Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Good Place sucks, but The Good Place is transcendent

Kristen Bell
Kristen Bell
Photo: Colleen Hayes (NBC)

“Isn’t that remarkable?”

The Good Place isn’t a puzzle. The Good Place is a puzzle. But The Good Place is about how we deal with the puzzle, what we learn, not about the puzzle, but about who we choose to be when faced with the puzzle. For Eleanor Shellstrop and Chidi Anagonye, the puzzle is hell. For Eleanor Shellstrop and Chidi Anagonye, hell is where they continue to ascend to, if not heaven, then whatever The Good Place’s marvelously, fantastically cruel universe sends two people who have gone beyond any moral universe’s impossible standards. And failed. Some 800-plus times. And who try again. The Good Place isn’t a puzzle. It’s transcendent.


“Pandemonium,” like so many episodes of The Good Place (more episodes than any mortal sitcom possibly should, anyway), keeps upping the ante until we can’t imagine there’s another card left to play. Then it plays it, decisively, and gracefully. We start out with Michael’s breakdown at the prospect of having to recreate an entirely new neighborhood—with four new human subjects—with only the fates of his, Janet’s and his human friends’ souls at stake. Any quibbles we might have about the immortal Michael’s collapse are deftly swept aside by Ted Danson’s performance, and Michael’s panicked confession to the quick-thinking Eleanor that, for all his power and knowledge, he is, after all, just “middle management” in the grand scheme of things.

So, as perhaps expected, the first twist of this season three finale is that Eleanor steps in to impersonate the architect of the neighborhood, bluffing her way through Michael’s opening spiel with brash Shellstrop aplomb, despite Michael’s handy file on new arrival John Wheaton looking like the alien language from Futurama. The neighborhood Janet and Michael cooked up last week looks familiar—there’s still fro-yo everywhere, along with free-flowing craft beer this time—and, with Janet’s help, Eleanor’s at-first skeptical friends all fall in line with the new plan. Eleanor is Eleanor, after all. She’s got this.

Twist number two comes when the chipper John cattily reveals that he recognizes Tahani Al-Jamil from his beat on the celebrity blog, The Gossip Toilet. (“That’s like the nip-slip of dying,” he breezily taunts Tahani about her embarrassing death—in Canada.) As the blanching Tahani blurts to Eleanor and Michael, Shawn didn’t pick serial killers, despots, or boy-band managers to be the new neighborhood’s test subjects—he picked people whose connections to our four human heroes will prove most troublesome as Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason attempt to maintain their latest all-or-nothing gambit. Twigging to the true evil potential of Shawn’s technically within-the-rules move, Eleanor rushes out into Michael’s waiting room where she spots, sitting placidly insensate on the couch, Simone. End of first act.

The Soul Squad is nothing but resilient, though. So, gathering to confront Shawn on a split-screen afterlife Skype call with Judge Gen, the gang calls foul, only to be offered the out from Gen that Michael—to even the scales—can erase Simone’s memory of them. Marc Evan Jackson’s Shawn remains the perfect, acid combination of trickable and supervillain-clever (and hilarious), taunting his nemeses with the parting shot about what you call that move in chess where your opponent is doomed (“Eat butt, you ding-dongs,” naturally), and leaving them all with a huge mess. Still, as Tahani figures out when she chooses not to rise to the cluelessly cruel John’s gleeful offhand mockery (Janet assures Tahani that her jibe about John’s “Mark Fake-obs” shirt could be countered with a soul-crushing “Oh, honey . . .”), this will be hard, but it can be done. Except, as Chidi realizes as he watches from afar as Eleanor and her assistant Michael (a recent transfer from dog heaven, as Eleanor claims) introduce the predictably quick study Simone around, his case is different. And impossible. Coming to Eleanor and Michael’s office, Chidi confesses that he’s simply not up to the deception, and that the only solution for them is to reboot him. Act two ends with escalation.

