“Christmas Special, Part Two” (originally aired Dec. 27, 2003)
In which it’s not the ending, it’s just an ending
Shortly after Dawn Tinsley arrives at the Wernham Hogg Slough office for the first time in several years, Anne, the pregnant woman who now sits in Gareth’s chair across from Tim, tells her that a co-worker only recently realized that the new receptionist, Mel, wasn’t Dawn with a different haircut. It’s quite possibly an exaggeration, driven by the fact that Mel and Dawn do look quite a bit alike. But it also speaks to the central conflict at the heart of The Office and the heart of the modern workplace. We all like to think we’re indispensable, that no one could do our job quite like we could. But when it comes down to it, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds, who could living right in our cities. We try to tell ourselves that we’re not our jobs, but in some ways, our jobs are bigger than us. As soon as one receptionist leaves, another will be right there to take her place.
There’s another moment a little later on that gets at this very same idea. David Brent is back in the office, having been forbidden from joining his former co-workers for the pre-Christmas party dinner. Neil’s the one who’s shut him down, having finally apparently decided that enough is enough, and Brent needs to stop dropping by Wernham Hogg. (I think there’s an essay to be written in just how Neil often decides to make major moves in regards to Brent when the cameras are around and he can preen a bit. He really couldn’t have said something in the years between the end of the original series and the follow-up documentaries?) Left alone in the office, Brent stands in the space that was once his own and quietly moves through it, lifting up the cover on a printer and looking around. This was the place he used to be king of, but even though he’s gone from it, it’s essentially the same as it was. He doesn’t belong here anymore, but it feels right to have him there all the same.
For all of the happy endings that the specials hand to the characters (and we’ll get to those in a moment), what I most like about them might be what they say about the workplace. One of the major themes of the show has been that the workplace dehumanizes workers, so it’s necessary to find ways to liven up the monotony. (This is one of the reasons I believe the show was never able to completely condemn Brent, even when it probably should have. At least he wasn’t making everyone type away like automatons.) The justly acclaimed monologue by Tim that comes toward the end of the special posits that the workplace is just somewhere that a bunch of people have been tossed into by happenstance. And that’s true, yes, but it’s also a space where people struggle to make a mark, to rise above the fact that it’s easy to just disappear into the role thrust onto you when that’s what the workplace would most like you to do. Tim suggests that if the camera crew comes back in 10 years (and I almost wish it would), it might find that he’s still there. He might be married, with kids. The camera crew goes away, and the show ends, but Tim goes on. And even if he gets a happy ending here, there’s a kind of bittersweet quietude to that moment. The Office is over; the office goes on.
Going to work every day, of course, is something that plenty of us do just because we have to, because we need money to buy things, and this job is the best way we’ve found of doing so. Heading into this last 50 minutes of the show, then, it’s remarkable to realize just how much the people on the series have been defined by their work. The moments when they reveal who they are and what their deepest dreams are, then, become even more poignant because we realize that we can only glimpse them fleetingly. The second special, then, lets us see more and more of who these people are outside of the workplace. We’ve known about Dawn’s illustrations for a while, but we finally get a good, long look at one here. Brent’s dating travails come to the forefront. And, of course, we get to see Tim’s anxiety as he tries to decide what to do about the fact that the love of his life is coming back to town. He tries to rationalize his feelings away at every turn, but they keep coming back up. The workplace can turn you into a cog, but it can’t entirely shut down who you fundamentally are.
If I had to pick a reason why I continue to think the work of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant is vital, then, it would be that one: Gervais and Merchant’s series disguise themselves as comedies of cruelty, but after a while, they reveal themselves to be comedies of dignity, series that are about people who continue to be crushed by the world (and by their own stupidity in the case of Brent or Gareth) but finally rise above their circumstances and declare that they matter on some level. It’s easy to write this all off as unrealistic (though I would take issue with that description), and it’s easy to say that this happy ending somehow fundamentally betrays everything that comes before. But I think those who missed that Gervais and Merchant’s subtle humanism was building to this point, to this ending where everybody gets a brief moment of dignity and/or elation, were those who always imagined the show to be more of a castigation of these characters than it ever has been. The Office views Brent with a clear-eyed view of his shortcomings, but it also leaves him room to be a man worthy of our empathy, solely because he shares a species with us. It doesn’t really view him with condescension, even as it’s perfectly content to let him dig his own grave. And yet when Brent tells off Finchy in tonight’s episode, the better to defend his new love interest Carol, it feels like a moment of catharsis long in the making.
