Or are we all just pawns in the tarantula squids’ game?
“The Worst Possible Use Of Free Will” mostly takes the form of a two-hander between the Arizona-stranded Michael and Eleanor. Sure, there are some welcome and very funny flashbacks (thanks to Janet’s “memory gizmo”) to a few heretofore-unseen fake Good Place adventures. (I agree with Michael that reboot #444—the one with Chidi trapped in some sort of “purple space bubble”— is worth getting into further.) But, like last week’s emotionally affecting tales, the episode is very much about Eleanor’s position as The Good Place’s central figure, and how, through “Arizona dirtbag” Eleanor Shellstrop’s halting journey into philosophical understanding, the show keeps striking singularly evocative chords of deeply human comedy.
The Good Place has never been anything but masterful in coating its sneakily accessible ethical universe in delicious, colorful wackiness frosting. (Thinking here that that would make a cool frozen yogurt flavor.) “The Worst Possible Use Of Free Will” plumbs the depths of Eleanor’s layered pain while name-dropping Nietzsche, Sir Thomas Aquinas (or “Little Tommy Quine-Quine,” in Eleanor’s parlance), and incorporating an involved debate about the relative philosophical merits of determinism. It also includes a flashback to a neighborhood pet day, where Jason adopts a penguin in a Jaguars jersey (named Blake, naturally), Tahani gets a “mirror centaur” who adopts Tahani’s human form for its top half (along with an even more Tahani-esque withering disdain), and Eleanor delightedly pairs up with an iguana that she contentedly allows to crawl into her hair. (She also has Janet whip him up a little cowboy hat, because why would you not do that?)
If last week’s episode suggested the limits of the third season’s earthbound setting, “The Worst Possible Use For Free Will” finds a nice workaround in the form of Janet’s memory machine, allowing Eleanor and Michael to pull up past-reboot incidents to shore up their side of the argument. (Lending a welcome resonance of Albert Brooks afterlife fantasy Defending Your Life to the proceedings.) Forcing Michael (through some necessarily confusing anatomical improbabilities) to prove to her that she indeed fell in love with Chidi at one point (the previously referenced reboot #119, as it turns out), Eleanor is crushed. If, as Janet’s projection shows, she is capable of actually loving someone (in defiance of her lifetime of armored preemptive rejection and scorn), then, according to her, love isn’t real. Michael’s puzzled at the seemingly illogic. But, then again, Michael’s never been human.
Eleanor makes the point that, since Michael manipulated Eleanor and Chidi together, their one-time stated love for each other doesn’t mean anything. Calling on the old Eleanor’s frame of reference, she calls it nothing but typical reality show tactics, explaining, “Put a bunch of attractive young people in stressful situations, they act like idiots and have sex with each other.” Michael counters by explaining how he concocted a 15 million-point plan to manipulate Eleanor, and she still kept foiling his evil plots in ways he couldn’t predict, claiming that proves that free will is real, and people make choices based on who they are, and not whatever imaginary magical hellscape (for example) they’re dropped into. In the manner of all real, substantive arguments, both debaters have actual points to make, and produce illuminating evidence to back them up.
For Michael, it’s the projected (via glowing ear doohickeys) visions of Eleanor and Chidi’s bond, including the time we did see when the newly arrived Eleanor stood up and confessed to being the imposter in the neighborhood because she saw how much pain her deception was causing Chidi. As we’ve seen, that was the thing that truly screwed up Michael’s initial torture plan—he was forced to improvise his way into eventual, snowballing unsustainability because, with all his limitless knowledge and resources, even he could never have imagined that an Arizona dirtbag like Eleanor Shellstrop would put someone else’s needs above her own. “That’s the story. You’re capable of human love. Congrats,” Michael scoffs confidently, brushing off Eleanor’s objections.
But for Eleanor, knowing that there was a “puppet master, pulling the strings” robs her of the hopeful comfort she took initially from the Michael’s revelation that she and Chidi did—just once—become the soulmates the old Michael claimed they were. Equally brusque, she waves away Michael’s demonstration with a blithe, “I’m incapable of love, no biggie. You wanna get burgers?” And while Michael immediately speculates that Eleanor’s dismissal stems from her lifelong history of denying her own, very human need for love and acceptance in order to protect herself, Eleanor’s not buying. Ted Danson has gotten to show a lot of colors in his shifting, changing Michael, but he’s never more affecting than when he allows us to see how much he has grown, improbably, to care about his human friends/former victims. Drawing in close in response to Eleanor’s own coarsening cocoon of denial, Danson’s Michael—for all his loopy, questionable competence—brings an ineffable wisdom to his response to Eleanor’s angry, “You don’t know me, man.”
Yes I do. I know everything about you, remember? Including nothing scares you more than vulnerability.
All that while Eleanor is mopping off the full glass of iced tea Michael has just poured over her head because, as he explains, “I have free will. And because you’re being so annoying.” To Eleanor’s shocked, “Dude, not cool!,” Michael responds “Disagree. I think it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” Michael’s done some cool stuff (sacrificing himself to Shawn so that everyone can escape the Bad Place comes to mind), but he may be right. Eleanor might have attained unfathomable wisdom from seeing all she’s seen and from learning everything she’s learned (from Chidi), but sometimes a dumb human needs an icy, sticky blast of reality at the hands of a former demon to snap her out of it.
