There’s plenty to say about Parks And Recreation, and I’m not going to pretend that right now, an hour (or three, by the time I wrap this up) removed from watching the series finale air live—albeit two hours later than it did in Canada, because NBC is NBC-ing hard tonight—I am going to be able to elucidate all the larger stories and deeper meanings of this show’s seven-year run. Thankfully, I don’t have to, not when Erik Adams wrote this and Libby Hill wrote this and the rest of the internet wrote all of this and the entire state of Indiana achieved sentience in order to write this. What I can say is that the experience of watching “One Last Ride” was something I’m not sure I’ve ever had before with a television show. As the episode moved back and forward in time to plot out the rest of its characters’ lives, I felt keenly aware of how tonight was just one small moment in my life, one built on past experiences both good and bad, and one leading to some unknown future destination. Don’t worry, I’m fully aware of how silly that sounds, and my own presence in this observation is beside the point. I just can’t think of a better way to convey the unique power that “One Last Ride” tapped into tonight.
Nothing in this finale hit me harder than Ron’s story. In a sense, it’s returning to the same emotional beats we saw in “Leslie And Ron.” After years of playing Ron as a near superman limited only by his unswerving resistance to change, Nick Offerman again brings out the vulnerable side of Ron, to devastating effect. So much of “One Last Ride” is blatant, unapologetic wish fulfillment—and for the record, I am so not complaining when I say that—but Ron’s story is different in that it represents a genuine next step for the character. This isn’t just a Ron who finds himself facing the unfamiliar prospect of an existential crisis, because we already know Ron experienced that back when he left the parks department. Rather, this is a Ron who has legitimately grown, who has recognized that there are more important things than living by some code, and who has the guts to actually reach out to Leslie in his moment of need. It took all seven seasons to get Ron to that point, and the completion of that journey is enough to make “One Last Ride” worthwhile all on its own. That Ron’s story ends with him paddling a canoe out onto a lake, accepting a job working for the federal government because he recognizes there’s nowhere he would rather be, is just the perfect capstone. Also, Ron looks damn good in that park ranger uniform, but then you already knew that.
Ron’s story is only the most nakedly emotional plotline of an episode positively drenched in sentimentality. “One Last Ride” doesn’t really pretend that it’s going to be anything else. The transitions from present to future—with Leslie embracing a friend and paying him or her a tribute as the screen slides from one scene to another—are deliberated paced and earnestly played. They are a little hokey, maybe, but the show doesn’t want to make a joke out of Leslie’s relationship with Donna or with April and Andy. The ordering is important here: Donna leads off because her relationship with Leslie is relatively straightforward—there’s none of Tom’s narcissism or Andy’s childlike obliviousness to color their most heartfelt interactions—but she’s still a peripheral enough character that telling the rest of her story allows Parks And Recreation to ease into its finale’s ambitious structure. Following Craig next lets “One Last Ride” get even goofier and push even further into the future. Even if some of the audience is hesitant to follow its characters all the way to the ends of their lives, it’s easier to get on board with that when the first to get that treatment is just Craig, especially when we know he and Typhoon have a long, happy, and complaint-filled life together.
As much as there’s goofiness to spare in the Craig flash-forward—though the revelation that Ron is Craig and Typhoon’s best man damn near moved me to tears, offering a pathos-filled payoff to a relationship only set up last week—“One Last Ride” still essentially plays Craig and Leslie’s relationship straight. Characters like Craig are absurd, and their stories should be as well, but Parks And Recreation is careful to make the ridiculousness track with what those characters have earned. Garry’s fate is preposterously nice, but all the episode really does is take everything the show has already told us about Garry’s domestic bliss and resolutely positive attitude, and then it just lets those elements direct the rest of the character’s long life. We’re invited to laugh with Craig Garry, not at them.
If there’s an exception to all this, it’s with Jean-Ralphio, but that subversion of the episode’s established tone only comes after “One Last Ride” has established the storytelling grammar for its flash-forwards. The episode gets to make a gag out of Leslie’s sincere if half-hearted farewell transitioning to Jean-Ralphio’s near-future tombstone, and that works as a visual gag in part because so much of the preceding sequences have been straightforwardly dramatic. And even then, even after learning Jean-Ralphio will one day fail spectacularly in faking his own death—pulling the ol’ Tom Sawyer, as I’m sure Jean-Ralphio will call it for reasons he doesn’t remotely understand—the episode lets him have a final earnest moment as he declares his love for Leslie Knope. Yes, because this is still Jean-Ralphio we’re talking about, the moment plays as ridiculous. Yet Amy Poehler and Ben Schwartz know their characters so completely that they can still find the real kernel of emotion in Leslie’s “I know.” That moment is the Parks And Recreation balancing act in one ludicrous nutshell.
