The end of Parks means the end of one of the funniest, most heartfelt shows on TV. Criminally underwatched (ratings have never been particularly high) and underappreciated (for the love of breakfast food, where is Nick Offerman’s Emmy?), Parks shined through. Much like Leslie Knope, who selflessly served a town that failed to adequately thank her, Parks did good work even when ratings and accolades rarely came, getting smarter and deeper with each passing season.
Surrounded by high-concept craziness and comedies driven by conflict, Parks stood out for staying grounded and sweet, for keeping things, if not low-stakes, then real-stakes: marriage, kids, friends, work. So many of the most compelling relationships on TV feed on twisted power dynamics or toxic affairs. But on Parks, at the end of the day, these people love each other. It’s a bunch of generous, ambitious do-gooders, even when they try to act like they hate everything (April), or like they don’t believe in government as a force for good (Ron), or like all they really care about is money and the fine -eather goods money can buy (Donna, Tom). They just want to make their town — and America! And maybe even the world! — a better place. There’s a reason Pawnee is first in friendship.
The finale brings us back to the beginning: the old Parks Department offices, where the gang has gathered for one last time before everyone splits for their next adventures. April would like everyone to “quickly shake hands, pretend we liked each other, and get out of here.” But Leslie, of course, isn’t having it. As she asks in the first of many metacommentaries on this emotional evening: “This is our last day here! Who knows when we’ll all be together again?”
Right on cue, a man walks in and says there’s a broken swing at the park near his house. This is all Leslie needs to be galvanized into action. “Actually, sir, we can help. We can and we will. Because when we used to work here, helping people was our job.”
This is the kind of thing that should be beneath her — most normal people in that second-semester-senior mindset wouldn’t bother to pay attention to this guy — but it’s true to who Leslie is and what she believes: Public service is about improving people’s lives, even in little, seemingly insignificant ways. It brings us back to when this show was in its infancy, and the biggest dream was that this crew would be able to make a park out of a pit.
Step one: an equipment requisition form, procured from one of Leslie’s scrapbooks, Thanks Form the Memories. Donna finds the form, and Leslie takes the moment to tell Donna how much she appreciates her: “Your confidence, your joie de vivre, that crazy story about you getting kicked out of En Vogue.” (“Technically, I kicked them out.”) Leslie knows Donna is going to live an exciting and full life. They hug …
AND BOOM, WE ARE IN THE FUTURE! Seattle, 2023.
The way we transition from the Pawnee-present (2017) to the future is just perfect: We glimpse what’s to come for everyone in this world just as Leslie touches them. It’s such an elegant way of reminding us that Leslie touched the lives of all her friends, and in doing so, helped them grow and fall in love and take big risks and have adventures and become the best versions of themselves. The callback to the credits is yet another tug on my all-tugged-out heartstrings.
So, where do we find Donna? She’s got punk-y red stripes in her hair (they’re very flashback-Aria), and she’s still crushing that real-estate market. She’s just landed a giant commission check and is thinking about Donna Joe Adventure Quest — although, how could they possibly beat last year? Middle Korea is so beautiful. But then Donna finds out that Joe’s school cut the math club. And math. Donna talks into her phone-watch-device (!!!) to call “Satan’s Niece,” a.k.a. April, who helps Donna set up a foundation called Teach Yo’Self with the money Donna usually uses for travel.
Back to Pawnee, 2017! We get a glimpse of Craig’s future, and as fun as he’s been to have around this past season, I can’t say I felt the need for this much finale time to be allocated to a relatively new addition to the cast. Craig married Typhoon (Ron is Typhoon’s best man), and they stay together until they’re very old, and hooray for them.
Leslie heads to the fourth floor, “the weirdest place on Earth,” with April and Andy. Leslie promises that she and Ben will always be there for Andy and April, which takes us to: Washington, D.C., 2022.
Janet Snakehole and Burt Macklin dish out some candy to trick-or-treaters and we find out that Andy is desperate to have kids, but April’s on the fence. “If all it meant was puking and getting weird stretch marks and veins everywhere, then sign me up. But at the end, we’ve brought a child into the world. That’s disgusting!” They head to dinner at Ben and Leslie’s, and it is so clear that these four hang out all the time and are up-to-date on each other’s lives, and I feel so many feelings about this time they’ve shared that I haven’t even seen. Leslie guides April about having kids without steamrolling her, which leads to EVEN MORE FEELINGS. (Back in a few, taking a crying break.)
(Okay, back.) A year later, April is having a baby, under the care of Dr. Saperstein, who is wearing zombie makeup that she put on after she went into labor. What should they name this healthy baby boy?
Andy: Burt Macklin Jr.?
April: We need a Halloween angle. How about Demon Spawn Baby Satan Dwyer?
Andy: Oh, I like that! Or, Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer, and we call him Jack for short!
We leave Jack in the loving arms of his parents and assumed-to-be-godparents to go back to the past, where Tom and Leslie are heading to Maintenance. En route, they run into Jean-Ralphio, wheelchair-bound because “I got a terminal case of get me to the front of the line at Six Flaaaaaags!” In the future, Jean-Ralphio fakes his own death as part of an insurance scam so he and Mona Lisa can open a casino in Tajikistan. In 2017, he reveals: “Leslie, I’ve always loved you.”
