Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) from The Office always knows when to give us a well-placed Jim face. He’s one of the more rational members of the cast, but does The Office’s primary straight man have a blind spot for his own life? In this video, we find out why the most knowing man of the office needs to know more about himself.
Jim Halpert, The Office’s Consciousness
Among the many outsized personalities of The Office, Jim Halpert is the voice of reason. He’s the one the cameras- and thus the audience- turn to, as our most reliable source for commentary on his coworkers’ antics. Always making faces to the camera, he’s like the consciousness of the Office itself, grounding the crazier moments at Dunder Mifflin with a rational perspective that we can enter the show through.
But while Jim often sees right through his coworkers, he’s notably less perceptive about himself. He spends years pining for Pam, lying to himself, and making questionable choices that hurt other people. He hates his job, but can’t motivate himself to do anything about it-
Jim Halpert: “If I advance any higher in this company then this would be my career. And uh, well, if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” - The Office 01x03
Time and again, Jim seems more content to comment on his lot in life than take any sort of action to change it.
So why is this character- who understands other people’s lives so intuitively- paralyzed when it comes to his own? Do his skills of observation, and ability to find the humor in things, actually prevent him from getting what he really wants? The answers to these questions not only explain the paradox of Jim Halpert, they also show us how Jim’s story embodies the core message of the show. So here’s our take on The Office’s Jim Halpert- the guy who sees everything clearly, except himself.
Jim Halpert: “And on the flip side, I have been so busy watching him that I haven’t even started work. It’s exhausting, being this vigilant. I’ll probably have to go home early today.” - The Office 05x03
Jim’s Observational Comedy
If The Office were a classic play, Jim Halpert would be its raisonneur [rez-uh-nur]. Translated from French, it means “the reasoner” or “the reasonable one”. In theatre and literature, the raisonneur expresses the detached, omniscient point of view of the author.
On The Office, Jim is the one we rely on the most to give us context as events unfold. He’s also the character who provides us with the most insight into the other characters. Jim knows his colleagues so well, he can sum up their essence or even predict their actions.
One way of interpreting Jim’s superior insight is through what psychologists call the theory of mind. According to this idea, humans evolved to have the ability (and the need) to interpret other people’s behavior- to attribute thoughts and feelings to others. Essentially, we learned to be mind-readers.
In 2008, literary scholar Lisa Zunshine applied this theory to the original British version of The Office. And in 2016, Evan Puschak, aka the Nerdwriter, elaborated on this idea in a video essay where he illustrated that David Brent’s weak theory of mind- his inability to accurately judge others’ feelings about him- is the source of much of the show’s comedy.
Just as the Nerdwriter noted about Jim’s British counterpart Tim, Jim has a strong theory of mind- he’s a very good mind-reader. Meanwhile, characters, like Dwight, Andy, and especially Michael have a poor theory of mind - they frequently misunderstand both what others are thinking, and how their own behavior comes off. Jim exploits this when pranking Dwight.
Jim Halpert: “Did you feel like crying?” Dwight Schrute: “No.” Jim Halpert: “I’m just gonna write ‘held back tears.’” - The Office 06x03
Jim functions as a proxy for the audience. When we feel bemusement or disbelief, so does Jim. When we are surprised or disgusted, so is Jim. Just like us, Jim is primarily an observer. But while we in the audience are observing a TV show, Jim frequently relegates himself to being an observer of his own life. And over time, that tendency to remove himself takes its toll.
Jim Halpert: “I’m going to get out of town for a while… and go someplace… not here.” - The Office 02x17
Jim’s Addiction To Irony
While Jim is very insightful about other people’s lives, he often has trouble figuring out what to do with his own. From the moment we meet him, it’s clear he doesn’t enjoy his work. But despite being dissatisfied and under-challenged, for a long time Jim makes no effort to get out of his rut, and even turns down opportunities to change his situation.
He shows the same indecision when it comes to Pam. While he’s clearly romantically interested in her, he chooses to remain in denial for years. He even dates other people he knows he can’t commit to. And while he gives good personal advice to other characters, he doesn’t see that he should be taking it himself.
Jim Halpert: “You got to take a chance on something sometime, Pam. I mean, do you want to be a receptionist here, always?” - The Office 02x15
It often seems as though Jim approaches his problems with the same detachment he has towards everything else. Jim’s persona is so steeped in irony, he says the literal opposite of what he means all the time. This defense mechanism is a means of ensuring that he, Jim, is always in on the joke. Yet for all that he mocks others, Jim works hard to avoid being ridiculed himself, or do anything that might bring him embarrassment or scrutiny. If you are especially skilled at inferring someone’s thoughts accurately from their behavior- like Jim is- then you can also form a fairly good idea of how they see you. And you can use this information to adapt your own behavior, to influence that perception.
