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The Office - Kelly Kapoor, Master Manipulator

The Office’s Kelly Kapoor knows how to get what she wants. She exhibits all of the classic traits of a manipulator, yet despite her untrustworthiness and underhandedness, she’s also one of the series’s most likable characters. There’s just something endearing, even relatable about Kelly’s desperation to be recognized and loved. What is it about Kelly Kapoor that makes her coworkers—and the audience—excuse her manipulative behavior and even embrace it? Here’s our Take on what makes Kelly such a master of manipulation, and why we end up giving her the attention and affection she demands—even if we know we’re being played.

TRANSCRIPT

Kelly Kapoor: “If I was you, I would just like, freak out and get really drunk and then tell someone I was pregnant.” - The Office, 3x15

The Office’s Kelly Kapoor knows how to get what she wants. She’s adept at flattery.

Kelly: “From now on, you guys are no longer losers! So give yourselves a round of applause.” - 3x20

Lies big and small roll right off her tongue.

Meredith: “I thought you’re not supposed to wear white to a wedding.”

Kelly: “I know but there was an emergency.”

Kelly (to camera): “I look really good in white.” - 3x15

And when all else fails, she can always make herself the victim.

Ryan: “Do you have a question, Kelly?”

Kelly: “Yeah, I have a lot of questions: number one, how dare you?” - 4x11

These are all the classic traits of a manipulator—someone who exerts control over others by exploiting their vulnerabilities and playing on their emotions. And yet, despite her untrustworthiness and underhandedness, Kelly is also one of the series’ most likable characters. There’s just something endearing—even relatable—about Kelly’s desperation to be recognized and loved.

Kelly: “My resolution was to get more attention.” - 7x12

What is it about Kelly Kapoor that makes her coworkers—and the audience—excuse her manipulative behavior, and even embrace it?

Here’s our Take on what makes Kelly such a master of manipulation, and why we end up giving her the attention and affection she demands—even if we know we’re being played.

Kelly: “Who am I? I’m Kelly Kapoor, the Business Bitch.” - 7x13


Kelly the Machiavellian?

At first glance, Kelly seems to have at least a few manipulative traits that could be called Machiavellian. Named for the 16th-century Italian diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, the term describes the kind of morally dubious scheming he believed was key to taking and maintaining power. For Machiavelli, it was far better to be feared than loved—an ethical question that leaders still grapple with today.

Michael: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Um, easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” - 2x6

But while Kelly would definitely rather be loved, she still exhibits a lot of the things that psychotherapist Sheri Jacobson attributes to a Machiavellian personality.

For instance: Kelly comes across as charming and extremely confident.

Gabe: “What are your weaknesses?”

Kelly: “I don’t have any, asshole.” - 7x24

She uses flattery often as a way to conceal her true feelings and bend people to her will.

Kelly: “Those glasses are so cool.”

Pam: “Really?”

Kelly: “Yeah, you look like Lisa Loeb or Tina Fey or someone. You should definitely wear them all the time…”

Kelly (to camera): “Guess who just became the cutest girl in the office.” - 4x12 deleted scene

Kelly has also been known to manipulate others to get ahead—for example, playing up her ethnicity for a chance to move up at work. She will lie and deceive when it’s required to get her way—and she rationalizes her deception as justified.

Kelly: “I lied, whatever. Just fire me. But you know what? I did it because you guys didn’t come to my party, and you said you would try to, and then you didn’t even show up.” - 5x6

She’s also capable of causing others harm to achieve her means.

Kelly: “This girl was really rude to me at the mall. So I created a fake I.M. account from a hot guy at her high school, and now I’m trying to make her anorexic.” - 6x21

And she’s not always aware of the consequences of her actions.

Ryan: “You lied about being pregnant.”

Kelly: “Right. So?”

Ryan: “You really don’t understand why that might make me kinda angry?”

