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The Office: "Ultimatum"

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2011 is going to be a pretty amazing year for The Office.

And, yes, by "amazing" I mean “wildly uncertain and potentially disastrous.”

On the first day of class, I asked my students about their favorite TV shows, and when The Office came up I inquired what they thought about Steve Carell’s—even more imminent than we thought—departure. And, let me tell you: People are concerned.


However, I made it my New Year’s resolution to try to look beyond this fact. I was paying attention when many commenters noted that Michael Scott’s impending exit was sort of hanging over this season's reviews, and I would tend to agree. Mind you, we’re still going to have to address the issue the closer we get to the April sendoff, and there will be moments where the “Farewell, Steve Carell” tour will be too blatant to ignore, but not everything on this show is about Michael Scott.

Except, of course, for tonight’s episode. The fact of the matter is that Michael’s most dominant character trait is to interpret everything around him as about him. And “Ultimatum” is all about what happens when the tradition of New Year’s resolutions comes into conflict with Michael’s self-centered world view, driving Michael to his typical brand of un-likability in response to the fact that Holly Flax did not live up to her promise to break off her relationship with A.J. if the man didn't step up to the plate and propose. And so, just one episode into 2011, I find myself breaking my resolution.


There just honestly isn’t anything else happening in this episode. Michael’s storyline provides the meat of the first and third acts. Michael takes over Pam’s New Year’s resolution B-Story in Act Two, and the C-Story (Dwight, Andy and Darryl trying to pick up chicks/read books) was enormously dull. Does anyone need to read my analysis about Darryl’s hypocritical e-reader purchase? And is there anything to really bother breaking down within Andy’s roller skating prowess or Dwight’s unseen strip club visit? The C-Story just sort of sat there, meandering its way through various location shoots, as if they had booked them for a more exciting storyline, had to cancel the storyline for some unforeseen reason, and then didn’t want to lose their deposits. Barring some sort of dramatic payoff where Dwight starts dating a stripper or where the rise of e-readers threatens to destroy Dunder Mifflin forever or where Andy and Dwight end up roller derbying to decide who takes over the office, the storyline seemed both pointless and humorless.

And while I (as regular readers likely predicted) had some issues with Michael’s behavior in the second act, I was at least pleased that there was some dynamism in the A-Story. I quite liked how Michael opened the episode; it was a satisfying glimpse into Michael’s capacity to be optimistic. I liked how even his recording of the “You probably want to commit suicide” video became overwhelmed by giggling—even though he is preparing for the worst, the potential for Holly to return having broken off her engagement is something he can celebrate.


I should probably judge Michael more for wanting a friend to have ended their long-term relationship just so he can be with her, but the fact is that we’re rooting for Michael and Holly. They’re extremely well-matched, and the more the show portrays A.J. as a commitment-phobe the more we can find Michael’s undying commitment to Holly endearing. And so I sort of loved Michael’s video celebration with himself, the sort of high-concept bit which feels as though it would actually happen. He doesn’t shove the celebration in Holly’s face or perform the celebration for the entire office: If anything, he’s performing for himself, an exercise in charming narcissism that went just far enough to feel zany without going so far as to feel forced (like, for instance, that ridiculous strobe dance which closed the C-Story).

Of course, it all goes downhill when Michael forces Kevin to eat broccoli and insults Creed about his cartwheel aspirations in his frustration with Holly’s failure to live up to her ultimatum. It’s typical Michael behavior, taking a storyline that has nothing to do with him and taking it over one person at a time. Admittedly, I might have had some personal hangups with this scene: I’m not a huge fan of vegetables, either, so the idea of my boss force-feeding me broccoli is particularly horrifying. Either way, though, the scene derailed the goodwill earned in the earlier scenes: Michael’s attempts to publicly shame Holly indirectly only made his celebration of the false presumption that she had broken off her relationship seem worse, and I didn’t think the situation was funny enough to justify its awkwardness.


However, I think the storyline is largely rescued by its conclusion. Michael’s behavior crossed a line, but he seemed to realize it immediately. The conversation he has with Holly shows that he wants to talk with her about it, and his solution to her unwillingness to talk (the meeting with Kevin and Creed which is clearly actually about her) was an intelligent and heartfelt gesture. Michael never revels in his spiteful behavior in the episode, losing control in a brief moment and then quickly backpedaling when he realizes that he has hurt the woman he cares so much about (and who, in turn, reassesses her situation and calls A.J. to take a break). Steve Carell and Amy Ryan played all of the moments in question beautifully, and the coda (where Michael actually sticks around to help Creed do a cartwheel in order to ensure that both of the men have forgiven him) even carried the sense of character progress right into the episode’s final moments.

The New Year’s resolution storyline didn’t really go anywhere, but isn’t that what happens with New Year's resolutions? They’re not about the conclusion so much as they’re about how they alter your daily life for even a brief period, offering context for the way we live for those exciting first few weeks of the year. There were some fun gags with the characters’ resolutions (I think Kelly’s was my favorite), but it was more about what the idea of resolutions does to the office atmosphere (and Michael and Holly’s situation in particular). And while that second act used that atmosphere to push the character to the edge of irreversible character assassination, the episode was about other parts of Michael’s personality which offer a more well-rounded, and to my mind more engaging, episode.


And so, my apologies for already breaking my resolution—“Ultimatum,” fittingly enough, didn’t really give me a choice.

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of ultimatums: you best all have watched Parks and Recreation after The Office tonight. If not, what is wrong with you?
  • I loved pretty much everything about the scene where Erin and Michael sort things into the Happy/Sad boxes. A really great sense of rhythm on display there, in the little beat with the chocolates in particular; it’s the sort of comic scene that shows how well Ellie Kemper and Steve Carell work together, and it's a pairing I'll miss next season. Plus, “Bears sad, worms happy—c’mon Erin” was perhaps my favorite line in the episode.
  • I know I shit on the C-Story above, but Andy rollerskating to Dave Matthews did sort of make me smile. It also made me want to go rollerskating.
  • Enjoyed that a number of jokes carried over from the last episode from before the break: this goes for both the obvious (Oscar’s “State Senator, not a Senator” distinction) and the subtle (Erin’s talking head where her inability to understand Holly’s appeal bleeds through).
  • A lot of great small Darryl lines in the C-Story: Sure, they didn’t go anywhere, but you’ve got his initial run about the bookstore (“Hey, what book is that? Cool, let’s hang out tonight. Sex already? Whoa!”), “2011 is coming up all Darryl,” and “It’s so light—like a croissant!”
  • I quite liked some of the nuances in the cold open—not only was it the only sign of Jim in the episode, but the way in which Dwight was so defensive against potential insults was a nice twist on their usual dynamic. Plus, that the Knights of the Night ended up being something overly earnest, rather than overtly sinister was in some ways more embarrassing for Dwight, which seemed fitting. I somehow think, however, that next week’s cold open will generate considerably more discussion.

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