“Hot diggity dog.”
Lesser TV shows give you what you think you want. A great TV show like The Good Place gives you what you didn’t know you needed. I knew going into this second season finale that NBC has already greenlit a third, so that particular earthly fear was off the board. And “Somewhere Else” started doling out rewards for the faithful throughout its first third tonight.
Awaiting the result of Michael’s appeal to Judge Gen over their eternal fates, Eleanor and Tahani—while not providing their ’shippers with what they really long for—at least shared their most relaxedly warm moment ever. It helps that Janet (one assumes) whipped up a comfy looking sofa set for their talk, but when Eleanor tells her friend that she’s proud of her self-improvement and Tahani replies, “It’s because you and I have become mates,” it’s a gift. There’s even a hug. Then Janet pops in to tell Jason that she’s decided not to dwell on her newly acquired self-doubt and tells him that she loves him. Sure, the whole Jason-Tahani sort-of romance is still out there, but it’s likely that all three points in this particular love triangle know that—in defiance of all logic and sense—Jason and Janet are the soulmates here.
Then the biggest gift of all comes when Chidi, taking in Janet’s advice about seizing the moment, simply walks up to Eleanor and kisses her. Passionately. As Eleanor puts it, to her immediate chagrin, the first words she’ll always remember saying after their first kiss are “Hot diggity dog!” But that kiss earned it. Michael, upon hearing the news when re-entering with Gen, spontaneously lets loose the same delighted expression, and if my own reaction was more of a happy gasp, you can count me in on that, too. After all the waiting, and subterfuge, and psychological tortures, and flying shrimp, and 800-plus complete resets, all these little payoffs are like a series of wonderful, warming little presents. Like desserts. We’ve earned desserts.
Only this is The Good Place (and not, you know, The Good Place), and we’ve been conditioned along the way to expect the big but. (Cue Eleanor and Jason’s dirtbag high-five at the word “butt.”) Michael’s been negotiating with Gen, and she’s certainly a much more promising authority figure than Shawn. After all, Gen isn’t evil, and has no dog in this fight other than her dedication to justice. (And, yes, you know that actual dog-fighters are in The Bad Place, probably being eaten by dogs.) But, as we’ve learned over two seasons, the concept of justice in this afterlife is so bound to rigid, bureaucratic rules that the affable Gen (she offers homemade guac while everyone awaits her decision) remains a more subtly terrifying presence than Shawn, even with all his withering deadpan sarcasm and scorpion diapers. As Michael explained when the gang fled to Gen’s domain, she’s their only hope, their flight to throw themselves on her mercy a Hail Mary born of absolute, abyss-yawning desperation. And, as friendly and goofy as Maya Rudolph makes her, Judge Gen is, above all else, a functionary in a machine that—as we’ve seen, and Michael explains in his episode opening appeal—is fundamentally flawed when it comes to assessing humanity in all its complexity.
When Michael wins a temporary stay of his friends’ damnation to The Bad Place, he does so with emotion (which Gen responds to with her signature bland sentimentality), but, more importantly, with reason (which she can’t help but respect). Noting that, thanks to his accidental creation of a little pocket universe where these very dead humans could continue in unprecedented personal, post-life growth, Michael introduces the tiniest wedge of doubt in the implacable rightness that Gen’s pleasantly complacent belief in her job is based on.
“If I’m right,” pleads Michael, “the system by which we judge humans, the very method that we use to deem them good or bad, is so fundamentally wrong and unreasonable that hundreds of millions of people have been wrongly condemned to an eternity of torture.” Gen, delightedly showing off her rare goosebumps, is excited—but, one senses, mainly because of the novelty. This Gen, representing as she does this cockeyed, stealthily terrifying system of immortal justice, relishes a good argument, but there’s no sense that she imagines Michael is actually right, and that anything about the way things have always been done will ever change. It’s just nice to have company and something to occupy her boundless mind.
At the end of this first act, show creator (and episode writer and director) Michael Schur throws in the first head-fake of a twist, as Michael and Gen announce that they’ve settled on a plan. Everyone gets a separate Medium Place while the two immortals work to hash this whole thing out. “It’s not ideal,” concedes Michael, what with the process taking anywhere from a month to a million years or so, and with the four humans being isolated from each other—and Eleanor Shellstrop isn’t having it. It’s refreshing how happy she is in telling Michael about her kiss with Chidi (here’s where his own “Hot diggity dog!” comes in), and heartwarming that all four decide that they agree with Eleanor’s assessment that either stewing in solitary, beige Medium Places or being sent to the Bad Place both suck. We think so, too, and we’re conditioned not to settle for anything uncomplicated. Going into this finale, we know that, like last season’s last episode, the show has to set up a whole new reality for its next season, and the thought of watching each of these characters going amusingly bananas in their own personal hells of mediocrity was... fine. We’ve been spoiled, though. We need something better. And then The Good Place gives us better.
