Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Parks and Recreation 7x03 ("William Henry Harrison") & 7x04 ("Leslie and Ron") [Contributor: Jaime]

"William Henry Harrison" & "Leslie and Ron"
Original Airdate: January 20, 2015

Parks and Rec returned last night with two characteristically strong installments, one of which might be one of the show’s best episodes ever.  Both of them, when you put them together, highlight the unique sense of humor and sentiment that the show possesses, and just serves as yet another reminder of how much we’re going to lose when this season comes to an end.

"William Henry Harrison"


So let’s start with episode 3, “William Henry Harrison”.  Leslie and Ron are still fighting over the Newport land, and things are heating up – Ron, Tom, and Donna are asked to meet with Roscoe, the vice president of Cool New Shizz at Gryzzl (played by Jorma Taccone, my favorite Lonely Islander), who tells them that, as Pawnee residents, he wants them to find a famous Pawneean to endorse Gryzzl, in the hopes that it’ll make the town accept their company.  Meanwhile, Leslie is meeting with various people, trying to find any historical or religious reason to use as reason to keep the land from being sold.  Of course, this task means she has to consult with Pawnee residents, so, you know.  It’s not going too well.  The Church of the Reasonablists insist that the land is essentially their holy land, but their claim maybe isn’t as strong as it could be, so Leslie’s left with nothing.  Hail Zorp.

She finally catches a lead when Bill Haggerty from the Pawnee Historical Society, who’s just written a book about William Henry Harrison, comes to tell her that Harrison (a famous Indiana resident who didn’t wear his coat at his presidential inauguration, caught a cold, and died after thirty-two days in office) had a hunting cabin on the Newport land.  Harrison’s an “embarrassing footnote,” as Leslie puts it, but he’s their embarrassing footnote, and might be just the hook they need to get the land declared a historical landmark.

But as it turns out, there’s nothing left on the land except for a couple piles of bricks.  So Leslie does the only thing she can: she goes to the Harrison Museum and takes as much memorabilia as she can to use in her press conference, where she plans to explain exactly why this land is significant and thus shouldn’t be sold.  She’s going for quantity over quality – hit them with so many facts that they can’t ignore her point.  And the most important part of her presentation?  Zach Harrison, the last living descendant of the former president.  Somehow, despite this amazing claim to fame, Zach has managed to stay humble.  He’s just the descendant of some guy, you know?  It’s no big deal.

Meanwhile, Ron and his team have been working on getting a celebrity to endorse Gryzzl.  Ron’s completely opposed to the idea – he’s not a flashy guy, after all, and believe that hard work speaks for itself.  But after finding out from Terry that Leslie’s working on finding a reason to declare the land a historical landmark, Ron realizes they need to beef up their presentation.  So he agrees to go after the celebrity chosen by Tom and Donna: Annabel Porter, editor of the Bloosh newsletter, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Best Top 10 Listicle.  She’s kind of a big deal.

The Gryzzl presentation begins right after Leslie’s, and neither go very well.  The audience has no interest in what Leslie has to say, and unable to use images of Harrison’s cabin (since, you know, there is no cabin), she shows renderings of what the cabin may have looked like.  Even with her giant coup of getting Zach Harrison, it just doesn’t make her presentation good.  And then Gryzzl’s presentation, while it earns the attention of their audience, just has nothing to say.  Leslie at least accomplished her goal of finding quantity; Ron, who was pushing for quality, lost it among all the flash that Tom and Donna went for, all in an attempt to beat Leslie’s presentation.

The problem is that neither presentation, neither side, is balanced.  Sure, Gryzzl’s exciting, but what does it do?  And while Leslie’s proposal, and her fight for the land, represents meaning, both for the town and the Newport family, there’s nothing about it that’s exciting.  I think this episode was meant to show that neither side, based on their own merit and what they’re representing, is going to win the bid for the Newport’s land; they’re going to have to work together somehow, either as Gryzzl and the National Parks Service, or as Ron and Leslie, to come up with the best possible plan for Pawnee.  And considering the events of the next episode, I don’t think it’s that unlikely that we’ll see Ron and Leslie working together over the course of the season.