Chidi’s choice plays so convincingly because, one, it’s airtight. As he tells Eleanor and Michael, the problem isn’t just that he’ll be unable to maintain the placid exterior necessary to convince Simone that he’s merely another blissfully deserving denizen of the Good Place, but that one single slip-up of “being awkward around [his] ex” will doom everyone he cares about to eternal torture. (He also pays tribute to the fact that Simone is very astute.) The other reason is that William Jackson Harper—who is simply astounding all episode—wordlessly conveys the very inconvenient fact that, for all the audience-pleasing loopy, sexy, soul-mate happiness of Chidi and Eleanor, he really was a perfect match with Simone, too. Chidi never broke up with Simone—he sacrificed what certainly looked like love because he knew that he’d be unable to hide the truth about the universe from someone he truly cared for. He’d doom her, so he left her. Now, he tells Eleanor without referencing the parallel, he has to do it again.

D’Arcy Carden, Kristen Bell
D’Arcy Carden, Kristen Bell
Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Eleanor’s not having it, naturally, and she, Michael, and the rest of the gang start spitballing ideas to thwart the unthinkable. Michael, drawing upon his study of humanity, imagines a sitcom-ready scenario complete with flicking pencils into the ceiling tiles until someone says something offhand and Michael snaps, “Wait! Say that again!” But The Good Place habitually toys with such standard problem-solving narrative contrivances and discards them in favor of something better—and more wrenching. But Eleanor knows Chidi is right and, as heartbroken as she is, she manages to comfort Michael with the knowledge that he’s learned another “classic human” experience. “Your friends are going through something awful, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she counsels, looking at Chidi.


What Michael can do—it takes him a convenient interim to prep the selective memory-wipe that will reboot Chidi right back to when that air conditioner flattened his skull—is give Eleanor and Chidi some time, and a gift. In the empty neighborhood square, alone amidst a sea of folding chairs, Chidi and Eleanor say goodbye. Eleanor commends Chidi for his choice, repurposing everyone’s thoughts about his ethical standards by telling him, “This is why everyone loves moral philosophy professors.” Chidi imagines that their bond will endure even after the mind-blanking, and that every time Eleanor sees Chidi have a stomach ache, he’ll actually be thinking of her. It’s the sort of stiff-upper-lip banter that edges right up to the lip of mushy, Harper and Kristen Bell’s tenderly funny performances finding just the right note of sweetness. And then Michael, announcing he’s created a present for the couple, walks quietly away as an old movie projector whirs to life behind them, and the scene tips over into exquisite tragedy.

The movie Michael’s crafted starts out as simple montage of scenes we’ve seen—Eleanor and Chidi meeting, sparring, thawing. Jokes of things we never saw—a surprise llama in Eleanor’s living room, for example—appear, turning the montage form something easy and rom-com-manipulative into a plus-value comic gift to us. (Like a fast-forward version of Community’s “clip show form things we missed” episode “Paradigms Of Human Memory.”) And then it goes, mercilessly, straight for our hearts, as the clips of these mismatched soulmates go from hugs, to kisses, to, in the final, glorious dream of a romantic scene, an unseen picnic, a rainstorm, Chidi surrendering to the absurdity with a silly dance, and a happily passionate embrace. When we cut back, finally to Chidi and Eleanor, their comic bravado is gone, and they’re bereft. So are we.


Eleanor tries to keep up the pretense that this is just another of the gang’s wacky escapes. (“I don’t normally cry at movies, but that one was pretty good,” she jokes, wiping away tears.) Chidi tells her simply, “I’m going to miss you so much, Eleanor.” “But you won’t,” she responds, and her equally simple reply that she wishes they had more time is the sort of time-honored cue for more epic heartbreak. (Flashback to the Angel episode “I will Remember You,” for fans of uncontrollable star-crossed-lovers tragedy-weeping.) Chidi doubles down on that with his assurance that he knows he’ll be okay since he knows Eleanor will be watching over him, and his confidence that this will, indeed, someday, be just another wacky scrape they somehow got out of. “Jeremy Bearimy, baby,” Chidi soothes Eleanor, showing the smooth, confidently sexy side that his time with Eleanor has brought out of him. “Bye Chidi,” Eleanor says quietly right before Michael does his thing. Act three ends in silence.

