The Office – “Business Trip”

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“Business Trip”

November 13th, 2008

When episodes like “Business Trip” end up being solid entries into a season, it’s not really because of anything they do in an isolated fashion. This is an episode that is all about whether or not the rest of the season has properly built to this moment where we take a bird’s eye view into a thus far untapped side of an office relationship, and where a trip to Winnipeg brings out Michael’s frustration with the decision to send his beloved Holly away.

These are not hilarious topics – Michael’s storyline, in fact, was played almost entirely off screen and was for the most part dominated by sadness. But the episode nonetheless whips along at a solid pace, using this business trip not as a chance to make fun of Canada (there’s much less Canadian-specific humour than one might expect) but rather to bring out those residual feelings that emerge when one is isolated away from their life with people they don’t normally associate with.

The result is an episode that has most of its action and “drama” take place offscreen, allowing the comedy to flow at a unique pace that, for me, worked very well.

Michael Scott is not a happy man, normally, which is why this episode was so tragic for him. What he realizes on his trip is that what would have once made him happy isn’t enough anymore: his ill-advised attempt to bed the hotel’s concierge could have once been spun as a partial victory, considering that he gets to take off his shoes, but for him it isn’t enough anymore. He had love, he thinks, and then David Wallace swooped in to take it away and tried to sell Michael a hotel concierge in Winnipeg as a consolation gift.

What works so well for me about Michael’s stay in Manitoba’s capital is that he was actually successful: he didn’t completely strike out with the ladies, he didn’t completely mess up the big sale, and he didn’t create some sort of international controversy. Instead, he did everything right, but none of it FELT right – that’s a very nuanced character point for Michael to reach, and is more within the Michael Scott that I enjoy. After last week saw Michael (logically) back into a role as an out of touch boss, Holly’s depature and its effect on Michael needs to be investigated in this fashion.

Michael’s loyalty to Dunder Mifflin, which he evokes at the end of the episode (and hilariously notes that it isn’t because of a lack of options, what with the medical and athlete careers so accessible), has been an important point before: it’s what led him to tell the truth at Jan’s deposition, and it’s one of the things that keeps Michael grounded. Now, though, even that is in jeopardy – I don’t quite know if we’re supposed to see David Wallace as someone who is smug and inconsiderate, but Michael definitely feels like he is being punished unfairly. And I, for one, kind of agree with him – not only because I would really have loved for Amy Ryan to stick around, but also because I feel like it all happened too fast. The fact that the show is very organically acknowledging that really makes this storyline resonate for me.

The same can be said for Oscar and Andy, an unlikely pairing to say the least. This episode did a LOT for Andy’s character, and a lot of that has to do with Ed Helms. It’s taken two seasons, but this episode really let Andy loose in more ways than one. While I’ll get to the relationship side of things in a second, just the interaction with him and Oscar was great to watch. Andy is the perfect wingman – he was willing to approach two random men in a Winnipeg bar and attempt to pick up for Oscar, without even thinking about it. His observation that it took a trip to Canada to make him and Oscar into something approaching Friends is in many ways about the show itself: I wrote a blog post during the third season about what they could do to keep Andy from becoming a one-note character, and it’s only in this episode that I can without question say that they didn’t.

A lot of that has to do with finally showing us Andy’s side of this relationship. He really does love Angela, but I think he’s just the kind of person who hides his frustration until he’s, well, drunk in Winnipeg. This love triangle is an odd one in that there isn’t a clearcut victim or villain – in fact, one could perhaps argue that all three of them play both roles depending on the situation. However, I can’t imagine a season ago Andy seeming like anything but the villain, considering his late arrival. But, when he called Angela, and it sounded like Dwight was there, I felt for him: when he pleaded with her about having sex, it was funny on one level and kind of tragic on another. While certainly funnier than Michael’s tryst (probably because there was dialogue), it’s still much more about finally opening up the love triangle to Andy’s point of view.

