So let’s get philosophical.
“The Trolley Problem” kicks off with the titular ethical conundrum, with Chidi posing a moral thought experiment to rapt students Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason. Oh, and Michael, who, while rapt, is so only to the extent that he misunderstands the central premise as one of how to maximize the theoretical carnage involved. As Chidi explains the dilemma, you’re on a runaway trolley with no brakes. On the track ahead toil five oblivious workmen. On a secondary track stands only one oblivious person. In the sweaty, panic-fueled moments before someone’s going to get creamed, you have to make a choice, either to do nothing and let things play out with five very messy corpses, or switch tracks, condemning just one not-very-observant unfortunate to a gory death.
Eleanor thinks it’s easy. (Although not as easy as Michael, who envisions some sort of blade on a long stick managing to clip the head off of the single victim as well as the other five, picking up the spare, if you will.) Switch tracks and one dies instead of five. Boom, utilitarianism. Tahani agrees, although not until she lets drop the fact that she’s only ever been on James Franco’s “ironic trolley.” Jason just wants to play trains. Michael, as mentioned, is completely baffled that there’s a moral issue at all, his simple engineering solution seeing him sent to the blackboard by Chidi, where he’s been forced to tally, Bart Simpson-style, the phrase “humans = good” many times already. (Chidi’s offhand, “Yeah, 10 more, buddy,” to Michael indicating how often this comes up.) Sure, Eleanor tries to muddy the ethical waters by asking if she knows anyone on the tracks, looking for mitigating factors (ex-boyfriends, that judgmental chick at the drugstore), but the snap judgement that, as Spock once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” seems like a no-brainer.
But the trolley problem isn’t so easy, as “The Trolley Problem” shows, a breakneck-hilarious episode (written by Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan) that hurtles through thorny moral issues, tantalizing plot points, and fart jokes, all with the same giddily brainy energy. In the classroom where Chidi leads the desperate push to make himself, Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani people good enough to gain entry into the Good Place (and Michael a not-evil enough whatever he is to sneak in as well), we’re confronted with the still-bracing task of recalibrating who is who. Or rather, which who on the 800-restarts spectrum the four main characters are at this point. “The Trolley Problem” enhances our dilemma as viewers throughout, as the people we got to know in the entire first season of the series keep reminding us in ways both subtle and gleefully silly, that this go-around in this Bad Place has allowed them only some measure of their former growth.
So Chidi, his reluctant secret lessons with Eleanor (and Jason) now replaced by a still-secret but universally agreed-upon course of group study, is more engaged, enthusiastic, and even cocky. Confronting the immortal Michael’s intransigence over his lessons (to be fair, Michael’s interpretation of moral relativism in Les Misérables is colored by his first-hand knowledge that Victor Hugo is in the Bad Place, peeing himself at the first sight of a lava monster), Chidi attempts to pull rank, stating confidently, “When it comes to human ethics, I just know more than you.” That’s assuredly true, but we’ve seen, in his lesson here, that his enthusiasm for his old role has left a hole in his game. When punching holes through the others’ overconfidence, Chidi doesn’t mention one of the most central elements of the trolley problem in that, by choosing to sacrifice that one person, you are making a choice to participate in whatever sick (or at least unknowable) game put you at the controls of the trolley. By choosing to interfere, you’re complicit in recognizing the moral authority of the game to be played in the first place. So Michael puts Chidi at the controls.
With a snap of his fingers, Michael transports himself, Eleanor, and the aghast Chidi into an actual speeding trolley as it careens toward the very fleshy (and copiously bloody as it turns out) manifestation of the theoretical problem Chidi had been so confidently laying out. Real-world decision-making not being in Chidi’s wheelhouse, he first waffles so long that the trolley plows right through those five guys, is transported back to Eleanor’s with another finger-click, and then brought back once again. That time, he chooses the single victim, only for Michael to reveal that that choice leads to the death of Chidi’s Australian professor friend (one of those damned ugly boots stuck in the tracks). Cue blood-shower, and start again. (We cut back later to see Michael noting that that time, Chidi had chosen to kill “five William Shakespeares over one Santa Claus.”)
