Ted Danson (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)

The Good Place is a good show that, tonight, takes the leap to a great one. Reliably inventive, weird, and funny, and possessed of a deep bench of talented actors, the show has charted its eccentric course with deceptive focus. If there’s been a knock on the proceedings in this most dysfunctional of eternal rewards, it’s been a lack of stakes. The publicity for the show plays up the creamy, pastel innocuousness of Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop being the one undeserving egg in the show’s Easter basket, but The Good Place has always kept the underground grumble of menace humming along under the good place’s sunny streets. There’s more wrong in this supposed paradise than one bad egg, and “The Eternal Shriek” cranks up both the comedy and the horror in a riotous, thought-provoking half-hour.

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With Michael’s announcement that he has to leave for the sake of the good place at the end of the last episode (and does The Good Place know how to land an ending, or what?), Eleanor spies a win-win. As ever, her battle of ethics with reluctant mentor/secret-keeper Chidi is a fount of great comedy, with Eleanor’s visions of Michael’s retirement consisting of being “on an angel boat, smoking moonbeam cigars” making her more energized than ever. Eleanor hadn’t gone soft prior to this, exactly, but she was getting there, and this unexpected glimmer of hope dropped right in her lap energizes her old scammer’s instincts, with Bell letting a manic, greedy gleam light up Eleanor’s face. That’s key to the rest of the episode, especially once we find out what Michael’s retirement really means.

At Tahani’s effortful retirement bash (“#Tahanitime,” she pridefully brands it), Michael reveals that “retirement” is just the euphemism he picked so as not to terrify the residents as to the true nature of what architects call “the eternal shriek.” The moral world of The Good Place is always being parceled out to us in increasingly alarming snippets, and Michael’s description of his fate as failed architect is, in its escalating pileup of baroque tortures, as hilarious as it is horrifying. Episode writer Megan Amram posits a heaven where the price for Michael’s failure is that:

My soul will be disintegrated, and each molecule will be placed on the surface of a different burning sun. And then my essence will be scooped out of my body with a flaming ladle and poured over hot diamonds.

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And that’s not counting the fact that what’s left of his body will be beaten with a titanium rod forever (making Tahani’s Michael-shaped piñata in very poor taste), and that the diamonds won’t even be pretty ones. And you don’t even want to know where the string holding his body up will be tied. (It’s his genitals.)

It begs the question of just what the fuck kind of heaven this is. The show eased us—as the good place eases its residents—into a happy, carefree world where struggle and worry and pain can finally be let go. Where that’s all behind. Absent Eleanor, it’s tempting to think that the good place would run along in harmonious wish-fulfillment, but Michael’s revelations hammer home the idea that the universe of the show is built on something a whole lot scarier and less forgiving. Even for the eminently well-meaning Michael who, in one of Ted Danson’s loveliest moments of the series, expresses how much he loves humanity, and was looking forward to experiencing even the most mundane human things.

All of this only fuels Eleanor’s desire to kill a whole lot of birds with one stone, as she works every possible angle to convince Chidi they should kill Janet. Yup—Michael reveals that all arrivals and departures to the good place are by train, and that Janet’s the only driver. (Another reference to Defending Your Life, with its mysterious trams to Judgement City.) Eleanor goes full Machiavelli, citing “ends justify the means” necessity and the fact that bumping off Janet (who helpfully reveals that she, in fact, can be bumped off via a remote fail-safe device) will save Eleanor, and Michael.

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Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)

The battle of philosophical wills here is not as even-handed as usual as Chidi, increasingly distraught over the moral quagmire into which he is sinking, recalls his lifelong aversion to lying in any form. (Even about a colleague’s ludicrous cowboy boots, something he bottled up for three solid years back on Earth before finally breaking.) William Jackson Harper conveys Chidi’s mounting panic throughout, an involuntary, grumbling groan of pain escaping him with each deception and compromise. When he finally is the one to destroy Janet (accidentally preventing tagalong Jason from pressing her shiny red self-destruct button while he and Eleanor waffle), he literally loses the ability to function. “You have a crazy look in your eye and you’re kind of retreating into your shirt,” notes the triumphant Eleanor, back at the house.

Janet’s death scene is easily the best the show’s pulled off so far, D’Arcy Carden’s robotic helper evoking levels of comedy, tragedy, and horror so intertwined as to be simply riveting. Carden’s a hoot on The Good Place, her wonky literalism providing big laughs every time Janet appears. Tonight, when Michael asks, earnestly, “Oh, my dear Janet, will you be okay after I leave?,” her smilingly factual “Yes. This will not affect me in any way” is funny. Her subsequent, bombastic attempt to mimic human sorrow is funnier. So when she reveals to Chidi and Eleanor that each of the 25 generations of Janets builds on the sophistication and wisdom of the last, Carden’s affectless statement of fact is pure enough to give the pair pause in their plan to shut her down. Then the further revelation that she has been programmed with a “frantically begging for your life” fail-safe in case of emergencies sees Carden going full tour-de-force as she alternates between blubbering self-preservation (complete with magically produced picture of her three kids) and reassurances that she, in fact, is not alive and thus can’t feel emotions. It’s just a stunner of a scene, with Eleanor and Chidi’s individual dilemmas warring with the brilliantly conceived particulars of Janet’s inner workings.

