"Goodbye, Michael" and goodbye, Steve Carell

The star's last episode of "The Office" was a farewell episode about farewell episodes, with real tears

Published April 29, 2011 4:29AM (EDT)

"Goodbye, Michael": Michael Scott (Steve Carell) surveys "The Office" on his last day.
"Goodbye, Michael": Michael Scott (Steve Carell) surveys "The Office" on his last day.

Farewell episodes are nearly as impossible as real goodbyes; no matter how sweet, funny or heartfelt they are, they are by definition unsatisfying. What you love is going away. Or in this case, what you love and loathe and find pathetic and weaselly and utterly exasperating. See also: "Scott, Michael."

How do you solve a conundrum like Michael Scott's exit? Do you revert to the show's earlier incarnation -- and push against the later years' tendency toward cuddliness -- by having Michael revert to type and behave like a hateful, selfish, crybaby drama queen? Or do you follow the series' development to its logical endpoint and let the finale be emotional -- or at least as emotional as "The Office" could get without becoming something other than "The Office"?

The producers, writers and cast chose option No. 2. It was a smart move. The program spent seven seasons building a character arc for Michael, one that showed him veerrrry slowly evolving from a narcissistic milquetoast dictator with few redeeming qualities to a flawed human being capable of empathy and honesty, even a few genuinely thoughtful moments. It might not be an arc that everyone approved of, and I still have mixed feelings about it. But it's what the writers and producers chose to do, and it became the reality of Michael. (This was certified by the moment where Michael threw his self-purchased "World's Best Boss" mug in the garbage and put his same-titled Dundie award in its place -- but fortunately the episode backed away from too much finality by showing the mug back on Michael's desk later, and having Michael dole out more than a few inappropriate or weird gifts, and by finally having Michael "triple-up" on goodbyes once he realized he couldn't make his day if he kept seeing these people one-on-one.)

At the same time, though, the episode had a second, intriguing layer that complicated the warmth. More so than any single "Office" episode -- which is saying a lot, given that it's an epic mockumentary  -- this one acknowledged the artifice at the sitcom's heart: the pretense that we are watching a record of actual people and events, rather than the semi-improvised shenanigans of actors.

The repeated references to "The Wizard of Oz" -- with Michael doling out meaningful parting-gifts-as-benedictions, and even likening Oscar to the Scarecrow and handing him a lame little handmade Scarecrow head -- put a phrase in my mind that stayed there through the closing credits: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

But the beauty of that phrase as it appears in "The Wizard of Oz" is that by the time the wizard utters it, he has already been exposed as a man behind a curtain. We've already seen through his charade, and there's no going back. Quite a lot of "Goodbye, Michael" was written, directed and acted in the spirit of that unveiling scene in "Oz." The episode let us see the artifice behind the "reality," at times openly acknowledging that we're watching a TV show starring professional actors, the most famous and acclaimed of whom happens to be leaving to concentrate on his movie career.

The hour even went a step further, implicitly acknowledging that a good part of whatever emotion we're experiencing comes from having allowed Steve Carell and his costars into our home once a week (or more, if you watch reruns); and beyond that, acknowledging that our awareness and self-awareness don't decrease our melancholy in the slightest.

Fans of the series have likely read accounts of how "The Office" cast has coped with Carell's exit: with some difficulty, apparently, because Carell is known as a pleasant, often sentimental guy who's fun to work with. Rather than push against that behind-the-scenes sentiment, "Goodbye, Michael" embraced it. At several points, the characters -- Michael, especially -- experienced big, often messy feelings that seemed only partly connected to the scenes they were being asked to play. Considering how self-aware the series is anyway, it was an indulgence that worked with -- and in some ways enhanced -- the hour's sweet-sorrowful vibe.

