Parks And Recreation returns tonight with an unintended double-length episode after an unexpected month-long hiatus, all of which is a side effect of NBC’s decision to cancel Welcome To The Family after just three episodes. It might feel slightly wrong to air the Halloween-themed “Recall Vote” in the middle of November—although, honestly, Halloween is more in the background here than it has been in previous such episodes—but the more obvious impact of pairing these two episodes is felt when the recall results come in. After all, “Filibuster” is the ultimate encapsulation of who Leslie Knope is as a councilwoman, tirelessly standing up for the rights of others against tremendous odds and at great cost to herself. Even in the moment, her defeat of Jeremy Jamm feels like a pyrrhic victory, but it’s still a moment to feel good about, if only because it leaves Leslie in the mood for some unspeakable, roller skate-themed fun with her husband. If the schedule had played out the way it was meant to, Leslie would have had a week to bask in the glow of that one final victory. As it plays out tonight, she gets recalled less than 10 minutes after she completes her filibuster.
The themes explored in “Filibuster” and “Recall Vote” are closely related; it’s just that one story takes a positive view while the other is more negative. The first episode is all about the characters identifying their potential, while the second episode is concerned with the limits of that potential. As April wisely tells a scared Andy in “Filibuster,” everyone is just faking their way through until they figure it out: Leslie is improvising a political last stand of questionable wisdom, Tom is trying to prove himself worthy of Nadia’s affections, and Ron is going to kill as many deer—real or virtual—as it takes until his hunting prowess is affirmed once and for all. Everybody who gets a subplot in “Filibuster” has something to prove, and all of them achieve their goals, give or take Andy (who does at least find his wallet and possibly some dumpster noodles).
This is Parks And Recreation at its most hopelessly, unapologetically optimistic. Sure, it’s never a surprise when Ron triumphs over anything, and Tom does at least demonstrate a sense of humor and just barely enough maturity that it might make sense for Nadia to remain interested in him, even after she returns from her vacation—or Doctors Without Borders mission, same difference—to Rwanda, which Tom is fairly sure is full of rich guys who will buy her whatever she wants. It’s not that it’s so unlikely that Tom could ever seem like boyfriend material to Nadia, but the key is that the episode allows Tom to present the best side of himself. The more straightforwardly funny option for this subplot would likely have been for Tom to make a complete ass of himself, but “Filibuster” prefers to build up chemistry between the characters and mine a mix of comedic and emotionally satisfying moments, which is very Parks And Recreation. Besides, this is an episode that boldly endorses Andy’s competence to run a major charity, which, if nothing else, is going out on just a bit of a limb.
It’s really with Leslie’s story that the episode’s optimism becomes most apparent. When Kristen Bell shows up at the end as former Eagleton councilwoman Ingrid de Forest to tell Leslie she is her constituency’s candidate in the recall election, this could be one last little coda of defeat, a tough reminder of the fact that Leslie is surrounded by political opponents. But Ingrid thanks Leslie for her selfless and asks her out for “a celebratory plate of… I think you call them waffles.” The political reality is that Ingrid is still going to run for that seat, and she might well win, but, in this moment, Leslie is above politics, or at the very least apart from it. Leslie sure as hell isn’t perfect, something that the show has acknowledged at points this season, most notably in “Doppelgangers.” But both her faults and her strengths are simply not those of a career politician. If she’s going to lose, perhaps it is best that she loses on a matter of principle, rather than as a result of some silly gaffe or lapse in judgment. Even when Leslie is defeated, at least it happens in the service of doing the right thing.
And yet, that idea doesn’t really carry over to “Recall Vote,” where Leslie loses and loses hard. This is her biggest setback since she was forced to break up with Ben at the beginning of season four, and even that doesn’t really compare to her defeat here. At least the situation with Ben could mostly be blamed on external factors; the two lovers made some dumb mistakes, yes, but their problems could be traced back to Chris’ rule about workplace romances, which certainly wasn’t devised with Ben and Leslie specifically in mind. In contrast, this episode sees Leslie face the judgment of the people of Pawnee, and they find her wanting. Honestly, this was probably the only realistic result. As Leslie reads to herself toward the end of the episode, the recall movement had a huge financial advantage, and it’s always easier to get people to vote against somebody than for them, particularly in ultra-low turnout affairs like city council recall elections.
