Starting Parks and Recreation’s seventh season with Ron and Leslie at each other’s throats was certainly a nice way of surprising the audience, as well as generating a few quick storylines. But there was only so long it could last. Parks is ultimately an optimistic show, and part of what kept the first two episodes from going anywhere truly great was the negativity of that feud, and how much it clashes with the show’s tone. “William Henry Harrison” takes this feud to the extreme, with Leslie and Ron attempting to outmaneuver each other, but it’s “Ron and Leslie” that is the first legitimately great episode of the season, because it feels like a true return to Parks, despite its intense bottle-episode focus on just the title characters.
“William Henry Harrison” actually had a narrative momentum and logic that made it more enjoyable than the season’s first two episodes. Parks is always best when it’s in the middle of a process, exploring the strange lengths that its characters will go to make sure that their plans succeed, and by opposing two halves of the cast against each other, it did something more or less new. Better yet, Ben and “Terry” (or, you know, whatever you want to call him) are caught in the middle trying to get either Ron or Leslie to sign an affidavit of… some sort. Why exactly they needed to get it notarized was unimportant; what matters was Ron and Leslie’s inability to cooperate. It forces Leslie to enlist the help of William Henry Harrison’s only surviving family member and Ron to sign Bloosh’s Annabel Porter as a celebrity endorser of the Gryzzl development plans.
All of this felt like classic Parks because it relied on so many of the great tropes of the show’s past. Wacky citizens with terrible ideas, parodies of celebrities, another look at Pawnee’s depressing and problematic history, etc. This was fan service-y, as all episodes have been so far, but in a clever way that felt necessitated by the plot. Sure, the actual fighting between Ron and Leslie was still a major speedbump, but the rest of the material felt both new and classic at the same time. We could’ve seen most of this episode’s jokes appear in any of the previous seasons, and I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.
The end of “William Henry Harrison” led directly into “Ron and Leslie,” in which everyone else, tired of the pair’s fighting, locks the pair in the old Parks and Recreation office overnight in the hope that they’ll rekindle their friendship. No surprise, this works, but there was never really a doubt about this (and I’m happy the show didn’t decide to extend this feud through the entire season, as so many others would). Instead, it’s an exploration of the show’s history, though fortunately not through flashbacks. Instead it focuses on moments that we haven’t seen yet but through the stronger device of having characters simply talk about what happened (aside from an amazing shot of April’s hiring party). Highlights included Leslie’s original interview to join the parks department, as well as Ron’s incredibly sad attempt at working with her in the Federal Parks Department.
None of this season’s episodes so far have felt very polished. They have jump cuts, some occasionally clunky moments, and weird blocking that makes everything feel a bit rushed. That isn’t even considering Parks’ weird relationship with its characters’ children and families (at this point it feels as if Ron’s must’ve mysteriously disappeared at some point in the past). But this sloppiness has also helped the show feel more raw than it did before, and here Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman offered some of their finest performances in the show’s history. The surprises of “Ron and Leslie” came not from the story, which was simple, but from the emotionally complex performances from these so-called comedic actors. Parks usually focuses on joy or, at worst, simple disappointment, but here for the first time, it’s dealing with anger and betrayal—and, what’s more, it’s doing it well.
With Ron and Leslie no longer feuding, questions arise as to where the rest of the season will go. That was the largest motivating factor for essentially all of the cast, but since the show has always focused on process more than results, I’m actually happy for this. The land drama will likely continue, but what everyone loves best about Parks has always been seeing the way its cast interacts with one another, and we finally have that back where it should be. I’m not sure if Parks can pull it off, and make this valedictory season feel necessary, but at least it’s far from repeating itself.