Who would’ve guessed that the most sympathetic, heartbreaking character on The Good Place would turn out to be Tahani Al-Jamil? “Category 55 Doomsday Crisis” is only the show’s fifth episode, and we’re bound to meet more dead folks in the weeks ahead. But when Tahani was first introduced, she seemed cartoonishly shallow and vain — and possibly even a Good Place mistake like Eleanor. Over the course of the past two episodes, though, she’s come into focus as something of a tragicomic figure: the overlooked hostess, throwing magnificent soirees so that she’ll always have somewhere to go.
As “Category 55 Doomsday Crisis” opens, Tahani’s serving another of her spirit-raising sinkhole-recovery brunches, complete with mini-waffles, which Jason/Jianyu ducks out of Chidi’s “good person” lessons to grab. It’s there that she overhears Janet warn Michael about the title event, which, if left unchecked, could lead the sinkhole to grow until it swallows up the entire neighborhood. “Can you show us to a private room where no one can see or hear us even if I yell very loudly out of fear?” Michael asks Tahani, while trying to play down his obvious panic by saying, “This is the reaction I have when things are incredibly mundane and expected.”
Rather than freak out, Tahani sees the potential end of the afterworld as another chance to make herself useful. She sneaks a peek at Michael’s info-hologram to gather information about the sinkhole (scrolling through data “only meant to be seen by architects and Janets”). In the process, she learns where her final life score ranks among her neighbors, discovering that she’s actually next-to-last. This, as we soon discover via flashbacks, has been the story of her life. Tahani lived in the shadow of a brilliant older sister, who soaked up all their parents’ pride and affection, leaving her to make ever-grander philanthropic gestures to compensate. The most hilariously sad detail in an episode packed with comic misery is that in her folks’ will, they misspelled her name as “Tahini … like the sauce.”
Though Tahani gets the big character-defining moments, “Category 55 Doomsday Crisis” is primarily about how the spreading sinkhole affects the relationship between “soulmates” Chidi and Eleanor. Under orders to stay in their home — for a period that could last anywhere between “an hour and 11 months,” according to Michael — they very quickly start getting on each other’s nerves.
Or, more accurately, Eleanor drives Chidi batty, because he’s learned that teaching her about the concept of dharma and the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham has become a round-the-clock job, keeping him from “doing paradise things,” like rowing out on a lake with a bottle of wine and a book of poetry. So he goes on strike at the worst possible time, leaving Eleanor to laze on the couch and watch the Good Place welcome video on a loop. (“I would love to not watch TV, but you cancelled school,” she complains, shocking even herself.)
The Eleanor-Chidi story line comes to a head when Michael asks them to host marriage counselor Nina and identity-theft investigator Bart, who immediately recognize that’s something’s wrong. (The constant yelling may have been the tip-off.) At first, this plot twist looks to be setting up another Good Place story line about hiding Eleanor’s secret. But one of the reasons why this is the best episode since the pilot is that it takes some unexpectedly melancholy turns. Chidi eventually admits that he’s not mad at Eleanor because she’s a lazy liar, but because he lived a lonely life on Earth and expected his partner in eternity to be … different.
This ties right back in to Tahani, who’s in a purportedly perfect home — proving that she was a righteous person all along — and yet is miserable because her soulmate won’t speak, her reality keeps glitching, and she’s very close to being the worst of the best according to the Good Place database. Want to make a supporting character instantly lovable? Do what “Category 55 Doomsday Crisis” does. We're shown all the times in the past when Tahani's sister Camilla upstaged her, like when Camilla won a BAFTA for her documentary about her own Grammy-winning album, while Tahani gave a fundraiser that stalled at around $5.2 million, or “very middle-thermometer,” in her parent’s words.
The episode ends with Eleanor giving Chidi the day on the lake he’d always dreamed of, which appears to be a selfless enough act to restore order to the Good Place and repair the sinkhole. These ongoing visual representations of good and bad — the life score, the friendship plant, the sinkhole — are living illustrations of Chidi’s lessons about utilitarianism, and how good deeds can counteract the bad. But as the show keeps pointing out, this model doesn’t eliminate misdeeds. Nor does it guarantee that the Tahanis and Chidis of the world will ever get their proper due, even in the Good Place. That’s both funny and sad: the sitcom kind of utilitarian balance.
- The local frozen-yogurt shops introduce some new flavors this week, including “Full Cell Phone Battery,” which is supposed to taste exactly how it feels when you know your phone won’t die anytime soon. I’m picturing something like a mix of mango, vanilla, and self-satisfied preparedness.
- Jason explains the concept of utilitarianism by remembering the time he framed a woman as a thief to break up her engagement to his hip-hop dance crew’s best pop-and-locker. One bad action was outweighed by the greater good of Jason’s bro not getting married and moving to Sarasota.
- When they were little girls, Camilla once sculpted a bird from reflective alloy, holding up a literal mirror to mankind. Tahani drew a little birdie wearing a hat.
- Michael’s latest attempt to be more human involves developing his “Western hemisphere brunch banter,” as in, “That New Yorker article was crazy!” and “You haven’t seen Hamilton?” and “Did you hear about Stephanie?”
- With the neighborhood offline, Eleanor is disappointed that she can no longer just throw dishes in the sink and expect that they’ll be magically cleaned by morning. Then Chidi confesses that he’s been doing the dishes all along. Who’s really to blame here: Eleanor for not noticing his kind gesture, or Chidi for not asking her to pitch in?
- During one of their shouting matches, Eleanor seems primed to end the argument with a make-out session, in classic sitcom style. (See: Cheers, the Sam-and-Diane years.) If she actually has a crush on Chidi, that could make the dynamic between them very charged in the episodes to come, and it would work more blue notes into this show’s comic harmonies.
- Does Eleanor’s “Michigan Law” sweatshirt belong to the person who Michael thinks she actually is? Odds are, before too long, The Good Place will reveal the life and fate of the “real” Eleanor. If it turns out that she’s in the Bad Place while our heroine enjoys paradise, perhaps we'll witness the ultimate test of whether Chidi’s ethics lessons have taken hold.