rehabbing the character, that makes a big difference.
The Office of the first season might’ve used “Diwali” to build a lot of caustic jokes about the employees of Dunder Mifflin misbehaving in an unfamiliar situation. There are a few gags like that in the episode, with Angela serving as the voice of offense, refusing to take anything but naan from the buffet and babysitting the pile of shoes outside the party. But relations between the characters are warming, and the focus of the series has moved away from discomfort humor, so there’s more room for “Diwali” to play with ongoing storylines and the rom-com tropes that episode writer Mindy Kaling would more explicitly explore in her next series.
There’s a drop of Michael Scott’s DNA in Dr. Mindy Lahiri, in that both characters have a lot of unreasonable expectations for life experiences they’ve only had vicariously, through pop culture. Michael is a guy whose idea of romance begins and ends with a De Beers commercial, and so there’s nothing more romantic to him than proposing to his girlfriend of nine dates in front of a crowd of strangers. But unlike the connection between Jim and Pam or Dwight and Angela (and like the connection between Kelly and Ryan), he’s forcing it here. He has this ideal, and Carol is conveniently around to fit in with it, but whatever existed between them is eroding. They don’t connect person to person, and the emotions Nancy Walls affects in the episode are those of a woman who realizes she has to talk to her boyfriend like he’s one of her kids. Which is apt, because he interpreted a centuries-old Hindu festival as “Indian Halloween.”
Knowing what’s coming next week, however, the Scranton half of “Diwali” feels primarily concerned with dragging its characters to their lowest points in preparation for the branch merger. This week it’s the personal blows; next week it’s the professional ones. Pam ends up sitting on the high-school steps with Michael—who digs himself deeper by thinking this is his chance for a “lean in and kiss” moment—because of feelings stirred during “Initiation.” But “Diwali” is so appropriately festival-like that it can’t pay the proper attention to what she’s trying to achieve. Structurally, this episode is a mess, but it tries to play some neat cocktail-party tricks that are a thematic match for a big community gathering, flitting between many conversations and interactions occurring within the same space. It’s another episode in which you can see The Office fighting against its 22-minute confines: There’s a whole plot about Ryan getting blindsided by meeting Kelly’s parents that’s swallowed up in the shuffle. Even the talking heads get pushed aside out of consideration for the sheer amount of story at play; as an interesting byproduct, all that shaky camerawork minus interview segments puts an extra coat of realism on the episode’s tiny embarrassments.
“Diwali” is an episode of missed opportunities and missed connections, in which only Karen winds up getting what she wants because only Karen keeps her eye on the ball. By that measure, it’s also an episode defined by distraction—of Michael distracted by his own unrealistic dreams, or Jim distracted by a fifth of Jägermeister. But Dwight would be proud that neither of them was distracted by Fear.
- “They said something about Zach Braff?” Just be glad they’re not saying something about you in relation to Zach Braff circa 2014, Ryan.