February 24, 2015
“Leslie always has her heart in the right place, but just needs some help along the way.”
I wrote this six years ago. At that point, Parks and Recreation was a show still in search of its identity, existing in The Office’s shadow and week-by-week discovering more about its characters as we were. It says a lot about the show that now, six years and seven seasons later, “One Last Ride” puts a button on this initial judgment made three episodes into the series’ run. Leslie’s heart was always in the right place, but she truly found herself when she found her team to help along the way.
There’s always a lot of discussion about the change that Parks went through after the short first season, but returning to that review—and my collection of reviews from the first three seasons—in light of tonight’s finale made me realize that it didn’t really change at all. From the very beginning, this was a show that asked the audience to follow an optimistic, hard-working civil servant as she struggled to navigate a world that did not want her to succeed, slowly breaking down the barriers that were placed in front of her. We wanted her to succeed not just because we liked her, but also because she was operating with a moral imperative, one so powerful that it could overcome even Ron Swanson’s fundamental disbelief in the value of government. She was a hero, in truth, in ways that would make sustaining her drive the show’s biggest challenge.
Leslie Knope had dreams, and that’s dangerous for supporting the premise of your television show. It became most dangerous in the seasons tied to her run for city council, where Leslie was suddenly part of the machine that she had worked outside of for so long. When she was eventually elected, the barriers were no longer institutional in the same way; more than ever before, Leslie’s barriers felt like they were being thrown up for the purpose of creating drama, with both the recall election and Jeremy Jamm’s exaggerated antagonism registering as threats against Leslie retaining her position as opposed to fighting against the bureaucracy as an abstract concept. As much as the election embodied everything Leslie Knope stood for, her time in City Council seemed to confound the show’s relationship with Leslie’s character. For a period, the show was working in spite of Leslie Knope and not because of her, leading up to surprise triplets and an even more surprising time jump.
In light of the series finale, that time jump was all about barriers. Although the triplets themselves became something of a red herring, with Leslie’s parenthood—rightfully, given her character—having minimal impact on her ambition working for the National Park Service, the season immediately created two new barriers for Leslie. The first was professional, in the battle over the Newport land she had earmarked for a national park; the second was personal, albeit tied to the professional, in her estrangement from Ron following the “Morning Star” incident. Returning to the project-based challenges of the very first season and the pit by Ann’s house, this season has returned Leslie to a point of struggle. Barriers were placed in front of her, and in order to break down the professional barrier Leslie needed to break down the personal one.
“Leslie and Ron,” I would argue, is the climax of the season, oddly positioned four episodes in: once Leslie and Ron’s friendship is restored, and the whole team is back together, there is never any question that Leslie could win the Newport land. In fact, after that, I would argue there were no barriers left at all. Once that—fantastic—episode ended, Leslie more or less had free reign over her future, as there were really no unanswered questions to be resolved. We added a run for Congress for Ben, but in the climate the show created there was never any question whether he would run, or win, or go on to great things. After that the show removed barriers for everyone: Donna got married, April found her calling, Tom rediscovered Lucy, Garry becomes freakin’ Mayor. In every case, characters’ barriers were removed for them because the show had fully given itself over to the fact that they had earned it. They had struggled, they had battled, and they had overcome the barriers that were necessary in order for their lives to be framed through the lens of the conflict of a television sitcom.
And so “One Last Ride” is a literal—Welcome back, Chris!—ride off into the sunset, with nothing on the horizon standing in their way. From beginning to end, it’s one piece of wish fulfillment after another, where even abject failure—in Tom’s case—can be spun into personal and professional success. While the Pawnee 2017 narrative is built on Leslie’s anxiety over everyone separating, the episode never pretends that’s a real concern: from the moment of Donna’s flashforward, we know these people will continue to be a part of each other’s lives at personal crossroads. There’s not a single thing in this world that could keep these people from coming back together in 2025. There’s never any tension. This is, at its core, a finale about the self-realization that comes when you’ve fought past life’s barriers.
That bugged me at points, I’m not going to lie. There were major life decisions—like April’s decision to have children—that felt rushed and imprecise, beautiful in moments but also reduced in the process. Given how much the show had been about Leslie’s struggle, there was still that part of me that found the immediacy of her success at newly introduced endeavors disarming. Where was the struggle? Where was the battle? Where was the chance to see Leslie wage a war over her right to be herself, and believe what she believes? The closest thing Ben and Leslie have to a struggle is when they’re both approached to run for Governor, but there’s never any tension in that decision, nor was there ever any question—at least once the terms of the episode seemed agreed upon—that she would win, especially after the first hint at a “President Knope” reveal that would never exactly be confirmed but fits totally in line with the episode as a whole.
I rolled my eyes at that hint, and still find the whole idea difficult to swallow. But what makes it work for me at the end of the day is that the final note we end on, ultimately, is that Leslie did all of this because her basic approach to life wasn’t about herself. Returning to The Office for a moment, Michael Scott was someone who loved his coworkers like family but was never going to be the person to bring them all together. When that show tried to make a claim at the end of Michael’s run that everyone loved Michael, it was pure bullshit: Michael had strong individual bonds with many of his employees, but he was never the one to unite them, evidenced by the fact that he spent his final days with them saying goodbye individually, balking on the goodbye party that never fit his approach. By comparison, Leslie Knope is someone who shared intense personal bonds with everyone she met, but was always understanding those bonds as part of a larger network of individuals she could harness at any moment, whether it’s to fix a swing or create a support structure for much larger goals.
