As bright and funny a center as Kristen Bell’s Eleanor (known hereafter as Fake Eleanor) has been to The Good Place, at times she has functioned more as foil for the good place’s sunny perfection. That’s the initial impression The Good Place gave, that Eleanor would function sort of like Rodney Dangerfield at the Bushwood Country Club, a bowling ball of snarky, disreputable comic energy, pointing out how snooty and silly everything in this creamy paradise really is. What quickly became clear was how much of a bait-and-switch that impression was. Eleanor’s presence in the good place was an excuse for the no-bulshit, me-first Eleanor to crack wise about how nice and peachy everything is, certainly, but the show’s been seeding in hints that Eleanor Shellstrop’s journey here means a lot more—to her and to the show—than it initially appeared.
The well-known Groucho Marx quote that makes up this episode’s title finally provides the key to Eleanor’s character. We’ve gotten suggestions that Eleanor’s undeniably lousy behavior all through her life (that poor, fat dog) stemmed from some sort of pain and self-loathing, but, in the trio of flashbacks here, we see how Eleanor’s deliberately distancing behavior was a self-fulfilling prophecy. As in Groucho’s subtext, the pain and fear of being excluded forms a protective shell of superiority. It’s a potent mix of sour grapes and raspberries: You aren’t going to accept me because of who I am, and that hurts me, but it also means I’m better than you. When we see the teen Eleanor (Bell gamely donning braces for effect), she predictably mocks the chipper, helpful girl who wants to be her guide in her new high school, but then she also calls out the mean girl who tries to swoop in and steal Eleanor for the cool kids’ table. Defiantly sweeping the food from her trays, she stands on her chair, banging them together, and announces to the entire cafeteria that she doesn’t want any part of any of their stupid cliques. (When a long-haired kid tried to praise her afterward for telling off the “posers,” her peremptory “No!” signals just how complete her preemptive rejection is.)
When we later find out that Eleanor ended up at the bogus drug company job where she was working when she died by turning down an offer to work at a friendly company with a Google-style campus, it’s shows basically how low her self-imposed isolation took her. After being assured by her slimy boss (the always welcome Seth Morris) that she won’t be forced to take part in any feel-good team-building exercises (they do have occasional record-shredding drills), Eleanor happily takes her seat in a cubicle to start selling worthless shit to sick, desperate old people. By the time she got to the good place, Eleanor had found the one foul club she felt deserved her as a member, and vice-versa.
So the bad place should be where Eleanor not only belongs but feels is her due, something she drunkenly agrees on with Adam Scott’s peerless douchebag anti-Michael, Trevor. Between shots and slimy come-ons, Trevor makes the earnest pitch:
You’ll be happier in the bad place. Now don’t get me wrong, you will be miserable. We will torture you. But you’ll also be happier because you won’t have to keep trying to fit into someplace you just don’t belong.
Having only knowledge of who Eleanor very much was on Earth, Trevor brushes off her recent efforts to improve herself, saying, “I get it, you didn’t want to get caught.” And that’s certainly how Eleanor started out. But, when Trevor and Michael square off to negotiate the terms of Eleanor’s transfer, Eleanor shows that her time studying ethics with Chidi and wondering (sometimes contemptuously) at all the decency of the people around her, have opened her to the merest possibility that she doesn’t need or deserve to be alone in her supposed wretchedness. Bell, as she does so well on The Good Place, doesn’t reach for effects as she makes the case that she should be allowed to stay, and that makes Eleanor’s plea all the more affecting. Trevor tells her she knows she doesn’t belong in the good place, to which Eleanor replies:
I know I don’t, but I want to… I’m a different person now. Because of the person who helped me, and I want to be like him. I want to be like all the people who are here.
There’s a perfect little moment right after this when the other Eleanor (Tiya Sircar) leaps in to say that she’ll help and Bell lets Eleanor’s eyes flicker just minutely with annoyance before answering gratefully, “Thanks, Real Eleanor.” That everyone has taken to calling her Fake Eleanor since the arrival of the rightful Eleanor has been galling her, and Fake Eleanor—our Eleanor—can’t let that go without a fight.
The battle over Fake Eleanor gives this uniformly hilarious episode a pair of parallel storylines, as nemeses Michael and Trevor split off to strategize. After Michael’s initial offer of a unicorn in exchange for Fake Eleanor sends Trevor off into gloriously horrifying fantasies of butchering the noble beast and snorting its ground-up horn, Michael regroups, attempting to woo Trevor’s dissolute, trust-fund minions by letting them run roughshod over both him, and Tahani’s lavishly appointed mansion. (Absent unicorn horn, the vapid creeps snort powdered time and do karaoke to hate speech from Nixon, Mel Gibson, and Mussolini.) I do not know how much more praise I can lay at Ted Danson’s feet in these reviews, but Michael’s strategy of appeasement sees him dancing for these scumbags’ amusement while wearing a blinking neon bowtie, and it’s essentially the funniest thing he’s ever done. Completely flummoxed at having to deal with Trevor and the gang’s incessant awfulness, he responds to Tahani’s dismay with a hopeful, “I just have to be more accommodating. Offer them everything they want, give into all of their demands, and then they have to respect me.”
