“The real Bad Place was the friends we made along the way?”
Amidst all the fist-bumping, the triumph of last week’s episode-ending scheme to hoodwink the officiously evil Shawn was tinged with the unease that comes with unanswered (and unasked) questions. The refrain echoing through “Leap Into Faith” was “everything we’ve ever wanted,” a summation far too rosy even for Michael and Eleanor, who utter a version of it at the episode’s opening and closing. The Good Place itself purports to be exactly that—a blissful, effortless reward for a life well lived. Possibly with endless mai tais and a fully charged cell phone (if you’re Eleanor Shellstrop). But everyone in the happy group at the train station at the end of the episode has learned too much about how things work in this loopy but frighteningly unforgiving afterlife to accept victory at face value. And, as viewers of The Good Place, so have we.
“Best Self” picks up, as ever, immediately after the gang has finished celebrating their escape, as the six wander through the partied-out remains of the faux Good Place and look to Michael for their next move. My main objection to the otherwise fun plotting last week was how loosely the show appeared to be playing with the rules of the weirdo world it’s set up, and here, Eleanor nudges at that by reminding us that Shawn is going to pick up any second on the fact that they’re not cooling it to Eagles live jams at Mindy St. Clair’s place. Shawn’s inconsistent supervisory powers are highlighted later when he gets fooled by his autocorrect telling Michael to hurry up and demolish the neighborhood, which helps underline that “immortal” doesn’t mean “infallible.” (“Soon” versus “soup”—we’ve all been there.) But this episode clicks back into The Good Place’s wonted groove by turning a talky, hangout episode into both a touching, hilarious character piece and another stellar plot-twist delivery system that, once again, sees the show launch itself into the tingly unknown.
The episode (credited to Tyler Straessle) suckers us at first, as The Good Place has done so effortlessly throughout, by presenting one fanciful scenario as if such goofy details as a giant, gold hot-air balloon to The Good Place are all the show is. There’s a lovely moment when Chidi, gaping at Michael’s Janet-created conveyance along with the other humans, asks in wonder, “What does that even mean?” (It’s in response to Jason calling balloon-shotgun, but it still functions as wonder.) That a magic balloon, just like Dorothy’s, set to whisk everyone off to heaven is just Michael’s approximation of what his human friends would expect is as sweetly silly as it is in keeping with Michael’s burgeoning but incomplete understanding of what being human is. The episode expertly sets us up to take Michael’s balloon seriously by equipping it with an entrance exam of sorts, a version of his blooping and farting lie detector cube that judges whether or not each human has attained their “best version of herself” before allowing them to board. Like all the best fake-outs, we’re invested in the process, as everyone gets the friendly green light and boop noise—except Chidi.
The revelation early this season that, in one of the 800-plus versions of themselves, Chidi and Eleanor were in love (like, soulmate-level love) has been handled beautifully. The ongoing Chidi-Eleanor romance plot avoids cliché partly because William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell are such alert actors, never ceding Chidi or Eleanor’s individual journeys to something as mundane as a will they/won’t they. Here, giving the self-doubting Chidi a pep talk to get him on that balloon, Eleanor—despite being, as she confesses once she’s the one refused admission, crushed that Chidi doesn’t share her romantic feelings—earnestly bucks up her friend/ethical mentor by reminding him, “We are all much better because of you.” Chidi, who later compares the constant churning of his mind to the sound of a fork in a garbage disposal, is quieted by that, his recognition that “the best version of me is just as much about my effect on the world around me as it is about my own egocentric self image,” granting him entry to the balloon. (Harper gives Chidi an adorable little squeal of delight.) Only, now Eleanor gets the fart sound, crying, “Chidi got in my head!” (Also, “C’mon, scale, be cool!,” which reassures us that the old Eleanor is still part of this new and improved version.)
For Eleanor, the thing holding her back isn’t that she’s sad that Chidi doesn’t return her feelings, but that she can’t shake the idea that that briefly glimpsed, in-love version of them was the result of her actually being her best self. Ethically, she can’t just slide by, something the old Eleanor would have done like she was on greased roller skates, and she asks Michael to explain to her what it was about that version of herself (version 119, as it turns out) that broke through to Chidi. After discarding the facts that his 119th version of the neighborhood’s all-kebab restaurants and beloved but incontinent pet lizard weren’t the cause, Michael shares the tiny detail of Eleanor anticipating Chidi’s sneeze to offer him a preemptive tissue. It’s the sort of thing that the not-human Michael (he’s still skeeved-out by kissing) and Janet (who claims confidently that love is a five-dimensional blob) don’t yet get, but Eleanor and Chidi do. And so do we.
And while it seems that all this bittersweet self-reflection might solve the problem, The Good Place slams us with the first of the night’s twists: The balloon is a sham, and Michael has no idea how to get them all into the actual Good Place, even after a billion and twelve attempts to figure it out in secret. Michael’s conclusion that “the only way into The Good Place is by being a good person on Earth” is the sort of stomach-dropping revelation that effectively invalidates literally everything the four humans have done to this point—in all 802 iterations of themselves. Michael’s deceit is unforgivable, and even he knows it, calling the fact that he’d failed while simultaneously learning from Chidi how wrong what he was doing was represents “real rock bottom for a demon, I tell you.” And everyone is crushed, with Eleanor calling upon the old Shellstrop method of coping, telling Janet to produce “a million bottles of your finest booze” in order to “ignore our problems and drink heavily.”
