December 3rd, 2009
“I’ve made some empty promises in my life, but hands down that was the most generous.”
There is a moment in “Scott’s Tots” where the storyline was going exactly in the direction I wanted it to go in…and in that same moment, there was every potential that it would go in a direction that would legitimately bother me.
Such is the tightrope that this episode chooses to walk by effectively demonstrating the aftermath, rather than the initiation, of one of Michael Scott’s horrible miscalculations. The show loves mining the comedy from Michael putting his foot in its mouth, but rarely does it craft so elaborate a scenario where Michael is forced to do precisely the opposite. The episode is about what happens when Michael is finally forced to pull the foot out of his mouth and try to make up for what he’s done, making up for a past mistake rather than receiving an immediate comic comeuppance for his error of judgment.
There are a number of logical leaps that make this episode inherently problematic, and I can see what many would turn against the episode considering the direction it heads in, but the situation “Scott’s Tots” creates is so inherently part of his characters and his journey that the episode feels like a perfect character piece to show the consequences of Michael Scott’s dreams living beyond his means (and, in some instances, his brains).
Yes, someone from the school should have realized that Michael wasn’t a millionaire, and they should have suggested proof of funds in order to better establish the program. And yes, someone at Dunder Mifflin at the time should have done something to stop this (Stanley would not be that person, but I refuse to believe someone wouldn’t have tried to keep him down). But the Michael Scott Foundation is the sort of mistake that demonstrates why Michael Scott isn’t someone who people hate, as his intentions really were spectacular: he felt so sure of his future success that he was willing to give those kids a dream of their own. It was an idealistic, romantic, and stupid notion, but it was not a mean-spirited one nor was it intended to be anything but charitable.
As such, I choose to view the storyline less as a realistic event in Michael Scott’s life and more as a large-scale representation of the disappointment at the heart of his character. The program was a constant reminder that he wasn’t living up to who he was supposed to be, and he avoided it precisely because he didn’t want to give up on that dream so easily. He’s a good employee and important to this office’s dynamic, but elements of his personality kept him from becoming a millionaire, and admitting to those kids that he isn’t able to pay for their college educations is effectively admitting to himself that he is a failure. And he doesn’t want to give up on that dream just yet, and sitting in that classroom with all of those kids makes him cry not because he’s scared of telling them the truth but rather that he’s scared of that truth, of what his life has become.
I think a lot of people will read this storyline as Michael being a terrible person, but I don’t think I see that here. Michael is certainly a person who has put himself in a terrible situation, one that he should have never created, but as opposed to finding Michael at the start of this process (promising third graders tuition despite his lack of financial stability and an uncertain future), we’re at the point where Michael very clearly sees his mistake and knows he has to deal with it. Of course, being Michael Scott, he deals with it terribly, offering everyone laptop batteries and, eventually, being so guilty as to give a single student a series of post-dated $1000 cheques that will only create more problems for him.
However, Michael was never revelling in the excitement of it all, acting as if everything was okay. He’s mortified rather than excited to see his name on a room at the school, and he’s concerned rather than elated to see everyone celebrating him. Yes, when everyone begins giving speeches about how much the program has helped them in ways that no politician ever could Michael gets caught up in his own hype, but who wouldn’t? Erin is ultimately right that this program truly did inspire these students to finish high school, and if Michael’s life had gone according to plan he would have done something enormously admirable. That isn’t how things went, however, and as such he’s left with batteries and an enormously angry classroom of people who are now faced with an uncertain future.
I’m not arguing that what Michael did wasn’t cruel: after all, he effectively transferred his own uncertain future over to the students, sharing with them an ability to dream that reality has now wiped away from both of them. However, it was never intended to be cruel, and while delaying the inevitable (and going through with it when he knew how uncertain things would be) was stupid it was never something that was done in order to create this consequence. Michael Scott is guilty only of believing that he would one day be a huge success, and the resulting tragedy of Scott’s Tots being left out in the cold is the result less of vanity and more of an unfailable optimism that has become dichotomous to reality.
As for the other story, it was far more simple: Dwight has an elaborate scheme to get Jim in trouble and eventually fired, and the plan goes perfectly until David Wallace turns out to have far bigger things to worry about than Dwight Schrute’s master scheme. The actual scheme offered very little humour, which meant that it was really only good for those scenes where we saw Dwight behind the scenes working the strings. The various impressions on the phone were an easy highlight, as were the moments where his talking head corrected Andy about whose plan it was. Rainn Wilson got some great material in the episode, but everything around it could have been better, and the idea of Ryan and Dwight teaming up to take down Jim (as we saw in the coda) is something that suffers from predictability (as B.J. Novak is not long for this show).
I’m guessing some others might have read this one completely differently, but in the end Michael’s storyline felt like it really captured where his character is at at this stage of his life, and even had some nice moments where Michael and Erin started to bond (the singing in the car on the way back to the office was particularly charming). The story might not have worked logically, which I can see being a concern in a show often driven by its realism, but it tapped into so much of what makes Michael Scott a tragic figure that I can’t help but feel it was worth it.
- I think my favourite of Dwight’s schemes was purposefully creating the rubric to look like it was built only for him, knowing Jim would remove those categories that catered to his skillset. Serious genius (as compared to leaving the elaborate plan in the photocopier).
- Cold open was a bit of a waste, but loved Michael saying “Thank you a lot” in his Elvis voice.
- No questions asked, best line of the night was Dwight’s discussion of how he wishes he had ten fingers on his left hand so his right could permanently be in a fist. Genius.
- Favourite talking head? Pam’s cocky “Yep!” after Andy argues that her sales only went from 2 to 4.