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Michael Scott’s 12 Most Redeeming Moments On The Office

Michael Scott’s 12 Most Redeeming Moments On The Office

Michael Scott’s 12 Most Redeeming Moments On The Office

In an exceptional article for Stereogum about Chris Brown and other “villainous” pop stars, Michael Nelson turned his eyes — briefly — to television. “We’re long past good guys in white cowboy hats and bad guys in black cowboy hats,” Nelson writes. “Now we root for charismatic protagonists from Tony Soprano to Don Draper even as they exploit, abuse and even murder those close to them.” 

Michael Scott, regional manager of Dunder Mifflin, is not Tony Soprano or Don Draper’s contemporary. Like them, however, he is both charismatic and frequently awful. He is blatantly racist. Occasionally, he gaslights. And while Michael never breaks as bad as “The Office” writing staff once dreamed of, there’s no question that Michael’s mistakes can be dire and untoward, and often have life-shifting consequences — just ask Scott’s Tots. 

In truth, that’s what makes the American version of “The Office,” maybe the most successful single-camera sitcom ever, so gosh darn compelling. Greg Daniels and his staff are interested in seeing Michael becoming the best version of himself, more than they are in following a straight-up good guy. Michael’s (sometimes misguided) attempts at heroism make him recognizable; his ugliest foibles that make him a mirror for many of us. Here are 12 moments that redeemed Michael Scott — aka Agent Michael Scarn, aka the “World’s Best Boss” (look, that’s what his mug says) — before he found himself in hot water once again.

Michael wants all the credit — Golden Ticket

Let’s start with one of Michael Scott’s most despicable moments: when he sold out Dwight Schrute to keep his own job. In Season 5’s “Golden Ticket,” Michael (dressed as Willy Wonka) has inserted five vouchers into random reams of paper. Whoever pulls said vouchers gets 10% percent off of their paper order. The problem? All five reams of paper go to Blue Cross of Pennsylvania, Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s largest customer, and the branch stands to take a massive financial hit. Heads must roll — and when David Wallace comes to collect one, Michael blames Dwight Schrute for his own initiative. 

For most shows, that would be high stakes enough. Not “The Office.” In a swift reversal of fortune, Dwight becomes the apple of Wallace’s eye when Blue Cross unexpectedly re-ups their contract. Michael’s idea was good — and he desperately sabotages Dwight to get the credit back. 

It’s a truly ugly look for Michael Scott, but let’s be honest: Who among us hasn’t felt similarly? It takes courage to swing for the fences; it is emotionally shattering to learn that you missed (even when you didn’t); and it is rarely less than ulcer-inducing to wait for one’s well-earned consequences. Michael’s Machiavellian tactics make him almost monstrous, but the cocktail of fear and need that he feels in “Golden Ticket” are all too recognizable. This moment doesn’t redeem Michael as a person, but it does confirm his humanity — and that makes him worthy of redemption above all else.

Michael attends Pam's art show — Business School

There are some episodes of “The Office” in which Michael Scott is a fine human. There are others in which he’s a good boss. In “Business School,” Michael excels at being both. Having been humiliated by Ryan and his business school class, Michael and Ryan return to the office. Ryan pleads to keep his job; Michael offers this in response: “Fire you … oh no … A good manager doesn’t fire people, he hires people and inspires people. People, Ryan … and people never go out of business.” 

It’s an A-tier “Office” moment that proves that Michael Scott is not only capable of being a “World’s Best Boss,” but acting professional through his hurt. Michael’s feelings can get the best of him; they’re also what makes him great (however infrequently). Here, he delivers a valuable lesson and still achieves some small catharsis. It’s a standard to aspire to, and one that redeems so many of his less effective acts as manager. 

But that’s not all. Michael still needs some TLC in the wake of Ryan’s callousness. He attends Pam’s first art show (to her and our surprise) and is smitten with her Dunder Mifflin office watercolor. Though the art is not for sale, Michael purchases it for the office, inadvertently offsetting cruel comments made by Oscar’s partner Gil hours earlier. Michael’s pain is evident; he chooses kindness and healing anyway. That is a truly redemptive — and human — act.

