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Eleanor doubts her fitness to lead on The Good Place

Kristen Bell
Photo: Collen Hayes (NBC)
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“You know how this works—you fail and then you try something else.”

Ever since Michael’s theretofore benevolent countenance cracked wide open into that literally demonic smile Ted Danson’s been keeping in his back pocket all these years, The Good Place has delighted us on two equally thrilling and unpredictable fronts. On one side, there are the very real individual emotional journeys of four human screw-ups (plus a demon screw-up and a Janet) whose responses to the increasingly, exponentially berserk reality they’re stuck in remains grounded in the pitch-perfect performances of a uniformly great comic cast. Then there’s the big picture, or the long con, if you prefer, where the shocking reveal of Michael’s initial betrayal (of his charges, and us) has viewers antennae for narrative chicanery ever twitching, even if the acutely observed existential dilemmas and heartbreaks of Eleanor, Jason, Tahani, and Chidi never fade into mere plot device.

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As a seasons-long balancing act, it’s goddamned impressive, verging on improbable. Which is why—despite my greedy, childish inner cries of “MORE GOOD PLACE”—it feels like the act of a truly wise if unsparing creator that actual Good Place creator Michael Schur has decreed that four seasons is just the right length for that intricately weighty, silly game to last. And if the first part of this final season premiere, “A Girl From Arizona” last week partook more of the necessary table-setting for this final round of dueling humans, demons, and implacable (if ravenously binge-watching) celestial adjudicators, the second half strikes right back into the heart of the show’s mysteries, and joys. Oh, and heartbreaks.

There’s another telling look from Michael partway through “A Girl From Arizona, Part 2.” Confronted by Eleanor with the theory that his season-three finale freakout at having the whole fate of humanity in his hands was all a ruse to get Eleanor to step into his architect’s shoes, Michael concedes bashfully that, yup, Eleanor Shellstrop has caught him again. And maybe she has. After all, this Arizona trash bag—prone to reality TV, junk food, and stealing underpants from H&M—turned what was supposed to be a cake walk of an afterlife innovation by an immortal torture-demon and his entire hellish bureau of demonic middle-managers into a never-ending (or tortuous, if you will) exercise in human resilience and insight, led by Eleanor. (And, sure, in one case Jason, which seems to prove that “million chimps in front of million typewriters” theory.)

Manny Jacinto, Jameela Jamil
Photo: Collen Hayes/NBC
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But on a show as carefully constructed as The Good Place, the law of reaction shot economy calls attention to how Michael’s face is lingered upon one beat too long. (Just like there was something going on with the train prisoner transfer between Michael and Janet last episode.) Here, it could just be an indication of Michael lying to make Eleanor feel more confident in her role as the leader of Team Cockroach after a series of dispiriting setbacks all episode. But the thing is, Michael had already bucked Eleanor up most effectively by that point, in a scene that rivals Danson’s fan-servicing turn as a suspiciously familiar bartender for the purest and most devastatingly human Eleanor-Michael heart-to-heart of the series.

Overhearing Tahani, Jason, and Janet musing over her recent failures as team leader, Eleanor storms out, not before uttering the Good Place-edited order for her friends to stick their “fat grumps” up their “snorkbox.” (“Which curses were those?,” Michael asks, gingerly.) And even though Michael expressed concern himself about Eleanor’s fitness for command (she’s not showering, for one thing, like, at all), he approaches Eleanor in the ruined neighborhood square, still smoldering from her failed attempt to pull the old “I don’t belong here” morning chaos event from the consciousness of the still insufferably smug Brent. (Complete with a Godzilla-sized Princeton tiger, personal Perrier shower, and careening Escalades and giant golf balls plucked from his non-stop self-aggrandizing jabber.)

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Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden
Screenshot: NBC/The Good Place

It’s not shocking to see how adept Kristen Bell is at playing someone whose outward brittleness breaks your heart when it shows the merest cracks. (Her imperious Uda Bengt on Party Down is a recurring little master class.) But her scene here is her best of the series, Eleanor Shellstrop faced with her ultimate fear, that everyone can see the incapable nobody she imagines she truly is behind all her armor. The fact that it comes along with the conviction that she’s also dooming the human race is just the icing on the crap-cake.