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Manny Jacinto (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)

When Jason shows up (he wandered off dejectedly after not getting enough candy from the Michael piñata), the offhand way in which that button gets pushed is shocking, as is the way the deactivated Janet gracelessly flops face-first into the sand of the lovely beach they’re standing on. Naturally, being a Janet, she wakes up during the tasteful wake Tahani insists on throwing, but she’s now a blank slate—at least for the few days it will take to “re-upload all the knowledge in the universe.” It seems like another stall—until Eleanor stands up in Michael’s later neighborhood meeting and confesses that she’s not supposed to be there. (See previous statement regarding The Good Place knowing how to land an ending.)

It’s a big moment, but Bell’s performance reminds us throughout “The Eternal Shriek” of why it’s inevitable. Eleanor Shellstrop is a flawed but not irredeemable person. Sure, she once faked a terminal illness to meet Scott Wolf at a Sunglass Hut, but Bell’s always managed to seed just enough inner conflict into Eleanor’s actions to make her selfless act here believable. Previously, she’d applied herself to Chidi’s lessons and to changing her ways because she thought she was stuck and she was making the best of it. Now, presented with actual hope of getting away with her deception, she tosses all of that away, as long as she can stomach it. (“Why do bad things always happen to mediocre people who are lying about their identities?,” she muses in agitation before coming up with her “murder Janet” plan.)

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Chidi’s rattled by the reemergence (“Killing is one of the most famous moral… no-nos,” is all he can stammer out), and completely unmanned once he goes along with it. No matter the mitigating circumstances of that button-push, the genuinely decent Chidi simply can’t live with not telling. In his flashbacks, both his girlfriend and a colleague respond to his incessant ethical uprightness by musing, “This is why everybody hates moral philosophy professors,” and even Chidi concedes the point. But he also can’t go back on his word to Eleanor, saying defeatedly, “The moral implications of everything that we’ve done are so complicated that I may never untangle them.” Harper sells the big reveal, too. Chidi’s angry concession to Eleanor that he won’t tell, but that he’ll never—for all eternity—be able to live with it, is the driving force that finally gets Eleanor up off her seat.

“I love you, man,” Eleanor says before her confession. Bell underplays it there because her face watching Chidi literally writhing in moral agony beforehand does the heavier lifting. And then she leaps, putting Chidi’s well-being ahead of her own, and leaving The Good Place poised, again, tantalizingly on the edge of something thrillingly unknown.

Stray observations

  • “There’s an old Chinese proverb. Lies are like tigers, they are bad.” “That’s it?” “It’s more poetic in the Mandarin.”
  • Michael’s favorite color (which humans can’t discern) is called something resembling “plueragloss,” which he describes as “the color of when a soldier comes home from war and sees his dog for the first time.” Ted Danson’s pronunciation of that color is similarly too good for us mere mortals.
  • Speaking of, Michael’s barely-concealed contempt (“Oh boy…”) for Tahani’s retirement-themed desserts (retire-mint chocolate cake, flan voyage) is similarly more than we deserve.
  • Things Michael is going to regret not doing: getting his hair wet, pulling a hamstring, getting a rewards card, learning the difference between “toward” and “towards,” getting in a hallway standoff where neither person can decide which way to go, ending a conversation with a breezy “take it sleazy.”
  • Michael’s constant, pissy abuse of the trying-too-hard Tahani is consistently funny all episode. She blows the “take it sleazy” (“It’s not organic,” whines Michael). And her offered Saltine (another of Michael’s human wishes) only elicits disappointment. “Pretty dry… and too salty.”
  • Eleanor, left hanging by the aghast Chidi after coming up with her murder plot, summons Janet back for her high-five. That’s some hilariously cold Eleanor, right there.
  • Jason’s dangerous fecklessness is on display all episode. Manny Jacinto gets big laughs from delightedly popping party-poppers, but both his blithe desire to press that button and his seeming eagerness to hit on the mentally disabled new Janet show that being dim doesn’t mean you can’t do damage.
  • Another of Chidi’s colleagues abandoned his tenured position at the Sorbonne rather than reread Chidi’s incomprehensible book. “He said he was going out for cigarettes…”
  • Machiavelli really was non-Oprah-like.
  • The first Janet was operated with a click wheel.
  • Janet’s kids (actually stock images from the Kids’ Choice Awards) all have elaborate back stories. “Tyler has asthma, but he’s fighting it like a champ!”
  • “She knows her A-B-Janets!”

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