Elsewhere in Pawnee, Ben is trying, without success, to get Ron and Leslie to sign a form, a city point of sale document, since the land falls within the city limits.  It’s very normal, totally procedure – and Leslie refuses to be in the same room as Ron, even for the thirty seconds it would take to sign the form and get it notarized.  Ben insists on them doing it at the same time – otherwise, he’d have to make two separate appointments with the notary, and ugh, who wants to do that?  But never fear – everyone’s favorite co-worker Terry is a notary public, so if he goes with Ben, Ron and Leslie would be able to sign separately.

Of course, this incredibly simple task proves to be one of the hardest things Ben has ever had to do.  He gets both signatures, but it turns out the form was missing a page; it’s not a huge deal, but it renders the form itself invalid because it’s incomplete.  So Ben has to start all over again – this time, he gets both their signatures, but Annabel Porter sees it, assumes it’s meant for her, and signs it.

On his third attempt, he manages to get Ron and Leslie when they’re actually in the same room, in the middle of a huge fight.  This time, Ben’s had enough.  He yells at both of them, saying all he needs is for them to sign this stupid form, then goes on to add, “Not that it matters, I’m definitely going to wake up tomorrow with the same forms for you to sign because I’VE DIED SOMEHOW AND NOW I’M A GHOST, living in purgatory until I complete my unfinished business.”  But Leslie just reasserts her refusal to have anything to do with Ron, even something as small as signing her name to the same document as him.  Ben is furious: “Did you just hear what I said?  No, of course you didn’t, BECAUSE I’M A GHOST.”  It might have been my favorite part of the episode, hence why I’m transcribing it here.  Besides the fact that it was hilarious, and that Adam Scott is always good at losing his cool, it shows just how much this feud between Ron and Leslie is affecting everyone else.  The relationship between these two has always been one of the central relationships on the show, and probably, until this season, the one that’s provided the most unwavering respect and support between characters.  So while it’s vital to repair Ron and Leslie’s friendship because of what it means to the show, this episode made it clear that the other characters are suffering because of it.  Ben’s being ignored in both his attempts to do his job and to stay neutral between the two of them.  Donna, Tom, Andy, and April have been forced to take sides in this fight for the land.  Having a rift this huge in the group means that, even if everyone else is on good terms with each other, the group cannot function.  They’re all still friends, but they’re not a group.  So the people affected by Ron and Leslie’s war do the only thing they can: they lock the two of them in the parks and rec offices and refuse to let them out until they’ve made up.

My final thought on the episode isn’t necessarily specific to this episode, but the ending of this episode (a title card that says “To be continued…right now”) makes me wonder how far in advance the Parks crew knew how these episodes were going to air.  Even regardless of the title card, that ending moment is a direct link to the beginning of episode 4 – it’s a cliffhanger, sure, but not one that I could see working to set up a week-long break between episodes.  The same thing happened in the first two episodes; the end scene of the first episode didn’t feel like the end of an episode, more like a bridge.  It’s not hugely important, but there was a huge outcry when NBC announced they would be airing two episodes a week.  Considering how short the season is, it sounded like NBC was just trying to burn off the remaining episodes as fast as possible.  But these four episodes haven’t felt like four half-hour episodes that happened to air in pairs; they very much feel like they were constructed to go together, to form hour-long episodes.  Now, I have no way to know what came first, NBC’s decision on how to air the episodes or the show’s decision on how to produce the episodes, but either way, it helps each episode feel a lot stronger.  The first episode every week has been setting up themes that pay off in the second episode in a way that wouldn’t feel so direct if these were airing one at a time.  I think it goes back to the idea of this season being an epilogue, like I discussed last week; we’re getting very well-structured, very pointed episodes every week that are able to focus more narrowly on a specific idea and aspect of the show that we as the audience need to start saying goodbye to.  I’ve never seen a final season quite like this, and for as much as I’m not ready for the show to end, I can’t wait to see where these final episodes take us.

