Thursday, May 10, 2012

“Parks and Recreation” Season Finale Review: “Win, Lose, or Draw” (Season 4 Episode 22) – ‘Catch your dream…'

TV’s best comedy, Parks and Recreation, has just wrapped-up its fourth season with the finale episode, “Win, Lose, or Draw,” and though I don’t do weekly reviews of the show, it was my pick for the best TV series of 2011, and I thought it only appropriate to give some final thoughts on this incredible fourth season and how it all wrapped up.  As always, to do the finale justice, this review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. 

Spoilers for “Win, Lose, or Draw” after the jump…

“We did it because we care.  About you.  You had a dream and we wanted to support your dream.  That’s what you do when you care about someone.  You support ‘em.  Win, lose, or draw.” – Ron ‘Effing Swanson

Well, that’s what Parks and Recreation is all about, isn’t it?

Thanks to NBC’s across-the-board ratings woes, Parks isn’t in danger of cancellation, but if it were, “Win, Lose, or Draw” would make me less anxious about the idea of losing TV’s best comedy.  And I mean that in the most flattering way possible.  Tonight’s finale was so spectacularly satisfying, so filled with heartfelt pay-off not only to this season’s arcs, but also to four years worth of compelling character relationships, that it felt like a perfect series finale.  Am I overjoyed that we’ll most likely be getting a fifth season?  Of course.  Parks hasn’t shown any signs of a creative slow-down, and I can’t wait to see how the show plays with a new status quo. But in an alternate universe, if this were the point at which everyone chose to stop, I’d be okay with that, and that speaks to the incredible work showrunner (and tonight’s writer/director) Michael Schur and company have done crafting and paying off on organic personal stakes over the last few years.

Going into tonight’s finale, those stakes couldn’t have been higher.  We’ve spent 22 straight episodes focusing on Leslie’s campaign, a story arc far longer than any I can remember in the world of TV comedy, and because of that, my level of emotional investment in this election was only a notch below Leslie’s.  One of the best moments Parks has ever done comes early in the finale, when Leslie enters the booth to vote and is overcome with emotion.  The scene feels entirely earned not just because Amy Poehler is an incredible actress – which simply goes without saying at this point – but because we’ve spent an entire full-length season watching this character fight so hard for her dream.  And in that moment, with all the hard work done, she’s finally allowed a moment of calm to let the totality of her journey sink in.  Few comedies ever achieve such staggering moments of beauty, and that was only the first of many in the finale.

As for the actual result of the election, I doubt any viewers were surprised by a Leslie victory; this is a series so filled with optimism that even in the campaign’s most troubled moments, a loss never seemed likely.  But simply declaring Leslie the winner isn’t the same as crafting a satisfying ending, and recognizing that, the power of tonight’s finale comes down almost entirely to execution.  Leslie winning by recount following a reported Newport victory is a bit of a narrative cheat, but the delay is crucial in letting Leslie’s character arc resolve before she becomes a city councilor.  Leslie has to clearly grow and change from this experience for the season to truly pay-off, and only by being faced with the true possibility of defeat can she act on what she’s learned over the course of the election.

So we get that absolutely wonderful exchange between Ron and Leslie (which speaks as much to Ron’s character growth over the last few years as it does to Leslie’s), where she finally understands that win or lose, the true significance of this election lies in how she’s touched other people’s lives, and how they, in turn, have reciprocated.  The scene feels like a denouement to Parks and Recreation itself, reinforcing the series’ central theme of relying on others to achieve something bigger than oneself.  Understanding this, Leslie is able to be as selfless for Ben as he’s been for her, prompting Ben to work on the Congressional campaign in Washington in a callback to the series premiere (complete with a small symbolic gift in a little red box).  This is the moment at which Leslie has truly earned her victory – not as a character, but as a candidate – and it makes Ann’s announcement of the recount results vastly more satisfying.

That scene is also fueled by some wonderful directorial choices.  I love the quiet of the scene, the sense of hesitation and anxiety; I love how Leslie silently grips Ben’s hand as Ann prepares to give her the news, and how the camera is held in a close-up on Leslie’s face as she slowly accepts what’s being said; I was simply blown away by the command with which Poehler mixes incredulity, happiness, and grace into a single evolving expression.  When I talk about execution being the key to tonight’s episode, this scene is exactly what I’m talking about.  We knew Leslie would probably win, but when the news actually comes in, it’s delivered so perfectly that it feels as fulfilling as possible. 

And that feeling of fulfillment only grows as the string of emotional denouements continues: Mouse Rat takes the stage to revive their “Catch Your Dream” song, Ron turns down the City Manager position to stay in Parks, and when Leslie asks if she might some day see Ben’s concession speech, he replies “I never wrote it.”  Damn.  If you didn’t get choked up in that moment, you’re just not human.  Ben and Leslie’s relationship has been so incredibly well done all year long – the best TV romance I’ve seen in years – and though Leslie allowing Ben to go to Washington is the literal pay-off to that arc, I feel like the “I never wrote it” moment is the true summation of their romance.  It’s just a beautiful reward for spending two straight seasons invested in these characters happiness, and that Schur, Adam Scott, and Amy Poehler can reduce it all down to one simple statement is nothing short of masterful. 