This is William Jackson Harper’s episode, as Chidi has to both process his own moral journey and cope with getting workman guts in his mouth, repeatedly. (Harper’s reading of “into my mouth!” is easily the funniest thing in the episode. Maybe ever.) Demoralized and horrified, not only with the mouth guts but also by the realization that he’d gotten shown up in his own moral complacency by Michael’s (hilariously) ugly exercise, Chidi must, again and again, register the yawning horror of his moral center being dropped through a trap door, and Jackson is outstanding at it. Moving on from the trolley, Michael puts Chidi in the role of a surgeon, who must choose whether to kill one healthy person (Eleanor, for added difficulty) in order to save five patients. Chidi at first takes refuge in the Hippocratic Oath, but then Michael confronts him with the impossibly adorable little girl asking why he let her daddy die. (Her dad was also one of the workmen Chidi ran over, Harper making Chidi’s “Oh, come on!” his second-funniest moment ever.)
Thankfully, Chidi has Eleanor, who susses out the fact that Michael’s supposed tone-deaf but sincere quest for knowledge about the human condition is just him fucking with Chidi for kicks. Or at least partly. Confronting Michael in his office, Eleanor spots all the telltale signs of her own “classic Shellstrop” self-defense strategies (being momentarily taken aback that she can so easily relate to a being she refers to at one point tonight as “a bunch of evil shoved up the butt of an evil mannequin”). Lashing out, blustering insults, and leaving it up to the other person whether or not to forgive are all tactics the old Eleanor built up over her life to guard against feeling small, and lost, and afraid. They made her someone who can really get inside a demon’s head, sure, but they are also serving her well in seeing through that demon’s schemes, because she—with Chidi’s help—is growing here in this insane joke of an afterlife. Yes, Eleanor has to steel herself against returning Michael’s “up-top” after Michael makes that hilarious “that’s on him” guts-vs.-responsibility burn on Chidi, but she knows that, even on a guy who can see in nine dimensions (cue fart joke about her plan to release an s.b.d.), she has the upper hand.
But in the end, it’s Chidi who provides Michael with the episode’s true bit of enlightenment. Eleanor’s intervention sends Michael (with Janet’s help) scurrying to find the perfect apology presents for the group, but Chidi sees through the undeniably well-matched gifts for the bribes that they are. (And they are undeniably right for everyone. Tahani: comically huge diamond. Jason: Pikachu balloon [which he immediately pops, but that’s on Jason]. Eleanor: fountain soda-style bottomless shrimp dispenser, complete with dipping sauce spigots.) Chidi, presented with a lost notebook of philosophical musings (and the odd erotic doodle) by Immanuel Kant, thanks Michael and then tosses it in the trash. Michael’s inability to grasp the meaning of his actions is clued in by the fact that he can’t think of the word “presents” (he refers to his gifts as “opposite tortures”), but Chidi isn’t going to be bought off, finally eliciting from Michael the admission that Eleanor’s assessment of his acting out is right on target. Ted Danson—as ever, dazzlingly adept at playing every one of Michael’s slippery motivations—brings an astoundingly affecting sincerity to Michael’s repeated confession, “Oh Chidi, I’m so sorry because I didn’t understand human ethics and you do. And it made me feel insecure and I lashed out. And I really need your help because I feel so lost and vulnerable.” The first time Michael says it, it’s in mockery and exasperation. When Chidi says that that is, indeed, all he wants, Michael’s second version of the same words is achingly heartfelt, even as we, as ever watching The Good Place, have to be on our guard about what’s really going on.
Throughout “The Trolley Problem,” viewers (like me) who’ve been hoodwinked so masterfully by The Good Place before are primed to pluck out lines that may or may not be clues to whatever game we’re being forced to play this season. Michael, after reassuring Chidi and Eleanor that the doomed workmen are only illusions, does however add the complicating factor that their pain is real, musing, “There have to be stakes or it’s just another thought experiment.” Chidi, deciding not to play the game any longer upon realizing Michael’s been messing with him, exclaims, “I’d rather just be tortured than choose it.” And then there’s the trolley problem itself, whose theme of wrenchingly impossibly moral choice throws a shadow over everything—even the episode’s seemingly lighter romantic subplot.
Tahani and Jason are still sleeping together. Or, as Jason puts it, to Tahani’s post-coital exasperation, “pounding it out.” So when Jason exhibits some of the soulfulness that colors his peerless dippiness from time to time, the idea of impending danger hangs in the air. (Even the way episode director Dean Holland focuses on the models in Chidi’s opening demonstration, or the way he holds on Jason simply walking into a room use our suspicions to heighten the sly tension.) Manny Jacinto has perhaps the trickiest role of the six main characters, as Jason’s goofball antics have to get the “dumb guy” laughs while the actor must also make Jason’s stunted feelings come across as simultaneously touching and sincere. Here, after Tahani—having enlisted the all-knowing Janet as couple’s therapist—voices her typically self-involved but not untrue doubts about dating a guy who never even had a job (and not in a “cool, rich way”), Jacinto makes Jason’s response the perfect balance of both traits. When Jason says, “Here’s the thing, I’m nice to you and you’re mean to me,” the possible bitterness of his correct assessment is undone by his earnest follow-up, “There’s something wrong about that but I can’t put my finger on what it is.”
