This post contains spoilers through the Season 4 premiere of Parks and Recreation. Also, me freaking out a little.
It’s sort of depressing that this is the case, but I really believe that years from now, this episode of Parks and Recreation is going to be help up as a major moment in romantic comedy. To have a piece of pop culture where not only is love, or the possibility of love, not the highest value, but where the highest expression of love can be to let someone chase their dreams rather than stay with you, is genuinely revolutionary in a pop culture that preaches either that women need to get over their workaholism or that women can have it all. It helps that the episode was beautifully acted. But I hope that people recognize the writing here for the accomplishment that it is.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was when Ann raised the prospect of Leslie not running for City Council to stay with Ben, and Leslie responded automatically, “Which is out of the question.” I knew Leslie was going to make a compromise, but I was terrified that the show would decide to have her choose Ben, regret it, and get into the race late. The show’s always taken a slightly silly tack on Leslie’s ambition, whether through something like the omnipresent headshots in her office, or her explanation that “I was playing with the Geraldine Ferraro Action Figure. That I made myself.” But to have Leslie insist, and the people around her support, the idea that this is the dream of Leslie’s life is genuinely beautiful. It is such a higher exhibition of love for Ben to tell her, “Everything you’ve accomplished, you have earned and you have worked for. I don’t want anyone to think you got where you are by sleeping with your boss,” than to try to keep her with him.
And as I argued in April, this episode was a real victory for the idea that it’s Leslie’s optimism in government that is validated by Parks and Recreation, not Ron Swanson’s libertarianism. It makes sense that when Leslie runs from her fear of breaking up with Ben, she runs to Ron, who has fled his ex-wife with what is apparently an emergency camping kit and a warning to get the beef chuck out of his desk before it goes bad. Leslie and Ron are each other’s reality checks, a balancing act between extreme optimism and extreme pessimism about the potential of government. But tonight, Ron affirms Leslie’s most private dreams. “I might not win,” she tells him. “You’ll win,” Ron insists. And the show could have stopped there, letting Ron groan about the inevitable big-government liberalism that will propel Leslie into office. But it doesn’t. “I might not run,” Leslie suggests, still turning the idea over in her mind. “You should,” Ron affirms. Because at the end of the day, Ron’s skepticism about government doesn’t actually include Leslie. Her optimism and competence are just overpowering, inspiring Andy to competence, Ann to persevere through an inbox that is “literally filled with penises.”
This wasn’t the funniest-ever episode of Parks and Recreation, but it strikes me as a genuinely important one, from Leslie’s run; to Chris’ unquestioning support for Ann once she becomes an accidental sexual harassment victim; to Leslie’s emergence as the perfect campaigner when she tells an interviewer “When men in government behave this way, it betrays the public’s trust. Maybe it’s time for more women to be in charge.” These are little things. But the episode was a weird glimpse of what it would be like to live in a much more feminist world than the one we actually reside in. And it’s hopeful, and funny, and genuine. And I want to go to there, much more than I’ve ever wanted to go to any slight alternate universe I’ve seen on a sitcom.