“What’s My Motivation” is The Good Place in a rush. It’s tempting to call this episode a table-setter, as Eleanor, Jason, and Janet all seek an abrupt escape at the end of the episode, while Michael, Tahani, Chidi, and Real Eleanor are scrambling to help them. Sure, Michael’s help involves rebooting Janet in order to rid her of the “glitch” that’s allowed her to think that being married to Jason is a logical thing to do (“You two sit tight. I’m gonna go murder Janet and I’ll be right back,” he tells the happy couple before setting out.) But there’s so much to enjoy in this plot-heavy episode, that complaints melt away like frozen yogurt left in the sun. Not that fro-yo ever melts in the Good Place. It seems like it wouldn’t, right?
Most of the running about here is caused by the imminent arrival of the dreaded Shawn (the credits finally give us the spelling), the infallible arbiter of Eleanor’s fate. Michael, gathering Chidi, Tahani, and both Eleanors in his office, reveals that Fake Eleanor’s moral points total falls just short of the average of 1,222,821 points for Good Place residents. (She’s got -4008.) Handing Eleanor a nifty, pocket-watch-style points tracker, Michael and Tahani suggest that Eleanor’s best bet is to start racking up some serious post-life goodness in advance of Shawn’s arrival, a plan she takes to with Eleanor-esque enthusiasm and slight tone-deafness. (Her mission statement, “I’m gonna do nice things for every goober in this place until this point total is so high I can rub it in all their smug faces!” costs her a quick 5.)
But it’s not that easy. With Tahani shepherding her to hold doors for people (worth 3 points/door), setting up focus groups to find out why the other residents dislike her (it’s mainly the whole “ruining paradise” thing), and throwing a gala to get Eleanor back in everyone’s good graces (“This will be the 4th most important party that I’ve ever thrown!”), it should be a solid plan. But that damned ticker stubbornly refuses to go up, no matter how many forced smiles or actual laughs Eleanor can inspire. (The residents all think her “Pobody’s nerfect” joke is killer.) It’s only when she gives Chidi some well-intentioned advice (he’s predictably torn about the ethics of returning Real Eleanor’s recent “I love you”) that she sees her points zip up a smidge—and the reason why.
The Good Place has a way of making its philosophy lessons go down so smoothly (like frozen yogurt!) that they can seem obvious. But there are real stakes in the Good Place, ones the series sneakily hints are a lot more hard-edged than its placid pastels suggest. Eleanor is genuinely fighting to remain free from an eternity of torture and misery (at the hands of Adam Scott’s quintessential douchebag Trevor, no less), and her principled final choice tonight (followed by her impulsive second choice to skip out on that first choice) hammers home just how surreptitiously The Good Place makes everyone aware of the hidden horrors of this universe. As when Eleanor confessed to her accidental Good Place status, her choice here to forego any attempt to game the system any further is both courageous and very sad. Last episode, Eleanor marveled at the inherent goodness of her new friends, telling her namesake, “If I had known you, and Tahani, and Chidi on Earth, I might have for real gotten into the Good Place.” Here, realizing that nothing she does now will earn her a place among them, since all her frantic efforts are solely motivated by self-interest, she does one final nice thing for everyone she’s wronged (an apology note and a “Pobody’s nerfect” t-shirt) and asks Janet to call her a train for the Bad Place, where she has accepted she truly belongs.
The same goes for Jason Mendoza, the failed DJ (“I was pre-succesful,” he protests to Michael) who not only paid to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers more than 50 times, stole an old lady’s wooden leg on a dare, and had a vanity plate reading “I love butts,” but who died while doing whippets inside a locked safe in a doomed effort to rob a burrito joint. Jason’s mostly been used as comic relief, but “What’s My Motivation” sees the erstwhile Jianyu finally showing that he, too has some self-awareness and, like Eleanor, recognizes that the good people of the Good Place force him to confront his own unworthiness. “People” being a relative term, since it’s his new bride, Janet, whose emerging humanity leads Jason to conclude that he doesn’t belong, either with her or in the Good Place. Confronted with the depths of his own childish stupidity (in addition to the whippets, his hiding place had no air holes and he was using a snorkel), Jason tells Janet that they should break up—only Janet’s not having it.
D’Arcy Carden makes everything Janet says and does reliably hilarious, and her skill at making Janet’s affection for Jason both affectingly believable and completely alien is her best trick yet. For every time she offhandedly restates her non-human nature (“You’re the smartest girl in the world.” “I’m not a girl.”), Janet’s wonky emerging consciousness remains intriguingly slippery. Speculating that she only bonded to Jason after her most recent reboot allowed her to feel something like human attachment, Carden yet finds the heart in the heartless Good Place “mainframe” (as Janet terms herself). Softening an emotionless character is an old fantasy/sci-fi trope that can get awfully sappy if not handled well, but Janet’s odd sparks of sentience are couched in such unexpectedly weird touches that they’re always delightful. Responding to Michael calling her newfound behaviors a glitch, Janet’s suddenly saucy “Is it an error to act unpredictably and behave in ways that run counter to how you were programmed to behave?” is both ridiculous and sublime. (It might be the way she ends “behave” on a bit of uptalk.)
And so, in the end, the three misfits take an unexpected way out. Eleanor, good intentions aside, responds to Janet’s revelation that there’s a “neutral zone” apart from the binary Good/Bad Place destinations because she’s been saying that she’s a “medium person” all along. Hijacking the train of the arriving Shawn, Eleanor can only apologize to Michael and the rest of her friends and sheepishly wave goodbye. If Eleanor’s realization about her impure motives was a little on the nose, this twist ending muddies things up nicely. Eleanor knows she doesn’t really belong with genuinely good people like Chidi, Tahani, and Real Eleanor (or, at least, she learned far too late how she could have earned her place). But she damn sure knows that a life spent being just sort-of a jerk who hooked up with a guy behind the porta-potties at a Diamondbacks game shouldn’t subject her to food that turns to spiders in your mouth and a smirking Trevor calling her “trashbag” for all eternity, either. Eleanor’s a medium person who can recognize goodness but not fully embrace it yet. So it’s off to the medium place on a stolen train, to meet the mysterious (and medium) Mindy St. Clair.
- This is Manny Jacinto’s best outing on The Good Place so far, his sorrowful recognition of his own wasted, ding-dong life a quiet little heartbreaker. Plus, any time Jason and Eugene Cordero’s Pillboi get some time to put their impressively empty heads together is always welcome.
- Chidi: “Your score is crazy-high, Eleanor!” Fake Eleanor laughs: “It’s just, ‘crazy-high Eleanor’ was my nickname in college.”
- Real Eleanor’s egg-delivered declaration of love allows William Jackson Harper to do some truly outstanding panicked face-acting.
- Janet, on kissing: “Is one tongue okay? I can add more tongues.”
- According to Jason, Jacksonville is “one of the top ten swamp cities in northeastern Florida.”
- Michael sinks even further into despair upon discovering Jason is yet another mistaken admittee to the Good Place, but Jianyu’s laying on of hands still works to calm him down, even coming from Jason.
- The real Jianyu’s a monk who achieved such a state of meditative enlightenment that he was thought dead. Jason died at the same instant and had the same IQ. (Jianyu stopped learning at age 7.) Still—without an identical name mixup like the two Eleanor Shellstrops, there seem to be some holes in the logic.
- Eleanor calling herself “original flavor” and Real Eleanor “new and improved” is a lovely bit of self-effacement.
- “At least he dies doing what he loved. A bunch of whippets.”
- And at long last we meet Shawn, played by reigning master of deadpan disdain Marc Evan Jackson. Fine choice.