Even at this late stage, Parks And Recreation is perfectly built to tell a story like “Ann And Chris.” This episode is an extended goodbye to its title characters and the actors behind them, with only the faintest wisp of a plot to distract from the alternately funny and emotional farewells. That simple setup is all the show needs to regain its laser-like focus on its characters, if only for this week.
An episode like “Ann And Chris” throws into high relief just why the past couple of seasons have struggled so much to recapture the show’s glory days. Ever since its retool at the beginning of its second season, Parks And Recreation has never been so concerned with what Leslie Knope does, but rather who she does it with. Relationships and interpersonal dynamics have always trumped plot, and the second and third seasons only needed loose narrative frameworks (most notably the Harvest Festival) to enable the further exploration of the characters. But, at a certain point, the show began to run out of new things to say about its ensemble, and so the show came to depend on bigger and more involved narrative arcs to drive its later seasons.
Some of those big, overarching plotlines have worked okay—season four’s election arc is far from perfect, but it did produce some wonderful, hilarious television—but they too often feel tangential from the fundamental appeal of Parks And Recreation, which is the people in the Parks department. It’s telling then that the two absolutely essential episodes in seasons five and six are those that turn the focus inward, consciously dispensing with the silly ongoing plots to reaffirm the personal stories that really matter. “Leslie And Ben” threw a drunken Councilman Jamm in jail so that Leslie and Ben could get married in front of their closest friends. Now “Ann And Chris” sees a pregnant Ann Perkins throw odious recall organizer Kathryn Pinewood into a headlock, which is as good a way as any to represent just why friendship is far more important and lasting than any political office. It’s damn near impossible to sustain a 22-episode season on such plot-free character studies, but the occasional prospect of such episodes does mean that, every once in a while, Parks And Recreation can still pack one hell of a wallop.
This episode is a grand valedictory statement for Ann Perkins and Chris Traeger, and both are summed up less in terms of who they are as individuals and more in terms of what they have meant to the group as a whole. There are well over a dozen little vignettes, as everyone says their own particular farewell. At first, the structures of the goodbyes match the roles that Ann and Chris have historically played on the show. Ann, so often the reactive straight woman, is someone the other characters say goodbye to: Donna bids farewell to her last real competition on the Pawnee dating scene, Tom graciously deletes her contact info from his phone and serenades her with one last rambling story of a future club opening, and Andy suddenly remembers that they used to date before wishing her good luck in Mexico. Chris, the man of boundless energy and enthusiasm, ambushes his colleagues with something truly horrible: a set of goodbye presents that are way, way more thoughtful than a gift card for three pans. He has his own big goodbyes to say to all his friends, even if April can anticipate hers.
“Ann And Chris” underlines the different roles that the episode’s title characters fulfill in Ann and Ben’s little scene. This is the only such sequence that doesn’t feature a proper goodbye as such. As the pair swap tips on how to handle their mad but wonderful partners, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, in Ben, Leslie found the male version of Ann to spend the rest of her life with, while Ann found the male Leslie in Chris. As such, it makes sense that Ann and Ben never really became friends: They are sort of the same person, except Ben is a massive nerd. It’s not that Chris and Leslie are precisely the same person, either. Chris, for all his inestimable passion, doesn’t have the kind of constantly overreaching ambition that Leslie displays on a regular basis, which is why Leslie spends the episode running around Pawnee on a circuitous quest to break ground at the park, whereas Chris devotes most of his energy to proving that “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers is totally dancing music.
Indeed, Chris has always been Leslie without the vision, someone who shares her idealistic faith in public service but without the grander goals that would make him look beyond government’s often rigid rules. That difference in personalities made Chris a formidable antagonist in “Jerry’s Painting” and “The Trial Of Leslie Knope,” and it helps explain why Chris’ goodbye to Leslie is more professional than personal. He talks about what a great experience it has been working with her as opposed to simply knowing her, and that sounds about right. Even if a hyperactive Chris occasionally declared Leslie his best friend, they were really the best of colleagues, and such a bond is worth celebrating on its own terms. Chris’ true best friend is Ben, and that’s why he immediately recognizes exactly who came up with the idea of a gorgeous new memory box for his unborn son. Chris and Ben’s friendship has generally been left in the background, but it’s one of the most authentic relationships on the show, and a lot of that is down to how good Rob Lowe and Adam Scott are at modulating and ultimately matching their characters’ very different energy levels. On paper, such a friendship makes no damn sense—something the show hinted at in their earliest appearances, where Ben seemed to resent Chris’ consequence-free positivity—but the show has left little doubt that each really is the best friend that the other will ever have.
Still, what makes “Ann And Chris” special is not in how it reaffirms these characters’ narrative roles but rather in how it subverts them right to the very end. Yes, Ann is a largely neutral bystander for Tom and Andy’s wackiness—a description that also quite adequately describes their past romantic relationships. But there are four people on Parks And Recreation with whom Ann has always sought deeper connections: She long ago forged such bonds with Leslie and Chris, but she has struggled to create similar connections with Ron and April. Ron’s goodbye, in which he gruffly mentions that he has enjoyed parts of their time together, causes not only Ann but also an adjacent Larry to break down in tears of overwhelmed joy. (The outsize reaction to Ron’s goodbye is also a nice way to make a joke out of Larry’s own heartfelt farewell without totally undermining it.) Ann gets an even more emotional moment with April, as the former’s genuine, matter-of-fact happiness for April and Andy’s marital bliss wears down the very last of April’s defenses. It’s fitting that one of April’s last lines to Ann would be “I love you too,” complete with hug, but it’s even more fitting that her actual last line would be, “Get off me, wench!” That’s as good a way as any to define Ann and April’s relationship, with the possible exception of a bag of bras, knives, and loose onions.
