The End of Parks and Recreation Belonged to Leslie Knope
And rightfully so: From start to finish, the show's protagonist was its beating heart.
By some accounts, Parks and Recreation might have aired its last episode, but it isn't “over” yet, at least when it comes to the passage of time. If the series’ Tuesday finale is to be believed, Leslie Knope and her misfit crew go on to have babies, run for office, write books, start charitable foundations, and play charades with Joe and Jill Biden until at least 2048.
As far as final episodes go, Parks and Recreation negotiated the perfect balance between closure and uncertainty. Although each character got his or her own conclusion, the finale was primarily a love letter to Leslie Knope and a testament to the infinite ways, big and small, in which she opened her life to everyone around her. The finale’s title, “One Last Ride,” gestured at the pilot episode from the much-maligned first season. Amy Poehler’s character was later refined, but the Leslie Knope viewers met at the start had all the pluck and dynamism of the one who closed out the show:
I like to tell people, "Get on board, and buckle up, because my ride's gonna be a big one. And if you get motion sickness, put your head between your knees 'cause Leslie Knope's stopping for no one."
This assertion wasn't strictly true: Leslie did slow her roll from time to time. She stopped for Ben, when they fell in love, even when it threatened her career. She stopped for April, who started out as the kind of sarcastic, seemingly apathetic slacker that ladder-climbers and strivers like Leslie tend to ignore. She stopped, many times, for Ann Perkins, her noble, poetic land-mermaid, as she did for Jerry, the office punching bag with a heart of gold, and for the self-assured, independent Donna. She stopped for an eyebrow-less, Tammy-plagued Ron Swanson, and for Tom Haverford, when he wanted to shoot a flashy marriage proposal video for Lucy. She stopped for Andy, giving him his first job at City Hall as a shoe-shiner. And sometimes, her friends stopped for her, like when everyone volunteered to help run her campaign for City Council in the episode "Citizen Knope."
With Leslie's selflessness came her trademark intensity and pathological fervor for planning, a tendency that sometimes extended to her friends’ lives. She made a five-year plan for April’s career (with the help of a binder maker she keeps on retainer in D.C.), and she once tried to plan Ann’s pregnancy via color-coded files complete with “uterine cartoons.” Her devotion at times hit snags (early in her relationship with Ron, Diane called Leslie out for her meddling and protectiveness), but her workaholic, mother-hen approach became one of her defining and most-lovable traits. As Leslie said during her campaign for City Council: “If I seem too passionate, it’s because I care. If I come on strong, it’s because I feel strongly.”
Seven seasons and apparently several decades (judging from the show's flash-forwards) did little to blunt Leslie's love for her gang. The story of each character's ending was triggered by a direct encounter with Leslie—a touch on the arm, a hug, a squeeze of the hand. The way her friends’ lives ultimately unfolded felt directly influenced by Leslie’s wishes for them: Of course, she’d dream of reuniting with her beautiful sunflower Ann Perkins and the affable health-nut Chris, whose children may or may not marry Leslie and Ben’s offspring. Of course, she’d love to give April baby advice and later be the first friend to arrive at the hospital for the birth. Of course, she’d love to help Ron figure out his future, and, later give him his dream job, paddling out into the middle of a shimmering Pawnee lake in a perfect Swanson swansong. Everyone else received beautiful endings, too: Donna and Joe lived happily in Seattle and established an educational foundation called “Teach Yo Self,” Tom Haverford suffered failure after failure, with Lucy by his side, before becoming a bestselling author and motivational speaker; Garry/Jerry/Larry/Terry served as mayor of Pawnee until his peaceful death at age 100; Craig became a singer and married Typhoon, the hairdresser.
In unveiling these weird, funny, happy destinies, Parks and Recreation revealed just how similar it is to its central character: hopeful, kind, slightly obsessive. That the show left little interpretive wiggle room for these characters (and included the kind of “punishingly intricate” detail of Ben’s Cones of Dunshire board game sequel, Winds of Tremorrah) signaled its likeness to Leslie, who until the very final hour had been a great, if controlling, visionary and conductor of fates. But it's wonderfully fitting that Leslie's own future was left open to interpretation: At Jerry's funeral, Secret Service agents gestured to her and Ben that it was time to go, though it was unclear which (or either) of the pair might require that kind of security detail. Not that it really matters, though: On Parks and Recreation, there are no sad endings. Fans know that Leslie, more than any other character, is one they never have to worry about, because her future will always be big and bright.
It's worth remembering, too, that master planner Leslie Knope was also a seasoned historian: She wrote a book on Pawnee and made scrapbooks with Olympian endurance. (Remember the 103 scrapbooks about her friendship with Ann, “Thanks Form the Memories,” “Leslie Knope City Councilor A Scrapbook of Reflection: The Journey Begins: or: Time is the Relentless and Cruel Enemy of The Devoted Civil Servant.”) So when Leslie declared to the gang at the start of the finale, “Forget about these old stories, let’s make a new one,” it was a grand statement. She said it with the kind of gleeful abandon and grace that came to temper her character’s unbridled intensity over the years and that came to define the ethos of Parks and Recreation.
Instead of “I’m done,” Leslie’s final words were: “I’m ready.”