Season 5 Mid-Season Arc: The Michael Scott Paper Company

Remember when I said that despite the first signs of a drop in quality I was going to keep going with season 5 because it was still carried by strong performances and still had plenty of opportunity for humor?

Well, I did the right thing because WOW, this was one of the best multiple-episode storylines the show has ever attempted. The really impressive thing about it? You know pretty much exactly how it’s going to end, but I was still really invested in the plotline anyway.

This was better drama than comedy. That is sometimes a sign that a comedy is going into decline (as was the case with “MASH”), but I don’t think that’s fair here. None of the plots were played completely serious. They just had a lot of moments and scenes with excellent dramatic tension.

The story started in “New Boss”. The episode is interesting and plays with a few things we know about Dunder Mifflin. When Idris Elba’s character walks in, he doesn’t actually do anything particularly terrible. In fact, he seems to be extremely competent. But he stomps all over Michael’s way of doing business, and on the day of Michael’s fifteenth anniversary at the company. Worst of all, he cancels his party, making Michael understandably upset.

David Wallace, the corporate boss, does his best to smooth things over, promising Michael that he will have his party and he will attend personally, but in a stunning piece of acting by Carrell, Michael refuses the olive branch. His “I quit” was a jaw-droppingly powerful line, and it showed some actual character growth by Michael, who would normally be moved by such petty demonstrations of friendship.

What makes this episode so interesting is that, as we’ve repeatedly been told this season, Michael’s Scranton branch is actually doing extremely well – the only branch in the company doing so well, in fact. Idris Elba seems competent, but there’s really no reason to be changing the way Scranton works. To the contrary, they’re the one branch you really want to leave alone. So in one very real way Michael is right about Idris Elba’s forced intrusion into Scranton: It’s probably a mistake.

The episodes further into this arc remained strong. In another shocking moment in the next episode, Pam decides to join Michael in his new quest to start the “Michael Scott Paper Company”, an obviously doomed attempt by Michael to rival Dunder-Mifflin’s business. This sterling episode, “Two Weeks”, is also the first time we’re really sold on Michael over Elba’s character. He acts like a domineering prick to Michael, not content to stuff him in a corner for four more days but calling security on him and having him forcibly convicted, then cutting him off when he tries to give his last good-byes to the office. It’s a real dick move that loses a lot of sympathy we may have previously had for him.

I loved the way the show handled the other Dunder-Mifflin employees’ reaction to his leaving. Celebrations and happiness would have been over the top, and more importantly wouldn’t have fit with the show tonally; as discussed previously, nobody really hated Michael. Not everybody adored him, but all of them tolerated him and there was a hint of sadness at his removal as well.

Elba is technically the more competent boss, but he also doesn’t know his employees at all and refuses to give them any leeway. Michael may have given them too MUCH leeway (or, again, maybe not, as the branch was performing remarkably well), but Elba keeps the place close to completely silent, and he gives the receptionist job temporarily to Kevin (who can hardly string two words together) and the “productivity czar” position to the apathetic “Working-here-until-I-die” Stanley.

I’ll gloss over a lot of the details in the comical building of the Michael Scott Paper company, except to say that Michael and Pam’s budding relationship was quite nice to see and the re-introduction of a now blonde-haired Ryan was a welcome addition. Suffice to say that, against all odds and logic, the Scott paper supply company managed to steal ten clients from under Dunder-Mifflin’s nose.

Granted, they did it by charging so little that they didn’t have enough money to sustain the business, but…still. This gets the attention of Wallace and Idris Elba (amusingly, Wallace is the only guy Elba’s character seems to be afraid of), who invite Michael, Pam, and Ryan into a meeting to discuss buying them out.

This is the section I wanted to talk about, because of the really interesting way it handled Michael’s character. I was struck by how confident and competent Michael actually was in the negotiations. In fact, he looks damn close to brilliant, calling Wallace’s initial bluff and forcing him to make a 60,000 dollar offer to the fledgling, dying company (!!!).

Of particular note in this scene is the great moment where Michael realizes why Wallace is suddenly so desperate to negotiate: Within just a few months, his job is on the line. So, Michael concludes, he doesn’t need to beat Dunder-Mifflin. He just needs to last out Wallace. It’s the point in the sale where Michael goes from looking awkward to barely competent into a genuine force to be reckoned with, and both Wallace and Elba’s character look at him with new respect.

Also of note here is an excellent example of why Elba’s character doesn’t quite know how to handle Scranton the way Michael does. Dwight has been acting completely ridiculous the entire meeting (threatening to destroy Michael’s office via bees?), and this causes Elba’s character dismiss him when he finally comes up with the concrete, usable fact that Michael’s company is probably going to fail within the month. Michael, used to dealing with the craziness of Dwight, would never have let such an insight slip by him just because Dwight acted like an idiot earlier (though, granted, his self-absorption could have lead him to rejecting Dwight for other reasons entirely).

And there is one last moment where Michael gets to look astonishingly competent, when he rejects the 60,000 deal and instead negotiates his way back into their old jobs at Dunder-Mifflin. The whole scene is remarkable, the acting by all involved excellent and the writing funny and dramatic at the same time.

What a great series of episodes, capped by a throwback to Michael’s expulsion from the office when Michael cuts off Elba’s character mid-sentence and shoves him out the door.

I’m going into the last episode of season 5 next, and the show has definitely turned the season around into something really strong. Kudos to the creative team for the excellent story arc.

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