Generally speaking, this season of Parks and Recreation has been strong, but these last couple of episodes have by far been the best. The first half of the season concentrated largely on how splintered the Parks Department had become with the departure of Tom, and Leslie off chasing her dreams of political office while trying to ignore her continued affection for Ben. This led to much of the cast doing their own thing, with the writers throwing them a bone every once in a while in the form of C or D plots that never really amounted to anything. Sometimes these diversions worked—April and Andy working to scratch items off of his bucket list (*sigh* still hate that phrase), or Donna and Tom trying to get Ben to enjoy life a little more; but most of it just sort of dissipated into the ether—Chris’s fling with Jerry’s Hot Daughter went nowhere fast, and then there's the continued struggle to give Ann Perkins a purpose. Even Ron, the perennial fan favorite, has been playing the sagely grandfather more than anything. Funny and touching as it can be, Parks was starting to buckle from its fractured base.

But with “The Trial of Leslie Knope” and “Citizen Knope”—both, admittedly, continuing a long line of Leslie and Ben-centric episodes—the show has given the rest of the cast a chance to galvanize. Last week they acted as Leslie’s defense team during her ethics trial, this week they came together to give Leslie the world’s most thoughtful Christmas present.

You see, with Leslie in the midst of her two week paid suspension, she still managed to give everyone in the department the perfect Christmas gift—April gets a painting of her decapitating the Black Eyed Peas, Andy gets a gold plated Mouserat record and Ron a pair of automated doors that he can shut by remote control—a gift so damn thoughtful that the man nearly sheds a tear.

Ron, whose gift giving ability rarely goes beyond a crisp, new $20 bill, brings the department together to try to pay Leslie back for all of her damned thoughtfulness. When Tom breaks out a word cloud made from Leslie’s e-mails, her love of parks, Pawnee, and cute things stand out most of all—Ron suggests a wood-worked recreation of the office—Ann suggests they make it out of gingerbread. After all, candy is the fourth biggest word in the cloud, even bigger than the name of her boyfriend.

The gingerbread house gives the group a chance to work together for a change—which, while admittedly limiting the characters' screen time, gives them all a chance to hog the spotlight for a couple of seconds of glory. It also gave some of this seasons more outlying characters some purpose—April makes a grumpy marshmallow Ron Swanson and relishes in his reserved appreciation, Andy proves himself to be quite handy when it comes to building things with candy, and Ann gets to do what she does best: playing team mom to a bunch of lunatics, making sure that everything gets done and that Andy doesn’t poison himself (“Go throw up.” “I didn’t eat any!” “Go throw up!”).

While everyone works away on their little segment of the house Ron becomes flustered with his inability to shape sugar and cookies the same way that he’s able to shape a fine piece of red birch. If anything, this gingerbread house is Ron’s earnest attempt to do something thoughtful for someone he cares about, he gets frustrated when he can't find it in himself to express his emotions while retaining his stern sense of dignity. Hell, the man seems on the verge of tears for most of the episode.

As the department works on Leslie’s gift, Leslie and Ben try to cope with the wealth of free time that they both have found plopped into their laps. Ben, who can’t stop framing his departure from government as “resigning in disgrace,” ponders over where he belongs in the private sector, while Leslie does everything she can to satiate her insatiable need for do-goodery. She even breaks into the office to hijack some work to do at home. Itching to do something—anything—productive, Leslie forms the kind of busy-body citizen action committee that makes her work life hell: the Parks Committee of Pawnee, or PCP, a group so fast acting and powerful it should be illegal.

With a list of demands in tow, Leslie begins pestering city hall with her weird quibbles, flooding Chris’s office with calls, being needlessly rude to government officials and disrupting council meetings like any good crackpot Pawneeian. Leslie also uses the group as a way to distract herself from her flagging campaign, which is on hold until it finds out the damage that her “sex scandal” has had on her poll numbers.

While Leslie blusters around town, Ben hops from job interview to job interview. First nailing an interview at an accounting firm that’s so boring that Ben’s sh!tty nerd and math jokes make him into the instant office cut-up, and then interviewing to be crazed cologne merchant Dennis Feinstein’s new CFO—all while the current CFO sits in the corner sobbing.

Unable decide between the sensible choice or chasing after his own dreams (whatever those are)—Ben takes heed from Pawnee’s least likely sage (and show-stopping comic powerhouse): John Ralphio. Between talking about the benefits of having one’s anus waxed, John Ralphio urges Ben to take on a career that will make him happy—model trains, toy Gandalfs, whatever—advice that Ben takes to heart. Since his failed attempt as a boy mayor, Ben has always taken the safe path, never really pausing to consider if there’s something else out there for him. It takes a lot of courage to follow your dreams, what with the high likelihood of failure and lack of security, and, ultimately, with Leslie at his back, Ben decides to take a month to explore his options, throwing caution to the wind perhaps for the first time in his life.

We already saw what can happen when following your dreams falls through with Tom this season, and tonight sees Leslie hitting rock bottom as well. While distracting herself with PCP, Leslie finds out that her once promising poll numbers plummeted to 1%. Seeing no hope of recovery, her campaign team abandons her, leaving Leslie to wrestle with a shattered ambition and a lot of useless campaign buttons.

And here’s where the Park’s department coming together makes this episode such a joy. As Leslie faces her worst fears, her friends come together to give her the world’s most thoughtful Christmas gift—not only an adorable, edible version of her beloved Parks department, but a pledge to act as Leslie’s official campaign team. With that single gesture, the beautiful weirdoes of the Parks department tie themselves to Leslie’s quest for public office. With 2012 only a few weeks away, the Parks department has fianlly come together in full--really, for the first time this season--with one single goal: to get Leslie Knope a seat on that damned city council.

And the Rest

I know that Chris and Ben are still largely doing their own thing this season, but they’ve always played the rolls of outsiders in city hall, so I’m not really including them as part of the core Parks Department unit.

Here’s Leslie’s complete word cloud: Parks. Pawnee. Ann. Campaign. Ben. Love. Dream. Cute. Friends. Together. Candy. Taylor Swift. Jeggings. Hogwarts. Seal. Seals. Public. Whipped Cream. Fair. Gusto. Indiana. Jerry. McSteamy. Joan. Mouthwash. Town. Office. Guy. Downton Abbey. Knope. America. Birdhouse. Sleepwalk. Cady Stanton. Terms Of Endearment. Paperwork. Think. Ron. City. Laundry. Book. Future. Ballpoint. Blanket. Oprah. Important. Happiness. BFF. Democracy. Daniel Craig. Baby Koala. Council. Hoosier. Li’l Sebastian. Biden. Wildflower. Smithsonian. Great. Government. Hope. Eagleton. Leslie. President. Icetown. Department. Chris. Padfolio. Waffles. 

“If you want to talk about spreading the sheets you can come back to my place and I will rock your—“ “You’re fired!” “That makes sense, should I just go out the way I came in?”

“Did you just scoop it out of the jar with your hand like a bear?” “Yes, I can’t get it off, can you help me?” – Good lord those two are cute.

Salgar would also be good to make cookies.

"Don't eat the fudge, it costs $55 an ounce" - I would eat that fudge. Oh, salgar would also be good with fudge.

I, personally, would like to see a conversation between Leslie Knope and Eric Taylor; two dedicated, inspiring people who would likely annoy the living hell out of each other. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

*Update* - I have been spelling Jean-Ralphio's name wrong all season. Jean-Ralphio makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?