( Part one here)
In the pilot episode of The Office, Jim muses on the question of whether he has a future at the company, answering the pseudo-documentary filmmaker as if he’d never thought of it before. “If this was a career,” he deadpans, “I’d have to kill myself.”
This is a joke, but it’s also a fantasy: the idea that there is some alternative to the office. And it’s a fantasy that haunts Jim throughout the first season or so. Jim, you see, isn’t like all those others: his hair is mussed and his clothes hang on his lean frame like he just pulled them out of the hamper. He’s young, boyish enough to remind himself of college, and with the easy good looks of an actor who can play “normal looking” while always playing the romantic lead.
So the first season or so is filled with the boyish joy of pranks and secret agency, and the possibilities that only an unattainable romance can provide. Placing Dwight’s stapler in jello, for example, is broadly representative: while Dwight is frozen in the office, locked in, Jim has every key and can walk through walls. As a character, Dwight is unthinkable outside of Dunder Mifflin, but Jim… Jim, you see, is different. Jim owns Dunder Mifflin. Against the backdrop of Dwight the perma-loser, Jim, we know, will always win. And the unattainable Pam, too, is exactly the kind of light in which a winsome character like him looks his best. The injustice that she prefers her lunkish high school sweetheart, that Roy’s life of jet-skis and brewskis would dampen her happiness, the happiness of Jim’s chosen lady, only makes Jim shine all the brighter. Because you just know that justice will be done and he’ll get the girl. You just know that the loutish Roy’s loutness will pale in comparison to the brilliant light of Jim, the anti-lout. Dwight’s pathetic bootlicking and Roy’s redneck ways are exactly the backdrop Jim needs if he is to triumph at being Jim. To put it another way, Jim’s agency (secret and otherwise) requires the office, is a function of the office.
That’s kind of strange, right? And if I’m correct in saying so, then it’s a measure of his character’s self-realization that he steadily moves towards making the office a career but does not kill himself.
My favorite early episode is the “Office Olympics,” and it’s here, I think, that you start to see the wheels going one way and the truck going another. It’s a triumph for Jim on a certain level: while Dwight and Michael are out of the office, Jim and Pam construct a Calvinball-esque competition for their fellow office mates, handing out medals made from foil yogurt caps. The master stroke, when Dwight and Michael return, would seem to be managing to convince them that the whole thing has been engineered to honor them, and, by playing on their desperate low self-esteem (and stupidity), Jim and Pam manage to hold their award ceremony anyway.
There is a moment, however, a very poignant moment, when Dwight and Michael first return and the illusion is punctured. At the very apex of his triumph, having converted the office into a tree fort playhouse, Jim’s minions abandon him at the sight of their real boss. You can play games in his absence, we learn, but people stop thumbing their nose at authority when the authority looks their way. And so his triumph is mixed, and the limitations of his power are clear: while he gets to have his awards ceremony, it is only at the cost of revealing how contained his rebellion has been. Instead of flouting Michael’s authority, he has confirmed it. He has revealed the stupidity of Michael’s power only by revealing the power of his stupidity, which transforms the rebellion into a ceremony honoring him. Michael may be ignorant of what he has done, but that fact only serves to underscore (chillingly) the extent to which Jim’s rebellion has, far from undermining authority, served only to further establish its power.
Jim, you see, needs to prove that he is smarter than Michael and Dwight, that he is better than them. And he does, over and over again. But, in the end, none of that really matters. The fact that Michael is the boss is ultimately not only the most important truth, it’s the only truth. And while the older drones who buzz listlessly about the hive understand this (and especially the temp, who I‘ll write about next), Jim and Pam are only slowly able to piece this together.
Pam’s self-realization, as I argued in aprt one, is an escape into art that is no escape, a self-deluding and escapist fantasy. But Jim’s alternative to Michael Scott, as it turns out, is nothing so simple as a faith in “art” versus “capitalism” or even the kind of rejection of corporate fascism that his endless battles with Dwight might seem to imply. Instead, in the penultimate scene in season three, Jim applies for a job in corporate, a job that he has both been groomed for (by the boss of the other branch) and seems to have a real shot at getting it. He would be his former boss’ boss.
He deserves it, of course. But, of course, as season one teaches us, “merit” is precisely not the thing that matters. Michael Scott doesn’t deserve his job, and this is precisely the point: The Office is not a meritocracy, and imagining that it is only blinds you to the ways that power actually works. If you think Michael Scott is a failure, you can laugh at him, but then you forget that, as you laugh, you’re doing his bidding. When Jim starts to realize that none of that matters, that his little symbolic rebellions have only tightened the chains around him the more securely, he starts to think about power as a goal in its own right, and he begins to focus in on getting it.
Somewhere along the line, his thinking has shifted. And I think you could pin-point it as the moment when a boss shows up who isn’t totally a figure of farce, when the figure of an alternative to Michael Scott enters the frame. As he grooms Jim, therefore, the branch manager of the Stamford branch serves to illustrate how a boss should be. While Michael’s pathetic attempts to boost morale and team spirit result in comedy, this boss plays his employees like a piano. Michael steals the tires off his employees’ cars, for example, trying to convince them to unite against their common enemy (Vance Refrigeration), but the Stamford branch manager’s use of Call of Duty to build his team’s quasi-military spirit is actually a kind of silent perfection of Jim’s office Olympics. The comparison is instructive: just as Jim’s rebellion let off just enough steam to keep the machine going, so too with the imaginary blood sport the Stamford branch plays on their computers. This time, he can see quite clearly exactly what’s being accomplished, and while he is (for a time) tempted by the devil, he also resists internalizing its corporate fascism. But part of this, I would argue, is simply that he does not yet understand it. For that, he needs one more teacher before his bildung can be complete. He needs the temp.
Final strip courtesy of here.