“Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis” begins in Chidi’s classroom, as he teaches his doubled-in-size student body of Eleanor and Jason/Jianyu about the concept of utilitarianism. Explaining it as acting so as to cause the “most good and pleasure and least pain and suffering,” he strikes a chord with the motivated Eleanor, who calls him out for teaching all that other complicated ethical crap when John Stuart Mill seemed to have a perfect, easy-to-follow system. The thing is, as Chidi puts it, “If all that matters is the sum total of goodness, then you can justify any number of bad actions.”
The Good Place is doing a great job of balancing its seemingly unwieldy elements. With its sunny, soothing color palette and Kristen Bell’s equally bright presence at its center as the endearingly sort-of-awful Eleanor, and the reliance on the wacky fantasy elements of the good place, it’s a consistent laugh-machine. Especially with Ted Danson’s Michael presiding over everything. Tonight, his delight in his “Western Hemisphere brunch banter” skills gives Danson another chance to display his effortless comic charisma. (“That New Yorker article was crazy. You haven’t seen Hamilton? Hey, did you hear about Stephanie?”) Then there’s the good place itself, each episode deriving unique interest from revealing this strange afterlife’s rules and eccentric details. (Eleanor discovers that “fully charged cell phone” frozen yogurt tastes very relaxing.)
But there’s a mystery rumbling under the good place—literally, in the form of the sinkhole that Eleanor’s misbehavior caused last episode, and that, as Michael discovers in horror tonight, isn’t healing itself as it should. D’Arcy Carden’s unfiltered, chipper truth-telling as Janet is never funnier than when she’s delivering bad news, and her smiling report to Michael that the anomalous sinkhole is a “category 55 emergency doomsday crisis” elicits a huge laugh (from us) and a hilariously clenched attempt at normalcy from the panicked Michael. (“Tahani dear, could you show us to a private room where do one could see or hear us even if I were to yell very loudly out of fear?”)
And then there’s Chidi’s admonition, which sounds an awful lot like a red flag about the supposedly empirical and just moral system of the good place itself. If goodness is just a numbers game—as Tahani discovers to her horror when she accesses everyone’s scores in Michael’s unattended architect’s manual—then you can get away with a lot of crimes and misdemeanors, as long as you run up your “good” score high enough. Tahani, whose discovery that she ranks 321st out of the 322 residents of the good place, goes into do-gooder overdrive, complete with an elaborate activity chart and endless mini-waffles at the “brunch siege” caused when Michael orders everyone to stay inside, and an ill-advised attempt to help out Michael and Janet at the sinkhole. (She gets comically-wonky eyeballs and Janey “boops” her on the forehead to knock her out for her trouble.) Tahani, while hardly a bad person, illustrates Chidi’s point with every ostentatiously generous thing she does. Tahani’s a moderately insufferable, self-obsessed person who, nonetheless, channels her need for approval into incessantly helping others. It’s a tough moral call whether Tahani’s a good person or not, and one, seemingly, the attractively simple scoreboard method of judgement can’t account for.
Especially once we get Tahani’s backstory, her flashbacks revealing a life spent in the shadow of her genuinely insufferable sister, Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood). As hard as Tahani worked for her desperately needed adulation, Kamilah disdainfully accepted the praise heaped on her as the youngest Oxford graduate ever, Olympic archery gold-medalist, activist, BAFTA award winner (for her documentary about her own, Grammy-winning album), and trend-setter. (She may also be Banksy.) The flashbacks on The Good Place serve to further muddy the waters about who is in the good place and why. So far, we’ve only seen the pasts of people who don’t belong (Eleanor and Jason), but there’s no indication that Tahani is here by mistake. That she retains her neuroses and insecurities in “paradise,” as Chidi calls it, admits a lot of speculation as to what’s going on here.
The same goes for Chidi, who—penned down by the badgering Eleanor and their unwanted houseguests (a marriage counselor and and expert in identity theft, inconveniently)—reveals his own disappointments in his supposed ultimate reward. I love William Jackson Harper’s take on Chidi, his ability to express the poor guy’s warring decency and exasperation lending much more individuality than his designated straight man role initially promised. (Plus, he was a way with a comically drawn-out phrase when cornered, as with his “Nothinnnng-a” when Eleanor presses him on what’s been bothering him.) But, in a “heaven” with some questionable qualities, nobody’s got a worse deal than Chidi, something that becomes touchingly clear here.
