Kristen Bell, Ted Danson
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

“What a fun way to say a normal thing!”

“A Fractured Inheritance” is The Good Place’s most human episode to date. Not that this series isn’t rooted in some increasingly and deceptively deep investigations of the human soul amidst all the flying shrimp and lava monsters, but this episode sidelines the show’s most fantastical elements almost entirely in favor of two earthbound stories that could take place in any TV family sitcom universe. The most magical thing about the episode, apart from Janet delighting Jason by revealing the dollar value of every single painting in a Hungarian museum, is Tahani’s (and now Jason’s) wealth, allowing the characters to jet of to anywhere their newly minted soul-saving mission takes them. That “A Fractured Inheritance” feels a little thin compared to pretty much any other episode of the series would be more worrisome if the performances weren’t so uniformly fine, and if The Good Place hadn’t earned our faith that Michael Schur and friends are building toward something bigger.

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That said, the stakes for Eleanor and Tahani here are pretty huge. Not “fated to be tortured for all eternity with no hope of reprieve” huge, but we’ve seen how the damage done by their families was key in dooming both of them to a life of Bad Place-worthy, self-defeating actions. After being sent into a signature Eleanor Shellstrop, ice-eyed rage at Michael’s revelation that her mother is, in fact, alive at the end of last week’s episode, Eleanor and Michael head to Nevada. Meanwhile, the rest of the Soul Squad joins Tahani in Budapest, where her infuriatingly overachieving sister’s artwork has just been given its own museum wing, complete with a poetry/omelette station performance art piece from acclaimed musician, filmmaker, and secret Banksy Kamilah Al-Jamil herself. For both Eleanor and Tahani, the test of their newfound selfless mission to nudge their loved/resented ones onto the Good Place track is a killer right out of the gate. And, at first, both of them fail, terribly.

Kristen Bell, Ted Danson
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

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For Tahani, that means whipping an omelette egg right at Kamilah’s painting (of broken eggs) after her sister rebukes her sincere apology for her role in their lifetime of competitive estrangement—and then a fire axe through the table after Chidi is unable to broker a peace. For Eleanor, it means brandishing a butcher knife around her contented and very alive mother’s suburban home while she feverishly attempts to uncover what she’s absolutely certain her legendarily disreputable mom’s scam is. Donna Shellstrop (now renamed Diana and living in seeming bliss with her nerdy, doting architect boyfriend, Dave) also has a new stepdaughter named Patricia, whose cosy life and plethora of stuffed animals the wounded Eleanor wants so desperately to take a butcher knife to. In each case, The Good Place maintains its stony, stubborn philosophical position that being good is actually a lot harder than it looks, especially when the rest of the world is so thoroughly and mulishly not on the same page.

Jameela Jamil
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

In the end, each story plays out with a certain sameness, Tahani and Eleanor’s quests succeeding in clear-eyed but heartwarming fashion whose prickly humanity can’t hide the suspicion that this iteration of the show has perhaps reached its limits. It’s admirable that neither thread (the episode’s written by Kassia Miller) turns Donna/Diana (Leslie Grossman) or Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood) into more of a villain than their actions have already painted them, so as to justify Eleanor and Tahani’s inevitable comic conflicts here. Sure, Donna was a shitty mother who treated her young daughter alternately like a afterthought and a drinking buddy. (“Sun-baked Arizona trash” is Eleanor’s angry but accurate assessment tonight.) And, yes, Kamilah’s infuriatingly serene one-upmanship makes Tahani literally fantasie about strangling her. But the episode never amps up the pair’s faults more than we’ve seen, leaving the grudging denouements affectingly human when they come.

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Jameela Jamil. D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

It’s just that, split as it is in two, “A Fractured Inheritance” is robbed of the group’s collective chemistry, while the truncated running time allotted each storyline remains just this side of unsatisfying. Both Kristen Bell and Jameela Jamil are solid, as ever, which powers their respective stories through in the end. Bell continues to find the perfect, economical notes of soulfulness and pain in the midst of Eleanor’s easily-roused anger, here coming to terms with her mother’s betrayal (both in leaving her and in seemingly being a decent parent to her new daughter) in a perhaps predictable outburst to Michael that Bell nonetheless makes wrenchingly effective. Michael, who’d unsuccessfully tried on his “stern-but-caring” dad voice earlier in order to keep the enraged Eleanor on-mission, greets Eleanor’s pain by confessing affectionately that, even as a “self-appointed father figure,” he’s at a loss for how to comfort her.

