Let's just get the speculation for next season out of the way.
Will the Swanson baby come out with a powerful mustache, male or female? Will s/he demand a fine scotch rather than settling for mother's milk? Will the Swanson baby have an unhealthy genetic predisposition for classmates named Tammy? Are there enough bacon and eggs in Pawnee? How old will the Swanson baby be when s/he builds baby's first canoe? Will a Swanson baby even lower itself to being fed strained peas?
So many questions from such a basic sitcom cliffhanger! The pregnancy scare and/or celebration is up there with "wedding" and "choosing between two boys competing for one's affection" as the most common classic tropes to get people back in front of their televisions come fall. But even though the idea itself is derivative, even though it's been trodden upon by a myriad of lesser shows, Parks and Rec's execution of it really made it shine.
First of all, there was Bert Macklin. It felt good to watch Andy throw on that FBI jacket; multiply his clinical lack of embarrassment by Macklin's "above the law" antics and you get a scene like when Andy came to Leslie with the pregnancy test. He busted into her town hall meeting, an apologetic Ann trailing behind him, and asked her with so very little tact if the test was hers. His sudden intrusion was the punchline to another joke, the context of his intrusion giving credence to Leslie being slutacious, but it was how he handled the situation that set the scene apart from how it might've been handled elsewhere. Usually that role belongs to either A.) someone who gets flustered and tries to make up for the inconvenient interruption, or B.) a character who just doesn't care about anything, whose apathy never plateaus. It's not a spectrum. Andy belongs in some new category where he's not flustered by the audience or the moment, but acknowledges them positively. The scene was made even stronger by Leslie's uniquely firm but not defensive "no," and then we moved on to the next suspect.
The fact that there were so many suspects is also a testament to how Parks and Rec constructed itself over the course of the season. Donna was generally never going to be a factor in the selection process (she really does have the best head on her shoulders), but any of the other four women could've easily been the rightful winner in the Game of Bones (was that too much?). Ann's been trying to get pregnant for half the season; Mona Lisa getting pregnant would be devastating for Tom (thought it would mean we'd get a lot more of her, which just reminds me of how much I miss Jean-Ralphio being on); Leslie and Ben have been talking about starting a family in recent episodes; and April, as always, is the dark horse... and, therefore, the likeliest candidate for massive life changes if you're trying to twist the audience.
The possible pregnant ladies each being equally viable like were they characters from Clue was good, but that wasn't even the best indicator of how the season overall was set up. One of the most difficult things about building storylines for Leslie is that she's always progressing, always moving toward that goal of being an influential leader. She can't stagnate, and winning the election to city council was basically the top of her political career, as long as the show is set in Pawnee. She could maybe become mayor in a narratively lateral move, but not every season can end with a political campaign. There needs to be an obstacle for her to overcome and being recalled makes brilliant sense.
"Are You Better Off?" did an excellent job of compressing the story arc so we could see how far we've come, and also how things would come back to haunt Leslie, without resorting to my nemesis the clip show or powering through a lot of exposition. Ms. Knope's agenda of improving the quality of life in Pawnee has rubbed people the wrong way over the last 22 episodes. It's been easy to write many of them off as case-of-the-week characters, like the sanitation workers or even the Paunch Burger spokesperson, but bringing everything back around is one of the tried-and-true ways to make a story feel good and justified. And turnaround is fun to watch, even if it's at Leslie's expense.
We've watched her power through this season with her goals, watched her stumble through some of the trials, but we always see her friends pick her back up. They tell her how she's amazing and they show her how special they think she is by joining in on all her reindeer games even though she's basically using the parks department resources as her own personal receptionist pool. We've seen her side of things. But it's like the episodes of Community where we see the other students talk to each other about how great that one week where the study group wasn't around was the greatest week of their lives. As we watch the twee and uplifting story of Leslie Knope triumphing over adversity, we forget that adversity has a name, collectively a bunch of names, and it's great to see that rise to become, what we can only imagine, the big bad for next season.
You avoid the difficulty in finding another office for Leslie by taking the one she already has away from her, or at least making her fight for it.
The bottom line is that a season finale should make you look back over the course of the last few months and feel like you've been on a journey with these characters. So often you watch a show and it might end on a cliffhanger or two, but you don't necessarily feel like the season built up to the finale so much as the last three episodes did. With "Are you Better Off?" we got that sense of wholeness, of the season as a single unit of the show. Callbacks are important, as is character development. And even if explaining the plot of this episode to your friends will make it sound like you're watching the most basic, rote episode of television, you know that's not true. Because Parks and Recreation is a show that can execute old ideas and tropes in a new way. There are so few sitcoms on television that make you feel the warmth that Parks and Recreation effortlessly achieves.
– "Welcome to the FBI." Andy and Ann shook hands after closing that deal. It was so uncharged with any sort of sexual tension that it's easy forget these two used to actually have sex. Sure, it was during that first season we're all trying to repress, but it happened.
– Which do you think Tom would rather have to deal with: Mona Lisa as a mother, or competition for Rent-A-Swag?
– Hey, it's Jason Schwartzman!
– There was probably no better way to end the episode than on Andy's face when he put all the facts together about the Swanson baby.
– I loved how excited Andy was about April being pregnant. So enthusiastic about everything. And it didn't turn into a discussion about their future breeding, or whether they're in a place where they can have a conversation about having kids. It was just moving on with their lives, seeing the next challenge, and making each other happy. Gorgeous.
– Maybe I'm more to one side of the autistic spectrum than I thought, but I can't always tell whether the show means for April to be kooky and actually want to adopt creepy twins at fifty, or whether she's just deflecting from a conversation with humor. I think it would be a worse if it were the former.
– Very nice callback about the river at the end. I thought they'd forgotten about that.
– Chris as Nipple King. Chris as he's horrified by the pig party turning into a barbecue. Almost as good as Chris telling a duck "Way to be!" I really like this tempered version of Chris Traeger.