The Good Place will wrap up its first season with back-to-back episodes next week, so it makes sense that the show would rekindle its narrative momentum as it barrels toward a conclusion. Nearly every piece of “What’s My Motivation” serves a purpose, from the flashbacks to the absurdist details of the afterlife, which certainly aids The Good Place as it hones in on two things: resolving what’ll become of its heroine Eleanor Shellstrop, and questioning the ultimate value of a rigidly ordered universe.
The bulk of the episode deals with the impending arrival of Shawn, the universal judge, and Eleanor’s last-ditch effort to stay in the Good Place by proving that she now deserves to spend eternity alongside lifelong altruists like Tahani, Chidi, and Real Eleanor. With the help of a portable scoreboard, she takes to the streets to lend a hand to “every goober in this place,” watching to see if her points tick up so she can “rub it in all their smug faces.”
There are two major problems with this plan, though. First off, after all the trouble that Eleanor caused for the neighborhood, no one’s eager to forgive her — especially if that makes it easier for her to stay. Secondly, Eleanor eventually realizes that her motivation for being nice is rooted in self-preservation, so she’ll never be able to boost her score high enough. It’ll take a true sacrifice to save her spot in the Good Place.
There’s also a third problem with Eleanor’s attempt to save herself, and it’s one that may ultimately be irresolvable: What if the Good Place isn’t all that good? It’s better than the Bad Place, no question. But think about it: Have we seen any evidence that Eleanor’s neighbors are much fun? She’s developed some affection for Chidi and Tahani, in part because she’s grown to love his fussiness and her boastfulness, but nearly everybody else we’ve met in the Good Place has been kind of a drip, or even downright petty. Consider how unwilling these so-called do-gooders have been to help our Ms. Shellstrop — or consider how, at the party Tahani throws to reintroduce Eleanor (“This will be the fourth-most important party I have ever thrown!”), the residents are finally won over when the guest of honor excuses her actions with the lame joke “pobody’s nerfect.”
“What’s My Motivation” offers further evidence that “the bad” can be better than “the good” when Michael finally discovers that Jianyu is actually Jason Mendoza, a “pre-successful” DJ from one of the top ten swamp cities in northeastern Florida. The flashbacks in this episode deal with how Jason died: He and his buddy Pillboy tried to rob a Mexican restaurant by pretending to be safe-installers, and Jason suffocated inside the safe due to a lack of oxygen and the fact that he’d done “a bunch of whip-its” in there. (“At least he died doing what he loved: a bunch of whip-its.”) When Michael gives Jason his goodness test, he not only finds out that this Jacksonville joker had a personalized license plate (I LOVE BUTTS), but he was also a devoted fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
By nearly every measure, Jason was a bad person. He was an outright criminal, and just kind of a dirtbag in general. But when Michael gets stressed out about all this, Jason’s still able to calm him as though he actually were a Buddhist monk. He legitimately has a Zen quality, rolling through life and the afterlife by following his bliss. That’s similar to how Eleanor has become good company to Michael, Tahani, and Chidi, because she’s willing to be brusque and honest in ways they’re not used to.
The episode ends with Shawn’s arrival, just as Eleanor leaves town in the ultimate act of selflessness. She’s joined on her trip by Jason and Janet, the latter of whom says she can take them all to meet Mindy St. Claire, a woman who opted out of the whole Good Place/Bad Place system entirely. (At first, Jason hesitates to leave because he forgot to save his game of Madden and “Blake Bortles has like 300 yards passing in the first half.”)
Plot-wise, everything’s coming to a head on The Good Place. The show is sharpening up thematically too, thanks in large part to the delightfully loopy romance between Jason and Janet. The cheery way she corrects his many errors — “Once again, Michael is not my dad,” she chirps — and his wholehearted love for her is yet another suggestion that there’s a better way to live after death. So far, Jason and Janet have a blissful union precisely because they haven’t overanalyzed their relationship. For him, what matters is that “she makes the bass drop … in my heart.” For her, “Jason is a person who is near me, and then he asked me to marry him, and there is nothing in my protocol that specifically barred that from happening.” It may not make logical sense, but it sure feels righteous.
- There’s not much to say about the other major subplot in “What’s My Motivation,” which involves Chidi’s inability to answer Real Eleanor’s declaration of love for him. This is such a well-worn sitcom premise that it’d be hard for even the cleverest show to do much with it. The Good Place gets a little thematic mileage by connecting this story to the rest of the episode, which is largely about people fulfilling or defying expectations. Mostly, though, the best thing to come out of the Chidi/Real Eleanor bits is how much he enjoys their morning of eating hard-boiled eggs together: “I don’t know what I love more … the eggs or the routine!”
- Putting Eleanor and Tahani together is always comedy gold, if only because the latter can’t resist boasting about her accomplishments while the former can’t resist rolling her eyes. When Tahani notes that Eleanor’s case is hurt by the fact that she didn’t sacrifice her life to save others or change the consciousness of a nation, she casually adds, “Both of which I did, by the way.” She also mentions that time that she helped her friends Scary, Sporty, Posh, and Baby settle their quarrel with Bishop Desmond Tutu.
- When Eleanor mentions that she feels like a Walmart greeter, Tahani is confused. (“Waaal … Mar?” she says quizzically.) But eventually, it sinks in: When Tahani tries to describe Eleanor’s everywoman charm to her neighbors, she goes with, “She’s the Walmart of friends.”
- We’ll surely see more of Shawn in next week’s finale. He’s played by Marc Evan Jackson, who’s no stranger to Michael Schur’s sitcoms; he also plays Captain Holt’s husband on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and he appeared as Pawnee attorney Trevor Nelson on Parks and Recreation.