It doesn’t seem like it at first. Arguing with Gen, Michael drops hints of an unprecedented test in response to Gen’s not-unreasonable objection that the group’s improvement could be chalked up to their shared knowledge of what’s at stake. Goodness comes from desire to do good for its own sake, she argues, and “not because you’re seeking moral dessert.” Michael’s plan, she suggests, would “set a dangerous precedent,” and, speaking in immortal smart person half-sentences, we’re left wondering what’s coming—for the four humans, and for us, as this appears to be the real twist that will determine the shape of the third season. Honestly, my initial guess as Michael and Gen argued about the group’s ability to pass this particular test was that they’d be allowed provisional entry into The Good Place, and that they’d have to escape detection there as they had to in Michael’s fake Good Place. I was wrong, as, in a blink, Eleanor is back in that supermarket parking lot, mocking the weedy do-gooder environmentalist (John Hartman, whose clipboard-wielding activist’s name is finally given as Joe), and set up for her date with that runaway column of shopping carts.
Only, someone saves her. Neither she nor we see who it is, but Eleanor lives, dragging her lonely birthday’s-worth of booze and junk food back to the apartment she shares with her equally awful roommates. But Kristen Bell, who ends up carrying much of this final episode, lets some of our Eleanor creep into this Eleanor’s eyes, haunted as they are by her near-miss. Blowing off her roomies’ self-absorbed chatter about their own brushes with death (one was in New York—Syracuse, New York—just two weeks before 9-11), and, cracking open her Facebook, finds herself writing a confession that begins, “My name is Eleanor Shellstrop, and I think I might be a monster.” (“Were you hacked?,” posts someone immediately in response.)
But she wasn’t, except perhaps by Michael and Janet, who, monitoring her (and Jason, Tahani, and Chidi’s) progress via some old-fashioned ticker-tape machines, watch delighted as Eleanor Shellstrop actually follows through on her shellshocked intention to be a better person. She apologizes to frequent victim Joe (after a false start including the word “assface”) and asks sheepishly if he can teach her how to “get all horny for the environment, or whatever.” He can, and we watch Eleanor become a motivated, vital part of his organization’s team—after she ditches her gig selling fraudulent supplements to the wealthy, sick, and gullible. She stops eating meat, weathering her roommate’s mockery of her newfound concern about the horrible suffering of factory farm animals. She isn’t even drinking. Michael and Janet are overjoyed.
But when Eleanor’s honesty in leaving a note on the car she accidentally dinged gets her slapped with a lawsuit, and her confession about that whole “dress bitch” thing gets her kicked out of her apartment, and when six months of days waking up to face an existence bereft of lying, drinking, meat-eating, and cathartic abuse of others becomes a chore, Eleanor Shellstrop quits. She blows off work, lets loose some long-suppressed abuse of the clearly smitten Joe, and, when we see her finally celebrating her next birthday with some old school drunken debauchery, she appears to Michael and Janet like a lost cause, again. Michael told Gen earlier that these dumb humans just need “a push in the right direction” to truly ascend to the level necessary to avoid The Bad Place. And so he gives her one, in a form that also functions as the episode’s most welcome gift to us as well.
Washing up at a tacky bar called “Sting’s Desert Rosé,” the thoroughly hammered Eleanor blurts out a call for “one alcohol drink, please!” And Sam Malone gives her one. Sure, it’s not Sam Malone, proprietor of Cheers, but we react like it is, especially when Ted Danson rinses out a glass and flips the bar towel over his shoulder in gestures we never noticed were gone from our TV until they came back here. Michael dispenses drinks and advice to the talkative, restless Eleanor like Sammy, too, perhaps minus the horndog come-ons that, one imagines, even the old Sammy might have grown out of once his magnificent mane (that revelation that Sam Malone wears a piece is not canon) turned grey.
