The Good Place (Screenshot: NBC)

“Jortles!”

We can swear now, it’s okay. That’s one of the few upsides to being in the Bad Place, as we see in the gloriously surprising and laugh-out-loud hilarious “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, And Trent.” At least, that’s the only upside for the fugitive six, as Eleanor discovers to her temporary delight as the train they’re on hurtles through the ominous darkness at the start of the episode. And, yes, Jason actually does okay there for a while, his love of ball-taps, regionally bastardized foods (he picks an Arkansas bagel at the Bad Place mixer they’re caught up in), punching it in, and all things bro culture serving him well (as exemplified by his kinship with the peerlessly douchey Chet, played to vapid, bro-heem perfection by guest star Dax Shepard, a.k.a. Mr. Kristen Bell). And in the end (well, almost the end), Jason’s dirtbag home field advantage saves the gang’s bacon, as he plies his signature Molotov cocktail problem-solving skills to effect their escape from the actual cocktail party once their cover as low-level torture functionaries is blown.

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But that last-second example of impulsive bonehead heroism is only a brief respite from the group’s desperate flight to the neutral arbiter of all things Good, Bad, and Medium Place that forms the narrative this week. With Shawn (desperate himself to cover his ass for allowing their escape) and his goons hot on their Mad Men-styled heels, the real hero of the episode is revealed to be Michael. The demon-turned-slightly-less-demon, having only managed to secure four of the MacGuffin lapel pin totems that will allow them to travel through the portal to the judge’s far-off office, urges Chidi (a.k.a. Trent), Jason (Jake—Jortles, of course), Tahani (Rhonda Mumps) through. And then, telling the panicked Eleanor (Diana Tremain, same as her fake ID back on Earth) that he’s finally figured out the trolley problem, Michael the soulless torture monster pushes Eleanor through, too, giving her his hard-won thumbs-down pin, and telling his shocked friend, “You look after the others. They need you.”

Ted Danson as Michael (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

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Damn. (It does feel good to swear.) Sure, the idea that Michael would have to make an actual, heretofore unthinkable sacrifice to complete his journey to at least possible Good Place worthiness loomed out there as a possibility. And maybe the fact that the script finds it necessary for Michael to explain the trolley problem to Eleanor when he makes his choice rather than telling her he solved it and then shoving her into the swirly vortex smacks of an over-explanation, which The Good Place generally avoids. But these are quibbles, and nitpicking an episode that brought so much delight and satisfaction seems like the total Bad Place move that would earn me a memorial tableau in the episode’s Museum Of Human Misery. Alongside such mundane human monsters as the first person to floss in an open-plan office, the person who first sported white dreadlocks and named ultimate frisbee (same dude, natch’), and the first waiter to refer to a diner’s empty plate with “I guess you hated it.” (Seriously, fuck that guy.) There are some episodes of TV that race along dropping little presents for you, and letting your face betray disappointment at getting socks from your grandmother is a dick move. Sometimes you need socks.

The idea of these four humans experiencing the actual, old-school Bad Place has always been a proposition that threatened to open up under our (and their) feet in its queasy implications. Tahani/Diana takes almost as easily as Jason/Jake to faking her way through all the Bad Place schmoozing, as she vamps about her position in the hot dog department, which she images as a place where hot dogs are forced down vegans’ throats for all eternity. (“Yes… throats,” agrees Michael, clearly hiding the actual truth of her guess.) As Michael puts it when turning the four (and Janet, nervously trying on her rude and unhelpful Bad Janet disguise) loose in the museum’s Hall Of Low-Grade Crappiness, “Guys, if you leave this room you’re going to see things that haunt you for all eternity.” Michael, anxiously jetting off to come up with the pins they need to continue their foolhardy journey, has shunted the four humans off to the one place in the Bad Place he thinks they can handle, a canny way to let the true peril of the Bad Place’s blandly gleeful evil loom all around their deeply unpleasant yet silly time in hell’s kiddie wing. (Not the actual Bad Place kiddie wing, which no doubt actually exists in some form and which, yeah, is one of those things it’s best not to think about.)

Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper (Screenshot: NBC)

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“Rhonda, Diana, Jake, And Trent” plows right down into the belly of the beast (as do the fake Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent), with Michael, knowing what’s really at stake more than his companions can possibly fathom, left ad-libbing his way through his old stomping grounds, his new knowledge of just how horrible it is fueling his haste. He sits in on a situation room surveillance of Shawn’s black-ops raid on the Medium Place, helplessly listening as the shock troops interrupt what must be some truly disturbing (even for them) sex play between a coked-up Mindy and a beaming sex robot (Derek!) with wind-chime genitals. (Even in voice-over, give it up for Maribeth Monroe and Jason Mantzoukas.) Scooping up an armful of coats from chair backs in order to steal the necessary pin-totems, Michael speeds past a blorching lamprey-slug-monster former colleague (good ol’ Lance, unsurprised at seeing someone stealing coats), his original crazy plan replaced by a sweatily concocted plan B that, he knows, simply has to work.

