“The Soul Squad is on a roll.”
From one perspective, The Good Place could have ended last week. From many other perspectives, thank god (or whatever the hell is running things) that it didn’t, but still. At the end of “Jeremy Bearimy,” the show’s six protagonists—confronted with the seemingly inescapable truth of their own inevitable, eternal doom—chose selflessness. Knowing what they now know (the universe is a capriciously judgemental bureaucracy that’s determined that they all deserve to be tortured forever), humans Chidi, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani, former demon Michael, and evolved repository of all knowledge Janet—after a brief period of despairing binge-drinking and shirtless sugar-chili—said a collective and understandable “fuck it.”
But their “fuck it” led them to something that sounds suspiciously, well, godlike. The universe is unfair, their lives are a sick joke with a punchline of butthole spiders and lava monsters? Fine. That doesn’t mean that goodness is pointless—in fact, as the group comes to decide, it means that spending what time they’ve got left (before Shawn and his Bad Place minions whip out the penis flatteners and Richard Marx) helping other people avoid a similar fate smacks of the sort of transcendent decency and selflessness about which songs of great heroes are written. There’s the old tale of Satan offering one characteristically booby-trapped wish to a meek-looking little guy and howling in defeated despair when the man asks that, with no change whatsoever in himself, he be turned into the most repulsive, stupid, unenlightened being in existence. As far as The Good Place ever lets its heroes (or us) know what’s really going on, the current status quo finds a sextet of flawed and damned people (and Michaels, and Janets) deciding that doing good and helping people is worthwhile, even with the complete and irrefutable knowledge that there’s nothing in it for them. Nothing.
Not that being good and selfless is easy, as the two groups of the renamed Soul Squad discover when they split up on separate missions this week. For one thing, Chidi decides he has to break up with his obvious soulmate Simone, for fear that he’ll spill his secret knowledge of the Good and Bad Places and take her down with him. Confiding to Eleanor and Janet that he’s been faking laryngitis for so long he’s had to start taking antibiotics to keep up the ruse, he seeks out his friends for advice on how to do the right thing in a wrenching situation where seemingly every action is going to hurt someone he loves. Luckily for him, Janet, while depowered and forced to provide her own defeated “ding” sound when coming up with answers, still knows everything about, well, everything. She whips up a handy virtual reality simulator gizmo with which Chidi can run through infinite breakup scenarios, looking for the one that will, somehow, let him off the hook without destroying Simone in the process.
William Jackson Harper—last week’s much discussed shirtlessness aside—is invaluable on The Good Place, and, here, he shows off how fully he’s gotten inside the surreptitiously hunky but paralyzed-by-indecision skin of Chidi Anagonye. For someone who’s spent his entire life endlessly fretting over how to do the right thing in every situation, being repeatedly confronted with a no-win ethical scenario allows Harper to expand his repertoire of Chidi’s tortured grimaces and expertly delivered expressions of squirmy moral horror. In trying to let Simone down easy, Chidi tries out everything from Michael’s alias Rick Justice of the FBI, to a lie about dying (“No you’re not,” answers Simone, unflappable even in VR form), even to a distractingly adorable puppy named Martin, Harper imbuing the whole, escalatingly funny sequence with Chidi’s inescapable humanity.
Meanwhile, Tahani and Michael accompany Jason back home to Jacksonville (via Randy “Macho Man” Savage Non-International Airport) in order to save the soul of Jason’s dad. Who turns out to be the oft-mentioned, finally seen Donkey Doug, in what is easily the biggest laugh of the episode. Here, too, doing the right thing, even with half of now-wife Tahani’s bottomless wealth at his disposal, isn’t easy, especially since Jason knows his erstwhile partner in crime, street dancing, and blinding airline pilots with laser pointers Donkey Doug so well. It turns out Donkey Doug is prone to disastrously Floridian get-rich schemes like counterfeit TruckNutz and a deadly horseshoes-dodgeball sporting venture (“Everyone died,” explains Jason), so a bagful of cash won’t cut it. And, as it turns out, Jason’s plan to help Donkey Doug get his electrician’s license is a no-go, too, since DD (played with pitch-perfect stoned Jason-ness by Mitch Narito) and Jason’s gloriously, impossibly even dumber pal Pillboi (the ever-hilarious Eugene Cordero) have this whole body spray/energy drink invention idea going, one that will necessitate three factory heists and, presumably, very lax product safety standards to work out as they’d like.
This season, mostly earthbound as it’s been, has yet found ways to keep up The Good Place’s standards for brilliantly inventive plot twists. And, sure, there’s no way that the show is going to eschew the otherworldly entirely in favor of the Soul Squad’s adventures in decidedly worldly do-goodery, especially since Shawn and the Judge both have serious mads on after our protagonists’ various escapes. Janet’s jury-rigged VR gizmo hints that there can still be plenty of fantastical elements to spice things up, sure, and her pre-depowering knowledge of literally every fact in the universe is awfully entertaining for Eleanor as she finds out just what everyone she went to high school with really thought of her. (“Actually, not one of your exes have ever gotten over you,” explains Janet, eliciting a contented, “Damn right, they didn’t” from Eleanor.) But “The Ballad Of Donkey Doug” shows that The Good Place can thrive away from the Good Place (or Michael’s phony version thereof) just as thrillingly.
