First off, let’s hear it for the Judge. The fact that Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani were going to throw themselves on the mercy of this weirdo universe’s all-seeing arbiter of Good and Bad Place placement set off a flurry of dream casting guessing games. And while the suggestions on my Twitter feed (Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman in the lead, with a strong showing for fellow Michael Schur alum Andre Braugher) would have been good, Maya Rudolph’s appearance here as the Judge (a.k.a. Gen, short for Hydrogen, the only element in existence when she was born) is even better.
Rudolph’s a chameleon, and, with so much riding on both the Judge’s casting and decision tonight, her very changeability imbues the amiably unknowable Gen with just the right element of unpredictability to make “The Burrito”’s outcome tingle with comic menace. Rudolph is also hilarious of course, never more so than when her innate comic power is poured into an opaque vessel whose seemingly normal shape hides the roiling weirdness within. The Good Place’s afterlife is bananas, but it’s run like the most mundane of bureaucracies, the unthinkable power at hand all the more terrifying for how rigidly blasé the forces in control of them appear. Gen, as pleasant, goofy, and relatable in her TV habits as she is here (I mean, we all mean to watch Bloodline at some point) is also removed enough from the characters we’ve come to care about to make her geniality scarier than any lava monster or penis-flattener that the Bad Place could whip on them. (Granted, that last one is more a Chidi, Jason, and this reviewer issue.)
Popping through the Bad Place portal without Michael or Janet, the gang dusts themselves off, Chidi worrying that he “may have barfed in the nether-dimension” they just came through, and spot... a burrito on a desk. Ordinary desk, ordinary office (apart from the portal, which irises shut behind them), ordinary burrito. Or is it?, they wonder, the wary group putting their four heads together in the absence of their supernatural exposition buddies. Jason wants to eat it. Academic Chidi guesses it might be some sort of kin to the marshmallow test. Eleanor speculates that the burrito might actually be the judge. Tahani pooh-poohs that, noting that, in her very British experience, judges are serious people, what with the costumery and all. Gen’s entrance, poking her head curiously up behind the group as they focus all their concentration on a burrito that very well could hold the fate of their immortal souls in its, um, hands, is adorable (“What’s up, guys!”), not least for how it immediately informs Gen’s whole vibe. Happy for the company, kinda bored, not especially perturbed at four humans making an unorthodox, unexpected entrance into her lonely chambers and staring intently at her lunch—Gen the judge is non-judgemental, even as she is prepared to, without malice of any kind, sentence our heroes to an eternity of unspeakable torture.
Rudolph’s manner of speaking here, with its drawn-out words and self-amused asides, sounds a bit like Mindy St. Clair’s, which makes sense, too. Like Medium Place-dwelling Mindy, Gen is outside the game—and, as stated, sort of bored. Sure, she reveals she hasn’t had a case to adjudicate in 30 years (which has still not been impetus enough to start Bloodline), but, as she chooses to take on even this unprecedented case with these four charmingly silly people, Gen isn’t moved to get too involved. (Sure, Mindy occasionally gave Eleanor and Chidi a nudge toward each other, but one senses that doing something nice for her repeated pesty visitors was largely a way to break the monotony—especially considering her love of spy camera peepholes.) Here, Gen’s initial refusal to take the quartet’s case is as lightly capricious as her choice to overrule herself at Tahani’s earnest, name-dropping appeal, with its novelly diverting British accent. (Tahani’s godfather is Paul McCartney, by the way.) Like the “Wind Beneath My Wings”-scored goodbye video she whips up when she thinks the gang is being sent to the Bad Place later in the episode, Gen’s care for her temporary charges is as meaninglessly sentimental as one of those automatically generated Facebook montages.
For Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, used as they are to being hoodwinked, their newest immortal caretaker’s disarming demeanor presents its own challenges. Gen’s a challenge to us as well, her apparent disinterest putting us on guard. The Good Place is in admirably uncharted territory with the loss of its neighborhood home base and its lunatic but well-defined parameters, and it’s tempting to fault the episode (credited to Megan Amram and Joe Mande) for side-stepping some possibilities for a true tour of Bad Place comic horrors. (Although Michael’s warning last week that his human friends’ minds simply wouldn’t be able to cope still rings with the undercurrent of existential menace running through this deceptively cheery series.) But this determinedly low-register trial both suits the whole neutral arbiter role the journey to Gen’s place serves, and provides each of the four humans with individual ordeals tailored to the necessary predictability of the episode-ending, last-second save by the returning Michael and Janet. (More on them in a moment.) A limbo isn’t a satisfying place to end up (just ask Mindy), and while that lends the group’s tests here an air of inevitable anticlimax, they are, in their own ways, evocative, and satisfying.
Tahani’s test is simple, Jason’s even simpler. She must walk past numerous doors lining a long corridor and walk through the red door at the end. All she has to do is resist the temptation to find out what the people from her life behind each door think of her. Like, really think of her, from the famous (Quvenzhané Wallis and Stephen Hawking had beef, but have squashed it to chat about Tahani), to the people who do her waxing. She passes them all, but succumbs at her parents’ door. Fail. Jason, plunked down in front of Madden (ultimate afterlife edition, no doubt) just has to win a game—playing against his beloved Jaguars, and as the hated Titans. It doesn’t look good for him either. (“I fumbled the kickoff?!”)