Leslie’s victory speech, in turn, feels like a pay-off to Parks and Recreation itself, a summary of everything this show has to say about how politics and government stem from the people:  “The idea behind this campaign was a simple one.  That with hard work, and positivity, a group of people can make a difference.  During my term as your city councilor, I want to focus on your hopes and not your fears.  I want to solve problems, instead of creating friction.  And I will work hard, every hour of every day to make Pawnee a better place to live.  Because I love this city.  And I know, first-hand, how very special the people of this city are.  I owe this victory, all of it, to my friends, and my supporters.  No one achieves anything alone.  So let’s embark on a new journey together.  Let’s break out a map.  Not the old, out-of-date one that shows where we’ve been, but a crisp, new one that shows where we might go.  Let’s embark on a new journey together, and see where it takes us.”   

I felt compelled to print that entire speech, because I think it’s one of the best bits of TV writing, comedy or drama, that I’ve ever encountered.  Parks and Recreation lives in a world of optimism, but Leslie’s attitude and successfulness has always served as a direct contrast to the failings of modern American politics.  In the middle of this latest election cycle, any politically conscious individual knows we need a real Leslie Knope now more than ever, someone pure in motivation and capable of bringing people together.  Her victory speech reads as an inspiring treatise on how politics should work, rather than how they do.  We should be able to work together to make a difference; we should embrace the future rather than try desperately to recreate the failings of the past; we should focus on real-world solutions, rather than worthless political squabbles; above all else, we should believe in the power of the system to do good, rather than to divide and to hurt.  Parks and Recreation is brilliant because it lives in a world predicated on ideals, offering solutions rather than wallowing in the dysfunction of real life. 

So when I say I would be happy if “Win, Lose, or Draw” were a series finale, this is why.  I simply can’t imagine the show ever reaching an end-point quite as satisfying as Leslie delivering that wonderful speech, imposed over the image of her sliding her full-color portrait into the Council’s photo wall filled with black-and-white pictures.

In the end, that’s what Parks and Recreation is all about.  Whenever it returns, I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here.   

  • 1500 words and I haven’t even mentioned what the show is best known for: the humor.  In a sense, it goes without saying.  If you watch Parks, you know it’s the funniest show on TV, and while the finale’s dramatic focus didn’t lend it the kind of breathless hilarity as the recent “Debate” episode, there was still plenty of raucous laughter.  Andy “fixing” April’s computer by blowing into the vents and smashing it, Bobby thinking he’s legally required to vote for Leslie, Ann helping Leslie blow off steam by boxing, Ron explaining all the ways he lives in the past (“I still get my milk delivered by horse”), another great appearance by Jean-Ralphio, etc.  No matter what, this is always a funny show.  It’s a masterpiece because of how seamlessly it mixes true pathos among the hilarity.
  • Though the body of this review focused on Leslie, the entire ensemble got a lot of good pay-off as well.  April’s computer troubles served as a nice climax to her season-long arc of becoming more responsible, while Andy’s attempts to help her, albeit fruitless, reminded us why he’s a good guy worth April’s attention.  Chris seems to finally be overcoming his depression, Ron decides to stay in the Parks department, Ann plays the best friend role flawlessly, and Jerry nearly spoils Leslie’s entire campaign by forgetting to vote (leading to the night’s actual final line, “Dammit Jerry!”  Oddly fitting, I think). 
  • The piece of resolution I didn’t like came in the tag, where Ann drunkenly decides to move in with Tom.  I never liked their relationship, as it consistently made Ann look weak, and this was possibly the most frustrating moment yet.  Ann is a smart, capable woman, and being in Tom’s presence, let alone agreeing to move in with him, robs her of much of that.  We’ll just have to see where this goes next season.
  • One of the only pieces of foreshadowing we got was April suggesting Andy move into law enforcement.  That’s an intriguing idea that could pay-off very well next year; as April says, he’s always fantasizing about being an officer, so why not try to become a real one?  I love the humor Chris Pratt brought to the show this year, but he didn’t have an ‘arc’ in the same way April did, and having him chase a dream of his own could fix that. 

What did you think of the finale?  Sound off in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Jonathon I couldn’t agree with you more. Of course by now we know Parks will be back with a full episode-order next fall, but when the finale aired I was watching it with half an eye on this episode being the last episode for the show, ever. We joined these people abruptly and in the middle of their lives, and it seemed fitting we should leave in the same way, especially after that moment of personal triumph for the main character. Having some perspective and knowing it’ll be back allowed me to go back and watch it for what it was though; a stellar season finale. My PrimeTime Anytime recorded it Thursday while I watched it live, and then I re-watched it again last night. I learned over the weekend through my job at Dish about Auto Hop which, when I re-watched the show, gave me the option to have the commercials automatically skipped over. It was nice to watch it all at once, with no interruptions, and just be with these characters I love so much. Great review, and see you next year.