It’s not just that Chidi’s stuck keeping a huge secret (an act that carries unknown consequences, should his aid to Eleanor be discovered). Or that that secret comes with a frustrating full-time job trying to whip Eleanor (and now Jason) into moral shape. Nor is it that his paradise comes complete with stress tummy-aches, the occasionally natural disaster, and the revelation that his life’s work was an unreadable mess. As Harper puts it with Chidi’s signature unostentatious plainness tonight, “I was so excited, and it isn’t exactly what I thought.” When Eleanor, whose stabs at decency are proceeding in fits and starts, figures out the truth behind what Chidi says, it’s more of a heartbreak still.
Chidi’s never met his soulmate. Not on Earth—where, he reveals, he never had a single meaningful romantic relationship—and certainly not in the good place. Looking back to Chidi’s first meeting with Eleanor, it’s especially painful thinking about how bashful and hopeful and open Harper’s face was when Michael introduced Chidi to his supposed true love. After a lonely life of decency and hard work, true, eternal, unconditional love was to be his reward, and instead he got a foul-mouthed, crude, selfish jerk—and heaven seemed to be broken on top of it all.
But Eleanor’s working on it, as her sweet surprise that ends the episode shows. Chidi probably would have been just as happy that Eleanor did the dishes for once (especially since his off-the-cuff fantasy of reading French poetry on a rowboat didn’t take into account his inability to row a boat). But Eleanor’s realization that they’re both in the same boat (metaphorically) is clearly most welcome, as she tells him she finally figured out that her mistaken admission to the good place means that she took the place of the one woman in the world who was destined to love him. And that, by helping her stay, he’s robbing himself of the possibility of ever meeting her. “I’m basically a utilitarian nightmare,” says Eleanor, “every ounce of my happiness leads to a ton of pain for you.” When she gives him permission to tell her to get lost every once in a while (complete with a lovely “Fork off, Eleanor” card to play when necessary), she tells him, “I know we’ll never be soulmates, but we’re friends.” It’s sweet without being cloying, and deepens both characters as it similarly draws us deeper into just what the hell heaven is playing at.
- After Eleanor excitedly runs home to tell Chidi about how she let another person go ahead of her in the fro-yo line (instead of deliberately tasting a dozen flavors to spite him), Chidi’s aghast, “You do that?” sees Bell bring out Eleanor’s genuine pride in her minuscule act of common courtesy. (“No, Chidi. I used to do that!”)
- Manny Jacinto only gets one real scene, but he makes it count. Jason’s tale of framing the woman threatening to break up his breakdancing crew provides Jacinto the chance to deliver lines like “black market alligator dealer with a pierced jawbone” and “stolen boogie boards” with the dead-earnest stupidity that is Jason’s deliriously funny true self.
- Eleanor’s incremental reformation is still peppered with phrases like “I am revved up to learn, man. My brain is horny!” to let us know Eleanor’s still Eleanor.
- The little yelp of terror Michael lets out is some prime Danson, as is his attempt at recovery to Tahani, “Well that’s so, so normal… I’m going to leave now at my regular pace.”
- When Tahani sees the master points list, the real Jianyu is second (with 9,435,415), while the real Eleanor is 6th (with 7,033,666). (That Jonathon Smith guy, though, has everyone beat, just shy of 12 million points.)
- Young Tahani’s attempts to get her parents to notice her instead of her sister say a lot about why she is who she is. Her “my birdie has a hat” to her bored father fails to raise any interest in comparison to Kamilah’s Brancusi-inspired bird statue.
- Kamilah rescues Tahani’s charity auction by offering up a lunch date with herself. Their father bids 5 million pounds.
- “5.2 million isn’t bad.” “It’s very middle-thermometer.”
- “I am not going to have sex with someone to get them to stop talking to me.” “Really? You and I are very different.”
- In addition to money, their parents leave Kamilah “their yacht and other assorted weekend boats.” Meanwhile, they can’t be bothered to spell Tahani’s name right. (”It’s spelled ‘Tahini,’ like the sauce,” notes the executrix, drily.)
- Michael, for all his seeming incompetence, can be quite kind and reassuring, Danson making Michael’s, “You have nothing left to prove. To anyone” to the shattered Tahani sweetly authoritative.
- Janet, to Tahani’s humorous gift of donut holes at the sinkhole: “Too soon. By exactly nine days.”