Leslie, stone-cold killer: “I know.”
Perfection. Except that Maintenance is closed on Fridays. If only they knew someone who could help … Oh, wait! They do, because Garry is the mayor!
But first: What’s next for Tom? After taking a “bold capitalistic gambit,” as Ron calls it, by opening 20 Tom’s Bistros in five years across America, Tom winds up “broke, destitute, and worst of all, swaggerless.” At least, that’s how Tom describes his state in a documentary he made about his failures. Tom’s still with Lucy, but his world is so dark: “I had to sell my pocket-square collection! What are people’s eyes going to be drawn to??”
(How are they financially okay if Lucy, when last we saw her, was working for Tom at what we are to believe is a no-longer-in-business restaurant? Are we that invested in Lucy at all? Who knows, who cares, I have too many warm and fuzzy feelings about Parks to dwell on such practical matters.)
Tom bounces back with the most appropriate-for-Tom business venture of them all (besides Rent-a-Swag, which really made the most sense, but oh well): He writes a best-selling book, Failure: An American Success Story. Also, he’s wearing horizontal pinstripes, which is a future trend I simply cannot support. He outlines seven different types of successful people — a Ron, a Donna, a Leslie, a Tom — and one model to avoid: being a Garry.
Garry, in 2017, is living the dream. Mayor Gergich just doesn’t know how his life could get any better than this! But we find out that it does: Garry gets reelected ten times. On his 100th birthday, his wife — hey, Christie Brinkley! — is still smoking-hot (like, actually has not aged) and still madly in love with him. He dies peacefully in his sleep that night and, at his funeral, gets the Notary Board of Indiana’s highest honor, the 21-stamp salute.
His name is misspelled on his tombstone but, eh, it’s good enough.
In 2017, Ron is fixing that broken swing. He tells Leslie he’s going to stick around Pawnee. I am going to need a GIF of Leslie swinging to the side to hold Ron’s hand, please and thank you.
Five years later, Ron resigns as chairman of Very Good Building and Development Co., even as it is in tip-top financial shape. He visits Leslie in Washington because, as he says, “I am at something of a personal crossroads.” (Leslie: “Yes! I love personal crossroads.”) “I once made the mistake of not talking to you at such a moment. I do not intend to repeat that error.” He wants to do something useful with his life, but what could that something be?
Leslie knows. Leslie always knows. She hooks Ron up with a job overseeing Pawnee National Park, which is the Platonic ideal of a job for Ron. She overrules all his objections. (“As for your qualifications, you’re Ron Swanson.”) And actually, she already accepted the job on his behalf. Girl never forgets how to forge a signature.
She leaves him to it, and the song of their friendship, “Buddy,” plays as Ron paddles in a canoe, smiling this big smile. You know how if you do some kind of exercise you’ve never tried, the next day you end up sore in muscles you didn’t even know you had? Watching this finale is making me feel feelings I didn’t even know I could feel.
Only one future left to see: Leslie and Ben. We’re in D.C. in 2025, in a beautiful house these two have been in before. Leslie’s hair looks fantastic. We hear a familiar voice say, “Hey, folks, welcome back!” WE ARE AT THE BIDENS’ HOUSE YES YES YES JOE AND JILL BIDEN ARE HERE.
This party brings Leslie to a personal crossroads of her own: The DNC wants her to run governor of Indiana — “Someone’s been reading my kindergarten dream journal!” — but Jen Barkley approaches Ben with the same offer. Pro/con lists, for once in Leslie’s life, do not solve this problem. They shelve it until the next week, when they’re back in Pawnee and the dream Leslie had in 2017 is realized: Everyone is together again at their old stomping grounds. Even Ann and Chris!
Leslie tells Ben she thinks they should flip a coin to decide who should run for governor. She says all these supportive, wonderful things about how they’ll be in it together no matter what. She gathers everyone to break the coin-toss news, but Ben cuts in: “Leslie is running for governor!” They are a fantasy couple. LOOK AT THAT EYE CONTACT. So much love. This is their “Take me to Philadelphia with you” moment, and I am overjoyed with every second of it.
Then Leslie gives this toast as clips from every season of Parks flash on the screen. Good luck not crying, everybody:
“When we worked here together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better. That’s what public service is all about. Small, incremental change every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Far and away, the best prize that life has to offer is a chance to work hard at work worth doing.’ And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love.”
Leslie winds up serving two terms as governor, by the way. Indiana University names a library after her. A fucking library.
About that swing? Leslie presents the finished product to the man who complained in the first place. “Another problem solved by the hard work of dedicated public servants!” He’s like, “Cool, thanks, bye, whatever.”
The last shot is just Leslie’s face, a determined smile, ready for all the adventures we know await her.
One last feeling, and then I promise I’ll stop: Thank you all for reading these recaps! Your comments have been delightful. I feel like we’ve all been living in Pawnee eating waffles at J.J.’s together all this time. I’ll miss you in the saddest fashion.