More often than not this season, Leslie Knope has been the architect of her own destruction. For all her eternally good intentions, there tends to be that one moment where she allows her boundless enthusiasm and single-minded determination to get the better of her. In last week’s “Anniversaries,” that impulse led to Doug and Rosie DeMarco’s disastrous appearance on Pawnee Today, and that’s frankly one of the more benign results we’ve seen recently of Leslie’s refusal to slow down or think things through. Now, it could be argued that Leslie generally faces disproportionate retribution for her misdeeds—indeed, I’m pretty sure different sectors of fandom would argue whether she receives disproportionately harsh or disproportionately light punishment—but there’s always that moment in which Leslie’s greatest strength, her willingness to do whatever it takes to make people’s lives better, becomes her fatal flaw. “The Wall” subverts that notion, as Leslie never really does anything tonight to earn the ambush interview from Eagleton newshound Mike Patterson, let alone the black eye from his producer. For once, Leslie is wholly innocent, and she is offered a dream job that will take her far away from the city that keeps rejecting her. So why doesn’t she accept that way out?
In what is easily the episode’s funniest scene—what can I say, I’m a sucker for a longwinded radiator joke—Ron provides the answer. The reason that he spends an entire day with his newborn son fixing a radiator, and the reason that he initially responds to Leslie’s heartfelt request for help with that lengthy radiator anecdote, is that he finds fixing radiators immensely satisfying. What’s more, Ron can’t trust anyone else to do the job as well as he can, and he’s willing to send away the government-chosen contractors on two months’ worth of paid vacation just so he and John [Redacted] Swanson can work in peace. Absolutely, there are selfish motivations in play here as well. Ron only came down to the third floor because he wanted to get away from his nosy, inconsiderate coworkers; indeed, there really isn’t a more quintessentially Larry move than giving the heir of Ron Swanson an outfit that proclaims him to be government property. Besides, Ron definitely derives some satisfaction from declaring his superiority to the paid workers and facilitating a blatant misuse of government funds. But those personal, even self-serving reasons don’t alter the fact that Ron fixed the damn radiator. There were ways to get all the other things he wanted—the peace and quiet, the minor defrauding of City Hall—without doing all that extra work, but then both Ron and that radiator would be worse off.
For Leslie, Pawnee is the big project that she can’t stand to turn over to anyone else. Again, there’s an element of self-aggrandizement underpinning Leslie’s actions, and she’s often displayed a paternalistic streak in how she approaches public service. Leslie isn’t perfect, but that isn’t a fair standard; even Ron is happy to admit that she’s accomplished so much for the town. And there’s really no disputing how much Leslie suffers tonight for her town. It was asking so little to be able to knock down that ugly wall separating Pawnee from the former Eagleton, but out came the bees with a thirst for Eagletonian blood (for the record, I know nothing about bees). Leslie briefly considered turning her apologies to the bee sting victims into a publicity stunt, but she accepted April’s advice to be genuine and low-key. She’s the target of Mike Patterson’s transparently fake gotcha interview, but she’s yet again the recipient of Jeremy Jamm’s general crass oiliness. For once, Leslie gets to be an innocent bystander when the latest preposterous conflict escalates, as it’s Jamm who picks the real fight with Patterson and his team. In previous stories, Leslie has been positioned as at least complicit in Pawnee’s insanity. Here, she’s merely adjacent to it, and she still gets a shiner for her trouble.
The question that Parks And Recreation has to answer is whether it’s actually healthy for Leslie to keep going back to Pawnee, even after all the misery it puts her through. She can still tap into her store of mad enthusiasm, but the supply no longer seems endless like it did in previous seasons. She’s absolutely right to agree with April’s sentiment that it sucks that the people of Pawnee treat her so poorly, but part of what used to make her special was the ability to ignore any setback, no matter how crushing. Leslie can still get there eventually, but she’s far quicker now to concede the crappiness of a given situation and she’s far more tempted by potential exit strategies. Leslie knows she is going to turn down Grant Larsen’s offer even before she goes to talk to Ron; she reaches out to him not to help her make a decision but to help her understand why she keeps making the same, seemingly wrong decision. Leslie is a larger-than-life personality who has outgrown her petty, increasingly cartoonish town, and all that should indicate it’s time for her to move onto something bigger, somewhere of sufficient scale and importance to appreciate all her talents.
Leslie concludes her meeting with Grant Larsen with renewed resolve to do what she has to do to improve Pawnee. The trick now will be for both Leslie and Parks And Recreation in general to rediscover the joy in that work. “The Wall” presents a relatively grounded version of Leslie Knope taking on over-the-top antagonists like Jeremy Jamm and Mike Patterson; that works well enough tonight as part of the effort to emphasize that Leslie has every reason to leave Pawnee, yet she specifically chooses not to. But the show likely needs to pursue a different formula over this season’s final half-dozen episodes. The Unity Concert has the makings of a new Harvest Festival. Admittedly, I don’t expect the concert to propel the show to the same dizzying heights that it attained in the third season, but the hope is that the show can pick up some much-needed narrative momentum from this latest big project. “The Wall” is one of what feels like several episodes this season in which Leslie is forced to confront the wisdom of her decisions and her outlook. Such introspection has its place, but it’s now time to move onto whatever is next for Leslie, whether that means uniting the warring towns or moving to Chicago.
- I feel it would be disrespecting Ron Swanson’s entire ethos to spend too much time talking about his son, who was born some time ago and weighed a certain number of ounces. But young John [Redacted] Swanson is indeed a looker, and he has clearly spent much of his first few weeks on this planet in Ron’s shop, explaining why his father is so confident that he can handle whatever noise those contractors intend to make. Also, Ron seems like he’s just going to be the sweetest dad, even if he would kill me for saying that.
- There’s some definite narrative weirdness in tonight’s episode. I’m still unclear why Leslie Knope is so invested in the merger even after she’s been recalled. I might speculate that the merger is political poison, so she’s the only person actually willing to deal with it, and salvaging the merger is the only real way to resurrect her own career. That actually makes a certain amount of sense to me, but Parks And Recreation this year has been so sloppy with the details of governance—never really a top priority for the show, understandably, but it’s been particularly confusing this season—that it’s hard to discern just why Leslie is so bothered at this point. Also, it feels like she should probably discuss potentially life-changing job offers with her husband as well as her boss. I mean, I get why Ron is the better person to deliver the episode’s specific message, but surely Ben would have an opinion about all this.
- Speaking of Ben, here’s hoping he gets to live out his dreams of becoming a dry cleaning middleman magnate, or whatever deeply boring, definitely successful thing it was he wanted to be. More to the point, here’s hoping he actually convinces anyone that he’s now the city manager. The fact that Tom treats him like crap throughout the episode is a good running gag, but his apparent lack of authority is something probably worth exploring sooner or later.
- Thanks to Phil for subbing in last week!