The Good Place left us (all the way back in November!) with a number of cliffhangers to worry about. There’s the coming of the dreaded Sean (or Shawn, Shaun, Siân—we don’t know), the arbiter of all disputes between the Good and Bad Places, who will determine Eleanor’s ultimate fate, and has Ted Danson’s Michael in a tizzy. And there was Tahani’s discovery that supposed soulmate Jianyu is actually a would-be DJ named Jason Mendoza whose greatest achievement was interrupting a hurricane news report by Carson Daly (it wasn’t Carson Daly), and who’s been using the cover of a monk’s vow of silence to mask the fact that all he really wants to talk about is Ariana Grande and properly ranking the Fast & The Furious movies. “You’re barely even a regular, functional person,” she snaps, before calling him disgusting and storming out.
Both storylines inform ”Chidi’s Choice,” but, in typical The Good Place fashion, the episode doesn’t follow either to the predictable place. Eleanor’s dilemma mobilizes Michael, Chidi, and “real” Eleanor (Tiya Sircar, still making essential goodness entirely endearing), certainly, but the episode uses the looming problem to, instead, examine the issue of how Eleanor’s presence has affected her sometime-reluctant friend and mentor, Chidi. Sean(?) is still out there, but he/she/it will have to wait, as William Jackson Harper takes center stage here, making the dangling issue of Chidi’s place in the Good Place the focus.
Harper is, simply, delightful on this show in his deft balancing act of making the impossibly decent and patient Chidi’s harried bafflement consistently hilarious and engaging. He has the finest knowing deadpan on TV, as when, tonight, he listens to Eleanor give a motor-mouthed, discursive account of her history of ditching past boyfriends (and lifting cash from their wallets) once things weren’t fun any more before dropping his “Well, you’ve gotta go spend that money you stole” so expertly that it doesn’t interrupt Eleanor’s flow. Couple that with Harper’s ability to make Chidi’s paralyzing anxiety about doing the right thing emerge as a constant series of hilariously affecting sounds of distress, and Chidi vies with Bell’s Eleanor as our entry into this thoroughly bananas afterlife. Eleanor’s rebellion against the candy-scented paradise of the Good Place is refreshing, but Chidi’s desperate desire to set things right again is restorative. They make a great pair.
And that’s why their almost-pairing tonight comes off less like sitcom contrivance and more like inevitability. When Eleanor fends off Real Eleanor’s assertion that she might be in love with Chidi, Bell makes Eleanor’s babbling litany of why she’s absolutely not in love with Chidi morph seamlessly into her shocked realization, “Oh fork, I’m in love with Chidi!” Bell sells it by essentially relating anecdotes of the type that make us love Chidi, her reluctant admission that Chidi is “surprisingly ripped” paling next to the time that she made fun of his fastidiousness and he “he laughed and sort of made fun of himself.” “It was a nice moment,” she concludes.
As for Chidi, the episode gives him his most involved and revelatory flashbacks yet, as Michael’s fraying patience over Chidi’s constitutional inability to make hard choices under pressure (he even fails Michael’s “pen vs. whiteboard marker” softball question) sends Chidi thinking over how that trait cost him so much back on Earth. The flashbacks on The Good Place are used sparingly, and to illustrative and often subtly sad effect. Chidi’s lifetime of waffling is particularly well-done, with his lifelong friend Uzo (Keston John as an adult) sticking by him, even though Chidi’s deer-in-the-headlights approach to even the smallest choice constantly derails their plans. As a kid, we see the young Chidi so torn up over picking soccer teams that he, in young Uzo’s words, “filibusters recess,” and yet Uzo is shown appreciating his friend’s paralyzing goodness. (Young Chidi couldn’t make the first pick because he was too busy factoring in his classmates’ egos, gender politics, and the like.) John makes Uzo a fully formed guy in just his few minutes, his ingenious test to see if Chidi could handle being Uzo’s best man (he could not) sprung with warm-hearted acceptance. He tells Chidi the wedding’s a month sooner than it is, and, when Chidi predictably melts down over the ethics of the engagement diamonds and so forth, he just smiles and asks him out for a beer. When Chidi’s inability to stop Yelp-ing area bars gets him killed by a falling air conditioner, Both the brutality of the impact and Uzo’s genuinely sorrowful reaction slug home the reality of the moment. It’s skillfully heartbreaking.
So when both Eleanor and Tahani—once Jason’s revelations about all the ways Chidi helped Jason sweep her off her feet convince her she and Chidi are the real soulmates—proclaim their love for him at the same time, Chidi, let’s say, does not cope. Harper’s delivery of Chidi’s response (“I need to step outside. For some air. And I will not be back. For many days.”) is the funniest thing in a very funny episode. Running to Michael for guidance, Chidi gets only more panicked, as Michael confesses that things in the Good Place have become so screwed up that even Michael can’t be sure who’s supposed to end with which soulmate. “You is spreading!,” snaps Michael accusingly, Danson, as ever, making his benevolent guardian figure prone to deliciously funny snippiness when things fall apart.