Some other thoughts on the episode:
  • I loved seeing Andy try to help April find her dream job, and the differences in his approach vs. Ben’s.  His final conclusion that to find the job, they need to focus not on what April likes to do, but why she likes to do it, just shows how well they’ve gotten to know each other in the last seven years, and how much they’re meant for each other.  No one gets April the way Andy does, and that’s exactly the way she likes it.
  • I was in tears over the different rooms at the Harrison Museum.  If He’d Worn a Coat, which shows how history may have been changed if Harrison served a longer term, including a week-long Great Depression and a whole slew of Emmys for The Wire.  Then there was Other Things That Were Famous for One Month (“Tubthumping” and the Harlem Shake, to name a few), as well as Other Famous Harrisons.  April’s right - $14 for admission to this museum might be a bit too much.
  • “So hold onto your straws, everybody, ‘cause Mama’s going grasping.”
  • The running joke of Ron’s refusal to sign his name in cursive (because, again, he prefers content over flash), and Ben’s immediate note that Ron needs to sign the form in cursive because “it raises a lot of red flags” when he prints his name.  I love the little moments like that on the show that reveal just how well these characters know each other, and just how much time they’ve spent together.
  • What’s hot this season, according to Annabel Porter?  Asymmetrical overalls, angora toothbrushes, and locally sourced Italian flip-flops, of course.
  • But the hottest new craze?  Beef milk.  “It’s like almond milk that’s been squeezed through tiny holes in living cows.”   Ron’s immediate response: “It’s f***ing milk,” but Tom sets him straight.  “Regular milk “costs $3 a gallon.  Annabel’s Authentic Hand-Strained Teat-to-Table Beef Milk?  That costs $60 a gallon.”
  • “That feud’s, like, Biggie-Tupac level.  Maybe even Morgan Freeman-Shailene Woodley level.”  2017 seems like such a great time, you guys.
  • WHAT ARE THE TRIPLETS’ NAMES?  It seems like such a huge piece of information to keep from us.  I know they didn’t want the kids to become a focus of the show, but come on, what are their names?
That’s it for “William Henry Harrison”!  My review of “Leslie and Ron” is to be continued…right now.

"Leslie and Ron"

Ben explains the situation to Ron and Leslie: the doors are locked, he has their key cards, and no one will be disturbing them until 8:00 the next morning.  Their only options are to work things out between them and then call Ben over the triplets’ baby monitor to come get them – otherwise, they’re going to have to sit there all night.

Immediately, Ron and Leslie make an escape attempt – by pleading to Terry, and asking him to let them out.  He gets close to opening the door, but April stops him.  With all the doors locked and safety wire in the windows, Ron’s unable to break out, so Leslie suggests simply waiting a few minutes, then calling Ben and letting him know that they’ve made up.  The problem is that neither of them can agree even on a fake resolution – Leslie wants Ron to be the bad guy, and the opposite goes for him.  Ron reaches for the monitor, and Leslie, as always, reacts instinctively – by throwing the baby monitor on the ground.  Needless to say, they’re not going to be able to contact Ben, even if they do talk things out.

Now, Ron’s no stranger to stoicism, so he’s ready to wait out these next ten hours without saying a single word.  Leslie’s willing to talk about their problems, but Ron refuses to talk, so Leslie decides to take it upon herself to annoy Ron into talking to her: by hitting him, blowing a fan in his face, and then waterboarding his mustache with a straw.  Finally, she finds a method she’s sure will work: she finds a mix tape the department made in 2007, and plays Jerry’s pick: “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (such an awesome little note that she calls him Jerry instead of Terry because that’s what they called him in 2007).  And sings to it.  But doesn’t know any of the words.  Ron cracks before she even finishes the song.

He agrees to talk for three minutes, so Leslie plans to make the most of her limited time.  She shows Ron a chart she’s made that details the timeline of the end of their friendship.  I talked about this conflict a lot last week, and while we weren’t given a lot to go on then, I concluded that the fight must have been Ron’s fault somehow.  And when Leslie presents her timeline, that’s exactly how it sounds – he visited her in her new office for the first time six months after she started her new job, and a week later, Leslie returned from a business trip to hear that Ron had left the parks department.  And then, two months later, Morningstar happened.

