Michael Scott: How Far We've Come

When I first met Michael Scott, he had little to recommend him.  The Office was a shot in the dark, a cheap knock-off of the British version.  Steve Carrell was trying to fill the unique shoes of Ricky Gervais, and nobody would have blamed him had he failed.  I was a year out of college, about to get married. I was just starting to experience the ups and downs and quirks of the modern workplace.

Somehow, Michael kept my attention.  He was incredibly quotable, and it helped to know some of the best stuff was made up on the spot.  His over-the-top idiocy had compelling earnestness and brought the jokes closer to home.  I viewed The Office as a fun chance to see a dumb character screw up normal situations that the vast majority of the population has no problem navigating.

But over time, my view changed.  I realized there was a lot more to the story than initially met the eye.  And now, at the end of Michael Scott’s time, I realize he helped tell a wonderful story in four intertwined stages.  This story has a lot to tell us about people, about relationships, and about ourselves.

Stage 1: Michael Scott is Everyone’s Dumb Boss

Remember when Kelly slapped Michael for his characterization of Indian people?

Remember when Michael tried to shut down the office, thinking the Sikh IT guy was a terrorist?

Remember when Michael, “followed,” the GPS and drove his car into a lake?

Quote: “Abraham Lincoln once said that ‘If you’re a racist, I will attack you with the North,’ and these are the principles I carry with me in the workplace.”

In this stage, we laughed at Michael kissing Oscar or trying to lift an obese man onto a table or asking Karen if her exotic looks had to do with her dad being a war vet.  We laughed because he was an outsized version of our own bosses.  We laughed because it’s true; our workplaces are dull and meaningless, people are weird and don’t know how to have boundaries, and we are the most normal ones we know. We laughed because Michael spoke to our shared cynicism.

The Moral of This Story: Laugh at the stupidity in the world around you.  Be thankful for your own normalcy. Protect your boundaries.

Stage 2: Michael Scott is a Figure of Sympathy

Remember when Michael hit Meredith with his car and every awkward attempt to help the situation just made things worse?

Remember when he had people over to his condo for dinner, where they saw that he slept on the ottoman and had to ask his friends for money to support Jan’s candle business?

Remember when Michael convened a council of women (and Oscar) in the office to help him break up with Jan?

Remember when Michael mismanaged his money and Oscar built a graph that showed three columns; things you need, things you don’t need but want, and things that NOBODY needs?

Quote: “I… declare… BANKRUPTCY!”

As time went on, Michael’s character became more and more sympathetic.  It wasn’t just that he was dumb; it was that beneath a layer of bad decisions and inappropriate behavior, we began to see signs of someone who didn’t know better, who hadn’t been taught, who had nobody to help him or love him.  It created a tension in the show, because no longer could Michael Scott be the manager we have all had and all hated.  Instead, he became a person who tries hard despite being full of mistakes and uncertainties.  More and more, he looked like us.

The Moral of This Story: Be normal, but have compassion for the weak.

Stage 3: Michael Scott Has Something to Offer

Remember when Michael won a huge account for his company using his knowledge of commercial theme songs (“I want my baby back, baby back baby back… Chili’s baby back ribs!”)?

Remember when Jim tried to consolidate birthday celebrations, and Michael was the voice of experience telling him it couldn’t be done?

Remember when Michael taught Carol’s kids to enjoy ice skating?

Remember when Michael stood up for his company even after he knew they thought he was a joke?

Quote: “Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised.”

Sympathy became something more when we started realizing Michael has some good things to offer.  He really is a good salesman and he really cares about other people.  He really wants a family and he knows how to show loyalty.  Further, the other people in the office started becoming more aware of their own faults and failures.  Though less glaring, their mistakes bore striking similarities to Michael, and it made them less dismissive of him.  Though we were surprised at ourselves for doing it, we began cheering for Michael and wanted the best for him.

The Moral of This Story: See the weaknesses in yourself.  See the strengths in others.

Stage 4: Michael Scott Fosters Community

Remember when the office worked together to make a great commercial, even after they realized it would never be aired?

Remember when Jim and Pam got married on their own, but came back to the wedding to allow their friends to, “ruin,” their wedding?  Remember the joy of that moment?

Remember when everyone in the office acted in Michael’s movie, Threat Level Midnight?

Remember when Pam prevented Michael from blowing up the parking lot, then convened a council to help him design his marriage proposal?  Remember when everyone in the office participated?

Remember when everyone in the office sang to Michael, letting him know they wanted a relationship with him even after he left?

Remember when Jim participated in Michael’s second-to-last day charade, but still managed to thank him for being the best boss ever?

Quote: “Michael, you’ve had two ideas today, and one of them was great.  And the other one was terrible.”

As Michael’s story comes to a close, the change he has wrought (accidentally) is considerable.  No longer is he a figure of anger and frustration, a target for our workplace cynicism.  Instead, his pathetic earnestness has brought out the best in the office.  The workers have learned to be forgiving, patient, and thoughtful.  They participate in each other’s lives, and help each other grow.  They see the good in each other and forgive the bad.  And against all odds, they have formed a loving community, one whose benefits far outweigh moments of awkwardness and inappropriate behavior.  They have learned to make their lives meaningful through relationships.

It’s this participating community that helps Michael Scott begin to get better.  He is able to laugh at his mistakes, and back down when someone corrects him.  He listens to the problems of others, and wants to help them improve.  He knows how to give, and he knows how sacrifice.

The Moral of This Story: Embrace the quirks in yourself and in your community.  Help each other seek joy.

That’s why The Office is so meaningful to me.  It mirrors my own realization that what I want is not a perfect church or a perfect job.  Those things are false, but even if they weren’t they would be boring. God has created communities for our mutual support, for affirmation of our humanity, for our joy.  Celebrating that gift means learning to interact with our communities through sacrifice and self-giving so we can help each other mature and grow.  Only in that context do we become more of the people that God created us to be, and only in that context is love’s reality made clear.

Michael’s final words to us can’t be heard.  He shares them with Pam, which was appropriate because she invested more, sacrificed more, and forgave more than anybody else. But she tells us that as Michael looks forward, he’s hopeful.

We’re hopeful too, because though our failings are great, we can trust that self-sacrificing participation in community sets us on the path to growth, maturity, and joy.

We’ll miss you, Michael.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://www.lifeasexperienced.com SethC

    Great article. You totally capture the love/hate/wince relationship that many of us had with Michael throughout the years.

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