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Successes and failures abound, but doom is hurtling toward The Good Place

Kristen Bell, Ted Danson
Photo: Colleen Hayes (NBC)
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“Okay, I’m in. Now hand me that jar.”

I’m with Jason after “Chillaxing”: pleased, puzzled, and wannabe-helpful after being confronted with something strange and delightful I in no way am equipped to truly understand. So let’s do it, gang—hand me that jar!

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Any given episode of The Good Place can, and invariably does, work on multiple levels. All the levels in this deeply human puzzle-box of a show are always present—sometimes operating all at once, which is simply transcendent in practice. There’s the Big Picture (aka “What the hell is the universe/Mike Schur playing at?”). Then there’s performance, where this stellar ensemble bats back and forth belly laughs and heartbreaking vulnerability. (They usually wind up in a tie at the end of an episode.) There’s the ingenious table-setting and bold, strategic moves that drive the overall story forward with breathtaking unpredictability. Then there’s the Derek of it all, with the show’s unlimited comic and philosophical palette splashing some inspired lunacy around. (Yes, Jason Mantzoukas gets his own category.)

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

“Chillaxing,” as usual with The Good Place, balances all of that splendidly (although no Derek once again, alas), with an emphasis on the sort of tantalizing undercurrent of lurking, rug-yanking menace that the show’s sunny surface never quite manages to obscure. On a plot level, the episode (credited to writer Aisha Muharrar) splits Team Cockroach’s forces between John (who Tahani and Janet attempt to lure away from his continued post-life thirst for embarrassing celebrity scandal), and Chidi, with Michael and Eleanor (and Jason) teaming up to ensure their mind-wiped ethical lodestone chooses, once more, to fix the broken pieces of this would-be paradise.

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Brandon Scott Jones, Jameela Jamil
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Of the two dilemmas, John’s proves the easier fix here. That’s not because the preternaturally self-impressed and bitchy former force behind the online outlet The Gossip Toilet is a simple nut for Tahani and Janet to crack. The Chidi problem involves the sort of massively complicated ethical, emotional, and impossibly weighty tangle that would give anyone a Chidi-sized stomachache. John, on the other hand, was chosen by Shawn and the Bad Place because he seemed like a garden variety vapid fame junkie whose earthly fixation on rich and powerful folk like Tahani made him the perfect guided missile targeted right at her ability to function during this all-the-marbles yearlong test. The thing is, they may have chosen someone all too easy for Tahani to connect with after all.

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Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

But initially, John has Tahani flummoxed. (And Janet, although the strain of running this simulated neighborhood continues to tax her abilities. Not that simply bopping John on the nose as Janet suggests at one frustrating juncture is the worst idea in the universe.) Tahani’s come a long way, but she’s still Tahani Al-Jamil, thank you very much, so her initial instinct is to grant John all the access that she intuits he was seeking all along. Inviting him to an exact replica of Victoria Beckham’s spa (“The Posh Wash?!,” John goggles appreciatively), Tahani forges a bond based on insider dirt, ultra-luxurious skin treatments, and cool glasses of Oprah’s super-secret delicious mushroom bog-water, thinking that her largesse will wow John into letting go of his resentment of all things fabulous and out-of-reach. And it goes pretty well, until John scoffs at the idea that he needs anything as stupid as Chidi’s ethics classes to top off an afterlife of well-deserved, if exhausting, paradise. (“I mean, I know I can eat whatever I want and not gain weight, and the air is obviously perfect and no one has any jobs or stress or problems, but I just feel like I need this,” John sighs to Tahani before their day of ultimate pampering, thus vying with Britta Perry for the “high on your own drama” NBC quality sitcom title.)

