Steve Carell's Swan Song on "The Office"

Slate's Culture Blog
April 29 2011 11:12 AM

Steve Carell's Swan Song on "The Office"

Steve Carell's exit from TheOffice , after seven seasons as bumbling boss Michael Scott, has been hyped formonths a Big Television Event . A major guest star, Will Ferrell, was brought into sex up the season's closing arc, and a cavalcade of celebrities will beappearing in the season finale as possiblecandidates to be Michael's replacement .

But last night, in Carell's actual final episode, The Office chose not to rise to thestunt. Though the episode was "super-sized" to 50 minutes, there were no big,11th-hour showstoppers, like Michael's proposal to Holly or the gang's "Seasonsof Love" serenade . Instead, the episode centered around Michael'ssecond-to-last day in the office just a regular day in which Pam goes off toprice some shredders, and the Party Planning Committee reunites to bicker aboutwhether Michael's going away party should feature cupcakes (Kelly ispro-cupcakes, since she looks hot eating them) or an erotic cake (Meredith'ssuggestion, though Phyllis, we learn with delight, is also a connoisseur of filthybaked goods).

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Michael has a typed list in his pocket of all his employees,and makes a point to say goodbye to each one some in more touching fashion thanothers. Dwight finally got the recognition he deserv...well, craves. Erin got abit of (surprisingly good, actually) fatherly advice. Of course, this beingMichael Scott, some of those moments didn't land quite as intended: The bitwhere he takes a poster-sized illustration of Kevin as a pig, drooling over apizza, and rips it up in front of him which is supposed to inspire Kevin to "neverbe a caricature" is met with a classically hounddog reaction, as Kevin mumbles,"I'm pretty much okay with who I am now."

My favorite interaction was the one with Oscar. Michaelgives the perennially put-upon accountant a shoddy-looking sack doll (becauseOscar was his "scarecrow," who "gave him a brain"), which Oscar accepts in asdignified and gracious a fashion as he can muster. And then we cut to Michaelin the office, laughing hysterically because he knew the thing looked "like itwas made by a two-year-old monkey on a farm." Practically weeping, he says, "Hehas the lowest opinion of me of anybody!" I don't know if Michael would actually take so much joy from thatmoment he's always been particularly sensitive to what people think of him but assomeone who has a lot of affection for the Dr. Jekyll half of Michael (thewell-meaning side that yearns for connection, and to be a good and respectedperson), I liked to think it was a sign of some incipient maturity. * Samegoes for the cold open, in which Michael very kindly mentions to a still-fumingDwight that keeping a salami in his pocket might be a good way to keep bearsaway when he moves to Colorado, thus allowing a disdainful Dwight to let rip with a seminaron bear safety.  

In the lead-up to last night's episode, there's been a lotof great critical back-and-forth over whether MichaelScott transcended the British Office -stylejerkiness that marked his early episodes or whether all the love the othercharacters have been showing him is inconsistent, and really out of lovefor Steve Carell . At first I thought the episode's big reveal that it was actuallyMichael's last day in the office, andhe'd be secretly flying to Colorado that afternoon seemed more like a humbleCarell move than a Michael Scott one. Wouldn't Michael use this as an opportunityto showboat a little or a lot? To make some grand speech, or force hisemployees into putting on a pageant in his honor? But in the end, I wasconvinced that it would just be too painful for Michael to say goodbye to all ofthem at once, because whether the rest of the office felt this way or not (andmost of them, let's be honest, did not), those people were his family. AndMichael Scott has always wanted a family more than anything else.

I think the greatness of whatCarell did with the character handed to him by Ricky Gervais was to makehim a vulnerable, insecure, highly suggestible man who takes his cues from popculture and the people around him, but who fundamentally believes (and this iswhat made him the deserved center of the show) he's doing the right thing evenwhen those around him think he's wrong, or that he's behaving badly.

If, in this last episode, we got the best, most mature, mostsensitive version of Michael's fundamental goodness, I'm okay with a littlecharacter inconsistency.  

Photograph of Steve Carell as Michael Scott by Chris Haston/NBC.

Correction, May 2 : The post originally referred to the well-meaning side of Michael Scott as his "Mr. Hyde half," but as reader Mark C points out, that's actually the "Dr. Jekyll half. "

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