In tonight’s finale of Parks & RecreationThis post contains spoilers through the season four finale of Parks and Recreation.
When I was 19, I ran to be Democratic Party co-chair of my ward in New Haven. In a lot of towns, that might have been an appointed post, but in New Haven it was a job you had to actually campaign for, and so for months, I made like Leslie Knope has for the past season of television, hitting up churches and senior centers and community meetings, and posing for some truly hilarious campaign literature. After shaking hands at the precinct for twelve straight hours on Election Day, I couldn’t bear to be in the room when the vote totals were read out, and so I waited outside in the cold. The sight of my running mate and campaign staff running screaming outside to tell me we’d won was one of the weirdest, most cinematic moments of my entire life. I was not nearly as good at politics as I trust that Leslie Knope will prove to be — there’s a reason I write — but I tell you this to explain that I feel a special kinship with this season, and with this character despite its flaws. I know how this feels, and this episode of Parks and Recreation captured this moment’s terrors and joys perfectly. And this season of Parks and Recreation pulled off an extremely tricky transition for this marvelous show beautifully.
The election itself is governed by Pawnee’s marvelously specific manifestation of the oddities that plague all local elections. “In the event of an exact tie, the seat is awarded to the male candidate and the female candidate is put in jail,” the registrar explains to the candidates and their campaign managers. “I don’t think it would hold up in court, but it is city law.” There are a lot of candidates for a relatively minor office — Leslie’s moment of despair that Brandi Maxxx might win was a perfect example of the possible spoiler, the thing every campaign can’t possibly predict or prepare for. And while the show didn’t spend time on the hilarities of checking off voter rolls (usually with all the campaigns monitoring ID checks and crossing off the names of voters who have made it alongside some doughty poll workers, it’s so fitting that Leslie’s epic contest against Bobby Newport came down to a recount. The only way it could have been more perfect is if Bobby’s support for Leslie — “Another awesome point by Leslie. It’s why I’m voting for you,” he tells a crew of reporters at a poll-opening press conference — made up for Jerry forgetting to vote in his enthusiasm to hand out Leslie’s flyers and ended up handing her the election.Speaking of Jerry, I thought this was note-perfect, and a lovely continuation of the ways in which Leslie’s campaign have given the under-served characters on the show nice character moments. Jerry’s night in licking envelopes with Donna let us see him as someone who loves quantifiable, repetitive work, a characteristic that should be boring, but that ends up seeming rather charming instead. And similarly, while Donna found Jerry’s zen fascinatingly bizarre, this season’s found ways for her to be a hero, whether she’s sacrificing her baby to secure Leslie the vans she needs to get voters to the polls or saving April and Andy from April’s accidental erasure of all of the Parks and Recreation’s departments files. This is a vision of politics where everyone has something to give, and everyone’s contributions matter. Well, maybe except Jean-Ralphio, who shows up to declare himself ready to join city government: “Guess whose got two thumbs and was just cleared from insurance fraud.”
Things came together beautifully for Leslie’s core crew, too. Ron may be stoic, pronouncing the word care as if it’s foreign to him, but as he explains to Leslie when asking her to drive him back to her campaign party, “I’ve had eleven whiskies.” He’s as stressed as everyone else, even with a gorgeous, hand-made chair to relax him. And while I’d have been curious to see Ron and Leslie at odds if he took control of the city budget, I do think seeing them as allies, with Ron more free to be a thorn in her side should be fun. Ann may not have been the ideal campaign manager, but she’s a perfect friend, giving Leslie advice on how to deal with Ben’s job offer (“I realized this after speaking with my best friend and relationship advisor, Ann Perkins, of the department of health,” Leslie declares when she initially explains her thinking on the job to Ben), setting up a boxing lesson for her to blow off steam, and giving her an exciting, affirming, private moment of victory. But I do hope that if Ann and Tom are to continue, the show is to make him seem a more worthy partner for her.
And April and Andy’s lovely, scattershot journey towards adulthood continued on its way. Andy may have been trying to make April feel better about the possibility of being fired when he started brainstorming dream jobs, but she recognized the common threads in his jokey fantasies, pointing out “You know, almost everything you wrote on that board as a dream job was some kind of police officer.” Some critics have worried that April’s becoming too conventional a character, but I appreciate that the show’s found a way to treat her as smart instead of merely sullen, and to give us a collaborative, warm portrait of a surprising modern marriage.
Ben and Leslie’s next step in their relationship worked perfectly, too. Ben’s defenestration from city government and decision to take the mild scandal of his relationship with Leslie onto himself was a lovely act, but it did divert him from his dream of proving he’s legitimately talented enough to work in city government again. Jen’s offer of a job gave him a new path, and made a point the show’s been subtle and smart about all season: it takes more talent to make the political system work the way it ought to instead of the way it does, to make a smart, but poorly-financed, wonky candidate like Leslie Knope beat a rich, handsome, empty entrant like Bobby Newport. And even for a talented candidate like Leslie Knope, and a race for as small a prize as a Pawnee City Council seat — or as it turns out, a New Haven ward chairmanship — elections are exhausting, expensive endeavors that take everything from the candidates. There are not a lot of people with enough to give, and given our political climate, not all of them want to invest it in the miseries of the perpetual campaign cycle. Leslie Knope is a dedicated campaigner and Ben is a bright campaign manager, but even for them, this was a difficult, error-ridden process, and their glorious, marginal victory was by no means assured.
It’s also a smart way to handle the problem I laid out at the beginning of the season: this show was always going to be better if it didn’t lurch into stupid cliches about having it all. With Ben in Washington, Leslie can promise that the couple will “make out in the Lincoln bedroom, and the Jefferson memorial, and the Supreme Court balcony,” but staying together and keeping it good will take work. For their relationship to be truly equal, Leslie has to make the kind of sacrifice Ben made for her earlier this year, to recognize that “I was being selfish. You put your whole life on hold for me. I have to return the favor.” Plus, Ben’s departure sets up Leslie with someone who will have the experience to guide her to a higher stage. If, after defeating Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, Richard Mourdock makes it to the Senate, I have an idea for who might challenge him next time around. And my Knope 2012 button is starting to feel like an awfully valuable collectors item.