Pardon the television break! I was reading a thread about last night’s Parks and Rec, and I noticed a few comments criticizing the episode for having Chris Traeger behave so out of character, that he wouldn’t despair over being single. I strongly disagree, but I feel like this is going to be extremely long, so instead of taking over that thread I’m just going to post here. Chris was not only in character on last night’s episode, it was an evolution of his central struggle, setting up for continuing his journey this season.
Chris isn’t despairing because he’s single, he’s despairing because he is lonely, and being single is only one part of that. This is actually some profound, meaning-of-life shit he is going through. It’s been established since Season 3 that Chris constantly struggles with his own mortality (last night’s episode reminds us that the reason for this is that he had a very serious illness when he was a baby). It’s one of the motivations behind keeping his body in perfect condition. He says ridiculous things about how he’s going to be the first person to live to be 150 years old, which he will accomplish through eating right and exercising and taking herbal supplements. He’s proud when Ann thinks he is much younger than he actually is. His first freakout about this we see is when he gets tendonitis in his shoulder; he tells Ann he’s “dying”, and he only means this in the sense that everyone is technically dying, yet he says it like it’s this great tragedy, not simply a fact. One of the reasons he is so broken up about Millicent is that one of the reasons she dumped him is because of their age difference–he’s much older than her. Chris has been struggling for a long time with the fact that he is getting older, he won’t actually be able to actually keep his body in peak condition forever, and one day he will die.
Couple this with a second major aspect of his character: his relationships with people are very shallow. I don’t mean he is selfish or anything; one of my favorite Chris moments is in Season 3 when he comforts a random woman on the fourth floor of city hall (“Who was that?” “I don’t know. She looked like she needed help, so I helped.”). He’s a caring person! But nonetheless, he doesn’t engage with people very deeply. In the episode where Ron thinks Chris is trying to be his friend, Chris reassures him that no, “I have me. And five hundred Facebook friends.” The problem is none of his relationships are any deeper than Facebook friends. No one even invites him to the movies until April does after the phone call fundraiser for Leslie. His relationship with Ann was not deep, either (“You turned me into you, and then you got bored because you were dating yourself!” Ann sums it up).
His closest friend is Ben, and even that relationship isn’t very deep. Chris doesn’t see the warning signs about the impending demise of the “Dream Team” in early Season 4, he doesn’t see Ben backing away from the Parks Department as a red flag. He’s close enough with Ben to tell when he’s depressed later on in the season, but that is a much more exaggerated situation (and Ben wasn’t deliberately hiding it from him). On top of that, Ben hurt Chris deeply by going behind his back, and now he’s in a very happy relationship (Chris is, I’m sure, very happy for Ben, but your best friend being in love does often mean you don’t see them as much), and now in Season 5 he’s in DC pursuing a new career path. Chris was also first-party witness to Ben torpedoing his own career out of love; Chris doesn’t have anyone he would do that for, and no one who would do that for him.
So Chris’s loneliness isn’t just about being single. He has no family and no deep friendships. At the end of Season 4, he throws himself into exercising because “stopping is death.” He has a fling with Jen to distract him for a little bit, but it doesn’t last. He’s grappling with his own mortality. Now we can see from last night’s episode that he’s thinking about what regrets he will have at the end of his life. It’s not until Andy says if you don’t have friends and family, you have “Nothing!” that Chris finally physically collapses (“What do you have, Chris?” “Nothing. I have nothing.”). He’s going to die one day and his life is meaningless because he is so alone (of course that’s not true, but that’s how he feels). He says later on in the episode that he hasn’t made his mark on the world. He has sunk even lower than in late Season 4, but there is some optimism in that it looks like he is going to get some help from a “doctor for the mind”, as Andy puts it. I’m looking forward to seeing Chris develop closer friendships and become a happier person who is more focused on living now than living forever. Rob Lowe said in an interview, “No one can keep Chris Traeger down, not even Chris Traeger.” I believe it!