That marvelous closeup of Michael in the lunchroom -- eyes tearing up as a table full of employees yammered on about a shredder -- was one of the most piercing closeups of Carell in the entire run of the show. When director Paul Feig cut away to an interview with Michael, he was crying there, too. Or maybe I should say that Carell was crying? In this context, there might not be any difference. "I just figured out where I was supposed to go to vote!" Michael gasped. That's not the kind of line one would automatically assume would be delivered through tears. But that's how Carell delivered it, and it felt right rather than contrived, because the finale wasn't just about the office saying goodbye to a character, it was about actors saying goodbye to a costar they'd performed with since 2005.

Although Jim has warmed to Michael over the years, there's still little in the men's history to justify Jim fighting back tears during that final private conversation. Fully two-thirds of Jim's editorial "What the hell?" reaction shots over the years were resonding to Michael's idiocy or cravenness. Yet here was Jim, wet-eyed, opposite Michael, also welling up, telling him (Whaaaaa?) that he was the best boss he'd ever had. This seemed more an expression of love and respect between actors than fictional coworkers, but in context, it worked, and was touching. The multiple takes of Michael trying and failing to make a behind-the-back three-point shot in the warehouse also had an extra-dramatic feeling. They felt like outtakes that had been edited into the narrative because Carell couldn't make the shot on the set. ("Catch you on the flippity-flip!") And the interview scene where Michael talked about his gift to Oscar simultaneously felt like a boss's assessment of a moment with an employee, and behind-the-scenes footage of Steve Carell marveling at how Oscar Nunez played a moment. "My scarecrow," Michael said, gasping through laughter, "It looks like it was made by a 2-year-old monkey! He just accepted it! He has the lowest opinion of me of anybody!"

Even Dwight got an emotional interlude, though it stopped short of full-on waterworks. It occurred during an interview scene in which Dwight read a long-delayed recommendation letter from Michael, who had earned Dwight's ire by failing to recommend him as his replacement.

The penultimate scene in the airport -- ending with Pam, who'd been playing hooky till then, showing up for a last hug -- kicked the episode's awareness of artifice up a notch. It was sublime. Michael's last act as a participant in the documentary was to ask the crew if this project they'd been shooting would ever air, then remove his wireless microphone pack and hand it to a sound guy before heading for toward his gate. That meant Michael/Steve Carell's embrace with Pam/Jenna Fischer occurred at a discreet distance, unmiked. The lack of a microphone and the position of the actors' heads made it impossible to know what they were saying. It was the "Lost in Translation" ending gone platonic, and meta. Pam was the real Scarecrow in this "Oz" scenario: Michael's final goodbye, the one he'll miss most of all.

The hour as a whole was OK, though it felt padded. I didn't care for the subplot with Andy asking Michael's replacement, Deangelo Vickers (Will Ferrell), to partner with him as he visited a valuable client. It was nice to see Andy showing backbone and a capacity for professional growth. But Ferrell's performance has annoyed me from the start because it seems tonally wrong. His stock-in-trade is a kind of insincere sincerity, delivered with such manic intensity that you aren't sure how to take it. That's great for a Will Ferrell movie. But on "The Office," it feels awkward and misjudged -- and somewhat schematic, in that Deangelo seems to represent the loathsome Michael who terrorized subordinates early in the show's run. (It's as if Deangelo is Michael's management dopplegänger. That would be fine if the producers had cast a less strident, more modulated actor.)

But I liked Creed's unsettling presence in the women's room, and Phyllis' casual declaration, "As a person who buys a lot of erotic cakes, it just feels good to be represented on one." And I liked Rory -- Toby's eerily Toby-like brother -- asking, "Does he like jams? My shelves are overflowing with preserves." I liked Michael giving Darryl a copy of his unpublished memoir "Somehow I Manage" (great title!), and the implication that more than one employee saw through Michael's ruse of saying he was leaving tomorrow when he was leaving today, and Phyllis trying to finish those red mittens before her boss left the building. (How appropriate that they were not quite finished; goodbyes and goodbye episodes never feel quite finished, either.)

Most of all I liked that shot of Michael walking away from the camera toward an uncertain future in Boulder, Colo., with his wife and her humorless mom. The viewer was the only person Michael didn't say goodbye to.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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