As you may or may not have noticed, I have not provided TVRage with a review of The Office since the third episode of the season. Following a disturbing trend in the ninth and final season, the last three episodes prior to this week were mostly subpar offerings built around ridiculous premises that just didn't work. Episode 4, entitled "Work Bus," was the best of the bunch, as it explored the contentious relationship between Jim and Dwight as they tried to outdo each other. Much like the rivalry between Batman and The Joker, there is an underlying sense of reluctant respect between the two—in a sense, they complete each other. Despite Dwight's disagreeable personality and lack of social skills, Jim is occasionally reminded of the humanity lurking beneath his office rival's seemingly impenetrable exterior. In "Work Bus," this happened when Jim realized that Dwight's behavior was a result of jealousy and anger over Jim being happily married with a beautiful child, and the episode ended with the Office staff happily eating pie.
Entitled "The Whale," last night's episode told a somewhat similar story, with Pam taking pity on Dwight after he is chosen to handle an important account by Dunder Mifflin boss David Wallace. Since Dwight is woefully unprepared to do business with a female executive and could potentially cost the Scranton branch a lucrative sale, Pam takes it upon herself (along with the other ladies of The Office) to train Dwight how to deal with women in power. This leads to possibly the funniest scene this season, as Pam teaches Dwight how to talk to women and to nod and smile to indicate that he's listening, resulting in the creepiest nod-and-smile I have ever seen. When Dwight's nodding goes off-kilter, Erin helpfully readjusts his head and notes, "Just a regular nod, like a person." Nelly's description of Dwight's facial expression ("He looks like he's laboring over a stool, having just eaten human flesh") and her follow-up questions after the practice session ("Have you ever killed a woman? How many women have you killed?") were pretty funny too. By the end of the episode, Dwight tells Pam that she is his friend in an almost heartwarming moment.
This episode will be best-known for the return of Jan, the manipulative and domineering former Dunder Mifflin executive who dated Michael Scott in the earlier seasons. Not seen since a cameo appearance during Season 7, Jan turns out to be the mystery woman in charge of the Scranton White Pages, which is the sales account that Dwight is attempting to land—the "white whale" of the paper industry, as he refers to it. Upon seeing Jan enter the room, Pam advises Dwight to forget everything he was just taught, owing to Jan's tyrannical and mean-spirited personality. Expecting to meet with David Wallace in hopes of humiliating him to avenge her dismissal at the end of the third season, Jan is disappointed to find Dwight and Pam in her office and makes it clear that she had no intention of doing business with Dunder Mifflin. Undeterred, Dwight concocts a strategy that ultimately seems successful: recalling Jan's predilection for much younger men, he recruits Clark and offers "the Ace of Babes" to Jan like a piece of meat. Although Clark is definitely not eye-candy material, Jan seems satisfied and asks if he has a valid passport. This was all very well-done, from Pam's creeping realization that they were meeting with Jan, to Jan's self-centered display of her baby photos, to the endgame of Dwight proving that maybe he does know how to deal with businesswomen. All good stuff, and it was great to check in on Jan again before the series ends. For a 45-year-old woman, Melora Harding still looks stunning and she inhabits this character perfectly.
The other main plotline of "The Whale" continued the story of the hidden love triangle between Oscar, Angela, and her husband, State Senator Robert Lipton. Sensing that her husband is having an affair, Angela confides in Oscar, who offers to accompany her while she spies on the Senator. After they discover that Robert isn't cheating with his female yoga instructor, they see him hugging and touching a younger man and Oscar suggests that the Senator is gay. While Angela and Oscar are talking, Robert makes a phone call and Oscar's phone goes off, shocking Angela. It remains to be seen if Angela will actually realize that her husband is having a bunch of gay sex with Oscar, but again this story was told very well and it will be interesting to see what happens next.
Compared to the previous three episodes, "The Whale" was a much stronger outing that moved the story along. Instead of silly and unbelievable scenarios, the humor in the episode was derived organically from the behavior and traits of the characters as established throughout the series run. Rainn Wilson was clearly in his element and delivered a hilarious performance from start to finish, and played off of Jenna Fischer well as usual. This one reminded me of some of the earlier episodes from the first few seasons, combining humor with story and making you care about the characters as something more than cartoonish caricatures. The episode also benefited from a lack of Andy Bernard, as he was only shown via webcam in the show's cold open because Ed Helms required time off to film The Hangover Part III. While Andy was an entertaining supporting character, he has become overbearing and insufferable in his role as the boss. In fact, now that Andy has reverted back to being an unlikable and oblivious douchebag, I am in favor of Erin breaking up with him and pursuing a relationship with new guy Pete, who shaved off his Movember mustache after Erin told him it looked like a big ugly eyebrow in the middle of his face. Still sailing to the Caribbean, Andy probably won't factor much into next week's show, either. From where I'm sitting, I wouldn't be too disappointed if the "Nard Dawg" doesn't find his way back home.
FINAL GRADE: B+