Eleanor, being Eleanor, isn’t silent for long, demanding that Janet tell her “the answer.” “Crunch the numbers,” she orders, desperately of all all-knowing Janet. But, as Janet says, even if she knew the answer, it wouldn’t help in the situation they now find themselves. Darcy Carden makes Janet’s explanation fairly ache with reluctant truth, as Janet tells Eleanor, “The more human I become the less things make sense, but that’s part of the fun, right?” Eleanor says that, without the surety that there’s some goddamned reason for everything that’s happened to her (and Chidi, Jason, Tahani, Michael, humanity), “the world is just made of pain.” Janet—the not-girl, not-robot—says that, if humans knew how it all really worked, “it would just be machinery—some dumb food processor.” Echoing Eleanor’s own epiphany once the gang learned that there was no hope of redemption for them, Janet lays out a universe where nothing matters—so finding something, or someone, that does “is euphoria.” That gets through, since Eleanor Shellstrop—who lived her life (her first life at least) in a brashly dismissive cocoon to fend off a world she just knew was hard and cold and meaningless—can relate to defiance in the face of injustice. “I mean, why not try? It’s better than not trying, right?,” said Eleanor, once, a statement of purpose that might just function as the key to The Good Place’s puzzle. Which isn’t really a puzzle.


So she tries. Bucking up her courage, she opens the office door, where she sees the rebooted Chidi, smiling expectantly at this friendly woman, come to tell him where he is, and what he’s doing there. “Hi Chidi, I’m Eleanor. C’mon in.” And that’s transcendence.

Stray observations

  • In Michael’s movie, we see that, in one past life at least, Chidi took Eleanor with him on that boat, under the moonlight, and read her some French poetry.
  • Chidi tricked Eleanor into reading Paradise Lost by telling her that Satan was just her type. Indeed, in Eleanor’s imagination, Satan does sound a whole lot like Stone Cold Steve Austin.
  • Michael, sweatily pulling at his collar in panic, tells Eleanor to tell Gen he can’t do it “Because I have a fat neck. She’ll understand.”
  • Jason, somberly trying to ascertain just what Chidi will remember of their friendship, is only consoled by Chidi’s assurance that, yes, Chidi will remember pizza.
  • Simone, cheerfully eating her fro-yo, explains to Eleanor that she got a swirl of half-strawberry, half “male co-worker is called out for stealing your ideas.”
  • Chidi, spotting danger in Michael’s obvious fear: “Michael looks like me. That’s bad.”
  • Jason’s confidence in Eleanor’s ability: “You’re like the Blake Bortles of whatever’s going on right now.”
  • Sure, it’s a little bit of a puzzle. Michael complains that Shawn’s scheme will “destroy the integrity of the experiment.” But this experiment is deeply, fundamentally flawed from the jump, isn’t it? The four original humans in the neighborhood? Plus, the fate of the supposedly infallible moral compass of the universe hinging on one single do-over? As Simone would undoubtedly say, this methodology is sloppy as hell.
  • Shawn is all too happy to tell Chidi how Simone died. “It was hilarious,” he promises.
  • Eleanor: “You know, for a robot, you make a pretty good girlfriend.” Janet: “I’m one of those three things.”
  • Who is Eleanor’s Shawn-picked torture subject going to be? And Jason’s? Someone tell me Donkey Doug is okay.
  • It’s been a pleasure and an honor, gang. That’s season three of The Good Place, and The A.V. Club’s coverage thereof. Don’t forget to check out our rundown of all the hidden jokes in “Pandemonium.” See you on the other side.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.