On those terms, “One Last Ride” feels perfect. It’s about everyone working together, but Leslie—as their unequivocal leader—shares a moment with each of them. As much as the whole episode has an air of being Leslie’s fantasy of how her time in Pawnee with these people will lead to the happy endings they always wanted, and as much as part of me rejected that level of sentiment, those moments were incredibly powerful, particularly in Ron’s case. While Ben and Leslie’s future gets the most time here, it’s Ron’s story that feels transformed, as though Leslie has broken down a barrier—Ron’s unwillingness to fraternize with his co-workers—and turned it into a connection that has no chance of ever being broken. Leslie set out to be Ron’s friend, became Ron’s work proximity associate, and never once wavered in her belief that it would work out for everyone in the end.
There remains a part of me that feels Parks and Recreation drank too much of the the Leslie Knope Kool-aid, so believing in her stated optimism that there were no limits on how far these characters could travel, and thus no realism grounding this universe. For all of the oddball characters that would come out of the woodwork, there was always the sense that Leslie could fail, and that the world wasn’t simply going to suddenly open up to who Leslie was. There was a struggle to being in the Parks department, and to being on city council, and that struggle was absent here. I wanted that struggle, and would have liked to see more of it embedded in the flash-forwards that make up so much of “One Last Ride.”
But in thinking about this episode as Leslie’s fantasy, I realize that’s kind of what it is. This is the equivalent to Leslie’s kindergarten scrapbook, an example of how belief—in yourself, or in this case in the characters Mike Schur and the series’ writers created—can be transformed into reality. It is the future that Leslie Knope always imagined for herself because she had to, because otherwise she would have risked being done-in by some of those barriers. And while we could call it wish fulfillment, we know that it wasn’t that simple: we saw a lot of that struggle, and we saw the kind of transformation and teamwork it took to reach that point. If you were watching the show to this point, the struggle was more than implied: it was lived, by Leslie and by us, in the way it is with the very best of television.
In seeing the discussion on Twitter and talking with some people, the idea that Parks and Recreation “earned” a finale like this one inevitably came up. It’s a way to signal our acceptance of the sugary sweet happy ending of it all: given the great seasons the show gave us, and given how much many of these characters have evolved and become part of our television lives, who are we to begrudge the creators and the characters an ending that imagines a hopeful and empowering future for them?
I’m not in complete disagreement with this logic, but I guess I would say that my reasons for accepting the show buying into its own optimism at its conclusion have less to do with how the show evolved, and more to do with where it started. Although the show started out meaner to Leslie, and retained a mean streak against Garry that was always a reminder of the edge that still existed in this world, its optimism was baked into the show from moment one with Leslie Knope. For as much as the show changed, with Leslie finding her team and spreading her optimism to each of them, it was always built on the idea of this person who believed in her job and her ability to achieve her goals.
The fact that she accomplished so many of them, absurd as it may have been in fast motion in the series finale, is a testament to the show’s grace, humor, and longevity, and it’s hard for me to begrudge the series’ cast and crew the chance to make a loving, heartfelt, and still occasionally hilarious monument to that.
- I feel it’s a tremendous service to the show that I spent so little time thinking about the actors here—as good as they’ve been, they also became so tied to these roles that they were completely out of my mind as I watched their characters’ stories come to an end.
- President Leslie Knope Skepticism Corner: So if Leslie was—based on the language—about to run for President when she was giving the commencement speech at Indiana University, and they—hilariously, so we’re clear—named the library after her, would they retroactively have to change the name of the library after she became President so that it wouldn’t conflict with her actual Presidential Library?
- I would be curious to see how tightly the episode was designed, and what kind of material was left on the cutting room floor. Specifically, Andy’s future ended up being predicated almost exclusively on his becoming a father; given how crucial his career goals were to the character’s successful integration into the cast in season two, I was hoping we’d get a stronger glimpse at Andy’s personal aspirations.
- In case you’re wondering, I’m still angry about Ann and Chris’ random coupling and procreation, which helped derail the show during that period and has not become less frustrating with either two years of real time or 12 years of narrative time.
- This wasn’t really Ben’s finale, but I liked thinking about the parallel in his Cones of Dunshire sequel jokes given that they were taking place years apart, but his level of excitement over its moderate success was still intact. Plus, he never gave up on calzones. His resolve is inspiring to me.
- I have no idea if they even ever considered bringing Paul Schneider back, but I figure Mark could end up the architect for Leslie’s presidential library, if you want to fan fiction it.
- Ron paddling through his National Park? Oh, you better believe that’s a paddlin’, if by “paddlin’” we mean me tearing up in my living room.
- I know it’s heresy to even bring up this episode of The Office, but it’s interesting to consider the themes of this ending compared to “Scott’s Tots,” where Michael’s refusal to accept his failure to live up to his aspirations (and thus his inability to fulfill his promise to the kids) manifests as self-delusion. The show would eventually change course and give Michael what they determined his goals were—love, basically—but that moment becomes a real counterpoint to the way Leslie achieves her goals more comprehensively over the series’ run.