Dwight Schrute: “Jim, for instance, has a huge tell. When he gets a good hand, he coughs.” Jim Halpert: “It’s the weirdest thing. Every time I cough, he folds.” - The Office 02x22
But this can be exhausting, which is why Jim’s acute awareness of others’ perceptions is also a curse. He’s keenly aware of being interpreted and judged- by his colleagues, by the documentary crew, or even by us, the audience. When he does reveal things about himself, it’s usually by accident, like when the documentarians catch him on camera at a bad time, or when he designs an alternative existence for himself in the computer game Second Life. It’s no surprise that the most touching, intimate moments of Jim’s and Pam’s romance are witnessed from afar, when he doesn’t feel he’s being watched.
As the novelist Edward St. Aubyn observed in the Patrick Melrose series, irony can be abused, like a drug: “Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.” Jim often seems afraid of exactly this- the catastrophe of actually meaning what he says, being exposed and vulnerable.
Jim Halpert: “Ok, we didn’t dance. I was totally joking anyway. I mean, it’s not really a date if the girl goes home to her fiance. Right?” - The Office 02x07
But by inoculating himself with irony against the possibility of getting hurt, Jim also gives himself a false sense of security. His passivity and evasiveness prevent him from expressing what he really wants or needs, thus stunting his growth. Jim’s tragedy is that- for a long, long time- he chooses to laugh at his life rather than live it.
Jim Halpert: “I’m in an office relationship. It’s special. Um… she’s nice. She’s shy.” [pulls out blow-up doll] “Oh, my God! Put on a shirt!” - The Office 02x02
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag also explores whether its heroine can overcome her reflex to detach from and comment on her reality, instead of fully engaging with it. And in The Office, it’s only when Jim begins to transition from observing to doing- when he allows himself to say what he really means- that his life finally starts to change.
Jim’s Search For Meaning
When Jim finally puts himself out there and goes for it with Pam, he seems to have turned a corner, and transitioned from watcher-on-the-sidelines to an active player.
But while he undergoes big life changes in the years that follow, many of his defining actions are still governed by inertia or are in fact re-actions to external pressures. He only advocates for a promotion after it’s revealed that he and Pam have a baby on the way. And instead of reaching for something he’d find more fulfilling, he goes for the safe choice, not unlike buying his parents’ house.
But then, in the series’ final season, after all those safe choices have created a stable life, Jim has second thoughts. He’s suddenly motivated to take a big leap. At last, Jim appears to be taking initiative and pursuing the ambitions he’s always ignored. He’s even pretty much approximating the ideal existence he created for his Second Life avatar, Philly Jim.
Jim Halpert: “Ah, first board meeting. Also, the first time I’ve ever been excited about work. So, that feels… wrong.” - The Office 09x07
Soon, though, the distance his choices create between him and Pam, both physical and emotional, takes its toll. And this is a clue that the whole Athlead adventure is really an extension of his instinct to detach (from Dunder Mifflin, and even from Pam)- after all, his impulse to jump into that business wasn’t really driven first by passion, but by fear of stagnation.
In the end, faced with the deterioration of his marriage, Jim chooses his family over his career. Even though Pam eventually helps Jim have both, his decision illustrates the reason Jim’s various attempts at stepping up in his career never give him the “meaning” he thinks they should: his life’s purpose is already there, in the people he loves.
Most of the time when Jim actually takes pride in his work, his motivation to push himself comes from being a husband and dad. And his friends at the office, and the daily fun he has with them, are why he stays so long at Dunder Mifflin, even when (from the outside) it makes no sense.
Over the years, his rivalry with Dwight especially blossoms into a defining friendship. And Dwight’s impressive ability to lose himself in his passions- a characteristic Jim once saw as so ridiculous- gradually helps inspire Jim to overcome his own addiction to ironic detachment. So while early Jim feels the need to distance himself and feel superior to his colleagues, he finds fulfillment not in breaking free from Dunder Mifflin, but by learning to appreciate the people within it.
Jim Halpert: “I’ll tell you what I could accept is assistant to the regional manager. That is a real job and one I’d be proud to take.” - The Office 09x22
Just as the raisonneur typically articulates the point of view of the author, Jim’s narrative arc expresses the overarching ethos of The Office. Through spending all those years at Dunder Mifflin largely as an observer of his coworkers, he learns to love them- just as we do. He sees their true beauty, despite their foibles and even against the backdrop of humdrum corporate existence. And in them, he finally sees himself.
Jim Halpert: “Even if I didn’t love every minute of it, everything I have, I owe to this job. This stupid…wonderful…boring…amazing job.” - The Office 09x23