As for Tahani and Eleanor, here, too, The Good Place swerves away from where it seemed to be heading. When Tahani discovered Jason’s secret last time, she was revealed sitting in the dark of his secret man-cave, purring like a Bond villain. But, here, her fury at being duped (by Jason and Eleanor) turns first into the very Tahani-like certainty that she and the thoughtful Chidi were the soulmates all along. (“I’m just a girl, towering over a boy, asking him to admit he loves me,” is the most Tahani thing yet.) And when Chidi takes a powder, the way that she and Eleanor reluctantly agree to a bonding day is deliberately designed to subvert the “two chicks fight over a dude” sitcom cliché. Bell keeps selling Eleanor’s gradual transformation in the Good Place so believably. First admitting, “If he doesn’t pick me, Imma start throwin’ stuff,” Eleanor yet recognizes the essential worthiness of her would-be romantic rival, steeling herself to hold out an olive branch and telling Tahani, “You and I have a weird, complicated forked-up friendship. But it’s our friendship and I care about it.” One of the most refreshing things about The Good Place is how resolutely human it is, and Bell and Jameela Jamil take to their begrudging girls’ day of hair extensions (Eleanor’s choice), BBC comedies (Tahani’s), and drunkenly attending Jason’s wedding to Janet with heartening generosity.
That’s Chidi’s response upon hearing the nuptial news when he comes to proclaim his love for… someone. And it’s ours, too, as the improbable (hell, completely insane) marriage of dim-bulb Jason and totally not-human helper Janet is, once again, an unexpected move that the show somehow pulls off beautifully. Manny Jacinto and D’Arcy Carden make the impossible pair both completely in-synch and deliriously not on the same page as Janet accepts the left-behind and lonely Jason’s proposal. It makes not a lick of sense, and yet Jason’s guileless gratitude that the ever-helpful Janet is the only, um, being in the Good Place that’s ever been nice to him matches Janet’s eminently logical statement that, while she’s programmed to be nice to everyone, she did appreciate that Jason was the only person who was kind to her when she was a glitchy mess while she was being rebooted. How will this work out? I have no idea. (To Janet’s call for objections, both Tahani and Eleanor respond with an overlapping, “Of course we do—how could we not object?/This is a terrible idea.”) In the end, as Jason happily mushes cake into the smiling Janet’s uncomprehending face and Etta James’ wedding-ubiquitous but still-lovely “At Last” plays, I’m inclined to take Eleanor’s “I’m just goin’ with it now” to heart, especially as it pairs Carden and Jacinto up for the foreseeable future.
So when Chidi bursts in—and sort-of gets over his shock about the whole Jason and Janet thing—the fact that both Eleanor and Tahani explain away their infatuation with him before he can open his mouth provides another cliffhanger of sorts. (As does Tahani’s revelation that she has an idea how to save Eleanor.) And, again, it could be seen as the standard sitcom wrapup/copout if not for the fact that The Good Place has shown unerring instincts in subverting such things. Creator Michael Schur has an overarching plan here, something that the free-flowing structure of the series’ episodes reinforces. And while Chidi is left at someone else’s altar by all three of his potential soulmates (Real Eleanor came by to be helpful, as usual), there’s no sense that his storyline here is over. His episode-concluding “What?” just about sums up the state of happy anticipation each episode of The Good Place leaves behind.
- Michael: “Don’t even think about the fact that our slightest misstep could cause fake Eleanor to suffer for eternity.” Chidi: “That’s all I’m thinking about now.” Michael: “Yup. Shouldn’t have said that. Regretted it immediately.”
- Michael bucks Chidi up by reminding him of how he acted so decisively in stopping Eleanor’s train to the Bad Place, to which Chidi replies, “Oh boy, now I’m nervous about that decision.” “Retroactively? How do you even…?” “I don’t know.”
- Tahani shows Eleanor her favorite BBC comedy, Deirdre And Margaret, which she explains has been on for 16 years. “That’s nearly 30 episodes!”
- Bell keeps slipping in just the tiniest hints about how Eleanor became the “medium person” she was on Earth. Here, the way Bell lets a little shadow pass over her face when she tells Tahani “When I was 14, I needed to make myself look older to get a job” does just enough.
- Eleanor momentarily considers that she and Jason might be soulmates, based on their mutual love of dancing, their shared position as accidental admittees to the Good Place, the fact that he’s a “hot dummy,” and that they were both banned from their respective cities’ public transportation systems.
- Jason, to Janet: “Can I kiss you, or will I be electrocuted?” Eleanor: “Only one way to find out!”
- That’s Bambadjan Bamba as human rights advocate Bambadjan, doing stellar work in making a resident of the Good Place truly seem like he belongs there. Some of the other residents come off as cloyingly goody-goody, but Bamba holds Bambadjan’s encouraging smile to the troubled Eleanor with such conviction that you absolutely believe he could melt Eleanor with a hug.
- AJ Hudson’s having himself quite a week. Last night, he starred as young Charlie on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and, here, he’s young Chidi. This kid should be young everybody.