Kelly: “No.” - 4x2

But while Kelly displays some Machiavellian tendencies, she isn’t sinister about them. In fact, compared to the manipulative behavior displayed by a lot of other Dunder Mifflin employees, Kelly seems downright innocuous.

Kelly: I talk a lot, so I’ve learned to just tune myself out.” - 7x2

As Machiavelli himself believed—and Michael Scott paraphrased:

Michael: “But sometimes the ends justify the means.” - 5x8

In Kelly’s case, her end is simple: She wants to be loved and she wants other people to think she’s special.

Kelly: “I want you to tell me that you care about me. That is what I want.” - 4x2

These are ego-driven desires, but they’re also universal ones—and the fact that Kelly goes to such manipulative lengths to attain them is what makes them funny.


Kelly The Mean Girl

Kelly: “Beyoncé, pink the color, Pink the person, hot dogs, basically anything that is awesome….” - 2x14

Kelly’s preoccupations and her manipulative instincts are decidedly adolescent. She loves clothes, boys, and celebrity gossip. Her ideas about love all seem to be shaped by rom-coms.

Kelly: “I never thought of him in that way. But, I guess in most romantic comedies, the guy you’re supposed to be with is the one you never thought of in that way.” - 6x16

This reflects some of star Mindy Kaling’s own obsessions—as she would later expand on in The Mindy Project. But as Kaling also told Time Out in 2012, Kelly Kapoor was “not all that autobiographical. We based her character on a mean teenager.”

Kelly: “I just want you to know that I will be mean to Jessica if you want me to be.”

Erin: “Oh no, no. It’s fine, Kelly.”

Kelly: “It’s really no problem. I was already planning on being mean to her.” - 8x10

And indeed, Kelly is often seen verbally harassing her peers,

Kelly: “I don’t talk trash, I talk smack.” - 4x12

and cruelly excluding others in the language and underhanded methods of the typical “mean girl.”

Regina George: “Oh my god, I love that skirt, where did you get it?... That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen.” - Mean Girls

Kelly: “Oh my God, I love it.” (shakes head at camera) - The Office, 6x8

Kelly also uses manipulation strategies that parenting researcher Tyler Jacobson has identified as common to teens. Like: guilt-tripping, a means of emotional manipulation that can even tip over into threats of suicide.

Kelly: “Basically, nobody does anything for me anymore unless I threaten to kill myself.” - 7x11

Kelly also frequently plays the victim, whether it’s in her relationships or even just to bring attention to herself.

Kelly: “She’s hot, OK? Because if you are saying that Hillary Swank isn’t hot, then you are saying that I am not hot. Because obviously I’m not as hot as Hillary Swank!” - 5x13

Finally, Kelly has a teenager’s emotional volatility and sense of retaliation, quick to lash out with hurtful words or even big, explosive actions.

Kelly: “My boyfriend dumped me, so I stole his boat.” - 5x15

Also like a teen, Kelly is image-conscious and obsessed with emulating the icons of pop culture she worships. She’s adopted the self-centered attitudes she’s learned from celebrities and reality TV. In fact, all her interests and goals seem to revolve around what she’s seen in magazines, TV, and movies.

Kelly: “You know what Dwight you need to go back there and you need to Pretty Woman their asses.” - 7x2

Mimicking the most famous people in this country offers Kelly, who’s clearly conflicted about her Indian heritage, the comfort of cultural assimilation.

Kelly: “It’s to pick up my little sisters from school. We’re really tight. We’re like the Kardashians.” - 5x22

But most importantly, pop culture feeds directly into Kelly’s love of manipulation. Kelly longs to live in the petty, hyper-competitive world of reality TV—and because there’s a documentary crew filming her, she technically does.

Michael: “You know what, Kelly? This is the real world. Not The Real World: Scranton.” - 6x22

Kelly performs for cameras just like one of her reality TV idols, bringing the schemes and the melodrama. For Kelly, being a mean girl or a Kardashian is the height of status—they’re the stars of the show, and everything they do is inherently special. Elevating every part of her life into drama is how Kelly gets the attention she desires above all else. And nowhere is her thirst for drama more evident than in her most defining relationship.