Michael makes sure Ryan and Pam keep their jobs — Broke

Speaking of Ryan and Pam: Two years after the events of “Business School,” both are part of the Michael Scott Paper Company’s staff. More specifically, they are its only staff, save for Michael himself. But as the midpoint of “Broke” reveals, Michael and crew’s new company is in danger of folding despite its instantaneous success. The company’s low prices, which are the only thing keeping it in business, is also putting it out of business. They’re broke.

Which, thankfully, Dunder Mifflin corporate doesn’t know when they propose a buyout. Through an extended series of negotiations, Michael receives an offer for $60,000, but at the tail end of those negotiations, he pivots, asking instead for his, Pam, and Ryan’s jobs back. 

It’s a bold move. But, beyond that, it’s one that reinforces that Michael’s loyalty has never been to paper, but to the people it put him into contact with. Michael, like many of us, has work friends who have formed a sort of family. It might not be the one we’d choose, but it’s the one we have, and it’s a lot more valuable than $60,000. People really never do go out of business. Michael believes that with his whole heart and, more often than not, that redeems him.

Michael offers Pam tough love — Dream Team

Speaking of the Michael Scott Paper Company: It ends up as a thorn in Dunder Mifflin’s side. Before that? The Michael Scott Paper Company is a disaster. Michael and his colleagues are turned down by their seed investor (Michael’s Nana), and they lose their best salesman early. The spark that drew Pam to Michael’s flame dies quickly and, when Pam stares down her seemingly inevitable failure, she collapses emotionally. 

Michael, surprisingly, doesn’t just rise to that occasion, but vaults it. He moves toward Pam and, in a low and calm tone, utters the following: I want to tell you the situation that we are both in right now, okay? You quit your job. I quit my job … So, what are our options? Well, we can start this paper company. We can try. Or… that’s it. That’s our only option.” He then offers a remarkable self-assessment: “Pam, I do my best work when people don’t believe in me.” 

It’s that out of left field self-awareness that redeems Michael. Michael Scott is often painted as a buffoon by both his peers and the show’s writers (in this very episode, Vikram describes Michael’s confidence as the “liquor of the fool”); while this moment doesn’t dispel either of those groups’ assumptions, it confirms there’s more to Michael Scott than one could ever assume. When he taps into his depths, he is awe-inspiring. And he’s the man to start a paper company.

Michael advises Jim to chase Pam — Booze Cruise

The over-under on drunken advice being sound is low, and yet, for better or worse, it is a gamble Jim Halpert takes in the all-time great “The Office” episode “Booze Cruise.” Jim, distraught by Pam’s sudden wedding date, breaks up with his girlfriend Katy on the spot and goes out to the ship’s deck to find Michael in the brig. Jim confesses that he used to have a thing for Pam. To Jim’s surprise, Michael responds, “Well if you like her so much, don’t give up … Never, ever, ever give up.”

It’s worth considering how many ways Michael Scott might have responded here. Not two episodes earlier, he drunkenly snapped a photo of Meredith when she flashed him. Not long after that, he demanded to see Toby’s penis. Michael’s track record as an empathetic individual is low at this juncture in his life, and the heartbreak of an office crush might offer good schadenfreude. 

Instead, Michael sees in Jim a reflection of his own missed shots, and encourages Jim not to settle. Michael redeems himself and his actions on the booze cruise by being a good friend and a good boss. To return to “Business School” again: A good boss doesn’t fire people, he inspires people. Against all odds, Michael Scott inspires Jim Halpert to follow his heart.

Michael fights for his workers' playtime — Murder

I’ve made it clear that “Murder” is one of my favorite episodes of “The Office,” and Michael Scott is why. With Dunder Mifflin staring down imminent bankruptcy, co-manager Michael suggests that employees partake in a murder mystery party to distract themselves from worry. They do, and the strategy pays dividends: Phyllis is an adept murderer, and Dwight plays detective with gusto. Only Oscar abandons the fun to constantly refresh his browser and, eventually, gets an email from corporate: Accounting is to halt all payments to their vendors. The office rushes back to work. 