Of course, there’s something even wronger with Jason and Tahani’s relationship than either they or Janet can possibly know at this point, a development that—signaled by a trio of increasingly alarming anomalies—appears prepared to pay off that sense of impending doom I was talking about. While the preternaturally helpful Janet snaps into Tahani’s requested therapist mode with her usual chipper alacrity, every time she pronounces Jason’s relationship with Tahani in positive or encouraging terms, reality warps. D’Arcy Carden is yet another cast member tonight who is just stellar. We know that Janet and Jason’s improbable past love (I guess you’d call it) would have to come back into play in this new reality, just as we know that Janet’s constant rebooting has left open the door for this “sexy Alexa” (as coined by Eleanor) to expand beyond her pre-programmed soullessness. But, as the outwardly serene Janet, in turn, loses a thumb, barfs up a frog, and seemingly shakes the very foundations of the fake Good Place, Carden finds the subtlest of ways to signal Janet’s stirring distress at Jason’s newfound relationship. When she pulls an Eleanor and goes to Michael urging him to shut her down for the good of the group, she, too reveals that her nascent consciousness has started to grasp the insoluble nature of the trolley problem.
- I truly cannot overstate how funny “The Trolley Problem” is.
- Kristen Bell is freed up as this Eleanor to be a little looser than she was by the end of season one, with Bell trotting out a couple of beautifully goofy pieces of physical comedy tonight. Whether practicing her “fool Vicky” fake smile or miming what she thinks a not-hot Eleanor would act like, Bell is just sparking.
- After Eleanor gets lost in how hot she is, Chidi’s response (“I’m sorry, who is this conversation for again?”) brings her back to the Michael problem with some exceptional deadpan.
- Eleanor is also a little more early-Eleanor in how she deals with the others, here referring to Tahani and Jason joshingly as “twerps,” and Chidi (also affectionately) as “Nerdboy.”
- Chidi’s very specific description of his post-trolley state of “sweaty forehead stress grease” indicates just how much time Chidi spends thinking about how stressed out he is.
- Chidi throwing out Kant’s notebook echoes the same move earlier when, in the face of Eleanor’s skepticism, he tosses his proposed educational Kierkegaard rap in the trash. Still, his delivery of “My name is Kierkegaard and my writing is impeccable/Check out my teleological suspension of the ethical” is not without flow.
- Chidi’s reading of Michael’s impression of Victor Hugo (“Sacre bleu, I peed in m’pants!”) is also impeccable.
- Jason’s version of Tahani’s imagined ideal suitor is “some sort of scientist who forecloses on banks,” which sounds pretty spot-on, considering.
- Especially once we find out that Tahani’s idea of romantic slumming is that time she had a fling with “a non-famous Hemsworth brother.” Good on ya’, Larry Hemsworth.
- Also spot-on is Tahani’s honest appraisal of Jason as “the least self-aware person” she’s ever met, possessed of “massive amounts of unearned confidence,” and a complete lack of awareness of “his own absurdity.” All of which, Tahani confesses, makes him excellent at sex.
- Janet brokers a peace between the two, with Jason agreeing to temporarily hide their relationship as long as Tahani grabs his butt once a week in public, even if she’s pretends he’s sat in gum. “You do sit in a lot of gum,” says Tahani warmly.
- Eleanor, pleading for her life in Michael’s doctor scenario: “I’m your hottest friend! Wait, that’s Tahani. Your nicest friend! Nope, that’s Jason. I’m your friend!”
- Michael denigrates Tahani’s diamond lust, calling diamonds “carbon molecules lined up in the most boring way,” “worthless space garbage,” and “basically meteorite poop.”
- Eleanor warns people not to try her “mystery flavor” dipping sauce spigot (white chocolate). But she keeps on eating it anyway. It’s shrimp, you guys.
- A movie marquee in Michael’s made-up trolley world is playing the double feature Strangers Under A Train and Bend It Like Bentham.
- The only thing holding this episode back from a straight-up ‘A’ is the fact that the whole Vicky-as-antagonist plotline hasn’t really taken hold yet. Still, with The Good Place, I’ve been conditioned to be proven wrong later on down the line.