Picture of Dwight Shrute in "The Office"
Chris Haston / NBCU Photo Bank / The Atlantic

Dwight Schrute Was a Warning

When The Office originally aired, its resident fool made for easy comedy. Fifteen years later, it’s hard to watch Dwight without seeing tragedy.

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These are boom times for the lolsob. Watching the news, I sometimes find myself staring at the screen, eyes wide, brain broken, not sure whether to laugh or cry. The farce and tragedy tangle so tightly that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. How do you make sense, for example, of a leader who, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, muses about the curative powers of bleach? How do you process a president’s attempt to edit a hurricane with a Sharpie? The words, after a while, stop working. The categories collapse. Many true things have been written about what living under this regime feels like; one of the truest I’ve encountered is a 2017 prediction from the writer Hayes Brown: “This is going to be the dumbest dystopia.”

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Even the escapism acknowledges the whiplash. As people lolsob and doom-scroll, many are also watching a sitcom that, as one of its executive producers put it, “mixed melancholy and joy in the same space.” The Office is 15 years old and one of the most consistently popular shows of this moment. Its renaissance has many explanations: The show is streaming on Netflix. Its mockumentary style—the directly at the camera playfulness it brings to its tales of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of Scranton, Pennsylvania—gives it currency in the age of the reaction GIF. The series resonates emotionally with those who might be missing their own workplace. And it resonates politically through Michael Scott, the boss who is convinced that the solution to any problem is to put on a good show. I’m one of the people who have found new solace in old episodes of The Office, but I have a slightly different reason for watching. That reason is Dwight Schrute.

Dwight, Dunder Mifflin’s best-performing paper salesman and its worst-performing person, is a category error in human form. He is a beet farmer in a corporate park, a survivalist selling office products, a 19th-century spirit in a 21st-century timeline. He is arrogant. He is, relatedly, a buffoon. “INCORRECT,” he will say about something that is true. “FACT,” he will say about something that is not. He listens to metal but plays the recorder. He defers to the rules right up until he breaks them. Dwight is Darwinism with a desk job. He is anarchy in the guise of law. He is tragedy and he is comedy, and because of that he is intensely cathartic to watch. Many fictions speak to this moment. Dwight K. Schrute, however, inhabits it.

Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute in The Office (Justin Lubin / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty)

In an extended scene in The Office’s fifth season, Dwight takes it upon himself to give his colleagues a lesson about fire safety. Summoning the show’s roving camera to document the education he is about to impose, Dwight tosses a lit cigarette into a wastebasket he has doused with lighter fluid. “Today,” he says, “smoking is gonna save lives.”

This surprise tutorial goes ... very badly. As soon as they notice the smoke billowing out from under a hallway door, Dwight’s co-workers do exactly what they should during such an emergency—call for help, check for escape routes—only to discover that their phone lines have been cut (by Dwight) and their doors locked (Dwight again). “Okay, we’re trapped! Everyone for himself!” Michael screams. Oscar removes a panel in the ceiling and hoists himself up, vowing to get help. Jim and Andy try to use the office’s copy machine as a battering ram to bust the locked door open. Their fear is building. The smoke is getting worse. Dwight, to heighten the panic, sets off fireworks in the middle of the bullpen. “The fire is shooting at us!” Andy screams. “What in the name of God is going on?” Phyllis wails.

What viewers know—and what the workers of Dunder Mifflin soon find out—is that the answer is Dwight: Dwight is going on. The Office’s writers created the fire-drill scene for an episode that aired after the Super Bowl in 2009. Tasked with writing something that would be legible to football-carryover audiences who weren’t already familiar with the show, they resorted to slapstick. The set piece they wrote is brilliant physical comedy. It is also, however, an object lesson: Here is Dwight’s defining paternalism turned into a source of injury. Here is Dwight revealing the error of a familiar refrain: He’s too incompetent to be dangerous. Dwight’s safety training is so unsafe that it ends up giving Stanley a heart attack.

Sitcoms make certain promises to their audience: reliability, relatability, stakes that are soothingly low. But The Office played with those assurances. Michael may be the character who gives voice to questions about comedy’s boundaries; he’s the one who says things like “I hope to someday live in a world where a person could tell a hilarious AIDS joke. It’s one of my dreams.” But Dwight lives out those tensions. Through him, The Office engages in an ongoing act of reckoning: It tries to figure out where, precisely, the comedy ends and the tragedy begins.