Michael, as usual, remains undeterred. He restarts the game under looser pretenses, much to Jim’s chagrin. When Jim confronts Michael about these interruptions, Michael fires back with a venom rarely seen from his character. “Shut up! They need this game, Jim. Let us have this stupid little game, Jim!” Michael hisses. It’s an outburst that risks ruining his friendship with Jim and their fragile working relationship, but the gamble proves valuable; when Jim receives the news that Dunder Mifflin expects to go bankrupt and is meant to give his staff an update, he instead declares “There’s been another murder in Savannah.” The game continues on. 

Michael redeems himself by practicing his own version of radical empathy here. However narrow it might be, it is exactly what the moment calls for. And, in his dogged pursuit of it, Michael reminds us that great leaders need to lead. Here, Michael answers that call.

Michael accepts that he is disliked — Did I Stutter?

Fighting for his workers is one of the reasons Michael Scott is liked — or at least tolerated, depending on whom you ask. But as “Did I Stutter?” proves, not everyone at Dunder Mifflin likes Michael. In the episode’s first act, Stanley Hudson (played by Leslie David Baker) is casually insubordinate to Michael; within seconds, “casual” becomes “direct” and “purposeful.” 

13 years after it first aired, “Did I Stutter?” is remembered for the way it made the seasons-long subtext between Michael and Stanley the text. In doing so, it reminds the audience how many of us would see Michael Scott in real life — as a man whose frequent idiocy overwhelms his relative usefulness. But Stanley’s unleashed cruelty serves, instead, to humanize Michael Scott two-fold. 

For one, it is painful to watch; the phrase “professional idiot” cuts deep. For another, Michael’s response confirms that he is capable of being disliked without becoming resentful, something more humans could aspire to. “Michael, I’ve known you for a very long time,” Stanley mutters, “and the more I’ve gotten to know you, the less I’ve come to respect you.” Michael’s response? “I accept that … but you can’t talk to me that way in this office. I can’t allow it.” The two shake hands; the conflict is a simmer once more. It’s a gesture that requires humility and humanity from both men, and it’s one in which Michael actively participates.

Michael offers his 'tots' laptop batteries — Scott's Tots

Let’s get this out of the way up top: The lie that is revealed in “Scott’s Tots” is reprehensible. To talk about how this episode humanizes Michael Scott is potentially ill-fated. However, like Michael Scott does so often to his detriment, I will make a valiant effort.

In “Scott’s Tots,” we learn that Michael has done something “worse than murder”: He pledged to pay the college tuition of an entire class of local inner-city third graders. Those third graders, now approaching senior year, are ready to collect their promised funds. Michael and Erin attend a ceremony that the kids throw in Michael’s honor, only for Michael to let them down hard. The college tuition funds don’t exist. At all. 

To say that Michael’s actions embody the worst of well-meaning white privilege isn’t an understatement. Michael makes a false promise because he genuinely wants to change lives, never considering the class and racial dynamics that underpin the weight of that promise. In fact, all Michael is able to do is offer the gift of laptop batteries to his tots. Ironically, it is this gesture that humanizes him.

More often than not, Michael Scott’s antics are so extreme that it’s hard to see ourselves in them. In the instance of “Scott’s Tots,” many viewers don’t want to see themselves in Michael’s dumb, well-intentioned foolery. Michael, like so many well-intentioned white people before him, has placed his pride and politics before thoughtful action. Unlike many of them, he doesn’t run from that decision. In actively confronting his failure and offering up a meager return, Michael gets closer to doing the proverbial work than many, even if he goes about it in all the wrong ways. That brings him closer to a measure of redemption, and it’s one worth recognizing.