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“I’m not meant for this,” Bell’s Eleanor tells Michael, “I’m not the freakin’ savior of the universe. I’m just a girl from Arizona. That’s it—I’m just a normal girl from Arizona.” We’ve seen Eleanor attempt to throw in the towel on herself before, but Bell makes this, weighted as it is with the literal weight of the entire universe, very weighty indeed. Thankfully, there’s Michael, who strips away, if not his demon skin-suit, his own ego in a way he wasn’t able to do in his office last week when brushing past his panic-soaked, last-minute abdication of leadership.

“Human beings, it turns out, are weird, and I will never truly understand what it’s like to be one,” he begins. “This is a job for a human, one who’s tough but also empathetic and has a big heart and a world class bullshirt detector. You think you can’t do this? Eleanor, you’re the only one who can do this. Like it or not, the only one who can save humanity is a girl from Arizona.” Countering Eleanor’s rebuttal that her efforts so far have resembled nothing so much as those of “a hot, blonde Wile E. Coyote,” Michael recounts how it was Eleanor who thwarted his plans over 800 times, who bested a demon with an all-powerful Janet at his side, and who now, when all seems finally, irrevocably forked, is revived with what appears to have been Schur and company’s universal thesis statement all along. “C’mon, you know how this works. You fail and then you try something else. And you fail again, and again, and you fail a thousand times, and you keep trying because maybe the thousand-and-first idea might work.”

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Kristen Bell
Screenshot: NBC/The Good Place

So that’s one level covered—two old pros knocking a deeply felt human (and demon) moment right into the stars.

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But The Good Place doesn’t allow us to rest on that one level for long. The show has turned genuinely surprising us into such a regular yet effortless thing that each time the rug is pulled out from under us, we can only applaud at how silly it just made us look. There’s something afoot here, something that can’t be solved with a simple (if world-class) pep talk, or Eleanor’s subsequent salty-sweet makeup with her friends (it’s always satisfying when Eleanor calls Tahani “hot stuff”), or even the two new plans Eleanor hatches in the wake of Michael’s inspirational speech.

And they are both, in their way, much better than the “B-minus leadership” Eleanor grades herself at to the gang, combining all of Eleanor’s hard-won Good Place wisdom and her Arizona trash bag deviousness in ways that smack of genuine divine inspiration. Brent is a bulletproof egomaniac? (“Born on third and thinks he invented the game of baseball,” assesses Eleanor.) So Eleanor tosses out the playbook that worked on her and plays to that ego, slyly assuring Brent that, yup, he was right that he’s only causing disruptions in the Good Place because there’s a secret, members-only Best Place where he truly belongs. (Alongside his roster of Brett Kavanaugh-esque frat bro pals Scotty, Schultzy, Porcupine, White Guillermo, Mexican William, and Squirt Man.) Sure, his subsequent behavioral change to complete suck-up mode is only because he thinks he’s in a “good deeds contest,” but, as Eleanor tells Michael, that’s not that different from her initial attempts to game her way into staying in the neighborhood. “We just have to hope he starts to do good things out of habit,” says Eleanor, unobtrusively stressing the idea that hope in the face of overwhelming odds (like an entitled white male recognizing he’s not the center of the universe) is how she and her friends have beaten that universe’s game so far.

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The other leap Eleanor makes is the one she’s known was coming all along, and it’s the real gut-punch, as she sits down for a talk with Chidi, setting him on the path to help Simone break out of her unprofitable conviction that everything is just a no-consequences consequence of her dying brain’s biochemistry. The only way to set up the pairing that she knows is so vital, of course, is to tell Chidi about soulmates—and that Simone is his. Once again, Bell is fantastic, dealing with the unbearable irony of having to send the uncomprehending Chidi into the orbit of the one person Shawn and the Bad Place knew in their tarry little demon hearts would cause the most pain for everyone involved. (Despite Kirby Howell Baptiste continuing to make Simone one of the most endearingly positive and no-nonsense characters in any existence.)

William Jackson Harper has to play Bell’s uncomprehending foil so far this season, a loss for us that only amplifies how much it sucks for Eleanor as she smilingly endures Chidi’s unintentional tortures. Told that he and Simone are soulmates, Harper makes Chidi’s overwhelmed relief as touching as Eleanor’s poker-faced “I know” is heartbreaking in response to him admitting that, in all his studies of humanity, he’d never once been in love. That the scene is punctuated with the nicely timed late arrival of one of Chidi’s Mjölnir-summoned philosophy books right to his noggin is The Good Place releasing us from our pain with some expert slapstick.