In many early episodes of the show, Dwight’s destructive tendencies are treated as gentle jokes. He brings weapons into the office; Pam laughs about him being a “gun nut.” When he brags about his ability to “physically dominate” other people—or when he remarks offhandedly, “Better a thousand innocent men are locked up than one guilty man roam free”—the message is less that he is a menace than that he is a fool. Dwight comes to work on Halloween dressed variously as the Joker from The Dark Knight, a Sith lord, and the local criminal known as the “Scranton Strangler”; the costumes read primarily as pitiable. The sanitized threats are elements of the sitcom’s promise: No matter what might happen on the show, viewers can safely file it away as Fun. This is also part of the alchemy through which Dwight Schrute—a misogynist in the age of Elliot Rodger, a conspiracist in the age of QAnon, a vigilante in the age of Kyle Rittenhouse—can read, still, as a joke.

Dwight is finely calibrated. One of his jobs in The Office is simply to be odious enough to justify whatever pranks Jim and Pam might play on him. Jim putting Dwight’s stapler in Jell-O, or putting the full contents of Dwight’s desk into the office vending machine? These are proportional responses, The Office suggests. Jim can’t cross the line, because Dwight has, perpetually, already crossed it for him. Dwight regularly insults Pam. He steals a big sale from Jim. When a small amount of marijuana is discovered in the office’s parking lot, Dwight invokes his status as a volunteer sheriff’s deputy to make his colleagues undergo drug testing. “As it turns out,” Jim comments, “Dwight finding drugs is more dangerous than most people using drugs.”

To be in Dwight’s vicinity is to be at risk, always, of becoming collateral damage. The threat is evident even in the way The Office is shot. To realize its mockumentary conceit, the show hired a cinematographer who had just finished filming early episodes of Survivor; its camerawork suggests at once constant surveillance and constant over-proximity—all these people bumping into one another. And Dwight, more than any other character on the show, is inescapable. The casting call for the role noted that Dwight’s “unpleasant personal habits and annoying personality suggest an unsocialized loner, a sort of Caliban or Gollum.” It added: “His lack of social skills render[s] him the butt of office jokes and thus bearable.”

But as The Office moved into later seasons, the calculus of Dwight’s bearability changed its terms: His actions came, more and more regularly, with specific consequences. Dwight, it cannot be stressed enough, gives Stanley a heart attack. He traps Meredith in a trash bag with a bat. Even his love life takes on, for a stretch, a sense of menace: The Dwight-Angela-Andy love triangle ends painfully for all parties, in part because Dwight’s gaudy version of honor does not preclude his cheating with someone else’s fiancée. As the show went on, the comedy around him got darker, too. In Season 4, Dwight speaks fondly about his grandfather, who is 103 and “still puttering down in Argentina”; as he talks, it becomes clear to everyone but Dwight that Grandpa Manheim is a Nazi.

To succeed with an American audience, one of The Office’s truisms goes, the U.S. version of the show had to be a little bit kinder—a little bit softer—than the acerbic British original. Dwight, modeled after the U.K. show’s Gareth, is the character who most directly challenges that idea. He is humor that, at times, hints at horror. Jim spends an episode convincing Dwight that (1) the bat they’ve discovered in the office is vampiric, and (2) Jim has been bitten by it. This provides an occasion for Dwight to brag about his experience with werewolves. “I shot one once,” he says. He pauses. “But by the time I got to it, it had turned back into my neighbor’s dog.”

Ooooof. In Andy Greene’s fantastic oral history, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, the show’s writers describe the debates they had about whether to include jokes like that one. Even comedy carries certain inevitabilities; all the latent violence in Dwight had to erupt, eventually. Late in the series, he realizes his professional dream: He becomes the office’s acting manager. He promptly turns the place into a totalitarian regime in miniature (time cards for salaried workers, forced recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, a framed portrait of himself installed in the reception area). And then, walking around the crowded bullpen with a loaded gun, Dwight accidentally fires the weapon.

The bullet hits the floor. But Dwight, having put all of his colleagues into needless mortal danger, is quickly demoted. The injury he has caused, this time around, is one he has inflicted on himself.

