“What makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people you love.” – Leslie Knope
In the past, when I’ve written about series finales, I’ve used a format very close to the one I use to grade season finales. But as Leslie hugged Ann during Tuesday’s Parks and Recreation series finale, it hit me: That format wasn’t going to cut it this time. “One Last Ride” wasn’t just the first series finale of I show I actually wrote about weekly; it was the series finale of what I will now say is my favorite TV show of all time. (Sorry, Alias.) How could I fit something so huge into such narrow categories? How could I even try to slap a grade on something that was more of a life moment than a TV episode? (For the record, though, that grade would have been an A+.) How could any of us who’ve been so personally inspired by this beautiful show find a way to coherently talk about its finale?
Parks and Rec has always been more than a TV show to those of us who love it. It’s a way of life and a way of looking at the world with hope, positivity, and a desire to make a difference. In a television landscape that’s becoming increasingly dark and nihilistic, Parks and Rec was a bright light—a show that was unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve in the form of likeable characters who genuinely cared for one another. And to the very end, Parks and Rec was true to itself. “One Last Ride” will be remembered as a series finale that was unashamedly hopeful, genuinely emotional, and—above all else—a joyful celebration of the love we feel for the people, places, and work that matter to us. As such, it was the perfect reflection of the series as a whole. The most you can ask for as a fan of any TV show is for a series finale that honors the soul of the show you love so much. Parks and Rec gave its fans exactly that, and I’ve never felt prouder to be a fan of a specific TV show than I am to be a Parks and Rec fan today.
“One Last Ride” was as optimistic as the woman at the center of it: Leslie Knope. Every flash-forward featured a happy ending tailor-made for the character at the center of it, but what was even better about all of the happy endings was that they involved each of the characters using their strengths to help others. Tom turned his failures into a self-help book that gave others hope, Donna used her wealth to help Joe and start Teach Yo Self, Garry became a beloved mayor, Ron was put in charge of keeping a national park beautiful and safe, April and Andy became parents, and Ben and Leslie were still faithful public servants in every flash-forward we saw. Even the characters who started the show with the most self-centered attitudes became people whose lives were given more meaning by doing something good for others.
One of the lasting messages of Parks and Rec is that there are two ways to make a difference, and both have equal merit: the far-reaching ways and the deeply personal ways. Leslie Knope was a character who wanted to make a difference in the world, and she did so by making a difference on a large scale as a government employee and on an intimate scale as a friend. “One Last Ride” showed its characters making a lasting impact on the world, but it also showed them making a lasting impact on the lives of their friends. When Donna wanted to start Teach Yo Self, she reached out to April; when Tom’s book launched, all his friends were there. And in the middle of it all was Leslie. When April was struggling with her doubts about raising a family, Leslie was there—not to tell her what to do, but to help her see clearly that if she and Andy really wanted this, they could do it. And when Ron was struggling with his confusion over what to do with the rest of his life, Leslie was there—to offer him a job that spoke to the very soul of his character, a job she knew would make him happy at a time when he was trying to figure out what that meant.
And when Leslie needed her friends, they were there for her as they always were. Whenever Leslie has worked to help the world in big ways, she’s been able to do it because her friends were there to help her. Parks and Rec was based around a group of genuinely good people who genuinely care for one another, and that was at the very heart of this finale—down to the way Leslie’s touch, always preceded by kind and appreciative words, was the launching point for each flash-forward. That narrative device reminded me of the series finale of Lost in the best possible way—it symbolized the fact that it’s the connections we form with others that matter, as represented by the transformative power of being touched by someone who truly loves us.
It’s a rare thing in this age of antiheroes to have a TV show that featured good things happening to good people, but that was the spirit of Parks and Rec. And that may be the thing I miss most about this show now that it’s done: the feeling that every week I was going to be able to visit a place where people were rewarded for working hard and being kind. I’m going to miss that weekly dose of hope. And that hope was such a huge part of “One Last Ride.” There were struggles and moments of doubt and even a few failures because that’s the way life works. But each character ultimately found happiness and fulfillment. The good things that happened to each character never felt like overkill because deep down we all want to believe that karma will be kind to kind people in the end.