Because, in the end, both groups’ goofy capers hinge on decidedly human choices. Chidi, after inevitably crushing Simone with his practiced breakup scenario, gets schooled by former student Eleanor. Rightly summing up the formidable Simone, Eleanor tells her friend, “She’s a badass, and her world is bigger than your relationship. Just go. Be a person.” So Chidi does, heartbreakingly being as honest as he can be with the woman who’s made him truly happy for the first time in his sweat-soaked, tummy-aching life, and adding that he hopes she’ll continue their study since, as he says, “It might help a lot of people.” Simone, as badass as Eleanor surmised, is crushed, but she also recognizes that Chidi is doing something he really doesn’t want to do for reasons she doesn’t understand, telling him, “You seem to know what you want, which is rare for you.”
As for Jason, when he finally figures out that Donkey Doug makes a better buddy in petty crime than a dad, he shifts his focus to Pillboi. Taking Pillboi’s place in his father’s first factory robbery of the night, Jason accepts Michael’s assessment that his father is a “lost cause,” while still accepting him for the cool, fun, criminally irresponsible guy he is. Preparing to take the rap with his father when the cops inevitably show up, Jason is, instead, offered an escape route when Donkey Doug makes the honorable, traditional Mendoza father-son decision to create a distraction so Jason can get away. (Yelling “Bortles!” and beating feet does the trick.) Afterward, Jason, Tahani, and Michael convince Pillboi (not difficult) that they are NASA spies (“That is, indeed, what Jason told you,” says a mortified Tahani) and that, to help out in their secret mission, he has to not commit any more crimes and has to use his peerless pill-popping knowledge to help the old people under his care the best that he can. Like Chidi, Jason lies to the person who means the most to him in order to offer even the slimmest chance that Pillboi will squeak into the real Good Place when his time comes. If their tearful, ridiculously extended handshake goodbye is goofy, it’s also as affecting as Chidi’s halting goodbye to Simone. Even with, or perhaps because of, their insider knowledge of how things really are, the six lonely heroes of the Soul Squad learn from “The Ballad Of Donkey Doug” that the rewards of selflessness are awfully hard to pick out from the attendant pain.
- Read our annotations of “The Ballad Of Donkey Doug” here.
- Oh, Eleanor’s mother is alive. At the Budapest airport on their way to carry out Tahani’s mission to save her disapproving family, Janet lets slip that Eleanor’s mom actually faked her death all those years ago. Eleanor Shellstrop, your newfound forbearance is about to be tested.
- This had better not be the last appearance of Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s delightful Simone, that’s all I’m saying. But as she told TV editor Erik Adams, there’s no character that you can guarantee you’ve seen the end of on The Good Place.
- Donkey Doug was once banned from Disney World for biting Buzz Lightyear. Although, according to Jason, he thought it was someone else.
- Donkey Doug is impressed that Jason’s new “sort-of” wife turns down his customary can’t-miss come-on, “How ’bout you and me go check out my jacuzzi and put stuff in each other?”
- After Eleanor asks if Janet’s simulator could whip up a scenario involving Jason Statham, a futon, and whole lot of Red Bull, Janet asks why humans invariably use every invention to create pornography. “Because we’re disgusting,” confies Eleanor, although we later discover that Janet has programmed her invention with a “Jason in a sauna and an old-timey strongman onesie” scenario. “It’s a glitch,” explains Janet, unconvincingly.
- Eleanor, do-gooder though she now is, can’t help but be Eleanor, pretending to be Simone in Chidi’s simulation to mess with him, and then making a long, heavily reciprocated pass at Simone as herself, until Chidi tells her to knock it off.
- Pillboi’s response to Michael’s reasonable question about whether people are to spray on or drink his hybrid cologne-beverage, exclaims happily, “You both it!”
- At the Jacksonville airport, Michael betrays the merest hint of exasperation with the Soul Squad’s newfound direction, which bears keeping an eye on.
- According to Donkey Dug, said concoction, named Double Trouble, comes in “Raspberry Perspirant,” “Cedarwood Melon Blast,” and “24-Hour Lemon Musk Extreme” (also a lube).
- It’s equal parts appalling and endearing that Pillboi really seems to care about his charges at the old folks home, especially how their various medications will interact.
- Tahani name drops: Yoga student Sting (no last initial), and Elon Musk, who shot his car into space after Tahani urged him to “reach for the stars.” After a pause: “What a weird creep. Why was I friends with him?”