Michael's Dundies are belittled — The Dundies

The Dundies are the skeleton key to Michael’s soul. They are his most lasting invention, more resonant than any of his conference room characters or flights of in-office whimsy; they recur throughout the series, serving as waypoints for his growth and maturation as a manager. They are also the first suggestion that Michael Scott is more than a laughable moron, as seen in the Season 2 premiere, “The Dundies.” 

In Michael’s mind, everyone looks forward to the Dundies. It’s everyone’s favorite day, because very few of the people who work in the office are ever going to get a trophy and, to Michael, people can die from a lack of recognition. The Dundies are more than pieces of plastic. They’re lifelines.

So, when two drunk Chili’s patrons mercilessly mock the Dundies ceremony, as far as Michael is concerned they might as well be heretics. The issue (and humanizing moment) for Michael is that he barely believes his own dogma. He needs a Dundie as much as anyone in the office, if not more so. Realizing that you can’t practice what you preach is a deeply human revelation, and seeing Michael experience it here exposes his humanity in wide swathes.

Michael gives his workers goodbyes they deserve, not the ones he imagined — Goodbye Michael

Michael Scott is a man of daydreams — fantasies at best, and delusions at worst. That’s what makes “Goodbye, Michael” such a stirring send-off for the character. After seven seasons of watching Michael Scott try and fail to execute plans which, Icarus-like, fly too close to the sun, we see, in his exit, a man who’s willing to adapt to the needs of the workers he leaves behind. 

What does that mean? It means listening to Dwight expound upon brown bears. It means not saying goodbye to Kelly. It means offering Gabe tough love, even though Michael has next to zero desire to do so. Michael’s final day at Dunder Mifflin finds him being a better human and boss than we’ve seen in many episodes prior. It’s to the show’s credit that Michael doesn’t blow the attempts, either (his advice to Kevin — “Don’t be a caricature” — can only be considered misguided). 

If anything, it is the exchanges that most catch Michael by surprise (Jim figuring out that he’s leaving a day early, Pam meeting him at the airport) that reveal the best and most deeply felt humanity in him. Sometimes, it’s good when dreams bleed into reality. That can prove redemptive, too.

Michael panics about leaving Dunder Mifflin, and calls upon love to aid him — Goodbye, Michael

You’ve probably been there: A major life change looms up ahead. You do the work, preparing yourself for the move, the goodbyes, or the confrontation. You understand that it’s going to be tough. You know it’s going to be fine. This is how life goes. Then, the moment arrives. Your courage evaporates; your resolve follows. Life goes on, but the terrain is suddenly treacherous. 

This is the moment that Michael Scott encounters in “Goodbye, Michael.” Oscar asks where his last check should be sent, and Michael retreats to his office and begins to spiral out of control. Suddenly, he can’t leave; his goodbyes are meaningless. In an episode rife with humanizing moments for the lead character of “The Office,” this is arguably the most effective. Michael rarely admits it, but he is deeply, deeply scared. Even more humanizing? What Michael does next: Fighting panic, he calls Holly to try and steel himself. “I just needed to hear your voice,” he cries. 

That’s all it takes. Love can give a person tremendous strength and make life’s terrain feel easy to travel again. Maybe you know that feeling. Michael certainly does.

Michael returns to his Office family — Finale

To be clear, Michael didn’t need redeeming before he unexpectedly attended Dwight’s wedding in “Finale.” Michael left Scranton, Pennsylvania on a high note (and arguably his most humane one). He settled into a wonderful life with Holly Flax and had all but tied up the loose ends with his Dunder Mifflin family. Why, then, is Michael attending Dwight’s wedding redemptive?

Simple: because returning to your past with a heart full of love is worthy of acknowledgement. You need only have attended a wedding in your 20s or 30s to understand how quickly such events can give way to regressive, often bad behavior. And, for most of his Pennsylvania-based life, Michael Scott was a buzzing light for bad behavior’s moth. Heck, at Phyllis’ wedding, Michael had to be escorted from the premises!

That is not the Michael we meet here. This is a Michael who life has been good to. This is a Michael who knows his place. This is Michael Scott redeemed. We should all be so lucky.

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