‘Parks and Recreation’ Series Finale Recap: “One Last Ride”

When it comes to series finales there is always too much to ask, and doubly so when a show has been on for quite a while and has catered to a smallish but enthusiastic group of fans. How can one finale possibly satisfy everyone? It’s impossible, but Parks and Recreation comes pretty damn close at providing one of the sweetest finales ever of a sitcom. It’s lowkey funny, and perhaps a little too neat, but it’s 100 percent Pawnee and that’s what it should be.

As we begin the final episode of Parks and Recreation, the core group gathers in the office one last time to say their goodbyes before they go their separate ways (Washington D.C., Seattle, staying put in Pawness, etc.) but are interrupted by a man with a request. He wants to get a swing in his park fixed and, despite the fact that technically no one works there anymore, Leslie springs into action and decides they’re going to have “one last ride” — despite April’s hope that everyone would just “quickly shake hands, pretend we like each other, and get out of here.” But April’s not going to get off quite that easy and, fortunately, neither are we. It’s only fitting that the Parks department go out with a final mission that is absurdly simplistic yet somehow requires something from all of them, forcing them to come together before they inevitably break apart.

Parks has one more trick up its sleeve though and “One Last Ride,” which was cowritten by Michael Schur and Amy Poehler, occasionally fast-forwards the narrative to even further in the future than the original 2017 time jump. It’s both a bold and a predictable move because it runs the risk of being too cloying, or too clean, or with too much fan service but, let’s be honest: This is Parks and Recreation; did we expect anything different? Did we want anything different?

In each of these neat flash-forwards, we learn a bit more about select characters and what their future holds. It’s super cheesy, as is Parks’ way sometimes, so the catalyst for each of these time jumps is Leslie touching someone, usually through a hug or a handshake.

The thing is, no matter how cheesy or sickeningly sweet these futures are, the series finale is just about impossible to hate because it’s so in tune with the series itself. It’s an optimistic show where just about everyone ultimately gets what they want — and sometimes even more. Donna, for example, gets a great husband, a nice house, a job as a realtor in Seattle (where they are building a “space haystack around the space needle”). Instead of just treating herself, she wants to treat Joe, too, and uses some of their saved vacation funds for after school programs (“Teach Yo’ Self”). But even better, we learn more about Donna like how she served on a NASCAR pit crew and kicked out En Vogue (not to be confused with getting kicked out of En Vogue).

The flash-forward I was most looking forward to was April and Andy. We see them in 2022, still the best couple in Pawnee (but now D.C.) and still roleplaying as Burt Macklin and Janet Snakehole. They are also faced with a very adult dilemma: Andy wants children but April isn’t sure. Maybe it’s because I had such high hopes for this one that it sort of fell flat to me — April having a pep talk with Leslie results in April switching sides and they do end up having a child. At least the labor scene is true to her character: April gives birth on Halloween in full makeup while “Monster Mash” is playing.

There are some more fitting stories, such as Tom losing everything and going broke (and, gasp, swaggerless!) but finding a way to turn it around with the amazingly titled book Failure: An American Success Story. It’s a goofy storyline but it works so well because it really exposes what lies beneath Tom’s swag-obsessed surface. The reason why this particular failure hit him so hard because it actually wasn’t his fault. He’s failed multiple times because of his own mistakes but this time, he did everything right and the business failed because of outside factors (such as the country running out of beef). But it also remarks on Tom’s never-give-up approach: His book is successful, and he becomes a motivational speaker.

Garry gets the sweet future that he so deserves: mayor of Pawnee for at least ten more times and a celebration of his 100th birthday surrounded by his gorgeous family. He gets the one funeral in the episode (well, there’s Jean-Ralphio hilariously faking his death but quickly getting caught), complete with a public notary’s 21 stamp salute. It’s so fitting that Parks and Recreation celebrates Garry in such a sweet way … but still gets in one last jab with his name being spelled incorrectly on the grave stone.

Perhaps the most effective and emotional storyline involved Ron, someone who’s not very emotional himself. In 2022, his business is in excellent financial shape so he stands up and resigns with no explanation. He’s at a personal crossroads (“I love personal crossroads,” Leslie exclaims, ready to help) because he wants to do something else with his life but has no idea what. This is where Leslie comes in. It’s such a wonderful moment to see how much Ron has grown from Season 1, and how he’s now willing to not only go to Leslie and explicitly ask for help but also willing to take a job with the federal government. Ron might have a code of ethics, but he also wants to be happy just like everyone else. There is maybe no other shot that embodies the lovely sweetness of Parks more than Ron smiling as he paddles a canoe.

So that leaves us with Leslie. She’s living the perfect life — charades with Biden! — and gets the opportunity to run for governor of Indiana. The only hitch? Ben gets the same opportunity. They go back to the Pawenee parks department where everyone (including Ann and Chris!!) has gathered and it truly is an emotional scene, one that’s both funny but also deep for a network sitcom. While there, Leslie decides that they should flip a coin to see who should run for governor. Sensible, compulsive, constantly-planning, obsessed-with-pros-and-cons-lists Leslie wants to flip a coin because she thinks it’s the only way it will be fair: Both would be good at the job so both deserve the chance. But Ben decides that Leslie should do it. Of course she should. And we learn that she had two successful terms.

The one thing the finale does leave open-ended is whether or not Leslie made it further than governor of Indiana. It’s hinted that either she or Ben does — at Garry’s funeral, they are flaked with secret service agents but it never lets us know which one the agents are there for, and what exactly his/her position in government is. But I really liked that. There are some secrets that Parks doesn’t need to reveal, some futures that they can keep close to the chest. Everything about this finale was pretty wonderful, an optimistic and fitting tribute to an optimistic show.