The Pleasures of Watching Ron Swanson Evolve


Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run Tuesday night on NBC. To celebrate the show’s unforgettable characters, Flavorwire is publishing a series of tributes to our favorite Pawnee residents. Click here to follow our coverage.

Any look back at the evolution of Parks and Recreation will reveal that the character of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), the do-nothing libertarian boss of the show’s idealistic lead, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), was originally written as a villain. If Leslie was all hope and faith in politics and the ability to make a difference in the world, Ron was both a vocal opponent and the ultimate example of government bloat — a man committed to making sure that nothing ever got accomplished.

In lesser hands than Offerman’s, Ron could have been a real downer — the grumpy voice of a man’s man railing against the pretty little lady who wants to get things done and believes in the potential of the government. But what Offerman — and the Parks writers, eventually — brought to the table was something different and weirder, a character that contained multitudes. He was a man of simple pleasures: breakfast food and brunette women, hiding his money and spending time in his hunting cabin. He structured his life deliberately in the pursuit of these pleasures. Yet Leslie, through some combination of goodness, rightness, and sheer force of will, was able to get Ron to come around to her way of doing things. Sometimes.

Parks and Recreation often lapsed into cartoonishness, as a sort of all-purpose platform for portraying wacky small-town antics. Yet even when Ron was ridiculous, he never lost his humanity. He shares some qualities with my father, to be honest: a love of woodworking, a belief in doing work with your hands, a very exacting sense of what he will and will not eat. My father is a good man and a responsible man, a man who has always stuck to a strong ethical code. This could look stodgy from the outside, but what’s been wonderful about my relationship with my father is seeing how he’s changed throughout the years, how his likes have expanded (he practices aikido, he does yoga), and how he’s become very talented at handiwork. When a problem arises, he does what he can to fix it. He takes responsibility for it. I keep learning from him.

Ron’s quiet confidence in what he can do, his sincerity and how it clashes with the goofy insincerity of learning about a character (especially a masculine, old-school sort) through the tropes and patterns of reality TV and mockumentary, create a world of fascinating tension within the show. Many of Parks‘ pleasures came from seeing Ron expand beyond being just a collection of Filson catalog stereotypes: made in America, ready to hunt and fish and build, tough enough to face down a bear. He listened to Leslie. He had a weakness for powerful women. He even had a father figure inside of him, when it came to cultivating doomy youth April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza). In fact, he had many of the qualities that make for a good father: a willingness to listen and speak honestly, along with a principled stubbornness. It’s a combination that makes for a good, if sometimes exasperating, role model.

In a piece on Vulture, Jason Diamond wrote, “Masculinity in the age of Ron Swanson feels like watching its last gasps.” This is especially true for the latest seasons of Parks and Recreation, which pivoted past Leslie vs. Ron to focus more on Adam Scott’s nerdy Ben and Aziz Ansari’s dreamer Tom, two beta males creepily emblematic of my peers from Generation X and the millennials, who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had any time alone in a cabin. I lost some interest in the show when it focused less on Ron, and part of that is due to the fact that Offerman had a knack for projecting a remarkably complex, interesting character underneath the sitcom beats, a skill that the show’s lesser actors couldn’t hope to touch.

The rare thing about masculinity as Ron Swanson embodies it is that it’s something admirable: a legitimate, honorable way to be in the world. What makes Filson catalogs so magnificent is that when a guy writes in to rave about the double-tin pants, it’s because they protected his body when a bull went after him. This kind of man isn’t interested in style — he just needs clothes that will help him survive a bull attack, and when they do, he appreciates them. It’s a straightforwardness that I see in men like Ron and my father, and it’s a quality that’s in short supply sometimes.

The secret, perhaps, to being a Ron Swanson-style man is not to get off on the novelty of buying into an ethos. It is not to self-dramatize in that grasping, Great Gatsby, gotta-make-it kind of way. Rather, it’s to eliminate that sort of neediness and insecurity.

Ron likes the simple things in life. He works hard at the things he cares about and does mostly what he wants. He’s morally consistent and (secretly) reflective enough that he’s willing to change when it makes sense. This is the sort of confidence that we claim America was built on — a confidence that I sometimes hope to achieve. It’s why I’ll miss Ron Swanson when he’s gone.