Eleanor and Chidi are delighted to find themselves paired together (after a Scooby Doo gag where their individual doors lead back to the same room), tasked with what seems like a fiendishly designed test of the “all for one, one for all” pledge the four had made at the start of Gen’s trial. (“This is a stanker,” Gen advises them of their impractical loyalty plan.) Handed glowing medallions and told that they’re already Good Place-worthy, Eleanor and Chidi’s joy is short-lived, as Gen tells them that Jason and Tahani have already failed their tests. Eleanor and Chidi can go, but without their friends. It’s such a classic no-win scenario that it puts their—and our—antennae up. For them, the assumption is that their ethics are being put on trial, trolley problem-style. For us, the suspicion rests in the fact that it seems too neat a twist for The Good Place, a perhaps unfair bar-setting for the show and its writers, but, hey, they’re the ones who’ve consistently raised our expectations. And they do it again.
Eleanor susses out that this Chidi isn’t the real deal when he applies some utilitarian logic to their dilemma, explaining that, since Jason and Tahani are screwed no matter what they do, sharing their torment needlessly helps no one. And he’s not wrong. But Chidi—the real Chidi, Eleanor’s mentor, friend, and possible soulmate Chidi—has spent some 800 runs through Michael’s maze punching holes through perfectly sound, scholarly, renowned philosophies whose moral relativism tie his poor stomach up in knots. Eleanor even knows his moral quandary grimace from his ordinary gas pain grimace, so she ultimately sees through the ruse. Gen congratulates Eleanor, asking for the medallion back (it’s her coaster), and sits everyone down—to tell them they’re all still going to the Bad Place.
Jason, sitting three points behind with time running out, meditated (Jianyu style) before his face lit up at the realization, “I hate scoring against my own favorite team!” Tahani, confronting her still-disdainful parents, let go of her need for their approval (and love), telling them simply, “I’m sorry we didn’t have a better relationship and I wish you all the best.” The real Chidi picked one of the two hats that had had him flummoxed in indecision for 82 minutes. They’re the sort of little human breakthroughs that denote the real growth they’ve undergone in their time in this post-death madhouse, and they’re not enough. Tahani couldn’t resist. Jason couldn’t choose but to play video games. Chidi spent 82 minutes sweating out a fedora. We know that there are not-insignificant signposts of personal growth bound to those tiny victories, but, in this universe, they somehow don’t make the cut? It’s infuriating in its unfairness, and Eleanor knows it, cutting off Gen before the judge can reveal that only Eleanor’s made the grade (Eleanor makes up a story about shoving an old lady down the stairs to get to some shrampies, so no one questions it), and prepares to honor the deal she’s made with her friends. All for one.
As much as we need to see the Bad Place (or as much of it as our minds can handle) at some point—if only to see what Adam Scott’s Trevor is up to—we’re not going yet, as Michael and Janet pop through the portal to save, or at least forestall, the day. Michael’s own trial saw him similarly saved by the timely reveal that Janet has been impersonating Bad Janet as Shawn’s high-fiving, hard-farting sidekick. I didn’t see it coming (my spouse did, as she is smarter), but it’s still satisfying to see Janet kick the officiously prickish Shawn right into a wall. Twice. Telling Michael that he’s to be surreptitiously interned in a nondescript room for all eternity so as not to attract attention to their neighborhood fiasco, Shawn’s comeuppance comes right after he rebuts Michael’s outraged, desperate appeal on behalf of his human friends, crying, “Shawn, this is not fair!”
Shawn scoffs that “fair” is the stupidest word humans ever came up with (apart from “staycation”), the sort of sneakily weighty moral pronouncement The Good Place drops every so often to reassert the show’s essential decency in the face of its world’s sneering contempt for such a concept. This is the way things are. There are points, and demerits, and unfeeling arbiters doling out disproportionate-seeming punishments. Friendship, personal improvement, compassion, love, humanity—all irrelevant. At least until you make a choice to, as Michael put it a little while ago, “do the most human thing of all—attempt something futile with a ton of unearned confidence and fail spectacularly!” “Oh, hey guys,” Michael asks as he and Janet interrupt the inexorable sweep of Gen’s justice with an offhand, “How you been?” Everyone back together, in defiance of all the order of the universe? Doin’ fine.
- “Who said philosophy was stupid?” “You did. Many times. As recently as this morning.”
- Eleanor and Chidi have consulted all their philosophical idols in their attempt to solve Gen’s test. Kant, Superman, Rihanna—everybody.
- Gen eats her burrito with envy sauce. It really makes Mexican food pop.
- Michael out-deadpans Shawn himself. After quoting Eleanor’s “Ya’ basic!,” he tells his boss, “It’s a human insult. It’s devastating. You’re devastated right now.”
- Michael mocks Shawn’s inability to see through 800 false neighborhood reports he cobbled together from Stephen King novels and Pretty Little Liars.
- The diabolical torture Shawn prepares for Michael: Eternity in an empty room, with only a constantly accumulating pile of unread New Yorkers to occupy him. “You and I both know I’ll never read those!”
- Jason assumes they want to be tested together so they can all cheat off Chidi. Also, he thinks that’s how Chidi got his name.
- Sorry about the sameness of the photos and the lateness of the review: NBC was playing it spoiler-free this week.
- On a personal note: Sorry about the Jags, Jason. That was a second half right out of the Bad Place.