It turns out Morningstar is a development Ron was contracted to build – right next to Pawnee Commons, Leslie’s passion project at the beginning of the show.  The problem with Morningstar was that its presence not only obstructed views from the park, but it meant the neighboring houses would have had to be torn down.  Including the former home of Ann Perkins.  To Leslie, always sentimental and emotional, tearing down Ann’s house was absolutely unforgivable.  She lists just some of the memories the group has had in that house over the years, but the worst part of all is that Ron didn’t tell her it was happening.  She views the whole incident as Ron “basically spitting on everything [they] did together at Parks,” and even though Leslie’s prone to overreacting when she feels she’s been wronged, I don’t think you can blame her for how strongly she reacted to this incident.  She’s been calling Ron evil and refusing to even be in the same room as him this season, and when his offense is that he tore down Ann’s house?  Well, it kind of explains a lot.

But after Leslie explains her side, Ron tells her that she doesn’t know the full story.  And then his watch beeps – the three minutes of conversation he granted her are up.  So, in her special Leslie way, she takes it upon herself to figure out what the missing part of the story is.  Ron, meanwhile, has whittled himself a key, and uses that to get into the locked director’s office.  Throughout the episode, there’s a push and pull between Leslie and Ron: they’re close together, both physically and emotionally, then move apart, then close again.  It’s really interesting to kind of track these waves, and see what’s causing them.  For Leslie, she’s always pulling; she wants to resolve this, she wants to have all the answers.  Ron’s the one pushing.  They’re both acts of self-preservation – I don’t think Leslie wants to accept that she did something to hurt Ron, so while she’s devoted to figuring out why he left the parks department, so she does what she always does.  She goes overboard with information, and pushes people to tell her that she was right.

Leslie goes back to old project reports to use those to piece together any theory as to why Ron left.  She thinks her job application will be the key, but his comments on it are too classically stoic to reveal anything.  Still, it gets them talking about her job interview, and why he even hired her in the first place since their personalities are so drastically conflicting.  They reminisce about her interview, and about how she yelled at him in the middle of it, and for a moment, they’re getting along.  It’s clear that Ron still respects and admires her, and that if he was just willing to explain himself to her, that they could rebuild their friendship.  So Leslie pushes, and Ron pulls back; then he gets up and pulls the fire alarm, hoping that will lead to them being freed.  Except, it turns out the alarm was disconnected years ago, after April kept pulling it.  Now, pulling the alarm only triggers the sprinklers.

Finally, Leslie points out that Ron has no other options.  He’s tried every possible way to escape, and there’s no way out.  So he relents, and explains why he left the parks department: because Leslie left.  Then Jerry.  Then April, Tom, Donna…eventually, he didn’t know anyone in the department.  So when he went to visit Leslie in her new office, he asked her to lunch the following day, which she enthusiastically agreed to.  But as soon as he left, something came up at work that demanded she her immediate attention, so she had to leave Pawnee for a week – and in the process, stood Ron up.  And the worst part?  He had asked her to lunch with the intention of asking her for a job.  Ron Swanson was going to ask for a job in federal government, he missed his friends, and he was left with nothing.

It’s a total gut punch, made worse by the fact that neither of them were totally wrong in why they were so angry with each other.  That lunch was a big deal to Ron, but Leslie had no way of knowing that.  And really, that’s the only thing that could have kept these two apart for so long – not a genuine betrayal, like I guessed last week, but a huge misunderstanding that led to accidental personal attacks on each other.

After reflecting on the fact that nothing is the same, the two spent the rest of their night fixing up the parks department to its former glory.  They replace the furniture put in by Craig, the new director, and put things back how it should be: Leslie’s flags on the desk, Ron’s breakfast food portrait up in his office.  Oh, and they drink.  A lot.  So much so that, later that day, April has to reschedule all of Leslie’s appointments, which works in her favor when Ron comes by to ask Leslie to lunch.  Oh – and he gives her a present.  A picture of them with Li’l Sebastian, in a frame made from the wood from Ann’s front door that Ron saved while the house was being demolished.  For the first time in her life, Leslie Knope is presentless – so they go to JJ’s to gorge themselves on breakfast food.