Kelly: “Over the weekend, Ryan Bailey Howard and I got divorced.” - 7x14


Kelly Meets her Match

Kelly: “It was like destiny.”

Ryan: “I-I realized that, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t do better than Kelly.”

Kelly: “Aww!” - 5x7

In Ryan, Kelly meets her Machiavellian match—which is bad news for both of them.

Their toxic romance is based entirely in manipulation—whether it’s the outright lies that Kelly tells to keep Ryan around or just the constant undermining that Ryan regularly employs when talking to her.

Kelly: “But you lie all the time. You lie for no reason. Ryan, you just like to lie.”

Ryan: “I’d die for you too.”

Kelly: “You really would?” - 7x22

While The Office gives us several true love stories to aspire to, Ryan and Kelly’s relationship is probably one of its more true to life.

Mindy Kaling: “Everyone who watches the show thinks of themselves as Jim and Pam, but are probably much more like Ryan and Kelly.” - The Office Retrospective

As Kaling and B.J. Novak have explained, Ryan and Kelly are an only slightly exaggerated version of their own dysfunctional dynamic in the real world.

B.J. Novak: “We were sort of these always-clashing soulmates on the writing staff, and people were very amused by that and decided to write a Ryan-Kelly romance based on that.” - The Office Retrospective

So why does Kelly keep putting up with it—

Kelly: “So you’re dumping me?”

Ryan: “Let’s be adults about this. Let’s have sex one more time. And if you have any extra cash, that would be amazing.”

Kelly: “Okay.” - 5x8

—especially when she has better options? Kelly’s brief romance with Darryl is the complete opposite of her affair with Ryan, one based in respect and honesty—which only proves confusing to Kelly.

Kelly: “Darryl Philben is the most complicated man that I’ve ever met. I mean, who says exactly what they’re thinking?” - 4x4

In season 9, Kelly finally seems to find a real future with the handsome, successful pediatrician Ravi, who genuinely loves her.

Kelly: “Now you look at me like you’re adoring me, I’m gonna look at the camera like I don’t even know you’re there.”

Ravi: “But I do adore you.” - 8x24

But ultimately, both of these romances are short-lived. Ryan manipulates her into breaking it off with both men. It works, because — in fact— Kelly doesn’t actually want to be treated with consistent love, honesty, and respect. To Kelly—a reality TV addict and teenager at heart—manipulation and melodrama are what romance is all about.

Kelly: “Ravi makes me incredibly happy. And Ryan puts me through so much drama. So I guess I just have to decide which of those is more important to me.” - 8x21

So while Ryan doesn’t give her that healthy, “marriage and kids” relationship she says and even thinks she’s looking for, he does give her the drama and excitement that, deep down, she really wants most of all.

Kelly (to Ryan): “You gave your baby an allergic reaction just to talk to me?” (they kiss) - 9x23

Kelly Kapoor may come across as equal parts vapid and vindictive, self-sabotaging, and unsure of what she really wants, but we also see her grow over the course of the series—developing strong friendships with her workmates, who ultimately want the best for her. Meanwhile, we also find ourselves loving and rooting for her—and not just because Kelly is a relative good compared to some of the more openly malicious and conniving characters we meet. We can recognize how Kelly is the product of our modern, gossip-fueled culture, one that celebrates manipulation and competitiveness, creates a thirst for melodrama, and rewards the vain and the self-centered.

Kelly: “I think we should do cupcakes. I am one of the few people who looks hot eating a cupcake.” - 7x22

But deep down, Kelly also reminds us of the secret part of ourselves that feels—that knows—that we’re special and that we deserve more. Even if we’re not nearly so shameless about getting it.

Kelly: “And that is how it’s done.” - 8x10