But, as Chidi stated and Tahani learns in a drunken talk with Jason, being a good person means setting aside your own needs and ego and looking at the big picture. So they do forgive Michael, in a tipsy toast where Eleanor says, sincerely, “I like who we are right now, this version of ourselves.” Chidi agrees, saying that Michael’s ability to admit that he was wrong and trying his best to fix it makes him “better than 90 percent of all humans.” Ted Danson is a marvel as Michael, a character whose unknowable, immortal soul yet gets to us in the actor’s judiciously revealed snatches of decidedly human loneliness, yearning, and, yes, soulfulness. Delightedly presented with the title of “honorary human” along with a “human starter kit” of “garbage I have no use for,” Danson’s Michael, despite knowing how truly doomed and thoroughly fucked he and his group of unlikely friends are, glows with an infectious joy. The feeling carries over effortlessly to the drunken dance party the six launch into, where Jason shows off his breakdancing; Janet is, naturally, amazing at the moonwalk; and even Chidi cuts loose for some impressive limb-flailing. (All to Lorde’s “Green Light,” which, alongside Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” and Jimmy Cliff’s on-the-nose “Sitting In Limbo” make for a much better party mix than the one chosen by Bad Janet last episode.)
Settling in for a final picnic as they wait for Shawn to send them all to their eternal damnation, the group, still, relishes their final moments together. Sure, they’re all bummed out speculating on just what their own personal hells will be (Jason tears up at the thought of an endless Skrillex concert where the bass drop... just never comes), but they still manage to have fun goofing on each other, Eleanor’s teasing of Tahani’s version of the Bad Place (the Swiss Alps—in the off season!) leading to the episode’s second whopper of a twist.
The Good Place is exceptionally good at judiciously calling back, and Tahani’s former habit of demanding to speak to managers, here coupled with the long-ago revelation that there was a judge who adjudicated the Good Place-Bad Place dispute over who got Mindy, opens the door for the team to put their heads together one more time. If there’s a judge, they can make their case. If, as Michael says, they’ll have to make their way through the real Bad Place on foot to find him, and somehow win a case that’s never been made before and that seemingly violates the established order of the universe, then what do they have to lose? Michael, still flushed with the thrill of his true acceptance by his friends, overcomes his pessimistic evaluation of their chances (nil) to blurt out excitedly, “All I’ve really ever wanted was to know what it feels like to be human. And now we’re going to do the most human thing of all—attempt something futile with a ton of unearned confidence and fail spectacularly!” Fucking-A.
While Chidi and Eleanor make a sad farewell to their house (Chidi wishes his chalkboard a heartfelt goodbye, while Eleanor bids adieu to its “modernist architecture I was too trashy to appreciate”), and Michael deactivates Bad Janet with one of his beloved paper clips in order to hijack a train to the Bad Place, “Best Self,” like so many episode before, creates a real sense of excitement unique to this weird, wonderful, weird show. As the train leaves and Tahani, Jason, Chidi, Eleanor, Janet, and Michael watch in sad wonder as the neighborhood breaks apart into the void behind them, it’s easy to empathize. That Good Place is gone, it appears, forever. Luckily for us all, The Good Place itself steams ahead, into the unknown. All aboard.
- Michael, on kissing: “Kissing is gross! You just mash your food holes together—it’s not for that!”
- Harper and Bell slow-dancing to “Unforgettable” is a master class in silent acting.
- Chidi, after the fro-yo scarfing Jason confides that he should have known this wasn’t the Good Place because all the fro-yo gives him diarrhea: “We’re about to be on a balloon, man.”
- Jason, hearing that Michael has designed the ideal transport to the Good Place, naturally assumes it will be Optimus Prime. The right nipple is “shutgun” in Optimus Prime.
- Michael’s “first pet” security question is “Korzoff, the ten-headed dog-spider.” Good ol’ Korzoff.
- “You-you’re mad at me.” “Just disappointed.” “C’mon, everyone knows that’s worse!”
- When Janet is reading the ancient scrolls, they all use the female pronoun. Hmm.
- Jason, telling Tahani a typically ludicrous and scummy story about that time he and his pet store-manager mom robbed a pet store, ends by saying, with inexplicable Jason-logic, “Long story short—it was all a dream!” Considering how right Jason’s “We’re all on a prank show” guess turned out to be, this is concerning.
- Eleanor’s descriptions of Tahani: “self-obsessed socialite, ridiculous giraffe, absurd British aristocrat, narcissistic attention seeker.” It’s a testament to Tahani’s growth that she can laugh at herself, too.
- “It is I, Tahani!” In lecturing the evaluation machine, she does prove that, like Eleanor, the old Tahani is still in there.
- The human starter kit includes: car keys (for Michael to lose and then pat his pockets); a stress ball with a corporate logo (for Michael to contemplate throwing out but decide to keep); Band-Aids (for stupid, fragile human bodies); and a Dr. Oz book on dieting (“because you’re all such suckers!”)
- Chidi imagines his Bad Place could be anything since, he turns every place he goes into his own personal hell. Ouch.
- Eleanor’s hell: Camping. Nothing but camping. I can dig it.
- Next week: Season two concludes*, and I have no idea what’s going to happen, which makes me extremely happy. (*No it doesn’t! My embarrassment pales only next to my joy at being wrong!)