Let’s get this out of the way: Parks and Recreation’s finale was great. There was a certain predictability to the episode, if not an inevitability, but that didn’t change the fact that “One Last Ride” offered the entire audience a big warm hug to end the show on. Since Parks has always been optimistic, about an idyllic version of America succeeding despite all odds, this was more than fitting—anything less would’ve been a disappointment. Parks’ final season may have been rocky, but the effort lavished upon this final episode was palpable, to the point that in and of itself the finale was enough to justify the largely unnecessary extra season order.
The episode’s premise was simple: the gang has one last meeting together before everyone heads for their separate directions in the world. From there, we jump forward to the big moments in every cast member’s life, with a couple bonus futures from Craig and Jean Ralphio as well, which is fitting, since both of them have long been as much a part of Parks as Donna or Garry. I’m tempted to give a rundown of each person’s future, but that would be tedious and only interesting to people who haven’t seen the episode (and if you haven’t, go rectify that right now). Instead, I just want to write about some of the more interesting moments, the things that felt particularly right, or a little bit off, along the way.
One small demerit I had to give the episode was for making April and Andy have children. Parks has featured so many weddings and children (even though kids rarely made an appearance this season) that it was refreshing to have a strong couple who didn’t feel that need. Yes, it makes sense that Andy really wanted a child, but there was something to saying that a couple doesn’t have to have children, that they can be married and just have each other, and that can be enough. That April goes from being adamantly against children to having two in a single episode felt a bit cheap, as much as I loved the scene of her and Andy deciding what to name their child. And is Andy now a stay-at-home dad? Their story, like April’s this entire season, seemed strangely half-backed and uncharacteristic of who these people were.
That was my main complaint, though, and conversely I was surprised by how clever some characters’ happy endings were. Tom’s was particularly weird, yet fitting. Once again, one of his businesses fails, but he turns this into another venture, and his Jordan Belfort-esque success seminar was a perfect direction for his character. There was a perfect mix of strange new material and callbacks to old running jokes here that overcame the problem of mere fan service. That was always the balancing act Parks had to perform, mixing heart with humor, goofy fun with realism, and with Tom I felt like it hit that magical point in the middle. I would love to see where he is 50 years down the line, though, with perhaps another dozen or so failed businesses under his belt.
Likewise, Ron’s sendoff was perfect, even if we didn’t see the return of Lucy Lawless or his children in any real way. His story was moving because it addressed one concern that’s been growing in the show’s subtext as it’s moved further from its original premise: how should a person spend their life? Leslie is of course Parks’ most important model for this, but Ron is another, and there’s a majesty to his quiet solitude that was almost magical. Here the show wasn’t even funny, but it knew that this was the right choice for his character. As Tom said, there are many modes for success, and in its optimistic future there’s no reason that everyone can’t attain this sort of happiness. At the end of a very telegraphed, occasionally pedantic season, Parks opened up a bit and let its characters really drift away from the show’s comfort zone, doing things that it couldn’t have if it needed to stay running forever, and Ron’s future was a beautiful version of this, despite his family’s MIA status.
And then there was the story that took over the second half of the finale, whether it would be Ben or Leslie who would run for governor of Indiana. The real tension here was whether the show would wimp out at the end or if it would do the obvious, correct choice and let Leslie run. Prior to this season, I wouldn’t have even felt that tension, but lately the show has been putting Ben’s life ahead of Leslie’s. Fortunately, Leslie did run, and the choice came about in a well-written and and almost beautiful scene that reaffirmed why Ben has been a great partner for her in the first place. The story’s tension was really meta-tension, and I don’t know that it will hold up very well in repeated viewing, but it gave more structure to an episode that needed it, and at least gave the cluttered season before it some bearing on the finale’s events. Ben will be very supportive as the country’s first First Man, and it’s clear that the country will be a better place because of their relationship.
Recounting these stories, though, I’m missing out on many of the best parts of the finale: the details. There were hundreds of in-jokes for longtime fans, as well as new material that was strange and wonderful. For instance, learning about aliens arriving in the future in some background teleprompters, or confirmation of Jean Ralphio’s love for Leslie. Jokes that have been around since the first season, such as Leslie’s hatred for libraries and April’s animosity towards Ann were returned to, and I’m going to bet there were more laughs from “Jim Traeger, you old son of a bitch,” than perhaps any moment in the show’s history. This was a dense episode, maybe the densest in the show’s entire run, and for once this season it felt like everyone was trying their hardest. There was no laziness here; everything felt just as special as it should.
Admittedly, the finale would’ve been even more powerful without this last season. Parks’ seventh season was about wish fulfillment and fan service, and that’s something better doled out in a single episode than in a dozen. But that doesn’t mean the show’s finale was any less excellent, and I’m sure there were millions of Parks fans around the country who cried at least once, because these were deep, well-written characters, some of the strongest and strangest and most real characters ever on television. At its best, Parks was a miraculous show, a sit-com that turned the form’s natural cynicism on its head and found humor in the joy of life—and the finale was Parks at its very best.