Besides all the obvious narrative reasons why this episode was important, it also felt important in how it was structured.  I don’t think Parks and Rec has ever done a bottle episode – it always jumps around to different locations, going back-and-forth between every character, because there’s just always so much going on.  It always manages to bring the important moments to the forefront, but while creating a balancing act between everything else that needs to happen.  But this episode is so different from every other episode in the series.  It sticks to one location, the parks department (because, after all, the parks department is the heart of the show, is it not?), and though the other characters appear to bookend the episode, the bulk only features Ron and Leslie.  Now, shows seven seasons in don’t suddenly produce episodes like this.  Over seven seasons, a rhythm develops – not necessarily a formula, exactly, but a sense of convention.  For that convention to change so drastically, it shows just how important Ron and Leslie’s friendship is.  The show cannot continue if they’re not talking.  Their fight has to be resolved, and it has to be resolved now before anything else can continue.  The fact that no other characters appear proves that – they don’t have a storyline, they have nothing going on, because the fight between Ron and Leslie has created this huge pause in everyone’s lives.

A lot of comparisons have been drawn between this episode and Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” which similarly featured two characters, Don and Peggy, almost singularly throughout the episode.  Like “Leslie and Ron,” the episode came late enough in the show’s run that when it focused on this relationship, it did so with years of weight and backstory behind it.  It was time to see this relationship be fixed because enough years of brokenness had passed.  I’m not alone in my belief that “The Suitcase” is one of the best episodes of television ever produced, and I don’t think it’s unfair or premature to say the same about “Leslie and Ron”.  All of its meaning came from the fact that we’ve had six seasons to watch their relationship grow and twist, and the length of time invested in building this relationship only goes to strengthen the show itself.  It says something about a show, what it contains, what it means, if it can – if it wants – to take the time to slow down and focus on a central relationship like this.  In this case, it’s saying that it matters.  The connection two people share matters, to those two people, to the people around them.  Parks and Rec has always, always been a show about love, and this episode in its final season cemented that its legacy and its message will deservedly be remembered as such.

Beyond the beauty of being fully immersed in Leslie and Ron’s relationship for an episode, I think my favorite part of “Leslie and Ron” was all the callbacks to previous episodes.  Ron referenced his habit of calling co-workers by the wrong name to dissuade anyone from thinking that they’re friends, and, most importantly, their recreation of their conversation about breakfast foods that they had all the way back in season two.  “Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?”  “People are idiots, Leslie.”  It was such a beautiful moment when it first happened – such a simple way to show the connection between these two characters in such a quiet way.  Bringing it back here accomplishes many things.  For one, it shows their connection is just as strong as it ever was.  Sure, we spent this entire episode watching them repair their relationship, and just watched Leslie hug him and eagerly exclaim that she has three years’ worth of hugs to give him.  We know that they’re fine.  But knowing that and seeing it are two different things, and things like this can’t be made certain so explicitly.  It’s all in the little moments – how these characters interact on a normal, everyday level, the language they use with each other.  To call back to such a specific moment in their friendship and on the show is the biggest, and most efficient, way to make it clear that Ron and Leslie are good.

The other accomplishment of this line is a bit simpler.  For as important and meaningful as that season 2 scene was, it’s also very subtle, and easy to forget in favor of bigger moments like Ben and Leslie getting married or Leslie planning Ron’s birthday surprise.  That moment was recalled in this episode to appeal to the fans.  To remind us of where the show has been, and as a small thank-you to the fans who care enough about the show that they can pick up on moments like that and have it matter.

Some other thoughts on the episode:
  • Leslie’s appeal to Ben not to lock them in based on the fact that the Game of Thrones finale is that night.  “Khaleesi is marrying Jack Sparrow.  God, that show has really gone off the rails.”  “Look, it makes sense if you’ve read the books.”
  • “I would rather sit here and bleed out than talk about my feelings for ten hours.”
  • Personally, I could (and would) watch Leslie dancing and making up words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for ten hours, but what do I know
  • “You mean to tell me I have had a toy on my desk for ten years?”  “You mean to tell me you thought you had an actual landmine on your desk?”
  • Ron’s reaction of pure joy when Leslie uncovered his breakfast food painting was the reason I woke up today.
Let me know what you thought of “William Henry Harrison” and “Leslie and Ron” in the comments!  I’ll be back next week with reviews of “Gryzzlbox” and “Save JJ’s!”  Until then, who wants to eat breakfast food?


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