Wilson has described the character he played as “someone who does not hate the system, but has a deep and abiding love for it.” (Justin Lubin / NBCU Photo Bank / Getty)

This is what I meant when I was talking about catharsis. Dwight is shameless; The Office finds ways to shame him all the same. That simple procedure of cause and effect feels remarkable to watch right now, because, in America’s lopsided nonfictions, shamelessness often carries no consequences at all. Donald Trump, America’s own regional manager, flouts the law in plain sight. He lies with such impunity that lie itself, as a diagnosis, becomes banal.

Accountability, in that context, might look like someone doing a bad job and therefore losing their job. It might look like someone compensating for the harm they’ve caused. But it might also look like fairness of another sort: like Dwight, a danger to his colleagues, being treated as a threat. Or like Dwight, a fool, openly acknowledged as one. A prank Jim and Pam play on him leads to Dwight getting a job interview from a competing paper company. “Look, I’m all about loyalty,” he tells the shows camera. “In fact, I feel like part of what I’m getting paid for here is my loyalty. But if there were somewhere else that valued that loyalty more highly—I’m going wherever they value loyalty the most.”

The confession has so much specificity. It defines Dwight as exactly what he is: a hypocrite who thinks he’s a hero. Rainn Wilson has described the character he played as “someone who does not hate the system, but has a deep and abiding love for it.” One of The Office’s ongoing jokes, though, is the hollowness of his devotion. “That is the law according to the rules,” Dwight says at one point. He does not stop to consider why “the rules” exist, or whom they serve. Dwight embodies the philosopher Kate Manne’s observations about white male entitlement: When you assume yourself to be naturally entitled to deference or forgiveness or love, the assumption self-rationalizes. Entitlement, too, is tautological.

It is also profoundly consequential. Dwight predicted a world, the writer Sarah Rosenthal observes, that is “defined by anxious men, desperate to feel powerful the way they might have in a bygone era, while insensitive to the humanity of others.” And he anticipated a political condition in which hypocrisy would be so widespread—and so absurdly brazen—as to be atmospheric. Dwight is, in his contours, Mitch McConnell. He is Brian Kemp. He is Donald Trump. He is someone who imposes his will on everyone else and then says, when they object, That is the law according to the rules.

Hypocrisy at this extreme is hard to talk about. American political language is simply not equipped to contend with actors who are so Schrutily immune to shame. Pundits continue to describe speeches that Trump recites without ad-libbed cruelty as evidence of “presidential” behavior. During his “debate” with Joe Biden in late September, Trump lied and yelled and ceaselessly interrupted his opponent. Mike Pence, conversely, in his own event, lied calmly; his performance was categorized as an exercise in civility. Lies are not civil. But this is precisely how hypocrisy can compromise habits of language. Shamelessness changes every equation.

The journalist Masha Gessen has written about the consequences of that breakage—how words can be wrong not just in the up-is-down way of Orwell, but also in the up-or-down-who-can-tell way of Hannah Arendt. Confusion can give over to cynicism. (“It is what it is,” the president said in September, of the staggering number of American deaths from COVID-19.) This might help explain why the age of Trump has also been an age of “chaos.” Press briefings, these days, are chaotic. Entire news cycles are chaotic. I recently found myself describing an omelet I’d made as chaotic. The assessment is useful in part because it channels the frenzy of this moment: the speed, the contradiction, the sense of chronic whiplash. But to describe something as chaotic is also to give up on describing it at all. It is to concede to the mess, whether the thing that is breaking is an egg or a democracy.

In that environment, even small acts of clarity can be corrective. When the lolsob is a cultural condition—and when lolnothingmatters is a constant threat—there’s power in a show that reckons with comedy’s affordances, and its limits. In America today, Nazis are disguising their hatred through perky memes. A U.S. senator is making not-so-veiled threats against journalists in a campy ad featuring Attila the Hun. The president is lying and then insisting that he was only kidding. Jokes can be shameless, too. So it’s a relief, if only cold comfort, to watch comedy that checks itself.

By the end of The Office’s nine-season run, Dwight Schrute’s contradictions have resolved into a kind of order. He has come to see his colleagues not as his subjects, but as his equals. An “agent of chaos,” his arc has acknowledged, is simply not a sustainable character. The Office was wise in many ways, but its greatest insight might be this: It knew when to stop humoring the guy who, in the name of workplace safety, sets the whole office on fire.