“The best news is, none of this is suspicious.”
Since this final episode of The Good Place until January is called “Derek,” it’s only fair to start off by talking about Jason Mantzoukas, who plays Janet’s self-created rebound guy with his signature unhinged comic energy—but more so. As the first-draft construct of an all-knowing artificial being who’s just becoming aware of her individuality, Derek (or should I say, Derek Hostettler, P.I.) is an appropriately cobbled together combination of undying puppy dog devotion, quicksilver jealousy, and uncomprehending passive-aggressive petulance. All of which gives Mantzoukas the opportunity to leash his wildly funny comic persona to an empty vessel, whose incomplete notions of selfhood make him, at every turn, hilariously unpredictable.
That’s another way to describe this episode, which juggles a half dozen major narratives (plus another of the killer twists The Good Place is so adept at) without dropping one, or collapsing under its own ambitions. In 20-plus minutes of script (credited to Cord Jefferson), each of the main characters has a major, emotionally satisfying payoff to their ongoing storylines, some more than one. And all that in addition to being nonstop, laugh-out-loud hilarious. Which brings us back to Mantzoukas’ Derek.
It makes sense that Janet—possessor of all the universe’s knowledge but the barest sliver of human experience—would imbue her post-Jason boyfriend with a hodgepodge of jangling traits. Slavishly devoted, the wild-eyed Derek lapses immediately into jealousy (of Jason, of Janet’s friends, of the boundless void they share being Janet’s and not “theirs”). For one thing, Janet got the idea from Eleanor, so some of Eleanor’s earthly romantic foibles are gonna slip in there. For another, Janet’s motivations are not only incompletely understood but also compromised by her own incipient awareness of the pettiness that often drives us, post-breakup, to conjure an incomplete partner for some revenge sex. (It is inexplicable yet totally right that Janet created Derek with wind chimes in place of a penis, and that she eventually realizes that that was a mistake.) D’Arcy Carden is a revelation in The Good Place, and “Derek” lets her bring the “not a robot” Janet that much closer to human, even as she matches Mantzoukas’ deeply flawed understanding of what human feeling is. That neither she nor Derek seem all that perturbed initially by Janet’s cheery proclamation that “His brain is wrong” speaks volumes.
Michael, too, is edging into the human, and Ted Danson is also making this emerging version of Michael deeply funny even as his stumbling attempts to conform to Chidi’s ethical lesson plan sees him just not quite getting it. Rebuffed by Chidi on his plan to murder Derek (so that the meddling Vicky doesn’t catch onto their plan), Michael nods, then asks the follow-up, “What if the reason you want to murder someone is to make your life easier? That’s okay, right?” I talked last week about worrying that The Good Place would succumb to the temptation of making its characters all too nice. “Derek,” even before a final reveal that threatens to blow those characters’ progress up yet again, suggests that Michael Schur and company are willing to do just that, should we get too comfortable. Eleanor, stuck in the moral quagmire over Janet and Derek and Jason and Tahani’s ludicrously entangled romantic dilemmas, proposes that Michael just “reboot” them all and bring everyone up to speed on the next go-around. Michael refuses, saying that they’ve all come too far.
And they have—in a late-episode heart-to-whatever-a-demon-has talk, Michael and Eleanor both show their own versions of progress. Michael, troubled by Chidi’s ethical analysis of their seemingly insoluble problem all episode, confides that the crux of his “torture chamber” fake Good Place was his faith that Eleanor would always give up when things got tough. “You never once stopped trying to become a better person,” Michael marvels, not without a tinge of annoyance. Eleanor, trying to explain why she’s invariably taken the harder path since her death, explains that her time with Chidi (referred to in the episode as both “Professor Buzzkill” and “egghead” by Michael) has liberated her at least from “the little voice” that always made her feel bad when she, to choose but one example, committed multiple ethical points violations in pursuit of a few handfuls of salad bar olives.
It could be a sticky scene, a too sentimental marker on The Good Place’s downward spiral into niceness. Except that Danson and Kristen Bell don’t let it, always keeping these two inveterate if very different grifters’ mixed motivations from coloring their enlightenment. Michael’s “Because... friends!” admission to Janet last week is still hanging in the air, but so is the knowledge that his engagement with Chidi’s improvement project is essentially utilitarian in nature. They’re all in a desperate spot, and for him to have any hope of escaping the Eternal Shriek or any of the Bad Place’s other torments, Michael knows he has to try. As for Eleanor, even stripped of the experience she gained in her first time around (or any of the 800 or so others we didn’t get to see), she, too, definitely has her version of Michael’s self-interested motives. But, as we’ve seen, Eleanor Shellstrop in this fake Good Place is driven to banish that little voice that’s always seen her taking the most reflexively defensive, invariably shitty course of action when things get tough. Sure, unlike Michael, she has a soul. But she’s also got Chidi.
William Jackson Harper’s Chidi might be an egghead and buzzkill (and so indecisive he once tried to rent socks), but his inherent desire to do the right thing is Eleanor’s beacon. Earlier this season, Michael told Eleanor that Chidi—no matter which permutation of the neighborhood he was dropped into—never refused to help Eleanor. Not once, in 800-plus tries. Harper’s Chidi finally finds out what’s really on that VHS copy of Cannonball Run II tonight, and his reaction to the revelation that—on at least one turn of Michael’s scheme—he and Eleanor were in love is delicately balanced. Smartly, it’s not the fact that they were lovers that is so unnerving to Chidi and Eleanor, but the fact that they both told each other, “I love you,” with such certainty. As the series’ two main protagonists, there’s always been the temptation to pair Chidi and Eleanor, as much as the actors have maintained the characters’ prickly mismatched chemistry. Trapped in a ridiculous situation, the former faux soulmates have become unlikely friends, sometime lovers, and—at least once, if Mindy St. Clair’s surreptitious porn peeping is to be trusted—true soulmates indeed. Before Michael interrupts it at the close of tonight’s episode, Eleanor and Chidi’s conversation about that last part gives us everything we want, while leaving us deeply unsatisfied at the same time.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I do,” says Chidi when Eleanor asks him if he loves her, and both claim to be relieved that these versions of themselves don’t have that complication to worry about (what with trying not to wind up in hell and all). But Harper and Bell give us just enough to hint not necessarily that they’re lying, but that they’re both saddened that they once had something that’s now gone. I can’t imagine how one would even approach this scene as an actor, but both are outstanding.