Kristen Bell, Ted Danson
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

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Tahani’s got Chidi for advice, and while the level-headed ethics professor attempts to mediate, he, too is flummoxed by the seemingly unsolvable familial tangle of the sisters Al-Jamil. (Kamilah contributes to his ineffectiveness by performing a startlingly effective hand-waving ritual to take all of Chidi’s innumerable fears upon herself.) In both stories tonight, it appears The Good Place is going to give Eleanor and Tahani an excuse to bail—Eleanor’s mom has a secret stash of pilfered go-bag cash in the never used box of delicates laundry detergent (“You never wash your bras!,” twigs Eleanor), while Kamilah looks ready to have Tahani (and poor Chidi) arrested. (Chidi, noting, “Oh, my fears are mine again!,” muses at how much it sucks that he’s going to spend his remaining time on Earth before being eternally tortured in a Hungarian prison.)

William Jackson Harper
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

But Miller’s script pulls things back just enough to make each pair’s eventual rapprochement feel real, sweet, and yet still in keeping with the show’s ornery commitment to refusing easy answers. Eleanor talks her mother down from the fear of real commitment that’s screwed up both their lives and comes to terms with the fact that, although Donna has changed, she didn’t do so for Eleanor when she had the chance. Eleanor’s earnest “You have a do-over. Use it,” to the woman who let her down in every conceivable way is, coming from Eleanor Shellstrop, deeply touching. And Tahani, resolutely holding Kamiliah in a doubly-unbreakable handcuffed embrace, repeats her excuse-less apology for the pain she’s caused, even as she gets her sister to concede that their lifetime of cutthroat competition stemmed from the fact that their coldly competitive parents were complete “wankers.” (A flashback of the pair pitting their two daughters against each other in a timed painting competition for their parents’ love confirms that Tahani and Kamilah’s parents were, indeed, wankers of the highest order.)

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Kristen Bell
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

“A Fractured Inheritance” (the title Kamilah gives to the inevitably praised “axe in an omelette station” tableau left by Tahani’s outburst) works in all its component parts. But it also feels more pat in its paired resolutions that we’re used to, while the episode’s niggling ordinariness of tone and subject matter leaves this the least satisfying Good Place experience yet. (It’s still getting a ‘B,’ so that shows what sort of a scale we’re grading on.) It’s becoming a crutch to excuse episodes that don’t quite gel as being bridges to whatever larger game Schur and company are playing on us this time. I’m not saying that there isn’t such an overarching grand scheme that will, once more, reshape The Good Place and knock us on our collective asses. Experience has taught us to have faith there. And the fact that what could have formed two full episodes of familial reconciliation were combined into one streamlined outing does hint that the endgame for season three will commence sooner rather than later. But, judging “A Fractured Inheritance” on its own terms means admitting that The Good Place—like, apparently, the Good Place—isn’t infallible.

Stray observations

  • Check out The A.V. Club’s annotated rundown of all the in-jokes and fiendishly clever Easter eggs in “A Fractured Inheritance” here.
  • Splitting the gang up doesn’t leave much for Jason and Janet to do, although Janet does get pulled over in Hungary just so the officer can commend her on how flawless her driving is.
  • That’s the irreplaceable Andy Daly as Dave, as ever bringing a hilarious regular guy weirdness to Donna/Diana’s straitlaced boyfriend. I love how he and Michael (both architects, as it turns out) immediately bond. Even if Michael’s expertise is building entire worlds and Dave’s Tarantula Springs, Nevada constructions are more in the Hooters arena.
  • Eleanor, plotting to have Michael seduce Donna, asks determinedly, “First things first, do you have a penis?”
  • Michael doesn’t answer there, but when he gives the grateful Dave some detailed plans for his next Nevada chain-business structure, he does omit any bathrooms, covering by claiming he loves to “sit on the thing and just shoot one out.”
  • Eleanor’s doubly pissed that Donna stole Eleanor’s chosen identity-theft alias, “Diana Tremain.”
  • Eleanor was told that Donna was trampled to death while adjusting her toe-ring at a Rascal Flatts concert, which checked out. Although the truth that she’d faked her death to avoid the debt she incurred massively overbidding for a date with Gene Simmons is right on the money, too.
  • Eleanor, playing along with Donna’s lie about them being sorority sisters, tells Dave they were both members of “Kappa Zeta-Jones.”
  • Jason, playing at art scholarship, jokes to Janet, “You can really notice the interpretation!” His appraisal that Kamilah’s painting looks like boobs, however, is so astute that Chidi can’t stop thinking about it.
  • Dave, revealing to Eleanor that he’s aware of Donna’s past, also confides that Donna is “a very confident and selfish lover,” admitting that’s perfect for him, since he doesn’t know what he wants.
  • The episode ends with the season’s second Eleanor bombshell in a row, as Michael responds to Eleanor’s sadness that she’d never told a single other person she’d loved them by confessing that—just once in all the hundreds of years of rebooted realities—she and Chidi did just that. As much as I want that particular thread to get taken up again, just dropping these revelations at the end of an episode to get to the next isn’t the most graceful storytelling device.

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