That brings us to Leslie and Ann. It’s here that the episode really puts to rest the notion that Ann cannot rise above her usual role as bemused bystander, as it’s her refusal to give up that convinces Leslie to do whatever it takes to break ground at Pawnee Commons. Leslie and Ann’s efforts to get some Sweetum’s sodas for Harold at Public Works constitutes the closest thing “Ann And Chris” has to a discernible story, but even this is just an excuse to bring back a few more familiar faces. Kathryn Pinewood, “Pistol” Pete Disellio, and Perd Hapley make an odd trio, but there are only so many characters with a preexisting connection to Ann. I can actually buy that Pistol Pete is one of the five or so most important people to Ann outside of the show’s main ensemble, but that’s more an indication of how few solo storylines Ann has been given over the years than anything else. Kathryn Pinewood is the contextually appropriate stand-in for all of Leslie’s former nemeses; I’m specifically thinking of Parker Posey’s “Eagleton” character Lindsay Carlisle Shay, whom Ann casually promised to brain with a baseball bat if it would help her best friend. Ann doesn’t visit quite that level of physical violence on Ms. Pinewood—though given that crack about “unmarried preggos,” she deserves whatever’s coming to her—but that headlock is still plenty impressive. And anyway, this entire subplot is more than justified by the revelation that Ann once went on a date with Perd Hapley. She claims it ended with her running away from his precisely explained attempt at a kiss, but that sounds awfully convenient.
Leaving aside the question of whether Ann was once banging Perd Hapley (oh, she totally was), the episode brings Leslie and Ann’s friendship full circle. It’s a bit shocking to see an actual clip from the oft-forgotten first season, and Ann makes it clear how little the park really matters when she jokes that she now has her party and the friendship is over. Again, it doesn’t matter what absurd hoops Leslie has to jump through so that she can break ground at Pawnee Commons, or even if she accomplishes that feat at all. The important thing is that she did it all with Ann Perkins by her side, and that partnership made both of them better people. Strictly speaking, Leslie and Ann’s friendship isn’t why the show made such massive strides in its second season, but it isn’t hard to imagine that the in-universe reason for Leslie’s improvements were because of her friendship with Ann. As she observes on that bench, Ann taught her how to throw bureaucratic caution to the wind and how to be patient—or to be more patient, at the very least.
As Leslie says in the final scene, Chris and Ann’s departure is normal. It’s no big deal. And you know what? That’s absolutely true. People move away all the time, and life goes on. But that’s why their exit is so heartbreaking. At its best—and “Ann And Chris” represents Parks And Recreation at its very best—this show has always excelled in deriving the greatest emotional impact from the most basic and universal of situations. For all Pawnee’s absurdity, for all Leslie’s absurdity, Ann has always been that beacon of normality, that connection to real, human emotions. Her departure leaves Leslie awash in the sort of deep, aching sadness that even waffles might not be able to soothe. The final moments of “Ann And Chris,” as Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” plays, the camera pulls back to gaze upon Pawnee, and the remaining characters go on with their lives, feels like it could so easily be how the show’s series finale ends. And honestly, this whole episode feels like an early preview of that eventual final story. I won’t pretend to know how good the journey will be from tonight’s episode to the series finale, whenever that might be. But, if this story is any indication, the show’s conclusion will be worth waiting for.
Enough about the future. It’s time to say goodbye to Ann and Chris and, by extension, to Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe. Tonight’s episode offers as clear an encapsulation as any about just what these two actors have brought to the show during their time on it, and the Parks And Recreation ensemble will feel just a little less complete for their absence. So then, farewell, Chris Traeger. (Chris Traeger!) And farewell Ann Perkins, you beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox. Goodbye, musk ox.
- “By the way, you’re out of Easter ham and Thanksgiving turkey. Great party.” Ron is shockingly demonstrative in this episode. I mean, he shakes Chris’ hand… twice.
- Say what you will about Orin, but he gives it his all as the Easter Bunny. He’s downright pleasant so long as he’s completely hidden and forced to pretend he’s someone else.
- “The story of that appeal is that it was heartfelt, and, in response to that appeal, I respond, ‘Okay.’” Seriously people, Perd and Ann were an item. You think Perd is going to open up so emotionally for someone he only ever went on a single date with? Oh no. Oh no.
- Rob Lowe gets to pay homage to his Killing Kennedy role with that quick impression. Although I believe Andy is correct in saying that that particular line originated on Family Guy.
- Did anyone think that soda quest was somehow going to end in a Mark Brendanowicz cameo? I mean, I don’t really know why that would have made any sense—indeed, given Mark and Ann’s romantic past, it pretty much would have had to have been super awkward—but if the whole point of that sequence was to cram in surprising cameos, Mark’s reappearance would have been surprising. And, if I remember anything about Mark Brendanaquitz, probably a bit boring.
- My favorite goodbye scene might actually be the one featuring Chris, April, and Donna. Chris’ simple acknowledgment that he’s aware that Donna thinks he’s hot is great, as is April’s little smile when Chris says she anticipated everything he was going to say, except for the fact that he is proud of her. It also ends with Donna grabbing Chris’ butt, which even Chris can’t object to.