This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation.
Parks and Recreation, for two seasons in a row, has made significant transitions. First, the show moved into campaign mode last season, getting Leslie on the stump and out of the Parks Department. Now, she’s working out of City Council, but we haven’t seen her there yet. First, she’s stopping in Washington, getting a sense of what it means to be a small, Pawneean fish in the big pond of Washington, DC, and Ron, left at home in Pawnee, is figuring out what it means to lead the Parks Department without Leslie there to act as a buffer for him. And in both cases, they have to confront their fears of inadequacy.
Leslie’s initially enthusiastic about visting the Nation’s Capitol. “Romantic reunions! Government meetings! Self-guided museum tours! Am I living the dream? I don’t know. Did I mention that I just walked past a food truck and bought myself a waffle sundae?” she declares cheerily as she and Andy begin their sight-seeing tour. But she quickly becomes anxious when confronted with her relative position in Washington. First, the federal official Leslie planned to meet with about funding to clean up Pawnee’s river isn’t available to talk to her, and there’s a huge stack of applications that have arrived ahead of hers. “There’s a CD inside that plays the sound of a babbling river and I was going to play that while I gave my presentation,” she tells his secretary mournfully. The woman promises to make sure Leslie’s application gets special attention—once Leslie reminds her which Pawnee she represents.
But it gets worse when she sees how easily Ben has adjusted to Washington. He’s got hot female friends who work for the Pentagon and Senators, and who tell Leslie things like “Local government is so important. My grandmother’s on the city council in her town. Gives her a reason to leave the house.” Whether he’s being polite or professional, Ben introduces Leslie to Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe as “my friend,” rather than “as my girlfriend.” He means it to be kind, telling Leslie later “I thought you’d enjoy meetings numbers 4 and 26 on Leslie’s list of amazing women.” But Leslie’s rattled, undermining herself with the Senators, apologizing for boring them, telling the women Pawnee’s “got tons of problems. We’re overrun with raccoons and obese toddlers.” One of the things that’s always been fun about Pawnee is its slight absurdity, from its cults to its gay penguins. But that eccentricity seems petty in Washington, and Leslie is worried about how she’ll keep her boyfriend’s interest when “Ben’s life is full of senators and briefings and super-PACs. I can’t even get a meeting with some bureaucrat.” Washington may be a stupid swamp town, but it’s a stupid swamp town where Leslie’s hopes and dreams rest, and it’s hard to watch her feel so small.
And back home, it’s hard to watch Ron try to compete with the memory of Leslie as he takes over the employee appreciation barbecue. With her absent, Ron’s relapsing into the kind of rigidity and antagonism that characterized him at the beginning of the series. Not only does he eliminate all the things that his employees love the most about the barbecue, including Leslie’s Parks and Dolls “one-woman show about Parks rules and regulations,” and the gazpacho-off in favor of reorienting the barbecue towards meat, he brings a pig whose “given Christian name” is Tom to the event and intends to slaughter it. “Not enough people have looked their dinner in the eye and considered the circle of life,” he declares.
But rather than bringing around everyone to his point of view, Ron gets increasingly frustrated by the Parks Department’s skepticism of his worldview. Rather than being excited, Chris’s face falls when he realizes what Ron intends to do to Tom the Pig. A park ranger rejects the permit Ron wrote for himself, telling him killing Tom is “against three laws and like a dozen health codes.” Ron’s voice strains dangerously when he tells the Parks staff to water down the beer he brought for the picnic so children can drink it. Ron’s gotten the best of Chris recently, especially when he took home the women’s studies professor Chris had a crush on. But it falls to Chris here to explain to Ron what he’s done wrong at the barbecue. “The point of the barbecue was to thank the department,” he says, not unkindly. “You chose to stay here, which is fine. But if you’re going to lead the department, you occasionally have to lead the department. And I say this as one of your closest colleagues and dearest friends.”
After both their bad days, Leslie and Ron find different ways to step up to the plate. Leslie realizes that she can use the city that overwhelms her to her advantage back home, promising before a press gaggle to make weekly cleanups of the river her office hours. And Ron roasts up Tom the Pig, but not before telling Jerry and his other staffers “Your work is appreciated. Have some corn.” Leslie’s facing challenges bigger than Ron is. But Ron still has a lot of adapting to do with her gone.