Last night's tearjerking Parks & Rec finale doubled down on the "gently sci-fi" atmosphere of its seventh season, set in 2017. The last episode jumped further and further into the future to explore what will eventually become of the characters. (Some highlights: Ron is named superintendent of the Pawnee National Park, April gives birth in ghoul makeup on Halloween, Craig and Typhoon grow old together.)
But as clearly drawn as the destinies of the other Parks Department employees may be, for Leslie and Ben — whose relationship constitutes show's beating heart — a vital plot point is intentionally kept vague.
The Parks finale's most meaningful reveal comes not at the end, but about halfway through the hour-long episode. Then in their early 70s, Ben and Leslie attend Gerry's funeral in 2048. It's as happy as a sad occasion can be: The unlikely 10-time mayor of Pawnee lived to be 100. We might not have even noticed the fleet of bodyguards (could they be Secret Service?) in dark sunglasses standing behind the noticeably aged couple if one of them hadn't leaned forward. "It's time to go," he says, to neither Ben nor Leslie in particular.
So… does Leslie Knope get elected president or what?
When asked by a fan about Leslie's fate, Amy Poehler tweeted only a wink in response.
I know, I know. I'm as stirred up as you are, but how about we finish watching the episode first?
In 2025, at a party at the Biden house (featuring a cameo by Dr. Jill as well as Parks favorite Joe!), Leslie and Ben are both approached about the possibility of running for Indiana governor.
When their thoughtful discussions and pros and cons lists get them nowhere, Leslie suggests they flip a coin to decide which of them should run. Genuinely touched by his wife's gesture, Ben announces to their friends that Leslie's the candidate, not him. No, I'm not crying, why would you even ask me that?
In the finale's last few minutes, we see Leslie in 2035, receiving an honorary doctorate from Indiana University after serving two terms as state governor.
"Soon, a new, unknown challenge awaits me," she tells the assembled students, "Which to me, even now, is thrilling, because I love the work."
The phrase "new, unknown challenge" sounds so much like something a President-elect would say that I thought for a moment that the writers might have lifted it from JFK's "City Upon a Hill" speech. They didn't (although the then-Senator did whip out a "new and broader responsibilities" and a "new and solemn journey"), but you get the point.
Showrunner Mike Schur addressed Leslie's "intentionally ambiguous" future and the deliberate staging of the funeral scene in an interview with Variety, citing the famously open-to-interpretation Sopranos finale as an inspiration: "I wanted people to be able to fill in their own blanks and make up their own minds about what they think happened in the intervening years."
Can we say, conclusively, that Leslie has been elected president by 2048? We can't. And that's a much more fitting tribute to her than the closure a conventional ending could provide.
Let's play devil's advocate. For one thing, there are plenty of government officials who work outside the Oval Office yet travel with a security detail. And for another, Leslie might very well be the First Lady. Ben Wyatt is a congressman with an impressive record of public service. Should he choose to run for any office, he'd have the most supportive spouse in the history of spouses by his side. Maybe it's his turn.
Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt have the best TV marriage since Coach and Tami Taylor. When one spouse succeeds, the other does, too. In the funeral scene, the show is telling us to flip a coin, just as Leslie had wanted before the gubernational campaign. This ambiguity is a gift the show gives Ben and Leslie. It's the best possible iteration of Schrödinger’s cat: When we don't know who's president, they both are. And, in a Bill-and-Hillary scenario, that dream might very well come true.
If the most obvious reading of this moment were correct — Leslie is indeed president — some viewers might be miffed that the show didn't make this more explicit, or give us a sense of what her life is like in the White House. But for Leslie Knope, it's always been about the journey, not the destination. As she says, she loves the work. Even if she did reach the nation's highest office, the finale would be better served devoting its precious few minutes to showing her spending time with her friends and helping people, because that's what matters most to her. And that's exactly what it did.
As Hanna Brooks Olsen argued in a wonderful essay recently, Leslie Knope (smart, ambitious, hard-working, loyal, confident, kind, nearly every positive adjective you could think of) represents the heights to which we all should aspire. Her future is as expansive as we can imagine it.
Frankly, I'm not sure that "President of the United States" is enough of a title to contain Leslie. I'd like to think that the distant future might have conceived of an even grander role for her.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.