This post contains spoilers through the Dec. 8 episode of Parks and Recreation.
Episodes of television like “Citizen Knope” are reminders, for me, of the limitations of a weekly review model for criticism. Leslie’s campaign has come together piece by piece, episode by episode, with diversions like Tom’s stretch-limo-with-pool and an Apocalyptic cult, but it’s only taken as a whole that this season can get the credit it deserves for finding a device that moves all the characters together on their ways to their separate destinations. And as someone who actually was a candidate for and held (very minor) local office in an earlier life, I will admit I cried as Leslie’s friends presented themselves to her as her gifts, saving her campaign and culminating the work Parks and Recreation has been doing all season long.
I’ve long said that I thought it would make sense for Tom to rehabilitate himself and find his calling in public service, and despite his misstep earlier in the season, that his contacts with Pawnee’s business community could be critical to Leslie. So there’s something genuinely sweet about him stepping forward to present himself as “Tom Haverford. Image consultant and swagger coach.” But everyone else’s commitments made sense for them, too*. Andy may harbor fantasies of rock stardom or fictional heroism (I hope by Chekov’s rules, he is in fact forced to deploy or parry a javelin at some point during the campaign), but this season has been very much about him edging toward adulthood, whether in his and April’s journey to the Grand Canyon, or the suit he donned for Leslie’s hearing. Ann will forever be Leslie’s loyal number two and source of emotional support, and that’s OK — not everyone has to be the first woman president. April, despite herself, is grasping at both responsibility and her true potential, and I’m excited to see what she’ll do in her capacity as “Youth Outreach and Director of New Media” if she can keep her Janet Snakehole on a leash. Gary (I feel like I have to call Jerry that now that I know his real name) doesn’t have a role, but that’s because he’s not on a journey, and that’s also OK. Some people have already arrived where they’re going to be. And as I’ve written before, Ron and Leslie may have competing views of government in the big picture, but when it comes down to specifics, Ron is completely won over by Leslie’s vision and enthusiasm. When he promises “Ron Swanson. Any other damn thing you might need,” he means it.
But even if the episode hadn’t reached its big emotional reveal and the cost for Leslie’s transgression, cementing this as a truly excellent season of television, “Citizen Knope” was still a phenomenal, joke- and character-dense episode. One of the things I appreciated most about this and about “The Trial of Leslie Knope” was the way it found a role for Chris by really making him Leslie’s boss again, and by focusing on the challenges he’s faced in managing her. She’s a pain when she misleads him because she’s a disappointment. But her dedication and inability to relax can also be irritating, especially when she’s trying to palm him a nasal spray and trying to toss down chairs as obstacles in his way. “Leslie Knope! I am much faster than you!” he declared. “I have Bumbleflex!” And his glee when Leslie presented him with a (typically) perfect gift was wonderful and spontaneous. It’s been a total delight to see Rob Lowe show off his comedic range in this role, and I hope it’s a facet of his career her pursues in his career. There’s a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking.
I also appreciate that the show is making Ben pay some costs too, and giving credence to the idea that without government, he’s genuinely unmoored. Even when he messed up his political career, Ben could go back into accounting and stay connected to something he loved. But without that, he’s sort of lost, and it’s a privilege that he can turn down a good job to figure out who he is without government. There isn’t exactly a career to be made in “model trains and toy Gandalfs,” as Jean-Ralphio puts it.
And this was a very nice episode about what a waste it is to keep Leslie, and people with Leslie’s energy, out of government when they can do so much good there. She may be right about the deliciousness of salgar on butterscotch pudding or strawberry margaritas, but that doesn’t mean inventing a new spice is the best possible use of her time. A lack of Yahtzee access is not actually a human rights disaster. Getting mired into fights about Chutes and Ladders is not going to change the world, or even Pawnee. It’s the greatest gift Chris could give Leslie, and his adopted town, to get his most energetic employee back on the job. And I’m pretty sure that Ron is right, and the real Leslie will replace a marshmallow facsimile in City Council by next May (I do like how Pawnee’s election and swearing-in cycle are attuned to sweeps. It’s so convenient.). But not because it’s consistent with some corny arc the show needs to accomplish. It’s because Pawnee needs her there even more than we do.
*A side note. I think the staff is exempt from Hatch Act rules because their positions aren’t mostly funded by federal grants. These things. They do get to me.