It’s easy to forget now, but it was just two years ago that The Office had its finest season and was perhaps the best show on television. That season was itself a rebound from the problematic, strike-shortened fourth season, when many fans felt it had lost its way before it managed a stellar finale and introduced Amy Ryan’s Holly Flax. Since that great fifth season, the show has been wildly uneven and at times outright terrible, but it has recovered somewhat with a strong string of episodes this year, initiated once again by the reintroduction of Holly.
Holly is Michael’s perfect match, but the writers have been very careful not to turn her into a Mary Sue. When a show brings in a female character to help its male lead grow up, it often will reduce that female character to either a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or a nurturing mother type. Holly is neither of these. While she’s likable, she’s likable in a recognizably human, imperfect way. She makes Michael better, but Michael makes her better too.
As flawed as Michael is, it’s actually Holly’s very un-MPDG overcautiousness that kept the two of them apart, first when she was unwilling to risk a long-distance relationship and then when she was unwilling to break off her relationship with AJ. And it’s Michael’s overdramatic willingness to wear his heart on sleeve and take risks that cures her of this overcautiousness.
Moreover, she makes Michael a better person not by taking care of him, but simply by reacting realistically to his most pettily immature actions. She shares many of Michael’s flaws, but has a self-awareness that keeps her from indulging in Michael’s antisocial excesses. And by sharing that self-awareness with Michael–sometimes by being hurt, sometimes by telling him off, sometimes just by being honest with him about how he’s coming off–she gets Michael to see his antisocial behavior for what it is. She’s far from the only one who has had these reactions, but Michael is far more willing to reconsider his behavior in light of her reactions because she is, in fact, so similar to him. Whereas Michael generally reacts to criticism with victimization, he understands that when Holly doesn’t like something he’s done, it’s not meant as an indictment of him as a person. Like Pam (who does have a very mothering relationship with Michael), Holly blunts Michael’s worst excesses simply by being a person he genuinely trusts. But unlike Pam, Holly treats Michael like an adult.* And this, in turn, makes Michael behave like an adult.
(*It should go without saying, but Michael’s relationship with Jan was also very different. Like Holly, Jan has a lot in common with Michael. Unlike Holly, Jan brought out the worst in him, and vice-versa. The Jan and Michael relationship is basically the evil flipside of the Holly and Michael relationship.)
“Garage Sale” finally pays off Michael and Holly’s relationship. Given that it’s an event episode, it’s not terribly surprising that it’s a good episode, as The Office has always been exceptionally good at event episodes.* Though the show has always featured multi-episode arcs, its event episodes tend to pay off character arcs, not plot arcs. They’re not about mysteries being revealed, wherein the fun is in not knowing what’s going to happen next. Rather, they’re about recognizable events that happen during the course of most everyone’s lives. As such, we know exactly what’s going to happen. But The Office almost always manages to make them feel surprising anyway.
(*The big exception to this is “Phyllis’s Wedding,” which is basically a disaster with lots of cringe and very little humor.)
And so it is with Michael’s proposal. As is his wont, Michael wants his proposal to be very dramatic. His first plan involves dousing the parking lot in gasoline and expressing his love in fire. Pam fortunately interrupts him before he can accidentally set himself ablaze.* From there, the whole office teams up to create Michael’s very dramatic proposal, and the result is the show’s second pitch-perfect moment of the season.
(*This would have been a pretty surprising way to write Michael out of the show.)
The first of those was Toby in the church in “Christening” throwing his hands up and asking God why He’s so mean to him. That the season’s second perfect moment is a testament to true love is fitting, in that it highlights two of the show’s most dominant themes. In Toby, we see a desperation to live a meaningful life in the face of a seemingly indifferent if not outright cruel world. And in Michael and Holly, we see characters finding that meaning in other human beings and the small, ordinary events they share. The great tension is that finding other human beings you can connect with is extremely difficult. And this, in turn, makes those small, ordinary events seem enormous within the lives of the people experiencing them.
On the show, Michael filling the office with candles and proposing to Holly seems like the grandest gesture in the world. In reality, it’s just a bunch of candles in an office. The show itself even undercuts the grandness by having the candles set off the sprinkler system. This is a direct reference to Jim’s proposal to Pam in the rain at a gas station, which Michael had derided as insufficiently grand and even lame earlier in the episode. But, in fact, Jim’s proposal felt huge too. Michael wants to believe he can do something bigger, but some rain and a few candles is as big as it gets for most of us, aesthetically speaking. But that’s OK, because what makes the moment big is that these characters have managed to escape, if just for a moment, Toby’s existential despair. And they’ve done it precisely the way we all do it, with a simple, boring, wonderful human relationship.
- The writers also undercut the grandness of the proposal with the episode’s mundane title. This is huge moment for Michael and Holly, but at the same time, it’s just another day.
- The garage sale itself was pretty fun. It’s almost a shame it got such short shrift here. It easily could have propped up a whole episode. But it’s hard to complain too much, obviously.
- This was one of the better Jim-Dwight subplots in a while, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for Jim’s little kick of delight at the end.
- I failed to mention it in the review proper, but this episode also sets up Michael’s departure, and it does in a realistic, completely humane way. Some might complain of the abruptness, but I like it a lot. This is life. Things happen. People move.
- All of that said, the major lesson of “Garage Sale” is that you should never play board games with Kevin. He will fuck you up.