If The Office is about the dehumanizing effects of the workplace on some level, then it’s also clear that the show is about people who never realize they’re backed into a corner and don’t act until it’s absolutely necessary. While I have problems with, say, how Lee is so obviously a jerk here, to the point where you wonder just why Dawn didn’t immediately leave him the second she set eyes on Tim, it’s also indicative of the show’s idea that the only way to be happy is to seize control of your own destiny. Dawn thought she was doing this by leaving Wernham Hogg when, really, she was just dooming herself in yet another way. Lee needs to be a loathsome pig, on some level, both because that’s how the show within the show paints him and because that’s what it will finally take for Dawn to admit what she wants. Is it a little over-obvious? Of course it is. But it also gives the episode a propulsion it needs to keep from falling into stickiness. Somewhere in the back of our heads, we know that Dawn’s going to leave Lee before the episode is over. We’re just wondering how and when that’s going to happen.
But at the same time, the show’s been smart enough to get us ready to accept that sometimes things just don’t work out the way you’d like them to, that it’s roughly believable to assume that Tim and Dawn won’t end up together, that Brent will blow it with Carol the way he has with everyone else, that Gareth will, I don’t know, get fired or something. I’ve always said that the happy ending here works because it feels earned, but it doesn’t just work because the characters have to slog through the shit just to get here, nor does it work simply because everything starts going deliriously right out of nowhere. It feels earned because nothing here pushes too far. Tim and Dawn hook up, yes, but we don’t ever get an indication that they’ll be happy forever. Brent stands up for himself to Finchy and Neil, but it’s a minor bit of backbone, one mostly spurred by a woman who’s interesting to him. The happy endings here work both because Gervais and Merchant care for these characters and because every single one follows one of the central ideas of the whole show: You’re never going to be happy until you start standing up for yourself and working to make yourself the person you’ve always wanted to be.
Ultimately, that’s what The Office is all about, right? It’s a show about confronting the fact that sometimes what you want isn’t what you really want, and it’s a show about how sometimes it can be hard to keep sight of the person you’d hoped to become when you’re so easily slotted in as “receptionist” or “salesman.” The happy ending is meant to be unambiguously happy, yes, but Tim’s speech leaves the door open just a bit for doubt to creep in. Sure, everybody’s happy in this moment, but do we know that they will be five or 10 years from now? Until the camera crew goes back for another visit (something that will likely never happen), we can sit and imagine that Tim and Dawn are married with lots of kids and Gareth is rising through the company’s hierarchy and Brent has found a new career and some sort of stability. But we can’t really know. Most TV series finales search for a way to assure us that all of the characters will be just dandy for the foreseeable future. The Office seeks to give us that comfort but also actively works to take it away.
It certainly helps that this special functions as a grand curtain call for almost every beloved bit the show has ever done, from Keith chowing down on a Scotch egg to the janitor who stares at the camera. There’s a great moment here for nearly every single character, and the show takes its time with as many of the supporting players as it can. Sure some of the characters (Neil, in particular) suffer from the compressed plot arc and running time of these specials, but the show is very careful about making sure that we’re leaving this world having gotten to see everything we ever wanted to see. Even when the episode is at its loneliest and most bitter—when Brent’s passed out in that hotel room bed, for example—there’s a certain quality of lightness to it, as though all involved knew it was time to end the show but still weren’t quite ready to. And there are plenty of great bits here, from Gareth and Brent going over Brent’s dating options to all of the times when Brent looks horrified to see a heavier woman coming up to meet him as one of his blind dates. This is more of a dramatic, bittersweet episode than any other in the show’s whole run, but it maintains a quality of mordant humor around the edges.
