Yes on Knope

leslie and ben walking down a hall

“She’s the kind of person who believes that, no matter how much power you have, you can make a difference, you can contribute, you can change things. Her kind of blind spot is how slow and hard it is. How slow change it happens.” – Amy Poehler on Leslie Knope

The series finale of Parks and Recreation closed last night on a shot of Leslie Knope, smiling into the camera. “Yes,” she said, “I’m ready.”

The finale could have been something out of Leslie Knope’s “Hopes for the Future” binder from 2009. In a series of short segments, the last-ever episode of Parks and Rec showed us what becomes of each of Pawnee’s main residents. In each case, the future is blindingly happy. April and Andy have a baby. Ron becomes the park ranger of Pawnee’s national park. Garry Gergich dies on the night of his 100th birthday, having served as Pawnee’s longest-running mayor, married to a still 60-something Christie Brinkley.

There are no loose ends or nagging questions. There is just the deeply comforting idea that if you are good at heart, things will work out for you.

In another show, this might seem cheesy or forced, but Parks and Rec pulls it off. We’ve been rooting for these characters so hard for so long, our love mirrored by Leslie’s intense love for her friends. To see each of them succeed makes us happy in the way Leslie would be happy: fully, without compromise. 

This closure is all the more powerful when you think about where things started out. In this first season of the show, Leslie’s life was not enviable. Her grating enthusiasm for local government alienated her from her colleagues. She was in love with someone who hadn’t returned her feelings for three years. She had barely met Anne, friend and beautiful nurse. And Ben Wyatt was a stranger in another city, eating calzones while Chris did pushups on the motel room floor.

By the final season, it’s easy to see her success as inevitable. In the finale, a moment at Jerry/Gary/Garry’s funeral implies, winkingly, that Leslie is going to become the president of the United States. At this point, that eventuality seems possible. Of course Leslie will be president. Who else is going to do the job that she would? The idea that she would not take over the world, armed with her binders and waffles, is laughable.

a scene at a funeral in the future of parks and rec

But things weren’t always that way. In the first few seasons, Leslie’s dreams of being president—a constant throughout the show—were basically a joke. She was a small-town bureaucrat who feared her mother’s disapproval and secretly hoarded piles of newspaper in her home. She was in love with a douche who told her that her relatively small dream of building a park was impossible. She had gone on dates where the guy showed up with another women; where her sleeve caught on fire and spread rapidly; where instead of Tic Tacs, she popped a couple of Ambien and had to keep punching her leg to stay awake.

“All of these have happened to me,” Leslie tells Anne, and the admission is a thousand times sadder because of her surprise that Anne thinks the situations are hypothetical.

In the first episode of Parks and Rec, way back in 2009, Leslie and Tom have this exchange: 

Leslie: When I go through these doors, I need to be “on,” like the White House Press Secretary. Are you ready?

Tom: Yes.

Leslie: Okay! Here we go! (pulls on the door, looks into the camera) It’s locked.

In this exchange and many others, the idea that Leslie is anything like her favorite DC politicians is treated as ridiculous. I think we expected her to end up like The Office’s Michael Scott—happy, sure, but never much more than a small-town manager, never quite growing out of Pawnee.

How things have changed. When, in the finale, it was suggested that either Ben or Leslie should run for Governor. My reaction was, “It has to be Leslie. IT HAS TO BE LESLIE.” Because if Leslie can’t succeed, how are we supposed to? And if she can succeed, then can’t we, as well? While the core of her character doesn’t change over time, Leslie’s self-respect and circle of ardent supporters does. She doesn’t eliminate her flaws; she just figures out how to make them part and parcel of her otherwise-wonderful personality. And she finds people—good riddance, Mark Brandano-quits—who cherish her whole self. She finds friends who call her out but who ultimately forgive her.

the parks and rec cast

I think this is why people love and identify with Leslie so much. When you think about it, very few people are actually like Leslie Knope: enthusiastic small town bureaucrats who are impossibly caring, obsessed with work, and driven to enact social change wherever they set foot.

But unlike Liz Lemon, who shares our flaws, Leslie Knope represents our secret beliefs about ourselves: that we work hard, that we deserve love, that no matter the doldrums of our current situation, we are somehow destined for great things. We might be stuck in a dead-end job in a sad little cubicle. We might be wrangling three kids and wondering if we’ll ever get to sleep again. We might be wondering if anyone around us really likes and understands us, if they’ll ever see past our awkward, slightly manic façade to our true depth and goodness.

Parks and Rec says to us: Give it time. They will. As Ron Swanson would put it, you’re Leslie fucking Knope. 

Related Reading: How Leslie Knope Taught Me to Love Being a Perfectionist.

Rachel Fields is a Chicago-based PR professional who loves Amy Poehler, chicken wings, and harassing strangers for deeply personal stories about their childhoods. 

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you

This warmed my heart when I very much needed it.

This was really wonderful.

This was really wonderful. Thank you for voicing what I was weeping too hard to articulate.

Thank you for this post! I

Thank you for this post! I postponed watching the finale because I was so sad to see the show end, but I was also pleasantly surprised with the ending of Parks and Rec. While I anticipated some sort of wrap up with the return of Ann for sure and flash-forwards to happy futures (or in Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa's case, a future full of the shenanigans they love), I didn't think I would like it as much as I did. To play into the "what happens next" ending trope, but do it honestly was perfect for this ending. I love your discussion of how the ending reflects the story of Leslie, a reflection on the awful starts she pushed through and ending with, as you say, "the deeply comforting idea that if you are good at heart, things will work out for you."

Parks and Rec is a phenomenal ensemble show, but it's always been the story of Leslie persevering through struggle after struggle with respect for her collaborators, passion for the work she does, and genuine care for others, as well as for herself. If that isn't a great model for feminism, I'm not sure what is.

I stumbled across Parks and Recreation when The Office ended and I wanted another low-key comedy to help destress. It ended up being one of the best shows I've seen. Sure, it may be cheesy at times and play into some stereotypes common in mockumentaries and in the beauty standards for leading ladies, but to me, Parks and Recreation did some very serious work in a mainstream comedy show. In less than 30 minutes, it snuck feminism into commercial media, framing Leslie as a lovable goofball who just also happens to be (unapologetically) a woman. Leslie dealt with practical every day feminist issues: negotiating blatant sexism with authorities and co-workers, advising a friend who isn't sure if she wants to have kids, and importantly, but often overlooked: maintaining solidarity with other women (Galentine's Day is my favorite holiday forever). But it also (as the show went on) more directly addressed really important issues. My favorite episode was "Pie-Mary" because of how far it took feminist discourse on a mainstream comedy show. I've never seen such direct and sustained discussion in a prime-time broadcast show of navigating everyday gender while affirming a wide range of choices people may make in regards to gender roles.

I loved how this show featured so many different images of women and gave them all the space to have real personalities, then respected them and their choices. Donna's focus on material goods and appearance, for example, played out as a way for self-care, to "treat herself", while she worked hard and intelligently, defined herself by her own rules, and cared for others, encouraging they also participate in self-care. If there was a stock character in this show, they played with the conventions, like Brandi Maxxxx's overt discussion of her extensive work in porn, while simultaneously running for office and demanding public respect.

I could talk forever about Parks and Recreation, but this comment seems long enough! I'm going to miss the frankness of Parks and Recreation and the subtle but powerful messages it brought to mainstream TV of determination, inclusivity, respect, and genuine good-heartedness. I will miss Leslie Knope and her passionate optimism, but am looking forward to see what will come next from Poehler. Thank you for this post!

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