Wherein Michael tries to make someone do a complete personality 180 with one gentle metaphor.
The Good Place isn’t afraid to blow up the status quo (sometimes literally) in order to drive its cosmic-stakes story, but it’s never done it so delicately and skillfully as it does in “A Chip Driver Mystery.” The big swerve comes in the form of a six-month time jump so offhand that unwary watchers might have missed it, as we find out that Michael has been visiting with the imprisoned Bad Janet (in our Janet’s void) for the past half-year since we last saw him. Like Professor X hanging out with the defeated Magneto in his plastic prison, Michael has been popping into Bad Janet’s magnetic (but tastefully appointed) cell in order, as he tells us late in the episode, to try to win the endlessly rebooted Bad Janet over to the good guys’ team.
He can’t, although it’s not for lack of trying, and not without D’Arcy Carden offering up some intriguing hints that Bad Janet isn’t the fart-happy bad apple she maintains she still is, and will ever be. At the end of the episode, after regaling the reluctantly curious Bad Janet (BJ, from here on out—you just know Bad Janet would have fun with that) with one final tale he hopes will illuminate his captive as to the virtues of hope, and of humanity, Michael lets her go. He tells the puzzled BJ, “I tried to win you over to our side. It hasn’t worked. So keeping you as a prisoner just seems cruel.” Echoing the episode’s main story—a reminiscence of Team Cockroach’s ongoing and frustrating attempt to crack jackass Brent from his hard shell of entitlement and knee-jerk defensiveness—Michael explains to the hesitating BJ before she disappears, “Letting you go home is how I’ve decided to be a little better today than I was yesterday.”
In a cast without weak links, praising Ted Danson and D’Arcy Carden is old news, but “A Chip Driver Mystery” sees both finding subtleties in their characters that are, at instances, simply sublime. The Michael we see coming to visit Bad Janet is, as we find out through the course of his tale, coming off of an especially disastrous wreck in the team’s plan to see the human subjects improve. (Thus to save all of creation and stuff.) Framed initially as an inspirational tale about finally getting through to Ben Koldyke’s embodiment of white male prejudice and self-regard Brent Norwalk, Michael gradually reveals to Janet that six months of incremental progress was actually just dashed right before he came to set her free.
At first, things are looking up as, returning from a successful bonding ski trip, Jason tells Eleanor, Janet, Tahani, and Michael that Brent was more or less human throughout. “Instead of flipping over the table and storming out, he just stormed out!,” says Jason happily at the memory of Simone beating Brent at cards. And while Tahani reminds everyone that it’s hard to know whether Brent’s conviction that he’s trying to get into “super heaven” is responsible for his marginal improvement, Michael, sticking to the plan, argues that changing Brent from the outside-in through their deception is still resulting in some positive changes in his insufferable behavior.
As we see when Brent bursts in on the lunching Simone and Chidi to excitedly order them to read the novel he’s just completed (and had Janet immediately publish, complete with Top Gun-style author photo) so they can praise it and him at the big book release event he’s planned two days hence. Bringing someone like Brent into the show at this late juncture was a gamble. Unlike John, whose grasping superficiality we see has softened into a much more manageably cuddly version thereof, Brent Norwalk hasn’t shown that he’s anything but the perfect candidate for the Bad Place to choose in order to monkeywrench any of Eleanor and Michael’s plans to show that humans can be anything but selfish, bigoted blowhards.
But Koldyke shows Brent’s promise as a character by essentially showing how little hope there is of actually changing him. Stumbling upon the truth that his book Six Feet Under Par: A Chip Driver Mystery—a submarine-based golf-centric political thriller whodunnit in which the hero is not only the QB for the Chicago Bears but also a crack gumshoe and “the world’s strongest president”—is derided by the group not only for its terrible writing (Driver solves the mystery on page 10), but for its thinly veiled sexist, racist caricatures of his fellow Good Place humans, Brent snaps. (As Bad Janet sneers at Michael, “Ah, middle-aged American male fragility. You know why they’re called Baby Boomers, right? Because the tiniest little pinprick to their ego and, boom, they become babies.”)
But the thing is, both Brent’s meltdown and BJ’s engagement with Michael’s story of it are, themselves, lent illuminating shades of character development by Koldyke and Carden. Throughout the episode, we see Michael’s stumbling attempts to reach Brent finding the merest hint of purchase. Suggesting Brent turn off the cheat code during their golf outing, Michael greets Brent’s furious excuse-making (Michael doesn’t sneeze) by prodding Brent with the gentle, “It isn’t a sign of weakness to admit that you screwed up.” And later, Michael finds Brent—assistance filter still turned off—back on the course alone, trying to work on that damned slice. (“And, you know, if this ends up applying to any other aspect of your life later on, then cool,” Michael insinuates gamely.) Plus, Brent, as insensitively as he steamrolls everyone into reading his book and assuming that they’ll shower him with public praise, is genuinely excited at having doing something he’d never had the conviction to do before. “I accomplished something!,” Brent roars once he discovers what people really think of Six Feet Under Par, Koldyke finding just the glimmer of pathos in what quickly sours into a truly ugly rant at the one person, Simone, who dares hold him accountable for his book’s incompetent ugliness.
And Bad Janet, too, doesn’t change, departing back to Shawn and the Bad Place with only an empty cell full of farts for Michael to deal with (he sprays some ready Lysol in lieu of an episode’s traditional cliffhanger), the unwelcome gift of Michael and Janet’s fully updated manifesto about humanity tucked under her arm. (“Great thinking,” she mocks, “People who get books as gifts always read them.”) But she takes it. And, throughout the episode, she listens to Michael’s story. She engages with him at different points in scorn, certainly, but also in curiosity, at one point even thanking Michael for putting one development in scatological terms she can relate to. And, in Carden’s sly characterization of Janet’s evil opposite, she, like Brent, gives us just the tiniest glints of hope that, for all their entrenched assholery, both she and Brent are being nudged in the right direction.
