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Chidi’s got 45 minutes to find “The Answer” on a revelatory The Good Place

Photo: Colleen Hayes (NBC)
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Warning: There are no answers here.

“The Answer” all takes place in the space of a finger-click. Just as Jason spills his funeral cocktail of choice (the Duval Ditchwater: equal parts Midori, Coffeemate, and ditchwater), time slows as we watch the nervous Michael prepare to snap Chidi awake. Michael being nervous since the Judge is rapidly working her way through the assembled Janets in order to erase all creation and start over, and they’ve only got 45 minutes or so for the unconscious Chidi to wake up, suss out the situation, assemble an entire workable moral system for the universe, convincingly present it to the Judge, and save all of humanity. So, yeah, nervous about covers it.

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Another worry is that Michael, assessing Chidi, says that Chidi’s hundreds-rebooted consciousness is a fragile construct resembling “a giant bowl of M&M Peep chili,” and that the process of giving him back 800-plus lives’ worth of memories could turn him into something even more unpleasant and confusing than that. It’s the sort of setup that a show less assured than The Good Place might seize upon to raise the comic stakes, with a revived Chidi freaking out and everyone freaking out, and it all being a giant freak-out. But The Good Place is an awfully assured TV show, and “The Answer” (credited to Daniel Schofield) operates confidently under the understanding that the stakes are already plenty high, and that the real drama—and comedy—rests in what Chidi Anagonye has learned, and how he can use it.

The flashback structure of the episode that follows is a masterpiece, a graceful latticework of huge laughs (Eleanor, in one flashback, angrily claims that Chidi’s true soulmate is “a library cart full of damp Saltines”), stuff we know, and stuff we thought we knew, all leading up to a final reveal that just reaffirms what Chidi, and we, suspected. Answers on The Good Place (and in the Good Place) can’t be found solely with logic, or points, or even ethics. The answer is something more like poetry, complete with all the beautiful ambiguity, frustration, and absurdity that entails.

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
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The conceit of the episode allows some irresistibly adorable and telling glimpses of the young Chidi (even infant Chidi got a tummy ache when asked if he liked his name) making a 55-minute presentation as to why his troubled parents shouldn’t get divorced), and older Chidi (coping with a breakup and his adviser’s rejection of his impenetrable thesis on the same day). Oh, and then dead Chidi, creamed by an air conditioner, and afterlife Chidi, in many iterations. We see onetime girlfriend Allesandra (Tiana Okoye) again, and witness the couple’s dissolution over Chidi’s bloodless obsession with slotting every experience into one, unified solution. And we see how best friend Uzo (Keston John as an adult, Che Tafari as an 8-year-old) stuck with the waffling Chidi, even though the refrain “It’s literally impossible to be your friend” dogged their relationship literally right up until the moment of Chidi’s death. When Chidi finally does awaken at the very end of the episode, his first question to the expectant team is, “Hey, so, for the past 300 years, have I been super-annoying?”

Jameela Jamil
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
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He has (although Jason is the only one to admit it outright), but, as the rest of the exquisitely chosen flashbacks with Jason, Tahani, Janet, Michael, and Eleanor show, it’s all been a process. Confronted with an afterlife of insanities including a Jacksonville DJ/dirtbag marrying an immortal, inhuman repository of all knowledge, Chidi asked Jason Mendoza for advice. Jason, thrilled that a “high school principal” would think he had some wisdom to impart, tells Chidi that his lifelong philosophy of chucking flaming bottles at stuff and seeing what happens has, amidst all the blazing carnage, taught him about seizing opportunities. Tahani—consoling Chidi after his soulmate-of-the-reboot, the goth, raven-loving Esmerelda (a crisply hilarious Kate Berlant) storms out of Tahani’s trivia night to be with her birds—advises him that her own lifetime of throwing occasionally disastrous (but glamorous) parties has taught her to “live through failure, and then learn from it.” Eleanor, in the same reboot, impulsively kisses Chidi after a night of philosophy and strolling, telling the flustered Chidi, Shellstrop-style, that she did it because she wanted to. She also helps him recontextualize that adorable divorce lecture story, telling him bluntly, “Woof, that’s too much to put on an 8-year-old.”

They’re all, in true Good Place-style, remarkably deft at indulging and subverting sentiment, each interaction amplifying and changing our perception of past events while working together to set up Chidi’s eventual epiphany. The last flashback we see, of the night after Michael’s Chidi-Eleanor shipping movie and right before Chidi agrees to have his memory erased, is the kicker. Walking with Michael away from where Eleanor’s left sitting in the empty audience, Chidi jokes, in response to Michael asking him if he’s sure, “I finally make up my mind about one damn thing and you try to talk me out of it?” The decision Chidi’s just made is a whopper, something the old Chidi (or even the one-reboot-ago Chidi) couldn’t have made. This Chidi asks one last question, and for one last favor.