The other former soulmates present similar challenges to Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto, and they’re just as good in their story, which sees the improbably Jason-Tahani relationship escalate toward even more unlikely marriage with a loopy but emotionally sound surety. Jacinto makes Jason Mendoza—the fake monk ding-dong with the wise fool’s heart—touchingly sweet without ever losing sight of how an upbringing Tahani describes here as “deeply disturbing” has made him possibly the dumbest guy in this or any plane of existence. (Jason confidently correcting Eleanor’s “bearer of bad news” to “Bad News Bear” is some fine Jason.) But, as he confesses to Tahani in his self-penned wedding vows, he values those qualities in Tahani that she’d ignored in pursuit of perfection, and as he puts it with aching sincerity, “We like each other, and I’ll always be nice to you.” Tahani—while not completely on board with a guy who once asked her if the heads on Mt. Rushmore had butts—is genuinely touched, and sees, for the first time in her life, the value in being with someone whose prime attraction isn’t the status he can confer upon her ego. Tahani refers to Jacksonville native Jason as a “swamp dweller,” which is true on several levels, but she also has fun with Jason. (She even gets into his version of croquet, where the rules are “you just whack it as hard as you can in whatever direction you want.”)
When things come to a head at the wedding (on the same beach where Janet is traditionally murdered), no one’s story is shorted. Michael balks at telling Tahani (and Jason) about Janet and Jason, leaving Eleanor to do it as gently as she can manage. (Being Eleanor, she does admit to digging the opportunity to dramatically interrupt a wedding.) Chidi tries to hold the ethical line, his citation of the doctrine of double effect running up against the impossible conundrum they face. Jason and Tahani, confronted with not only the fact of Jason’s relationship with Janet but also the fact that they were forcing the desperately maintaining Janet to perform the ceremony, wind up unmarried, but back in bed. There, Jason Mendoza comes through again, his sincere “I’m sorry it puts you in a weird position, and I still like you a lot,” emerging with a purity of feeling that postpones any possible consequences in a warm embrace. And Janet kills Derek.
That’s not as bad as it sounds. Especially since Derek can’t so much die as get packed up in a steamer trunk filled with excelsior in what Janet describes as “power saver mode.” Also because Derek, having been made from Janet, understands her reasons as soon as she does. (Plus, Mantzoukas makes the de-Janet-ed Derek keep calling out, “Derek!” in a variety of intonations that are hilarious every single time.) Eleanor, pulling Janet aside once the wedding is called off, confesses how badly she’d underestimated Janet’s feelings for Jason. (To be fair, there are a lot of X factors to keep track of in that coupling.) Impressing upon the still freaked-out Janet the need for time, and perspective, and someone to talk to, Eleanor volunteers to help Janet process her first ever (in forever) heartbreak.
Everyone’s so kind and understanding, and the situation—while still a perilous, ludicrous mess—looks headed in the right direction. Eleanor’s appreciation of Michael’s confusion sends him, loosening his ever-present bow tie, fairly whistling back into his office, only to find Marc Evan Jackson’s officious Shawn occupying his chair, an ominous looking file in front of him. Earlier, Chidi had tried to impress upon Michael and Eleanor that, for all their classroom exercises, “Moral strength is defined by how we behave in times of stress.” Well, things in this Good Place are about to get very stressful indeed.
- I could quote pretty much every one of Jason Mantzoukas’ lines as Derek, but I’ll restrain myself to noting that his exchange with Carden’s Janet in Michael’s office made me laugh harder than anything in the show’s history. “We’re so in synch, we’re finishing each others’…” “Derek!”
- Okay, and the Bugs Bunny-style gag where he holds up the sign reading, “I can’t stop saying Jason,” is pretty amazing.
- And, sure, the gradual way he reveals first his last name and then the fact that he’s a private investigator got me.
- And his farewell, “Good Bob. I hope we same place again very now.”
- Derek is an all-time great character, is what I’m getting at, so here’s hoping he doesn’t stay in the void forever.
- Speaking of, Janet’s statement, “I’m gonna toss this steamer trunk containing the lifeless husk of my ex-boyfriend into a remote corner of my limitless void,” should be a liberating internet meme any second now.
- Janet intuits that Eleanor’s perfect rebound guy would be “Stone Cold Steve Austin’s head on Tahani’s body.” “Or vice-versa,” exclaims Eleanor, intrigued. Discuss in the comments.
- Jason went to “Lynyrd Skynyrd High School,” which, from his description, sounds more like a sex-abuse pyramid scheme run out of a tugboat graveyard.
- “You’re lovely, but why on earth would I marry you?” “Well, for one thing, we’re not on earth.”
- One thing Jason loves about Tahani is her intelligence, including how she taught him “why I shouldn’t eat everything that smells good, ’cause sometimes it’s candles.”
- Eleanor referring to herself as “a total smoke show” is hilarious. I mean, she’s not wrong, but…
- When deciding which to deactivate, we see that Derek has a button similar to Janet’s, though his is intriguingly more ramshackle.
- One more Derek to hold us over until January: “Goodbye, mommy girlfriend!”