And after an episode where Jim and Pam’s separation was designed as a comic bit with a dramatic payoff, this episode saw the couple taking a backseat and ending up resolving things through offscreen decision-making. That shot of Pam on the bench in New York was another moment of sadness in this episode, as she comes to terms with the fact that she might not be able to tough it out in New York anymore. The rest of the storyline was mostly comic, even with its note of tragedy: using the other members of the Office as varying levels of shippers who are worried/hopeful for the reunion of “Jam” was a cute little trick, but it doesn’t mask the fact that its conclusion is highly problematic.

Just as we knew Michael wasn’t fine with Holly leaving, Pam can’t be fine not completing her graphic art degree. She was told by so many that she had potential, but the next episode she’s failing Flash? Her rationale for coming back to Scranton isn’t false so much as it is embellished: yes, she missed Jim and the town and her old life, but won’t she also miss out on this opportunity? In many ways, she’s making the same decision that Michael wasn’t allowed to make: do you value your life or your job? In this case, Pam is valuing what life she had, accepting an entertainment-filled office where she complete menial tasks over designing corporate logos with the opportunit to potentiall expand further in the future. I don’t think she’s going to go so far as to resent Jim for the decision she made, but I do think that Pam’s existential crisis is not over.

And that’s good: I don’t want this show to be all laughs all the time, even if I might be in the minority of viewers on that point. Seeing Jim and Pam happy, perfectly happy, is just as false as the attempts to drive them apart. These are two people who are working for a mid-level paper supply company, and it is natural that they would have problems that would complicate their relationship. The failure of the course feels a bit cheap in and of itself, and to use it for a happy ending would be too simple: this is just complicated enough that it feels like something that could actually happen.

The real tragedy of the episode, though, was also the episode’s storyline that was most dominated by comedy: Ryan’s conquest to win back Kelly was as misguided as one could imagine, and his success was brought by the exact reaction you would expect. I’m very glad that we’re back to an awkward, overwhelmed Ryan Howard – cocksure Ryan was funny for a while, but this offers a wonderful parallel to his fall from grace at corporate. Just as his rise to the top there was sudden and exciting but ended with him being entirely out of his league, Ryan lusts after Kelly to prove he can still climb the ladder and finds at the top a domineering, staunchly in favour of Cocoa Puffs Kelly Kapoor. That final scene, with Ryan saying that he’s realized that he can’t do better than Kelly (and her hilarious “aww!”), is the perfect note on which to potentially leave Ryan’s character – rumours have him taking time off, potentially permanently, to film Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Overall, it was one of those episodes of The Office that will probably be quite polarizing, but put me in the camp of very much enjoying it – it demonstrates that the dramatic impact of Holly’s departure and Andy’s upcoming nuptials are not going to be wasted, and that the show isn’t going to let Jim and Pam be wrapped up all too tightly.

Cultural Observations

  • I wanted to highlight this here, if only because I couldn’t find a way to tie it into my main theme. The best shot in the episode, and maybe of the season (okay, Holly and Michael’s rap might be better), was our glimpse at what was behind Darryl’s “Cool.” text he sent when Ryan and Kelly co-sent the “well-written and all” breakup notice. That walk, jaunty to the point of bringing me to hysterical laughter, was absolutely stunning: Craig Robinson, without uttering a word, stole the episode. There was a lot of dialogue-free scenes this week, so director Randall Einhorn (who also directed the fantastic season premiere) deserves a lot of credit. [EDIT: Thanks to Adam Luo, you can now enjoy this moment for yourself. Many thanks, sir!]
  • Just so we’re clear – if you’re planning a trip to Winnipeg, you do not actually need to bring along a translator unless it is specifically noted. I don’t know if we were supposed to find their hiring of a translator funny, or just that it was designed as a contrived reason for Andy and Oscar to both have to go on the trip, but either way I know that it probably isn’t common practice outside of Quebec trips.
  • Michael had a few great awkward moments in the beginning, before things got more seriously: love both him comparing the concierge to the geisha and his entire international ethics seminar, in particular giving Meredith the “sexy treatment.”

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