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Jameela Jamil
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Learning on the fly is what Team Cockroach does, however, and it’s Tahani’s insight that John’s envious pursuit of incriminating innuendo and online fat-shaming (plus that time he got Daniel Day-Lewis to temporarily quit acting over failing to pull off boot-cut jeans) stems from a painfully familiar insatiable hunger for acceptance and attention. If there is a parallel test going on for our original humans here (and that’s just one theory), Tahani scores big by setting aside her still-lingering entitlement and realizing that it’s she who needs to step down onto the same ground as John and the rest of humanity. Telling a story about a super-secret VIP lounge where she turned out to be the sole, lonely occupant, Tahani susses out it’s that yawning need for approval that left both Tahani and John “jealous and miserable with no real friends.” It’s perhaps a little too easy an initial hurdle in the quest to make John a better person, but both Brandon Scott Jones and Jamella Jamil make their détente feel like the sort of genuine human connection a possible universe-saving relationship is built upon. (Plus, John apologizes for being the one who scribbled an anonymous insulting note about Tahani’s earlobes on a Wicked program that one time, while Tahani admits that she knows she wasn’t pulling off those bangs, a moment of mutual self-effacement that bodes well. For these two, anyway.)

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Manny Jacinto, William Jackson Harper
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Chidi’s a different, and more wrenchingly complicated story altogether, as Eleanor and Michael find themselves confronted with a Chidi Anagonye untroubled by the burden of secret, afterlife-imperiling knowledge, and thus blissfully unconcerned with the fact that first student Brent blew off his ethics lessons after about five minutes. (After bragging about getting a B-plus in “moral values” at Princeton, musing that maybe he should be teaching the class, and then splitting. Because Brent is the pits.) Still, this Chidi isn’t bound to the yoke of ethical instruction due to a horrible, stomachache-engendering secret, so he’s off to play frisbee golf, William Jackson Harper making this Chidi’s carefree playfulness (and kicky hat) a heart-wrenching portrait of soon-to-be-shattered, utterly unaccustomed bliss.

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That’s because Eleanor has to destroy Chidi’s happiness in order to save the universe. Or, as she puts it to Jason when manically spitballing her plans to once more crush her former love with something akin to the untenable truth, “The more miserable he is, the more he’s going to teach you, and then everyone, and then he’ll save humanity.” That Eleanor’s plan involves turning the jaunty Chidi back into a groaning, Tums-chugging anxiety monster is bad, sure, but that’s who Eleanor decides this experiment needs. (Terming Chidi “Superman with nervous diarrhea” explains where Eleanor’s head is at with regard to Chidi’s importance in her vision of the future.)

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
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And here is where the I, warily, open that jar, as there are hints all through “Chillaxing” that, once more, we’re being hoodwinked, along with Eleanor. There’s a logical throughline to Eleanor’s choices here, sure—she’s desperate, the fate of the entire human race is resting on her shoulders, and she’s trapped in a truly cruel position of having to deceive the only person she’s ever truly loved. But, as she tells Michael once she sees just how completely undone Chidi has become when Eleanor and Michael drop Jason on him with the secret that Jianyu the monk is actually Jason the Florida dirtbag, what she’s doing is exactly what Michael—the old Michael—was doing to him. And she sort of likes it. After all, Eleanor is only human, so a little irrational anger at Chidi for “abandoning her” by sacrificing his memories of her and the whole shitshow they’re in is, as Michael assures her, “allowed.” Ted Danson makes Michael’s commiseration here as affecting as ever, throwing up his hands in bewildered admiration at humans’ messy snarl of guilt, selfishness, love, and shame that makes everything so goddamned difficult. And yet, there’s that tickle once again that something is not right in the interaction, Michael’s reassurance that “You were torturing him because that’s what we had to do,” an ominously utilitarian argument that introduces an unsettling whiff of demonic self-justification.

