There is a part, in every well-written comedy, where the question of “will they or won’t they” finally gets answered. Jim and Pam. Ben and Leslie. Donna and Josh. (I mean, come on, the West Wing wouldn’t have been anything without humor at its core.) I’m adding Kate and Emaline from Everything Sucks to that list now, too. A good comedy will hit all the necessary tropey notes to keep us hooked on that central will they or won’t they couple. The writers will separate the couple (Jim moving to the Stamford branch), they’ll unite one half of the couple with another partner (Donna with that dumb photographer guy, Pam with Roy), there will be so many little hints to the viewer about the psyches of each half of the couple, that frustrate us, those very same viewers, in an almost emotional release cocktease fashion. Spoiler alert, they all make it work, and are living happily ever after in the ether of my fantasy world. With Jim and Pam, and Donna and Josh, we always knew what was going to happen, and it’s almost predictable, the ways in which the couples finally get together. I live for that moment when they finally kiss, when they finally put aside all of their shit that kept them from the other person, and get into the fucking ring. (We will talk about “getting into the ring” later in this blog post.) My favorite though, of all the above, is Ben and Leslie.
See, I really like to fashion myself a Donna Meagle, as someone who is effortlessly confident, cool, and always has her shit on point. Donna Meagle will get into the ring only when she needs to, which is rare because her shit is on lock 99% of the time. I realize, however, more and more, that I am far less Donna Meagle and Ron Swanson, and that I am settling way more into the Morgan who is the hybrid of Leslie Knope and Andy Dwyer.
In season 4 of Parks and Rec, the will they or won’t they question gets answered, in a way that is so kind, satisfying, clever, and resonates deeply with me. Even thinking about it, brings tears to my eyes, because somewhere out there, (probably a few miles away from me in Los Angeles) is a team of writers who love someone, like Leslie Knope, who consistently goes into the ring. Who consistently puts herself out there, on the line, over and over, and over. Who is a waymaker.
So when after months of dating in secret, Ben and Leslie are trying to find a way to move into the friend-colleague zone, because both their jobs and Leslie’s political hopes will be dashed if they continue to date, Ben tells Leslie that it’s too hard to be around her, and he’s going to move on. He wants to leave the department, thus ending any further interaction with Leslie, because it’s too hard for him to be around her since they can’t be together. Upon realizing this, Leslie tries to extend their last day working together, in all kinds of silly, bizarre, innocuous seeming ways. Ben is totally over it and calls her out in front of Chris for being steam-rolling, and a “team of one.” Which is exactly what I’ve been told, so many times, by so many partners, in those exact words, and maybe not those exact words.
The best thing about Leslie Knope is how she doesn’t even realize how intense she is about the things she loves, and how she wants to share it with EVERYONE ALL THE TIME. I imagine that she is often asked to tone it down. And so, in this episode, after exhausting her options, she resigns herself to giving Ben what he wants, which is to be left alone. Which always makes my insides SCREAM because the anxiety of being met with silence, or one word answers after you pour your heart out, or being asked to leave someone alone, or giving someone space, the anxiety of uncertainty, is something I’ve wrestled with my entire life. Is it a control thing? Is it a need for feedback thing? I don't know. I don't think it's either. I think it's the desire for a person I love and want in my life, to get into the ring with me. To meet me at the place where we put ourselves on the line, over and over again.
By this point in Parks and Rec, we have gotten to know Leslie Knope so well, over the course of three and a half seasons, and we know that she really must care about and love Ben, if she’s willing to let him go. And I just. I want to hug this fictional character so hard because girl, I get it. I really really do. And letting someone go because they don’t want to get into the ring with you, or because you have to drag them in their every single time, is heartbreaking, and exhausting, and takes so much work.
What makes this episode my favorite, and what makes this will they or won’t they resolution the one that makes my chest fill up and my eyes well with tears, is because Ben decides to get into the ring. Not because Leslie has worn him down, not because Ann Perkins gives him the most wonderful Leslie-anecdote, but because Adam Scott’s performance in that 3 seconds, with the slightest smile-laugh, after Ann shows him all of the texts that Leslie has sent her, which have exponentially increased “when she can’t talk to you, she talks to me” -- we know what Ben is thinking. He decides to get into the ring with her. He shows up, he's ready to do the work, he's ready to hash it out. He's still worried and anxious, but he shows up. He gets into the ring. He finds a way. That’s the biggest grand gesture of them all. When you decide to say “fuck it, I am going to be in this, with this person, and we’re going to do this shit.”
The big Jim Halpert gestures are great. They’re a fairy tale. But what makes this will they or won’t they, truly remarkable, is because it’s real. Because they just decided to. And deciding to get into the ring with another person, deciding to put yourself on the line, and be vulnerable, and be exactly who you are, and call people on their unkindness, and bullshit is getting in the ring. And telling someone how awesome they are, over and over, and how much you love them, and how much they mean to you, and fucking up in front of them, and owning it, and apologizing, is the biggest fucking grand gesture. And it will always be enough. Showing up in the ring for someone, being present there, will never get old, and it will never be unappreciated.
So now, a little bit more every single day, everywhere I go, I get into the ring. At work, at school, in my relationships, in my friendships, with family members, everywhere. Because putting yourself out there, being present, really hearing someone, and seeing someone, and letting them know, with actual words and actions, is the thing I’m trying to do. That’s radical vulnerability to me. This blog is named after Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability. Here’s the part with the Roosevelt quote about The Man in the Arena. And I’ll end this entry here, with what Brene Brown says is her new essentialism, because it’s mine now too, “if you aren’t in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” *shrug emoji*