But that’s not enough for Simone, who, in the episode’s most pointed element, steadfastly refuses to let Brent off the hook. In Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s spiky anger confronting Brent’s non-apology apologies, The Good Place refuses to let itself off the hook as well. The risk in introducing Brent into the neighborhood was that his particular brand of uniquely toxic and unassailable male privilege would unbalance the show, his smug, all-too-familiar bigotry (against everyone not precisely like him) either unpalatable in the show’s optimistic milieu or wallpapered over with eye-rolls and too-pat sitcom resolutions. But Brent isn’t coming down from his tower of self-obsession and society-bred insensitivity that easily, his bridling at someone—a black woman, at that—presuming to tell him that his tiny baby steps toward decency aren’t enough for her seeing him finally hauling off and calling Simone “a condescending bench,” the Good Place’s mandatory censorship doing nothing to soften just how fucking ugly his thwarted ego is. (“The book event is cancelled because of these mean women!,” is about as spot-on Trumpy as Brent’s been, yet.)
And Simone is right, of course, even if her unwillingness to soften up regarding Brent is antithetical to the “everybody be pals” vibe Eleanor has mapped out as humanity’s best hope. “So why are we still dealing with this shirt in the Good Place?,” demands Simone to Eleanor’s plea for patience, adding with obviously well-learned exasperation, “When people like him are ignorant jerks, why are people like us asked to forgive him?” Not to bring The Good Place’s existential questions down to earth, but it’s not an unfamiliar sentiment to anyone responding to news about a powerful white, cis, male figure deigning to show the merest scrap of commonality with the people who live their lives trying to be kind, respectful, and understanding. (“Sorry man, either apologize for real or stop wasting our time,” is Simone’s all-too-relatable rallying cry.) Simone—as uncertain as she may be as to whether this is real or just her dying brain’s feverish interpretation of her fading existence—is absolutely certain that in no moral universe worth a damn would she be expected to continue coddling some pampered prick while he reluctantly grumbles toward enlightenment.
But, as Michael sums up through his own episode-long gentle metaphor to Bad Janet, that’s all this band of seemingly doomed yet hopeful beings has left to hold onto. Hope. Hope of change, no matter how tiny, and how goddamned infuriating it is to those who don’t need that much of a lesson in being good, and kind at this point. As BJ mocks him after he relates the debacle Brent’s book party eventually turned into (with Chidi, of all people, finally responding to Brent’s bullying by laying him out with one decisive punch), Michael softly tells her that there’s one more chapter to the story. He shows how Team Cockroach got right back to work, licking their wounds back in Eleanor’s office, coming up with yet other Hail Mary plots to get things back on track. (Jason’s involves setting himself on fire, because Jason.) With Danson allowing the gentle, rueful twinkle in Michael’s countenance to work on Bad Janet, he tells her, “What matters is if they’re trying to do better today than they were yesterday. You asked me where my hope comes from. That’s your answer.”
The experiment—especially now that we see more than six months have gone by toward the Judge’s one-year time limit—isn’t going to go in our side’s favor. It’s just not. Everyone, from human to demon to Janet to whatever Derek is, keeps messing up, again and again. Whatever little progress they make is seemingly undone by the press of time and the fallibility of them all, no matter what plane of existence they hail from. “Everyone for sure lost a lot of points and I don’t have a solution,” admits Eleanor to her team. But, as Michael tells Bad Janet as he lets her go back to whatever path she chooses to follow now, “That was an hour ago. Right before I came here to see you, for the last time.” Allowing an all-powerful, evil (or at least horribly petty and annoying) enemy free might backfire on Michael and his friends (although BJ’s demeanor here suggests something more intriguing), but, as Michael intuits once more from his own learning experience in the last six months, “What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is whether they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.” If there’s a bigger test going on than the year-long hoops the Judge has laid out for humanity (and Michaels, Janets, Bad Janets, and Dereks) to jump through, then there just might be a little hope after all.
- Chidi, on why he didn’t actually go skiing on the ski trip: “Moving at an angle terrifies me.” Never change, buddy.
- John discovers Jason’s secret. Or at least the fake secret Jason had been sharing with Chidi. It’s a pickle for the semi-reformed maven of The Gossip Toilet, who, in the end, successfully manages to hold his hot goss in, for now.
- Chidi pleads with John not to spill, citing Kant, but John’s warring with his own ethical guru in reality show housewife, Bethany Frankel, so watch for that battle to play out.
- John’s mantra, learned from Jason/Jianyu’s guidance, is “Cate Blanchett saying ‘Rihanna.’”
- Eleanor’s leadership involves giving out weekly “Humanity Savior Of The Week” and “Hottest Savior Of The Week” awards. Michael brushes off that he’s never won the latter, but whatever, no big deal.
- Chidi dancing! Chidi dancing! That is all.
- Jason gets Chidi to shake it by playing his original composition, “I Love You Forever (Make The Booty Bounce In The Back.)”
- In Brent’s book, Tahani is fictionalized as “Scarlet Pakistan,” who’s got “legs like Jessica Rabbit from that movie.” Meanwhile, Chidi is a four-eyed nerd named “Igby.”
- Bad Janet’s proof of humanity’s enduring evil includes “women in $400 yoga pants who won’t vaccinate their children,” and Apple continually changing the shape of its charger plugs for no reason. Oh, also wars and murder.