We last left Parks And Recreation on a bittersweet note: Leslie had just been elected to city council, but Ben was taking a job working on a Congressional campaign in Washington D.C. Both good things, but this meant they’d need to be apart during what would arguably be the most difficult time in their lives.
But what I’ve grown to love about Parks is its ability to remain an emotional chameleon. Because even though the memory of the sad season four “cliffhanger” (if a comedy like this can really have someone dangling from a ledge) lingered throughout the summer, I see no trace of its effects in the opening of “Ms. Knope Goes To Washington.” Leslie is gallivanting around Washington with Andy in tow, admiring the big penis of the Washington Monument and searching for National Treasure-type clues in chewing gum. Even when Leslie’s relationship with Ben (greeted at the Smithsonian with a sweet hug) is overshadowed by the passion of Andy and April’s reunion (“We’re gonna go have sex”), she shows no sign of breaking.
Leslie’s sadness creeps its way into the episode as it progresses, like dropping a bit of red food coloring into a glass of water—filthy, disgusting water, the kind found in a Pawnee river in dire need of cleaning. Her breakdown also coincides neatly with her growing disillusionment with the national government. When she shows up for her appointment, proposal for the river clean-up in hand, she’s told by a receptionist that a face-to-face with a Department of the Interior official is impossible, and she should just leave her paperwork on the top of a pile almost at cartoonish proportions. Later, she meets Sens. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snow, Nos. 4 and 26 on Leslie’s List of Amazing Women (though I’m not sure who is who), and immediately runs into the coat closet to escape everyone else at the cocktail party: tall, powerful women who put Leslie to shame. She’s so frustrated, she completely misses John McCain grasping for his coat. (So, basically, she’s like the rest of America in November 2008.)
Leslie has come a long way since the show began, when she would only reveal her weaknesses after friends like Ann practically dragged them out of her. She wanted to stay strong as an example to April, though really to women everywhere. The Leslie of season one wouldn’t go hide in a coat closet. She’d probably force herself to be polite and freak herself out later, akin to this episode’s “I need some fresh air” comment. It’s a further distinction between “Leslie Knope, the poor man’s Michael Scott” and, to quote Ron Swanson, “Leslie Fucking Knope.” This Leslie is willing to fall hard, dust herself back up, strap on her wading boots and get to work cleaning out the river even if she has to do it herself—provided Ben has her back. And I mean that both figuratively and as a reference to his ass.
In further evidence that this ain’t the same Parks And Rec we watched before, Ron is attempting to emulate Leslie in his role as head of the parks department. Now, granted, he’s not throwing the Leslie Knope Employment Enjoyment Summer Slam Grill Jam Fun-Splosion, but he is trying to have some sort of celebration for his staff, even if there is no gazpach-off or renditions of the hit musical Parks & Dolls. His is all about meat, namely Tom the pig. “Not enough people look their dinner in the eye,” Ron says as he carts Tom out, to the palpable dismay of everyone in attendance.
Both Leslie and Ron have the best of intentions when it comes to their staff. But where Leslie is adaptable and hyper-aware of their needs, Ron is stubborn in his insistence they’ll like the things he likes, the way he likes them. Some might see that as painfully obtuse, but I actually sense a lot of vulnerability in Ron, especially in “Ms. Knope Goes To Washington.” He bends over backward trying to get that meat on the grill, wanting so desperately to cook it precisely to his specifications so the staff can experience meat bliss (a state of being surely somewhere on the Ron Swanson Pyramid Of Greatness). They complain at every turn, and he winds up driving off with his BBQ still attached to his car, trailing a smoking cloud of sadness. He’s not bitter though; he’s disappointed he’s completely alone, like a little boy who catches frogs to impress girls, only to gross them out.
Once again, Parks And Rec demonstrates its emotional adaptability by having Ron transition from this pouty, sour sport into a warm-if-not-logical person. His friendship with Chris was an unlikely one built up over last season, and it pays dividends tonight when Chris lays it all on the line: He respects Ron, he likes the guy, but above all he’s the boss. For somebody who is LIT-erally an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, he can be stone-cold when he has to be. Ron not only listens to Chris, but immediately takes action, even purchasing corn over his beloved meat (though he doesn’t spare Tom). Chris lays down the law and loses zero respect for doing it.
I keep saying it, but how awesome is this show that it’s transformed before our very eyes so slowly that it seems totally natural? To me, that’s the essence of great TV writing: It takes bold steps, but makes total sense in hindsight.
On that note, I’m thrilled that Tom (non-pig version) and Ann have broken up. As this episode demonstrates, they’re both a lot sweeter when they’re not a couple, when their sometimes antagonistic rapport can be watched without the romantic undertone. Putting them together simultaneously reigned Tom in and forced Ann to come out of her shell, but both choices didn’t yield much in the way of distinct comedy—at least not in the way pairing people like Ben and Leslie together. Unless you count Tom's quip that hunger makes him feel like he just exercised, because that was a welcome respite from his usual whining.
Donna though? She’s still a lone wolf, and one I’ll watch pretty much forever. Same with Andy’s tour of the White House: Did you know it’s where Sinbad lived in First Kid? The more you know…