The conceit that this Eleanor, robbed of her memories of the afterlife, is yet changed enough to make even temporary changes to her life makes Eleanor’s easy camaraderie with this Michael incredibly touching, as the lonely Eleanor can’t help but delightedly and tipsily spill out the entire plot of Kangaroo Jack to the unassuming barkeep. And when Michael starts slipping in advice, he does it with Sam Malone’s deceptive ease, telling breezy stories about an old friend who told him once about how doing good things for other people made that annoying little voice in her head shut up for a while. Eleanor, still, blessedly Eleanor, responds that his friend sounds like she’s “one pickle short of a... pickle party,” but Michael persists, nonchalantly slipping in the bittersweet reminiscence that his friend “was a little rough around the edges, but she was a good person when she tried.” As Eleanor prepares to stagger home, she’s pulled up short by Michael’s seemingly offhand final bit of advice, “The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
Sam Malone was a hell of a bartender, and Eleanor finds herself Googling the phrase she can’t get out of her head once she gets home. It was the flyleaf page of Thomas Scanlon’s philosophical treatise What We Owe To Each Other that Eleanor used to send herself a message before Michael’s first reboot of the neighborhood. That note told her to “find Chidi.” Now, finding an internet talk about Scanlon’s ideas from Chidi online, Eleanor watches a confident-sounding Chidi all day—and then hops a flight to Australia. The structure of this episode up to this point was puzzling, even concerning, especially as the time ticked by and it became clear that Eleanor’s earthly adventures were going to elbow the other three humans offscreen for the finale. (Such an Eleanor move, am I right?) But, in the end, we see the promise of a story set on Earth, where the eternally entangled fates of these four deeply imperfect, entirely irresistible human beings will apparently play out in a whole new way. Eleanor, thumping her travel suitcase down in Chidi’s university office, brushes off his talk of office hours and tells him boldly, “My name is Eleanor Shellstrop. I think we need to talk.” Sure, she mangles his name as “Chidi Anna Kendrick,” but Eleanor is stil, blessedly, Eleanor.
What drove this Eleanor around the world to seek out a man she doesn’t know—an ethical philosophy nerd, no less—is left for us to figure out. The rules of this universe might be immutable, but they, as Michael points out, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. This Eleanor got a little push from her last-second save in that parking lot, but, as she tells bartender Michael, being good “felt good, but not as much as I thought.” So Michael, learning on the fly as well, gave her another little push, remembering that it was always Chidi who came to Eleanor’s aid, no matter which of their 800 lives it was.
So here, he sends her back to Chidi, with the tiniest, hopeful last push, asking Janet, once he returns to their posts at the ticker-tape, if anyone noticed he was gone. (She says no, but who knows if that’s true.) He knows he’s cheating, but the rules are set up to rig the game against imperfect people with the capacity to improve on whom the clock abruptly runs out—so fuck the rules. Eleanor has the capacity to take Chidi’s words to heart about doing good every day “even if there’s no guaranteed reward” because of “our bonds to other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity.” Eleanor, sitting alone in her self-designed fortress of disreputable solitude, responds perhaps most of all to Chidi’s conclusion, “We are not in this alone.” Michael, letting out a relieved sigh, smiles, his soul-chilling rictus grin of last season’s finale here transformed a smile made up of nothing but the defiant hope and love he’s learned in his own accidental vacation from the universe’s rules. “Okay,” Michael says, bending himself to the task of overseeing this new, uncharted place, “here we go.”
- I spoke of gifts The Good Place has given out over its run, and I’ll leave that with the thought that a show whose comedy is based on concepts like hope, self-improvement, dignity for all people, kindness, intellectual honesty, generosity, and actual justice rather than surrendering the desire for justice to unfeeling but efficient bureaucracy, is like getting the most thoughtful and delightful present every week.
- Jason doesn’t get much screen time, but I look forward to meeting more of dirtbag Jason on Earth, whether or not we see him whipping empty spray paint cans at flamingoes.
- Tahani, too, makes the most of her time in the finale. Improved or not, she can’t help but reveal that her inner moral voice is that of her godmother, Dame Maggie Smith.
- Same with Janet, although D’Arcy Carden makes her delight in her evolution heart-swellingly lovely. Telling Jason of her love, she explains that, having evolved beyond any other Janet in history, she, too, is in thrillingly unmapped territory. “I don’t know what I am!” is an exclamation of possibility and liberation.
- Seth Morris gets his most screen time as Eleanor’s sleazy boss. As anyone familiar with his podcast career knows, no one plays a better disreputable weirdo.
- “Do you wanna chew on my ass... ortment of brownies?” Nice save, Eleanor.
- “Eat my farts, Benedict Cumberbatch.”
- And that’s a wrap on The A.V. Club’s reviews of The Good Place, season two. It has been a real pleasure. See you back on Earth when The Good Place returns.