This was also the only result that really makes sense in terms of how the Parks And Recreation creative team has structured this season. Leslie’s unabashed idealism and her tendency to lose focus have always made her political ambitions a longshot; season four only justified her narrow victory over Bobby Newport after her transcendent closing speech in “The Debate.” The show has given Leslie no such moment of reckoning this year, except possibly her decision to spearhead the effort to save Eagleton. But if that was meant to feel like an impressive, career-making moment, it never really landed as such, and anyway, Leslie lost any hope of Eagleton-specific support in “Filibuster.” Defeat really is the only logical endpoint for this arc, and “Recall Vote” spends a lot of time examining just what that means for Leslie. As it turns out, it means a massive depressive episode—one she draws Ben into as he realizes that he too may have already peaked—and a trip to Pawnee’s most terrifying pawnshop for some unlicensed tattoos.
It isn’t just Leslie and Ben who think they may have reached their peak, as Tom again struggles with whether it’s time to give up on his Rent-a-Swag dreams and sell out to Jean-Ralphio’s dad. In his way, Ron, too, must recognize the limits of what he can accomplish with his furniture-making, as Pawnee’s local tastemaker Annabel Porter (Childrens Hospital’s Erinn Hayes) declares his chair one of the city’s top trends. Incidentally, there’s no better proof that “Recall Vote” is all about how to deal with failure than the fact that Pawnee’s most influential voice is a former phonebook model whose major life accomplishment is spending a few months in Kate Bosworth’s beach house. There just isn’t a whole lot of room for success in a city where someone like Annabel Porter holds near-dictatorial sway.
Returning to Ron, it’s not that he is ever even remotely tempted by the idea of countless Chinese children making official knockoffs of his handmade chairs, but that in itself is instructive. Ron understands who he wants to be, and since he’s basically that person already, he doesn’t feel the need to chase any greater dream. Leslie, Ben, and Tom don’t yet have that peace of mind, and so they end up defining themselves more of in terms of their achievements. That makes the prospect that they have already achieved as much as they can ever hope to deeply scary, and it’s an open question whether any of them really finds the right path forward. Tom does end up selling Rent-a-Swag, justifying his business decision on the grounds that he now has the seed money for his next business venture, even though that was pretty much the only good idea Tom has ever come up with. Ben does little more than sober up and move forward, while Leslie decides—with some much-needed prompting from Ann—that she should make the most of her final 30 days on the city council. Never has it been quite so uncertain what’s next for Leslie or for Parks And Recreation, but perhaps it’s worth hoping that Leslie can find success and happiness in ways that aren’t quite so dependent on ceaseless activity. Then again, as long as Leslie can find a way to do good for the people of Pawnee, she’s going to find a way to be happy. No recall vote can change that.
Recall Vote: A-
- As you can see above, I gave both episodes an A-. While quite a bit of that was down to the way the episodes developed their related themes—the main topic of this review—there’s also the rather important fact that both episodes were really damn funny. To that end, here’s a brief sample of lines that actually made me laugh out loud, which isn’t all that common an occurrence when watching by myself.
- “I didn’t want to be a cliché. Yet another professional Indian skeeball player?”
- “I’m not a sore loser. It’s just that I prefer to win, and when I don’t, I get furious. Employee!”
- “I know this is a dire situation, but, I swear to god, this is like a crazy sex fantasy for me.”
- “Hey man, leave my gong alone. The reverb is the best part!”
- “Together, we truly did steal a bear from your pregnant friend.” Tatiana Maslany better come back, and soon. Otherwise, I think it would be appropriate to riot.
- “It’s loosely based on the Klingon greeting salute.” “I just learned that, and if I had known, I would not have agreed to it.”
- “My favorite fishmonger now makes house calls.” “Finally!” Ah, Donna. She may care about where she gets her fish, but she doesn’t give a fuck about whether people have the proper hunting licenses.