The thing is that Eleanor’s flight to determinism as an explanation for why her love for Chidi was a sham isn’t, in itself, an invalid position. Yes, she may have been reading out the definition from an Arizona library’s copy of Philosophy For Dingdongs, but her interpretation of the underlying principles is spot-on. Pointing to the “millions of biological, genetic, and societal factors that are entirely outside of my control” as proof that nothing she does is anything other than the stimulus response of any other animal (or puppet, or animal-shaped puppet) is Eleanor’s application of determinism’s depressingly demystifying assessment of all human behavior. To put it in Eleanor’s hated “basic” language, we think we’re all that because we can’t feel the strings.
Maybe so. But, as the fed-up Michael puts it after emptying that iced tea over Eleanor’s head, he’s going to try anyway. Eleanor made a similar point earlier in the season, when confronted with the incontrovertible fact of her and her friends’ apparently predetermined damnation. But, there, she said, “Fuck it.” And here, Michael does the same, responding to the dripping and pissed off Eleanor’s “Who cares?” with another proclamation of hearteningly human defiance. “I do,” he says, “Because if everything is determined and we have no free will, then all the stuff we are doing to put more good into the world is pointless, and I want to believe it means something.” To that end, he tells her it’s time to pick up the rest of the Soul Squad at the airport (“The worst possible use of free will”) because he cares about them, about what they’re doing, and about doing good in the world, even if there is some uncaring system of predetermination making a mockery of everything he cares about. If, as the pre-drenching Eleanor had speculated, this is all some “megademon torture chamber” designed to torture Michael (a phrase designed to perk up viewers’ conspiracy antennae), then nothing matters. Then, as Michael rebuts, doing something meaningful is even moreso. Even if, as Eleanor further speculates, there is an even more powerful race of “tarantula-squids” manipulating the megademons. Zoom out far enough and everything looks insignificant. Zoom in even further, and everything matters a great deal.
Eleanor comes around, wearily, warily, and wet, picking up the others at the airport, only for Michael to get inspired to have everyone pack up again—for rural Canada. Eleanor, echoing another of her previous expressions of futile heroism (the best kind of heroism), tells Michael that their position as “the only truly free beings in the universe” means they have the opportunity to be truly bold. Michael, realizing that there is only one person in the world to whom they should look as “a blueprint for humanity,” intimates that we’re finally off to meet the one human being in all of history to figure out the actual, foundational truth of the universe. At least 92 percent of it. At least that one time when he got super-high. Buckle up, Soul Squad. It’s time to meet Doug Forcette.
- The tag doubles down on the episode’s return to the afterlife shenanigans, showing that Shawn has ordered the construction of a nasty looking makeshift “illegal portal to Earth.” Before sending Tiya Sircar’s finally un-cocooned Vicky through as a test subject (so see if she explodes), he answers her bafflement by confessing, “You have missed a lot.”
- Before Michael reluctantly plugs Eleanor into the memory gizmo, he quietly places a Tupperware container, a roll of paper towels, and a banana on the table. The reason why becomes all too clear in one of the most unnerving physical gags the show has ever done, as Eleanor emerges from her initial vision with most of her hair gone and spitting out her teeth into the Tupperware. She gets better.
- Say what you want about The Good Place’s unending monster truck rally of Florida jokes, but Eleanor and Michael’s trip to her home state suggests that someone in the writers room really didn’t have a good time growing up in Arizona. Apart from the corporate-sponsored, completely empty library (where the poetry section consists solely of Jeff Foxworthy’s Roses Are Red . . . And So Is My Neck and the sex ed section is just the bible), a running bit sees employees of both the library and a diner warning against staying late in either. Because apparently literally every establishment in Arizona doubles as an after-hours porn set.
- Michael might be a demon, but he’s got humanity pretty well figured out: “You’re always either sleeping or chewing something.”
- Michael hesitates to let Eleanor see the footage of him mocking Eleanor and Chidi’s love, claiming he didn’t want her to see what an asshole he was. Also, he really used to be into French cuff shirts.
- Mocking Eleanor’s claim that their love is stronger than anything, Michael proposes he drop an elephant on them to see how well love holds up.
- William Jackson Harper does exclamations of unsurprised surprise dismay better than anyone. Here, startling Eleanor while she looks for her new lizard pal in the dark, he responds to Eleanor reflexively pushing him into a nearby lake with a “Why?!” that can only truly be appreciated in performance.
- Chidi winds up with an ornery owl for a pet in flashback, after he’s unable to choose between two equally adorable puppies, a trap Eleanor refers to as “Chidi kryptonite.”
- Nice mirroring in how Chidi’s choice to forego the potential experience of flying like his (mean-spirited) owl in order to help Eleanor reflects Eleanor’s early series choice to cheat her way out of cleaning-up duty so she could fly.
- Tahani name drop: Her last pet was one of her friend Barbra Streisand’s cloned Siamese cats. It killed itself.
- Tahani’s centaur self demands heels, claiming her traditional horseshoes make her look like “a common glue factory hobo horse.”
- Past Michael reveals that Eleanor had recurring sex fantasies about Muppet Sam the Eagle. “He’s very authoritative, and I find that reassuring,” is actually a pretty solid rationale from Eleanor.
- During one of the reboots (#445), we see the frustrated and defeated Michael has replaced his office slogan with the effortfully punctuated greeting “Welcome! Everything is okay.”
- There’s been comparatively little for Janet to do on this earthbound season, here reduced to acting squirrely when Tahani brings up her marriage of shared assets with Jason.
- Eleanor: “Can you believe my high school voted me ‘most likely to die young and unaccomplished’?” Michael: “You did die, young and unaccomplished.”