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Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Kirby Howell-Baptiste
Screenshot: NBC/The Good Place

In the end, there’s no other real twist at the end of “A Girl From Arizona, Part 2,” other than Eleanor’s ability to snap back with a bit of brazen Shellstrop jokey self-regard. (Michael noting that Eleanor’s sacrifice might be even bigger than Chidi’s in having his memory erased, brags that, yes, giving up “Dis ash!” is a toughie, all right.) But the episode doesn’t need another twist here. For all the deepening speculation that “A Girl From Arizona, Part 2" engenders, the fact of Eleanor and her friends pushing on through some truly cosmic-level pain and making a dumb, ass-slapping joke on their way to next week is as profound, and profoundly silly, as it is necessary at this point.

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Stray observations

  • Jason, Tahani, and Janet are largely sidelined this week, although the scene where Janet tells Jason that they need to take a break from their impossible yet chaotically fun relationship is handled by Manny Jacinto and D’Arcy Carden with especially nimble emotion. I loved the unobtrusive beat where Jason takes an obliging step backward when Janet tells him she needs more space to run the neighborhood properly. Plus, him working through the logic of getting Janet a box of chocolates only to eat them himself and describe them to her is the sort of dim-bulb sweetness that Jacinto excels at. (“The first one . . . was gross,” he starts eagerly.)
  • That Janet oh-so-gently feels the obligation to inform Jason about the sorry fate of hero Blake Bortles leaves Jason even more alone in the universe. Thankfully, Tahani is there to comfort him with what looks like the most selflessly kind ex-wife hug he could have hoped for.
  • Jason, taking up Eleanor’s sarcastic idea of solving things with a “Jacksonville carnival,” quickly orders up a bouncy house, ninja stars, and “lots of ambulances.”
  • To be fair to Janet, Jason did peremptorily reboot Derek at the first sign of trouble, and proposed to Michael that all the chaos he brings to her life might be fixed with a chaotic, 100-person flash mob.
  • Jason, conceding that Eleanor is “dope but keeps screwing everything up,” reasons, “That’s my thing and you wouldn’t put me in charge.” Michael has no option but to agree there.
  • Janet initally put the gang’s chance at success in this new neighborhood at 9 percent, although she calculates that Eleanor’s blunders have brought that down to a 7.1. “Simply from a math standpoint, you are kind of pooching it,” she tells Eleanor, not unkindly.
  • Thankfully, Michael had a subroutine installed in the neighborhood where saying Jason’s name five times in mournful, head-shaking tones makes his headache go away.
  • Michael after Jason wishes someone on Earth had tried to teach him that “wanting to do something isn’t a good reason to immediately do it”: “People tried. Mostly judges.”
  • Brent, immediately accepting that paradise has a secret, gold-medallion level Best Place, boasts that when he was in the lounge of one such place, he did shots with a helicopter pilot, who subsequently let him fly the machine. “We know,” responds Michael, “That’s how you died.”
  • The teahouse patio where Chidi and Eleanor speak appears to have a large planter filled with giant-sized novelty cocktail umbrellas. This means something.
  • Adapting their chaos event zigzag patterned clothing to Princeton’s colors makes the be-suited Michael look a lot like like David S. Pumpkins. That may not, in fact, mean anything.
  • Chidi really is a good teacher, finally reaching the still-skeptical Simone by noting that her seeming adoption of solipsism as a philosphy means she’s been acting “like a jerk.” (In addition to pool- and cake-pushing, she apparently went around Tahani’s party snipping off people’s ponytails.)
  • Chidi also nudges Simone toward at least tentatively accepting the reality of her circumstances by asking what she has to lose if she’s wrong: “Why not treat them better, just in case they’re real? I mean, what do you have to lose by treating people with kindness, and respect?”
  • Philosopher-watch! Chidi, tasked with breaking Simone out of her belief that this is all some sort of delusion, plans to read up on thinkers in the field of simulated reality like “Descartes, Moravec, and Zhuang Zhou.” Get reading.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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