On the flip-side, Trevor proposes a double date with Chidi and the two Eleanors (“two losers, a trash bag, and a demon”), where Adam Scott similarly exhausts my supply of superlatives as he crows that his dinner “is gonna make a primo dump later on,” notes the delicate growing chemistry of Chidi and Real Eleanor by blurting, “Oh man, these horndogs are vibin’ like mofos,” and, in a glorious reveal, clips his toenails on top top the restaurant table. Like Michael, Trevor’s got an agenda, although he finds a more receptive audience in the depressed and lonely Eleanor. The relationship between Chidi and Eleanor, while never really romantic, has been the closest thing Eleanor’s ever had to real friendship. So seeing her friend naturally gravitating toward the woman who was actually meant to be his soulmate makes Eleanor (after those shots, especially) accede to Trevor’s assessment that, while Real Eleanor is “like a perfect ball of light,” she is more “a wet pile of mulch.” Succumbing to Trevor’s logic and her own drunken depression, Eleanor restates her complaint that she’s a “medium person” and that it’s bullshirt that the universe didn’t design a medium place for people like her.
But “medium person” is the unhappy medium where Eleanor spent her unhappy and unfulfilling existence, her occasional pangs of conscience showing that, in there somewhere, there was a good Eleanor. (Or Real Eleanor.) So, after waking up in the tub with a hangover (the bad place crew had Michael turn off the hangover filter), Eleanor’s ready to turn herself over to the loathsome Trevor for what she thinks is her due. But Chidi and Michael both movingly assert that she does belong—they both, at different times, call her part of “the team.” And, when the time comes, Fake Eleanor decides to take the leap and decide that they’re right. Danson, spurred on by Tahani, stands up to Trevor with a Glengarry-like “You get nothing!,” before telling him, majestically, “Get the fork out of my neighborhood.”
There will be consequences, naturally, as Trevor says that Michael’s decision means the issue will have to then be arbitrated by… Sean! Who’s Sean? Only “the wise, eternal judge who sits on high,” yet another delightfully tantalizing big reveal of the type that I’ve only come to expect from The Good Place. From a show whose ”high concept” just keeps climbing higher, the prospect of Eleanor’s fate being passed up to yet another mysterious figure is just one more killer ending that makes The Good Place so enduringly thrilling to watch.
- Here’s a glimpse of the Michael’s big board, where the green dots represent those destined for the good place, the red ones the bad. Make of it what you will.
- The final twist of the night reveals that Tahani, perhaps taking her own advice to Michael about not being such a doormat, confronts Jianyu/Jason after putting together the not-subtle clues of Jason’s multiple junk food stashes and keg-tapping skills. Jameela Jamil has always made Tahani’s overreaching perfectionism smack of mania, so here, as Tahani waits in the dark of Jason’s man/14-year-old-boy cave and purrs, “So, let’s chat, shall we?” like a Bond villain, there’s the well-laid possibility of her going dark in the good place.
- After all, she’s the one who convinced Zuckerberg to ditch Eduardo Saverin. (She also told him to ditch the “The” from Facebook.)
- It turns out that both Eleanors died at the same ten-thousandth of a second—while Real Eleanor was trying to save Fake Eleanor’s life. “I guess you really botched that one, huh?” “I did. I am so sorry.”
- In addition to Margarita mix, Fake Eleanor was buying the magazine Celebrity Baby Plastic Surgery Disasters at the time.
- The episode’s script, credited to Jen Statsky, layers in some specific types of evil to fill in the show’s conception of what really earns you a ticket to the bad place. Trevor’s still urging Eleanor to smile more, calls her “sweetheart” and “gorgeous” (when not offhandedly referring to her as “trash bag” and “ding-dong”), cuts off the Eleanors’ conversation by saying “If you two aren’t going to make out, then shut up,” and, most pointedly, dismisses Fake Eleanor’s denial that they’d hooked up by sneering, “Who are they gonna believe? Me, or a woman?” Couple that all with the minions’ love of bigotry, selfies, and the fact that Trevor, ominously, exclaims, “Swear to Bieber,” and you get a solid picture.
- Real Eleanor fills in more, concerning the daily tortures she endured in Eleanor’s place. “Every day was basically one endless baby shower for a woman I didn’t know, but also somehow I had to organize it, and if I didn’t remember everyone’s name I got a very strong electric shock.” Also: flying piranhas, lava monsters, college improv, jazz, and all food turned into spiders in her mouth.
- Tiya Sircar really is marvelous as Real Eleanor. Her love of clown paintings aside (Trevor marvels that one of Real Eleanor’s favorites is hung as torture in Fake Eleanor’s room), she comes off as the genuine do-gooder Tahani tries to hard to be, without ever becoming insufferable. She really seems to harbor no ill will toward Fake Eleanor (even empathizing with Eleanor’s standard “child of divorce” excuse when Fake Eleanor was abandoned in a fish tank at a railway station). Sircar conveys Real Eleanor’s goodness as something pure, and not as her being a sap or a goody two-shoes.
- Michael desperately trying to come up with something Trevor will accept in place of Eleanor: “What do you get somebody who wants to eat a unicorn? Unicorn bib! No, what about unicorn holders, like for corn?”
- Oh God, there’s a bad place Janet (also, blessedly, D’Arcy Carden), and she’s outstanding. Responding to Michael’s request for the location of a nice restaurant, the leather-clad Bad Janet barely looks up from her phone, answering, “Up your mom’s butt, you fat dink.” Tahani: “What is even the purpose of a Janet who behaves in such a manner?” Michael: “Unclear.”
- Jason and the still-rebooting Real Janet bond over Jason’s helpfully intimate knowledge of jalapeño poppers. “It doesn’t matter if you know things, all that matters is in your heart.” “Thanks, Jianyu. I mean, it does matter if I know things, because I’m an informational delivery system. And I don’t have a heart. But thanks.”
- Let the speculation now begin on who will portray Sean. After the grand slam perfection of Adam Scott’s casting as Trevor, I’m compiling my own list of candidates.