Marc Evan Jackson, Ted Danson (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

The stakes of this episode weave through all the joyfully inventive goofy details of this Bad Place-lite, landing especially hard on Chidi. Speeding to the Bad Place, he’s the one predictable holdout to Michael’s plan to dissemble as the sort of Bad Placers who think that the new Transformers-scented Axe Body Spray is awesome. (“How do you smell loud and confusing?” Eleanor asks Michael at one point.) The show’s handling of the Eleanor-Chidi relationship/possible romance continues to walk a nimble tightrope—as does The Good Place—between giving us the warm fuzzies we want for these people and reminding us that they’re never going to be the sort of unproblematically perfect Good Place denizens it seems they have to be to avoid damnation. Eleanor plays at being understanding as Chidi obsesses over the ethics of lying, even to save their souls. (“I get it. Nobody’s gonna be mad at you.” “Really?” “No, dumbass! I’m lying to you to make you feel better.”) Like Eleanor’s similar exchange with Michael later (“You’re worried about me.” “Yeah, I’m worried! ’Cause you’re our ticket out of here. Don’t go getting all goopy on me.”), The Good Place constantly reassures us that, as warm and human (and whatever Janet and Michael are now) as it gets, the show is never going to abandon the equally human complexity that denied its four protagonists entry into the Good Place in the first place.

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Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, Jameela Jamil (Screenshot: NBC)

Michael’s sacrifice could be another feint, another expert fake-out, I suppose. But, as confident as I am that Michael Schur and company (this episode is credited to Jen Statsky and Dan Schofield) could handle another show-redefining twist with their proven aplomb, there’s a growing feeling that this new phase of the series isn’t relying on sleight of hand here. The end of the previous episode saw the old show—all 23 episodes and 800-plus iterations thereof—flicker away into nothingness. We, like the shocked Eleanor falling into that portal, are in exhilaratingly, queasily uncharted territory. And it’s just about perfect.

Stray observations

  • Jason in that suit? Damn, son.
  • “Jason, this is hell. Of course there’s a gift shop.”
  • Jason, explaining his go-to earthly escape technique (and continuing his streak of anticipating the truth of a situation): “Any time I had a problem, I threw a Molotov cocktail and, boom, I had a different problem.”
  • Jason, practicing his Bad Place rich guy assholery: “Take my credit card to the hedge fund. I’ll meet you at the martini store.”
  • D’Arcy Carden’s rattled Janet is really bad at not being helpful. “What’s that behind your back?” Tahani asks after testing her with a request for water. “It’s a glass of water,” Janet confesses. “And a backup glass.” With her left behind in the Bad Place with Michael, I fear for her as much as for him.
  • Someone needs to invent a special Emmy for Marc Evan Jackson solely based on his delivery of “I was going to go through the proper channels, but then I remembered, I’m a naughty bitch.”
  • Also: “I hadn’t thought of that. That was sarcasm. I had thought of that.”
  • And Shawn’s assertion that he chose the form of a 45-year-old white man for a reason, namely, “I can only fail up.”
  • Chet is in charge of the “toxic masculinity” department, where they’re stuck on how to torture a guy who got thrown off of Rob Gronkowski’s party boat for throwing a lobster at a stripper and then died while doing a keg stand in a moving Jeep Wrangler.
  • Other departments: spastic dentistry, children’s dance recitals, IKEA on a holiday weekend.
  • Eleanor attempts to talk Chidi into playing along with the deception by countering his Kantian moral absolutism with the more flexible moral particularism of Jonathan Dancy. Chidi, despite still being wrenched with moral anguish, can’t help but be proud and delighted that Eleanor read ahead.
  • Plus, how seamlessly does The Good Place continue to base its plots on philosophical principles without coming across like the sort of try-hard bookworm Eleanor Shellstrop would make fun of? In their ethical face-off here, neither Eleanor nor Chidi makes a single strawman argument as they try to navigate their ridiculous predicament. Damn.
  • Chidi, returning shaken from the bathroom, reveals that there are mirrors in the Bad Place toilets. “That really makes you confront what you’re doing,” he explains, horrified.
  • The gang is outed as themselves by the unveiling of the new fake Good Place exhibit, consisting of creepy robot versions of themselves.
  • Chidi has a lucky bookmark. We think Eleanor’s just making fun, but, nope, there it is.

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