And so the episode ends as it must, with the lovers kissing (and she saying she no longer has a fiancé), with Brent standing up for himself, with a group photo of the various co-workers. Brent asks Neil if it would be OK to take a photo of just the gang that was around when he was boss, and Neil obliges quickly enough. And as the cast that we started out this show with takes center stage again, it’s tempting to think that all is right with the world. But at the same time, that’s not really the case. All of these people have changed so much since we’ve met them, even as the character of the office itself (and the jobs they do) remains somehow eternal. Describing office busywork as a Sisyphean ordeal is both cliché and unfair to people who really do have to put up with terrible working conditions, but it’s striking to realize just how much has changed for these people, yet how little has changed for the office all the same. The main character of The Office might have seemed to be David Brent, but as we bid farewell to the show one last time, it’s easy to realize that the main character’s name was in the title from the very beginning. We just weren’t sure what we were looking for until now.
- If I have a general complaint about the specials, it’s that Gareth gets a bit sidelined. It’s fun to see him as a fairly good manager, but he also could have done well with a self-actualization story arc to go along with the ones Tim, Dawn, and Brent get.
- The episode even has a chance to work in a very quick and subtle love story between Trudy and Oliver, though it’s not something you need to have noticed to enjoy the episode or anything.
- Both Neil and Lee are perhaps too villainous to be true in this episode, and Anne is already a pretty awful person to begin with. But that scene where Taffy insults Anne is a head-scratcher all around. It’s not immediately clear we’re supposed to be sympathizing with anyone, other than Dawn, who’s a peripheral character to begin with.
- I love how the special subtly and slowly builds an arc that allows Brent to realize that he’s never going to be who he thought he was going to be. The moment when he asks his agent to get him onto a popular talk show and the agent points out all of the obstacles in that plan is both very funny and weirdly gut-wrenching.
- Of course, we don’t know that Brent’s tiny epiphanies last all that long. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he’s completely and totally whoring it up for the camera at whatever job he’s at now.
- For a one-episode character—really for a character who lasts half that episode—Carol is surprisingly touching as a figure for Brent’s affections. It makes sense both why she would fall for him and vice versa, which is not easy to do with a character this loathsome.
- • It’s worth pointing out that the episode has a terrific soundtrack, and the way in which Yazoo’s “Only You” is used is exquisite. (I’m also blown away every time by how the camera leaves it to the audience to find Dawn in the background when she comes in to see Tim again.)
- I love the choice of both where to end the episode (with Brent begging someone to re-take the photo of the “real gang” because he was looking away, perhaps a mild symbolic expression of how Brent can never recapture that moment) and the choice of final tag in the credits. Brent takes off his microphone, and we leave the mockumentary format behind with a nice, clean break.
- It’s been great fun covering this show and remembering just why I love it so much. All of your comments have been an immense incentive to keep going, and I’m glad that all of us got to revisit the show together. Now, in 2013, it will have been 10 years since the Christmas specials aired. What say everybody gets back together for one more one-hour special? I’d love to watch that.
- “Should I put them all on the yes pile or just one to show you’re not prejudiced?”
- “For those of you who cared or liked her, Dawn Tinsley will be here this afternoon.”
- “It’s possible you’d come up the rear.”
- “All his main hits. All the big ones.”
- “I thought she’d be one of those happy, bubbly ones.”
- “The spirit of Christmas! A tenner in an envelope.”
- “I very tenderly explain to them that I will guarantee them at least one orgasm.”
- “I’m expecting a blind date, and I was worried you were it.”
- “Oliver, who is the office black guy, thought it was brilliant.”
- “I specifically said I wanted vouchers, so… annoying.”
- “Probably all that you’ve gotten in common is the fact that you walk around on the same bit of carpet for eight hours a day.”
- “If you turn the camera off, it’s not an ending, is it?”
- “For me to be attracted to a woman, she has to be as intelligent or slightly less intelligent than me.”
- “Have you got everything you need? Cheers.”