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Posted: January 10, 2019

The Good Place recap: The problem with Heaven


By Darren Franich

Entertainment Weekly

At long last, the Good Place! Eleanor takes a deep breath of the air here in heaven. It smells, she tells her friends, just like Typhoon Walls, her favorite water park when she was a young trashbag in Arizona. “The Good Place smells like whatever makes you happiest,” Michael explains. For Chidi, it’s warm pretzels, which is coincidentally a smell-a-like for Absolute Moral Truth. For Jason, it’s Blake Bortles holding a Super Bowl trophy, crediting his success to his pal Jason. (Also, weed.) For Tahani, it’s the smell of a curtain closing between first class and economy.

But they’re not quite in the Good Place. Or anyhow, they’re not in what Michael calls “the Main Good Place Area.” This is some kind of mail depot, operated by a cheerful post officer named Gwendolyn (played by guest star Nicole Byer.) Gwendolyn is cosmically credulous, asking no follow-up questions when Michael declares that he’s an accountant bringing contest-winning humans to the afterlife. (Jason is confused about the lie: “We’re refugees?” he asks. “What kind of messed-up place would turn away refugees?”) “The Book of Dougs” is the first episode to properly introduce us viewers to the denizens of the Good Place, and Gwendolyn seems pretty typical: Very happy, painfully naive, stridently sincere.

Michael gets in contact with some Good Place officers, with a little help from a magic phone in Gwendolyn’s office that calls whoever you want and will leave no trace whatsoever if you use it illegally. Which is, well, a pretty easy plot turn for our Michael. (Gwendolyn, paraphrasing: “Here’s precisely what you need with nothing stopping you from using it!”) But nothing about the Good Place is simple, we’ll discover.

While Michael prepares to make his pitch for stopping the Bad Place from hacking the great points system, his friends split into romantic subplots. Eleanor is tormented by a door leading out of the mail depot to the Good Place. It’s such a small door — four Oreos from Heaven! — but it won’t open for humans. Chidi tries to cheer her up with a playful suggestion. Why not have their first date? Hey, they fell in love over the course of death, hundreds of timeline reboots, resurrection, and death again: Doesn’t a date in heaven’s foyer seem perfectly sensible?

Meanwhile, Tahani tries to solve her own curious love triangle. Janet has to imitate a Neutral Janet, but she’s not feeling very neutral. Jason reveals that he knows she loves him. Tahani tries to talk Janet through her frustration, but that just makes things worse. Janet’s feeling so many new feelings just now — and good lord, what if those feelings come out of her butt?

A committee of Good Placers arrives in the mail depot. They travel in magic polyhedrons, apparently, and have extremely generous attitudes. They listen patiently while Michael explains that the points system has gone horribly wrong. He gives them the Book of Dougs, noting Doug Forcett — a man who’s only done good with his life — isn’t close to getting in. The committee is skeptical. There have been stretches in history where no one got into the Good Place before, like that time humanity invented stabbing. But they agree to discuss the matter, while a Good Placer named Kellen showers Michael with compliments.

NEXT: This calls for immediate discussion!

Eleanor and Chidi have a wonderful date. They’re together, in love: What could go wrong? Chidi even surprises Eleanor, donning a mailman outfit in fulfillment of all her fantasies. What a boyfriend! And then Eleanor starts crying, beautiful tears that taste like nacho cheese from her favorite movie theater. It’s all this love stuff, this feeling of having something real after a lifetime of avoiding a close relationship.

And it’s everything, of course: This long journey they’ve been on, learning philosophy and saving souls and coming to the great beyond. Chidi quotes Tolstoy: “There is only one time that is important. Now. It is the only time when we have any power.” Eleanor knows that one, it was on meme posted to an unverified Tyra Banks Instagram account. They race upstairs immediately to find the sexiest closet.

Cute! Chidi and Eleanor are in the pure-happiness phase of their relationship now, and you suspect there’s some hilariously dire days ahead for them. The Good Place has been renewed for season 4, and one assumes that will not be a season of everyone hanging out in heaven smelling the roses that smell like a medium thin crust pepperoni pizza from Round Table in 1995, or whatever makes you happiest. But Chidi/Eleanor scenes felt kinda static to me, which has become a minor problem with certain subplots this season. The Good Place has become a show always on the move. That means every episode has the thrill of a new location — but it also means that most of the characters are just patiently hanging out in the background, waiting for Michael to give them their new direction.

Conversely, the Tahani/Jason/Janet stuff is a bit wackier, but it ties directly into the central story of the episode. Tahani writes up a certificate announcing that she and Jason are now divorced on account of death. “I can tell by your silence and inability to make eye contact with me that I’ve knocked it out of the park!” she says. Nope. Janet feels pitied and put on the spot, “so that’s fun.” Jason is suddenly reminded about the tiny fact of his death.

Tahani doesn’t know what to do. Neither, ultimately, does Michael. The committee announces their decision. They will form an elite investigative team to get to the bottom of the Bad Place hack. It will take 400 years to assemble the team, and then a thousand years for the team to investigate themselves for conflicts. 1400 years just to start working on the problem — and during that time, everyone goes to the Bad Place.

Michael is furious and exhausted. What can he do, if the Good Place couldn’t help them stop the Bad Place? Then Tahani comes in asking for help. She keeps trying to help Janet and Jason, but that just makes things worse. “There are so many unintended consequences to well-intended actions!” she says. “It feels like a game you can’t win!”

That gets Michael thinking. He brings up some other Dougs from the Book of Dougs. In the 1500s, one Douglass gave his grandmother a dozen roses, earning 145 points. In 2009, a man named Doug Ewing gave his grandmother a dozen roses — and lost four points, because the roses were ordered using a cell phone made in a sweatshop, and the flowers were grown with pesticides and picked by exploited migrant workers, and Doug’s money went to a billionaire racist CEO with a very special sexual harassment hobby.

So! The Bad Place hasn’t been hacking the Good Place. They don’t have to! “Every day, the world gets a little more complicated, and being a good person gets a little harder,” Michael says.

A Big Theme sentence that seems to sum up this season’s (the whole show’s?) thesis about moral existence — and we’re still a couple of episodes from the finale. In some ways, The Good Place has been teasing this since the beginning. Eleanor never thought she deserved to be in the Bad Place, wondered why there wasn’t some non-terrible purgatory real estate reserved for venial sinners like her. What Michael discovers in this episode is that everyone is some kind of Eleanor now, that even someone who tries to do everything right will indirectly do something bad just by living in our corporatized/globalized/digitalized/hyper-connected/heavily disrupted world. The consequences might be unintended, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Your every move is a butterfly effect hurting someone, maybe, probably.

So Michael has a new plan. He’s going to meet the Judge at the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes, the most dangerous place in the universe. His plan is to save humanity, somehow. The gang leaves, and Gwendolyn waves farewell, a little upset that they lied to her but still very happy she met them.

The big revelation at the end of this episode is fascinating, big thoughtful food for thought. But this still felt like a maybe-inevitable comedown from the body-swapping playfulness of “Janet(s)”. This season has constructed some fascinating twists in the larger narrative, but I worry all those twists have had the effect of silo-ing the characters into two distinct spaces. Michael has become The Plot Guy, announcing new mission statements, deciding the Good Place has been hacked, then deciding that actually nevermind it hasn’t been. That means the human characters just kind of get pulled along on the journey, waiting for Michael to bring them somewhere new. Now they’re off to the most dangerous place they’ve ever been — more dangerous than the Bad Place, I guess! Sounds scary, but also, at least there will be pancakes!


 
 
 

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