"Michael, I can't believe you came."
"That's what she said."
That's exactly how The Office needed to end, with the most emotional "that's what she said" of all time, with the reunion of the Regional Manager and Assistant to the Regional Manager who meant more to each other than they probably should have, and with a return cameo that was expected but perfectly executed in its surprise. We were a little frustrated a few weeks ago when NBC continued insisting that Steve Carell wouldn't be returning, even as the news that everyone would be reuniting for a reality TV reunion show seemed to guarantee the whole gang would be back. Going into its final episodes The Office was trading in a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia; it seemed impossible that they wouldn't bring back Michael Scott to give us an extra dose of it.
What was fantastic, though, is how they still managed to make it a surprise, even when Carell's presence in the episode was no longer a secret. I had predicted Michael would show up for the big public reunion, and maybe feel a little awkward about how the branch had moved on without him-- The Office is expert at cringe humor, after all, and you can't get all that emotion without a little darkness. But the cringing was left for other characters-- Ryan abandoning his baby, poor Toby sobbing for no reason-- and Michael was there just for the emotions, appearing in the doorway before Dwight's wedding practically bathed in a white light. The reunion episode was just a red herring, a relatively minor part of a very long episode. The wedding was the exact perfect place for Michael to return, but because were fixating on the reunion the whole time, we barely even thought about it. I, at least, was as surprised as Dwight was.
Steve Carell's desire not to overshadow the endings for the rest of the characters was apparently genuine-- he had only a handful of lines in the entire episode, and wasn't part of the big after-party at the warehouse. But every line really, really counted. Getting two phones so he could share all the pictures of his kids? Talking about Dwight and Angela's and Jim and Pam's marriages as if his kids got married? Even the awkward dancing with Dwight to "Rosalita" was perfect. Michael Scott left a huge shadow over the show, and Carell's shoes proved impossible to fill in the lurching eighth and ninth seasons of The Office. But they knew exactly how much Michael was needed for the finale-- and, miraculously, how to keep it just enough of a secret.
Read our full breakdown of The Office finale here.