Sentimentality plays a role in nearly every series finale, but it was the driving force in “One Last Ride.” There were plenty of funny moments (Jean-Ralphio’s fake death, April giving birth in zombie makeup, etc.), but this was an episode that aimed for the heart more often than the funny bone. And that’s because Parks and Rec was a show that was about the characters first and the jokes second. It wasn’t just a great comedy; it was a great television show. Of course I’ll remember the times this show made me laugh, but my most lasting memories of Parks and Rec will always be the times it made me cry. It was show that came by its emotions honestly, and that was especially true in this finale. Whether it was Leslie welcoming little Jack to the team or Ron thanking her for his new job, each emotional beat was filled with the same sincerity that made Parks and Rec so much more than just a funny show for so many years.
Ultimately, Parks and Rec was one woman’s love story, and every love of Leslie’s life (including Joe Biden) got time in the spotlight before we said goodbye. The centerpiece of the episode was the reunion back in the Parks Department office, where all of the things and people Leslie loves came together: her friends, her city, her happiest memories, her husband, her career ambitions, and her beautiful tropical fish. And it was there in that office—where she first found her footing in the working world, where she was supported in her run for city council, where she met Ben, where she married Ben, and where she met most of her best friends—that Leslie’s life took another happy turn when Ben announced that the little girl who wrote about becoming governor in her kindergarten dream journal was going to run for governor of Indiana.
One of my favorite things about Parks and Rec has always been Ben’s support of his wife’s career dreams, so you can only imagine how emotional it made me to watch that support play such a pivotal role in “One Last Ride.” What was so beautiful about Ben sacrificing his chance to run for governor so Leslie could have her chance was that—once again—it was a decision made so easily and effortlessly by Ben. From resigning so Leslie could keep her job to giving up a shot at a gubernatorial campaign, Ben was the rare male character who often chose love over his career. And those sacrifices never made him seem emasculated or “whipped” or any other term so many lesser shows would use to describe a man like Ben. Instead, Ben was simply a man who believed in his wife and found genuine fulfillment in supporting her. And it worked because we believed Leslie when she said she’d flip a coin; we believed from the start that their relationship was one of equal support and respect. Leslie and Ben are a team, and being a team means understanding when your teammate deserves a chance to shine. Running for governor of Indiana was Leslie’s childhood dream—not Ben’s. And being the great teammate he is, Ben knew she deserved this chance to live her dream (which may or may not have led her to her ultimate dream of the White House—I like to think it did).
“One Last Ride” mentioned the idea of a team several times. One of Leslie’s most impactful lines came near the end of the episode when she said, “Find your team, and get to work.” That’s the soul of Parks and Rec in one sentence. It was a show that revolved around the power of collaborative efforts, the strength of people coming together to help one another do work that matters to them. It was a show that taught us to dream bigger and to help those we love dream as big as they can. It was a show that taught us to believe—in ourselves, our friends, and in the work we’re doing. And it was a show that never stopped telling us that—if we work hard enough and have the right team behind us—we can do great things. “One Last Ride” gave us all one last chance to bask in that joyful optimism before we said goodbye to a show that was brave enough to believe joyful optimism could make great television.
When “One Last Ride” ended—with that perfect “I’m ready” from Leslie—I felt ready, too. I felt hopeful, happy, and just the right amount of sad about saying goodbye. I felt ready to chase my own dreams and help my friends chase theirs. Parks and Rec may be over, but “One Last Ride” reminded us of all the ways we can keep its spirit alive. Be kind. Be hopeful. Be supportive. Dream big, and work hard. Strive to make the world around you better in ways both big and small.
Now, let’s find our teams and get to work. In the immortal words of “5,000 Candles in the Wind” by Mouse Rat:
“Spread your wings and fly…”