“Leslie And Ron,” the second of tonight’s episode, is an emotional triumph for Parks And Recreation, an immensely satisfying conclusion to an arc that’s only four episodes (and just eight days) old. That’s a remarkable feat, and the overriding reason that the episode succeeds is that the show has long since reached the point where the writers trust Leslie and Ron, not to mention Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman. The episode is a virtual two-hander between the old workplace proximity associates, with not a single other person—save that janitor, still rocking out to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” after all these years—spotted outside of the flashbacks for the vast majority of the episode. And, when it comes time for the episode to shift from comedy to drama, both the characters and the actors are ready. We get a moment of straightforward, honest-to-goodness emotional vulnerability from Ron, as he admits at long last that he once felt lonely and sad enough to try to ask Leslie for a job with the federal government. Yeah, I think we’re still going to need a little more time for that one to sink in.

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I have to admit, as Leslie started running through her litany of absurd theories as to why Ron left the Parks department, I figured the answer was already staring Leslie in the face: Ron had left because, as the board noted, Leslie took April away from him. After all, April is Ron’s best friend, give or take that one guy that Ron never talks to. But even that would have been too specific, too apart from the central dynamic that drives this episode. Ron’s departure, it turns out, was never about one specific person or one specific incident, but rather about his melancholy recognition that a life he had learned to like in spite of himself was now gone forever. To get back even a glimmer of the old Parks department, he would have needed to swallow his pride in a way that we’ve never seen Ron do before, in a way that seems anathema to everything we’ve learned of Ron over seven seasons. The fact that he came this close to doing exactly that is a pretty damn powerful discovery for the show to make.

So much of the episode’s success rests on Nick Offerman’s acting. He projects such quiet heartache in those flashbacks; his body language and his shuffling gait suggest a man far removed from Ron’s usual hyper virility. And all this is so unexpected, because the way Parks And Recreation set up the Morningstar mystery in “2017”—and the way the audience would be likeliest to look at it, given all we know of the two characters—it appeared that the solution would lie in one or both of the characters doing something wrong. Even when Ron isn’t in full-on libertarian superhero mode, most of his conflicts tend to be driven by differences of ideology, and the show typically mines emotional beats from how he deals with a world where most everyone, especially Leslie, disagrees with him on something or other.

“Leslie And Ron” has plenty of that, revealing the positive side as Ron explains he hired Leslie because he respected her refusal to back down—well, that and her baked goods were delicious—and the more negative side as Ron throws temper tantrums over his enforced captivity, up to and including a profane misquote of the constitution. All these moments, even the pettily emotional ones, come from a fundamentally cerebral place, as everything is filtered through Ron’s unbending worldview. His decision to ask Leslie—not just that, coyly ask her—for a job is about as straight from the heart as anything we’ve seen from Ron, which makes the eventual drunken Billy Joel and saxophone party all the more glorious as a release.

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“William Henry Harrison,” the first half of tonight’s pair, is definitely the more minor of the two entries, with its main plot about Leslie and Ron mostly there to provide necessary foundational work for the subsequent episode. While the two main characters go through some fairly familiar beats here—their interactions are in line with what we saw “2017,” not to mention stories from earlier episodes that found the two in more temporary conflict—the episode more than compensates by leaning on the wider ridiculousness of Pawnee, with Childrens Hospital star Erinn Hayes returning as the town’s greatest tastemaker and cultural thought leader, Annabel Porter. (Admittedly, I would have said Lil’ Sebastian Lookalike was the much bigger celebrity draw. And where the hell was the one and only Detlef Schrempf on that list?) As a relatively recent addition to the Parks And Recreation universe, Annabel’s appearance doesn’t carry the possibly valedictory air that, say, Joan Calamezzo’s—or even that Shania Twain-loving janitor’s—appearance did, but that just means the jokes are fresher. Her endorsement of high-end beef milk is a nice spin on Pawnee’s usual obsession with asinine foodstuffs, proving the town is just as adept at poorly choosing high-end goods as it is stuffing itself with the most sugar-soaked Sweetums calorie bombs.

The rest of the episode offers some nice complementary material. I must admit I wept just a little bit for the apparent end—or, at least, non-acknowledgment—of Ben and Terry’s secret friendship (or maybe Ben only liked Larry?), but it’s hard to argue with Terry’s absurd love of notary public lore and Ben’s slow-burning freak-out about his paperwork nightmare. As the resident straight man, Ben can be a bit of a tricky character, as he’s much too sane and rational to not get in the way of a lot of the show’s plotlines, and his love for Leslie and willingness to ignore her craziness can only explain so much. As such, Parks And Recreation sometimes likes to preoccupy Ben with something achingly mundane yet totally impossible as a way of distracting him from his wife’s and his friends’ latest rounds of self-destruction, and that has the added benefit of giving Adam Scott the opportunity to just completely lose his mind. Any plotline that ends with Ben not just wondering whether but actively explaining his present situation with the fact that he’s a ghost, doomed to wander the Earth until he gets these damned forms signed, is a winner in my book.

Taken together, “William Henry Harrison” and “Leslie and Ron” present a compelling case for why—whatever NBC’s actual motives—the decision to air two episodes a pop serves the show well in its final season. The first episode is such standard Parks And Recreation fare, and I suspect I’d like it less if it were the only offering of the week; the phrase “spinning its wheels” probably would have featured in a theoretical solo review. But here, the episode gets to work as prologue to “Leslie And Ron,” an episode that would have worked brilliantly by itself but benefits from the immediate support of its predecessor. After all, “William Henry Harrison” is the setup and exposition for “Leslie And Ron,” and that fact allows the second episode to get right to the business at hand of sorting through the pair’s squabbles. That tight focus on just two characters might well make “Leslie And Ron” the most structurally daring episode the show has done, but it doesn’t feel that way when it’s complemented by a more traditional entry. I’m still not crazy about the fact that NBC is so quickly burning through the last Parks And Recreation episodes ever, but at least that choice appears to be making the episodes themselves work even better than they otherwise might.

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Stray observations:

  • As a presidents nerd, I enjoyed all the William Henry Harrison stuff, particularly the museum’s wonderfully absurd assertion that The Wire would have swept the Emmys if Harrison had just worn a damn coat. Still doesn’t excuse that one caption incorrectly stating Harrison was president in 1840 when that he was actually president in 1841—he only won the election of 1840, then was inaugurated the subsequent year, like I need to tell any of you that—but what the hey.
  • “One day, Magnus, I will wear you as a jacket.” Ron chooses celebrities and mortal enemies well, I think we can all give him that much.
  • “Now come with me as we binge-watch the future.”
  • “You mean to tell me you thought you’ve had an actual landmine on your desk?” Really glad they returned to Ron’s beloved claymore, even if I share his heartbreak that it wasn’t an actual working explosive.

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