The Beauty of Workplace Proximity and True Friendship in ‘Parks and Rec’s Final Season Bottle Episode

leslie-ron‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined.

“Come on Ron, we were friends for ten years.”
“We were work proximity associates.”

Parks and Recreation is an incredibly emotional show with such a baked-in sweetness to it, as if it were some delicious abomination being trotted out from the Sweetums corporation. It’s a show that absolutely lives and dies by its characters (and you better not let its characters die because it will kill you over it), so it’s no surprise that its final season (which was toted as its “farewell season,” which is pretty much the most saccharine way of addressing a show’s last year) was particularly tear-jerking.

Parks and Rec instituted a lot of changes for its final season, with one of the most fundamental ones being that the season began with there being an irreconcilable rift between Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson. Leslie is not a character that is comfortable with anyone having the slightest of beefs with her, but with Ron, her mentor figure, it’s as bad as it gets. Watching these two be hostile for the first few episodes of the season is truly painful, but the payoff in the season’s fourth episode, “Leslie and Ron” makes up for all the tension that came before it. The fact that it’s all connected to the initial park that launched off the series in the first place is just slick, smart series storytelling all around.

With an episode so concerned about the saga of Leslie and Ron it feels only fitting to launch in with one of the first exchanges Ron and Leslie ever shared, with the audience learning of Ron’s opinions towards Leslie when she first applied for her job:

“Leslie Knope is an absurd idealist whose political leanings are slightly to the left of Leon Trotsky. If we were to work together, she would undoubtedly drive me insane, and it is possible that we would murder each other.

Hire her.

Ron goes through a gamut of emotions in that three-line note and the extremes that it reflects upon have never been more evident than in this episode. If Leslie and Ron ever were going to murder each other, it would happen in this half hour. So bring on the bloodshed!

Like many of the bottle episodes that we’ve looked at here, the premise for this one is pretty to-the-point simple. Leslie and Ron are locked in a room together to finally work out their issues and get back to their regular selves, so Pawnee doesn’t suffer in the process. The simplicity of the plot doesn’t matter at all, as you’re just so happy to be getting so much of Leslie and Ron together again. This episode completely strips itself down and more or less just gives you an episode that’s two characters talking, trying to reach an agreement.

Through the seven years that Parks and Recreation ran for, Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman literally became these roles and put their entire selves into them. This episode very much operates like a greatest hits between the two as we witness every shade of these characters and again are reminded (just as they are) why they are one of the strongest platonic relationships depicted on television. The bottle structure forces them to ping pong off each other, continually rubbing up against one another when they just want to be apart.

Parks and Recreation pulled out all the stops for its final year, executing some truly ambitious episodes while delivering a beyond satisfying swan song. The fact that they saved this emotionally charged bottle episode for this highlight reel speaks towards the power behind it. This Leslie and Ron resolution was very much a focal point to the last season and once it’s moved past the season is able to progress into its final stage. These are two people that know each other so thoroughly, both having witnessed tremendous changes in each other as they’ve seen one another experience marriage and childbirth over the span of their friendship. This catharsis could have been dealt with in any number of ways, but the decision to do it with a good old fashioned bottle episode once more speaks volumes on the effectiveness of the form.

Parks, if it had to be boiled down to its base themes, is a show about acceptance and learning that people who are different can still co-exist beautifully. It’s a show about compromise, as we’ve seen loved ones on this series constantly have to negotiate through this because of just how much they love their other. It may be pat, but it’s a distillation of what working for the government can mean, essentially. So for a show that so often had the parks department trying to appease some local whacko as two opposing viewpoints tried to see eye-to-eye, it’s extremely fitting that the last pair of disparate opinions that need to be reconciled are Ron and Leslie’s. She is the confetti and glitter that is filling the authentic claymore landmine that is Ron Swanson.

Series creator Mike Schur’s script very carefully has both of them swallowing their pride and does a terrific balancing act wherein neither Leslie nor Ron are the wrong one in their dispute. In fact, their biggest offense is cutting themselves off from one another. It’s a strong affirmation that these two are undoubtedly stronger together than apart, and the healing process this claustrophobic episode forces the two of them to go through is the perfect way to explore this. We basically dig into every aspect of Leslie and Ron’s relationship, discussing the genesis of their “workplace approximation”, what caused their rift, and ultimately what the next stage of their relationship will look like having gotten past all of this.

Even the location of the bottle episode might not also seem like a big deal — it being the office that they’re in nearly every single episode — but what better location to act as the conduit for the intervention between these two? Most of their best memories of each other have been made there, so why shouldn’t it also be where their reconciliation takes place? The mere fact that we’re accommodated to seeing the office doesn’t reduce the weight of it here. A packed runtime manages to skillfully tie all of this up by the end of the episode, leaving us with the image that Leslie and Ron may now be stronger than ever. The bottle episode goes out on a ridiculously heightened drunken ending (again, alcohol serving a large role in a bottle episode…) that couldn’t be more of the polar opposite to the terse start of these 22 minutes. It’s sublime comedy. In the end when Ron and Leslie are finally set free from their cage, none of the words that she’s singing to Billy Joel’s hit are right, but it’s hard to hold any of it against her.

We didn’t start the fire; we just enjoyed watching it burn for half an hour.

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