And, when it’s appropriate, “One Last Ride” doesn’t even really try for laughs: April and Andy’s story has its fair share of good-natured silliness, but April’s last round of rebellion against the grossness of adulthood is in service of a relatively dramatic human story. Parks And Recreation wouldn’t be able to compress such a huge plotline like April and Andy deciding to have kids into a mere vignette if it didn’t have a razor-sharp understanding of who its characters are and why they might decide to have kids. Indeed, there’s a real danger here that the show would be unable to explain April’s change of heart without making some reductive argument about how a person’s life isn’t complete without children, or whatever. But in just a single Leslie speech, the episode locates a more nuanced argument, one that implicitly takes us back to why April and Andy got together in the first place, against all apparent logic. The notion of building a team—one that can include children, but doesn’t have to—also takes us to Leslie’s valedictory speech, in which she recognizes that the real value of doing work is defined by those you do it with.
For Leslie, there will never be anyone more important on that score than Ben Wyatt. (Sorry, I’m being told the correct answer is “Ann Perkins.” To paraphrase the great Rasheed Wallace, hug don’t lie!) But leaving aside Leslie’s true soulmate, who is Ann Perkins, and then her secondary soulmate, who is Joe Biden, we return to Ben Wyatt. The offhand mention in Tom’s flash-forward that Ben won his election is a nice touch, particularly for those who grew a little tired of the show’s plot-heavy political storylines, and it also sets up the closest thing to a conflict in this valedictory hour. After all, Ben and Leslie have similar long-term career goals, and it’s a natural question to ask how they might resolve being up for the same office. The conflict here is never really between Leslie and Ben, but rather a byproduct of the show’s attempt to find a resolution that serves both characters equally. There’s never really any question that Leslie is the one who is going to end up governor—and quite possibly more, if that Secret Service detail at Garry’s funeral is any indication—but the show also has to do right by Ben. It hits just the right balance for Leslie to be willing to leave the most momentous decision of her life to random chance, and in turn for Ben to recognize that this is Leslie’s dream to chase.
This episode is the logical conclusion of the storytelling and the joke-making formulas that Parks And Recreation built for itself. Every sitcom finds itself in a race against time, trying to wring all the humor and all the pathos its premise that it can until the audience’s ever-increasing familiarity and the show’s constant need to top what came before threaten to create a show that is somewhere between a caricature and a shadow of its former self. Shows’ golden ages can be frighteningly short, especially when a show touches such greatness that even a step down to simply being reliably good feels like a crushing disappointment. Depending on who you ask, Parks And Recreation’s apex might not have been much more than three seasons, but the things that allowed the show to reach the summit in the first place—its genuine love for its characters, its ever-expanding survey of Pawnee’s particularly absurdity, its willingness to go from jokes to emotions and then right back again—were also the ideal building blocks for the show’s endgame.
This wasn’t a premise that could run forever, because almost no premise is set up to do that, but the same things that let Parks And Recreation burn so brightly in its heyday are also what allowed the show to finish so strong. Every episode between “Donna And Joe” and this has constituted an extended finale to Parks And Recreation, and “One Last Ride” is more an epilogue than anything else. The last few weeks wrapped up the story we spent seven seasons watching, and tonight’s hour-long farewell showed the highlights of the stories that came after. By the very nature of the flash-forwards, we can’t really expect to see anything more than glimpses, but we see more than enough to know these people we have gotten to know are going to be fine. Better than fine. Much, much better.
And yeah, that’s pretty damn sentimental, and maybe it’s a little silly to find oneself so invested in the fates of fictional characters. But consider the last clip of the end credits, in which we see not the characters but the cast members embrace one last time as the show wraps for the final time. It reminds us of something that is tragically underscored by the dedication to Harris Wittels that follows immediately after. Those last moments remind us of the thin line separating the stories we watch from the people who make them. Sure, Pawnee was fictional. But the care and the love that built it never were, and those are what I’ll miss most.
- So many great little cameos here: Shauna Mulwae-Tweep, Kyle, Brandi Maxxxx, Jennifer Barkley, and my personal favorite, Tom’s silly English accent. Though where the hell was Detlef Schrempf?
- “I got a terminal case of get me to the front of the line at Six Flags!” Oh, Jean-Ralphio.
- “Don’t get emotional Vaughn, you’re embarrassing yourself.” I didn’t want to say anything, but Vaughn Swanson did always strike me as a bit of a softie.
- “You’re just mad because you lost.” “Oh, come on.” The Mad Adventures Of Joe And Jill, coming in February 2017 to NBC! Nah, just kidding: Joe Biden is going to be vice president forever.
- “Chip Traeger, you old son of a gun!” It was literally the most delightful moment of my entire life to have Ann and Chris back for one last visit. Here’s hoping that there are indeed some third-generation Knope-Wyatt-Perkins-Traeger kids on the way.
- “Ah, fuck, a library.” Just in case you thought Parks And Recreation didn’t have any heat left, it closes out the series by firing one last strike dead center. I could make that baseball analogy more extended and tortured if you want, but I’m told these guys are much better at that sort of thing.
- Well, that does it for me. It’s been a real pleasure writing about the last couple seasons and chatting about the show with all you fine people. I’ll see you all again at Leslie’s inauguration party.
End of review.