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To the question “Soulmates aren’t real, are they?,” Michael has to tell him, “Chidi, in all honesty, I don’t know. But I don’t think so.” In a show without anything resembling a weak link (I mean, I even came around on Ben Kolydke’s Brent in the end), it’s become standard to gush about performances, but William Jackson Harper and Ted Danson make this final heart-to-heart a duet of understated heartbreak, on both sides. Danson makes Michael’s remorse echo with the resonance of immortal sincerity when he reveals that he made up the soulmate thing to torture Chidi, because he knew that that was the one question out of all the theoretical possibilities he explored throughout his life (or lives) that Chidi hoped he’d find answered in the Good Place.

William Jackson Harper, Ted Danson
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
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Allesandra finally left him, and his adviser ultimately rejected him because Chidi Anagonye believed there was one answer out there that would settle… everything. An Answer to stop the grinding garbage disposal in his head, that would quiet his roiling stomach. (He tells Eleanor he was written up in medical journals for being the youngest person ever with a stress-induced ulcer.) Michael further unpacks Chidi’s desperately clung-to feel-better story about saving his parents’ marriage with a meticulously researched cost-benefit ethical argument against their splitting up, as Michael reveals to him that it was the act itself, and not the scrupulously cited data that sent them into counseling. That, and their almost forgotten love for each other, and a scared little boy who was reacting to the unthinkable the only way he understood how. “If soulmates do exist, they’re not found. They’re made,” Michael tells him kindly, having learned his own lessons.

Before casting in his lot with chance and hope and Janet-magic, Chidi tells Michael that he’s going through with their most-recent, arguably most insane plan to save themselves (and the world) because of all that he’s learned, finally, from him and all his friends in this silly, terrifying place. “Turns out life isn’t just a puzzle that can just be solved one time and it’s done. You wake up every day and you solve it again.” “Terribly inefficient,” is Michael’s wry reply, and “What a time to learn,” is Chidi’s response, Harper giving Chidi’s voice the tiniest sob, just to break our hearts a little more. Asking for one minute before he’s erased, Chidi summons Janet, gives her a note he’s written on the paper she’s provided, and tells her to give it back to him if they ever see each other again. D’Arcy Carden makes Janet’s greeting a little less abrupt, a little gentler than usual, and the little peck on the cheek she gives him before she goes is another tremor of a heartbreak.

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So it all leads up to the ending, were Chidi, his memories gingerly parceled back to him by Michael, wakes up, looks over his friends calmly and responds to Eleanor’s grateful but panicky summation of the crisis they’re facing with seeming Chidi-style indecision. Telling his soulmate-in-progress that there could be 800 solutions, or zero, he leaves her—and us—hanging for a moment as he asks Janet for his note back. When she tells him his restored memories mean he already knows what it says, he smiles playfully and says he’d still like to see it again, that it might be some of the best writing he’s ever done.

It really is. For Chidi Anagonye, last hope of humanity, and linchpin of this ultimate endgame of a show that has raised our expectations so high that the terror of it letting us down in the end is greater than that of a million butthole spiders, his unreadably ambitious 3,500-word treatise on life, the universe, and everything comes own, ultimately, to two perfectly contradictory sentences.

There is no “answer.”

But Eleanor is the answer.

Head and heart. Intellect and gut. Reason and love. Chidi takes his time opening the second flap of his folded note, the seeming hopelessness of the first sentence deepened, enriched, and made whole and hopeful by the second. Nihilism and humanism. Despair and hope. Emotionless score-keeping and Michael’s courtroom plea to the judge that humanity’s capacity for improvement means it—that we—can’t just be written off as a loss and rebooted when we fail.

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45 minutes to refute a system designed by immortals, that’s all logic and no understanding, with the literal fate of humanity at stake. Don’t sweat it, gang, Chidi Anagonye’s on the job.

Stray observations

  • One of my favorite little touches from the episode is when we’re built up to expect a Chidi freakout over the fork portentously dropped in the garbage disposal. But, when the moment comes and Allesandra breaks up with him, Chidi knowingly flips the switch anyway, because, as he once told Eleanor, that’s the sound his mind makes all the time.
  • In one of Chidi’s flashbacks, we see that Michael’s very first torture was asking Chidi if he’d be more comfortable talking in his office or the waiting room. Demon.
  • That’s a delicately balanced performance from Oliver Muirhead as Chidi’s adviser, Professor Radja. The poor guy’s exasperation at having slogged through a paper that would eventually teach Michael what headaches are is countered by his heartfelt advice that moral philosophy is “about how the world is, and ought to be.” Even his final, anguished “Shut up!” feels deeply, understandably human, considering.
  • “Sometimes you just gotta huck a Molotov cocktail at a drone and see what happens.”—Jason Mendoza.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.