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC
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If torturing Chidi—and that is exactly, to old Michael’s blueprint, what Eleanor is doing here—is morally justified for Eleanor in this case, then Chidi’s late-episode freakout (“Stomachache, welcome back old friend,” he winces) over telling a relatively innocuous lie to cover up Jason’s true nature makes him into a joke. And Chidi is not a joke, not in Eleanor’s eyes, and not in The Good Place’s moral universe. Simone’s presence is just one reason why Chidi can’t be involved in the sort of massive campaign of deception this new neighborhood will require to have any hope of succeeding. Eleanor stresses Chidi’s probity as “a strict Kantian” early in the episode when eliciting the still-clueless Chidi’s promise to help Jianyu adjust to the Good Place, no matter what. But it’s the stress of reconciling Chidi’s example and her own Michael-blessed duplicity later that causes Eleanor to unexpectedly break down and weep once the anguished Chidi muses that, inexplicably, he feels like he’s being punished, despite having apparently gone onto his ultimate reward. (“Oh no! I made God cry!,” exclaims Chidi at Eleanor’s tears, just one of the roster of never-better expressions of comic torment Harper gives Chidi tonight.)

And there’s another, less philosophically heavy but still telling thing Michael does. Telling Chidi that he can get rid of his problems with the flick of his wrist, Michael does just that, first on a demonstration vase, and then on the problematic and anatomically explicit Pamela Anderson motorcycle Jason summoned up earlier. (It’s Jason, don’t worry about it.) Michael isn’t Janet. (Nor is he Thanos, for that matter.) The show has never once indicated he has the power to wink things out of existence in a sprinkle of exploding dust—that’s what he has a Janet for. Sure, you could argue that perhaps Janet built in additional powers for Michael in this new, Janet-built neighborhood, but I ain’t buying. The Good Place has always exhibited a Chidi-esque scrupulousness in tossing its narrative knuckleballs, and this is too big and impossible a swerve. Something’s up.

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Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Maybe it has something to do with that Death-like hooded figure seen hurtling on a railroad handcart right toward the heart of Janet’s Good Place at the end of the episode. It’s another signature Good Place cliffhanger shocker, coming as it does right after Tahani, Jason, Janet, and Eleanor all gather to mark out their guarded optimism about their various missions. Who is it? I have my theories, many of them stemming from that still-suspicious prisoner train transfer back in the season premiere. But we didn’t need a specter rushing pell-mell toward the neighborhood to know that there’s something not right here. As Michael prods the smilingly uncomprehending but would-be helpful Jason, “Are you speaking metaphorically? Like, the task we’re embarking on is a metaphorical jar you’re gonna open by accomplishing the task?” “Yes…,” Jason, desperate as ever to be of a “useness,” agrees. Same here, buddy—now let’s see that jar.

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Stray observations

  • That’s two episodes of great TV in one week where clams vs. oysters jokes pop up. This means something.
  • I know that Janet-created Matilda’s not a real human or anything, but here’s to her reunion with Shell Turtlestein.
  • Naturally, attempting to bond with “hot goss” obsessive John means we got a banner week in Tahani name-drops: Gigi Hadad, Oprah, Blake Lively, Paul Allen, Robbie Williams, Leonardo DiCaprio, Victoria Beckham, Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman (who actually does all ScarJo’s stunts as a power move), Timothée Chalamet, and Daniel Day-Lewis all make appearances, the sheer volume even taking John aback. (“Dropping names three at a time now?,” he responds to one egregious example.)
  • Oh, and also eight characters on Game Of Thrones were based on her, although, to be fair, only six ultimately stepped up when the time came.
  • Whether Janet’s preoccupation is itself a swerve or simply a result of her overloaded Janet-brain, she looks great with that pink streak. In trying to get over Jason, she tells Tahani, she took a page from the human playbook of “doing something dumb with your hair.”
  • I didn’t have high hopes for John as a character, but Brandon Scott Jones succeeds in making him improbably, promisingly affecting here. That little move of offering Tahani his arm as they walk off together is both showy and genuine, which sums up who John could be nicely.
  • One of John’s burns on Tahani after she gained five pounds was calling her “Tahani All-The-Meals.”
  • There’s a whimsically loony streak to this new neighborhood, with someone having insisted on an army of helpful picnic ants and otters who perform turn-down service. My money’s on Eleanor on the first, Tahani on the second.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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