''The Office'': The branches merge
Let me just get this out of the way right off the bat: I knew Pam and Karen would hit it off! Well, at least until one of them picked up on the other's special relationship with Jim. It was awesome (and fitting) that Pam was the first one to get it. Pam, who's all about the subtext, sniffed out something more in that exchange of gum, that rub on the back. In your face! Yeah, Pam: He's evolving. He's moved on. No more grape soda here, baby.
Karen, on the other hand, is all in. She's game for anything with Jim. To which I say, Abbondanza!
Don't get me wrong. I think Jenna Fischer was masterful last night, skillfully letting us in with her facial nuances. (Fischer's sweet nature comes through in everything she does, including last night's live blogging). As much as I'm rooting for Karen and Jim to hook up (and yes, I know it's just a great detour to the inevitable Happily Ever After for Pam/Jim), I have to say it really is nice to see Pam coming into her own. Her openly mean prank on Dwight, who probably did run around three more times, was the sort of bold move I don't think she would have pulled in the old days. And I love that she didn't inhibit herself when Jim walked in she just ran right up and hugged him.
But I really am beginning to wonder if she has any romantic feelings for Jim, because it's too hard to understand why she would be so unable to admit to liking him. (''That's always the thing that makes people happy. To see old friends.'' Really? That's what you have to say?) What's her excuse now? She's not engaged anymore. She knows how he feels. That tired I-don't-want-to-ruin-our-friendship thing is not a good enough answer for me. Or maybe just vibing on the sexual tension is enough for her.
It was great to see Jim jump right back into his familiar mocking manner, playing to the camera when Michael says or does something stupid, or responding to Dwight's crazy-talk by messing with him more (''Meet my eye line, Jim!''). It would have been nice to have him back at his old desk, but he just had to be a nice guy. Now his back is to Pam. Brilliantly played, Ryan. Brilliantly played. (By the way, kudos to John Krasinski for gaining the title of Hot Guy in this week's People magazine. Page 130. He's quite dashing.)
Watching the faces of the Stamford crew as Michael reveled in his demented cruise director-cum-boss routine was priceless. And there are no words to describe Michael and Dwight's hip-hop stylings in the ''Lazy Scranton'' video. (Didn't we just mention the SNL ''Lazy Sunday'' sketch a few weeks ago? We're right on the cutting edge around here, people.) Each of the Stamford folks gradually realized that yes, this man is indeed nuts. At first he could be confused as just a bit overly exuberant. (OMG: His ''slaves'' slip with Martin?!? That was even better than his ''Is your father a G.I.?'' comment to Karen.)
But nothing could have prepared them for his oblivious humiliation of Tony. (''I'm under this hock.'') I don't know who to credit more, the writers or actors, for the fact that the scene didn't reek from the stench of an overplayed fat joke, but instead served as an indictment of Michael and Dwight. It was classic Michael to turn around and be mad at Tony for questioning his management style. Also typical Michael: the way he threw Dwight under the bus for the decision to fire Tony and thus have to pay him severance.
Still, Michael is never completely loathsome because Steve Carell imbues him with such vulnerability. Michael's juicy, sad little insights (like how he had to fix things when his mom moved in with Jeff, or how close he got to the lunch lady) transform what could have been a caricature into someone we feel like we really know.
The great Ed Helms was finally put to good use, as his douchebag Andy sought to brown-nose Michael (''I'm always thinking one step ahead. Like a carpenter... who makes stairs''). It was fantastic to see Michael falling for Andy's oh-so-obvious name repetition/mimicry brand of flattery. (For an extra treat, watch Pam's eyes ping-pong between the two of them in their introduction scene.) Their connection during that great Night at the Roxbury duet gave me chills.
Andy, the regional director in charge of sales, is a worthy nemesis for Dwight, the assistant regional manager. Each recognized himself that would be a self-involved suck-up in the other. But Andy better be careful: Dwight may shank him if he keeps hitting on Angela.
As for our other favorite workers, Stanley showed a surprising but hilarious side last night: He seemed to care about the office and his colleagues for the first time, taking offense when Karen turned up her nose at Phyllis' stinky perfume, and refusing to return Martin's brother-man nod.
Didn't you love how Meredith perked up at the sight of the champagne? And poor Toby. He's just a broken man, isn't he? C'mon... the fist? Really?
Creed Creep-O-Meter: 10. ''Ditto that, my brother.'' 'Nuff said.
So what did you think? Was there enough there to make this extra-long episode a standout one? Or were you a little disappointed after last week's action-packed episode? Who do you think will be revealed as a ''former convict'' in the post-Thanksgiving episode (which Fischer wrote about in her live blog)? See you guys in two weeks.