Without anyone ever having to spoil the fun by saying so, NBC’s comedy “The Office” has consistently and sharply stood in for the limitless hassles, personality clashes and tolerable, if soul-sucking, manners of the American workplace in the early 21st century.

Countless self-help gurus caution us to shake off the 9-to-5 grind and discover that elusive “work-life” balance, so that when the time comes (layoffs, retirement, an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent) we’ll all have a meaningful, more rich life that has somehow been waiting on standby while we toiled.

After a season’s worth of anticipation, Steve Carell’s Michael Scott character, the boss viewers love to loathe (or are loath to love?) seemed to, at last, find his version of self-assured peace in Thursday night’s farewell episode.

“The people you work with are just, when you get down to it, your very best friends,” Michael told the ever-present, never-identified camera crew that has followed him and his staff around these many years. “They say that when you’re on your deathbed, you never wish you spent more time at the office. But I will. It’s gotta be better than the deathbed.”

To say he’ll be missed would be the understatement of this largely uninspired season of network TV that is nearing the over-hyped finale and very-special-episode time. Thursday’s episode wasn’t “The Office’s” seventh-season finale; that will come May 19, trailing an array of guest stars — Will Arnett, Jim Carrey, Ricky Gervais — who will flirt with our imaginations as possible new bosses at the Scranton, Pa., branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. But any fan could plainly see that the series could end here. Though this episode lacked the usual absurdist momentum of a typical day at “The Office,” it was quietly and almost perfectly sad.

While a “dream team” party committee of Pam, Angela, Phyllis, Kelly and Meredith bickered over the kind of sheet cake and ice cream to serve at Michael’s farewell (Phyllis: “As a person who buys a lot of erotic cakes, it just feels good to be represented on one”), Michael was already scheduled to leave on a plane a day early. As demonstrated over and over with “The Office’s” uncanny way of portraying workplace archetypes, he turned out to be the guy who loves work so much that he can’t face attending his departure. The ultimate egomaniac, he didn’t stick around for the speeches or teary tributes.

Instead, in his trademark style, Michael covertly and ineptly said goodbye to each of “The Office’s” characters, which, if nothing else, served to remind viewers just how much this ensemble cast has accomplished since 2005. Its place in TV history is well established, and, despite Dunder Mifflin’s poor quarterly results in paper sales, reruns of “The Office” are a cash cow. Some fans have complained that the show isn’t as funny as it was; I still consider it a welcome relief from so much else that’s on.

If it were up to me, I’d let Dunder Mifflin spend all of next season searching for a boss to replace Michael — a sense of drift and dread that would further the feeling of the real-world offices that “The Office” so ably lampoons. Let Dunder Mifflin’s employees see how the rest of us live — with a succession of under-qualified replacement managers — or let them suffer from no direction at all, save for endless corporate mandates to complete new software implementation. (As far an lousy new bosses go, Will Ferrell, who’s been visiting the show as Deangelo Vickers, one of heirs apparent, has been a dud. Is that part of the joke? Or is there no joke there to tell?)

Michael’s subdued exit turned out to be the right way to leave. Before taking a cab to the airport, he turned and admired his staff members at work at 4 o’clock on just another day, being their odd and mediocre selves. It was heartbreaking.

The thing “The Office” does best is to be funny. The other thing it does really well (and gets less credit for) is to explore the melancholy. This has provided both catharsis and escapism during the recession, when most office complaints have been met with the admonishing, managerial reminder that so many people are unemployed; therefore, you should all be so lucky as to have a job. (Now back to work!)

Take college students and recent grads, for example, who’ve downloaded so many episodes from the past seven seasons and committed them to memory and yet may never know what it’s like to work in the same office, with the same colleagues, under the same boss for years on end. For them, “The Office” is the closest literal and metaphorical way to learn the common rhetoric of mundane, white-collar work. The show’s great gift to society — besides so many laughs — is that it has been a salve to so much hurt in the actual workplace. In that way, as Jim Halpert said, Michael Scott really was the best boss we’ll ever have.