Spoilers ahead for the season finale of The Good Place.
The Good Place just Keyser Sözed us all. The Good Place is actually the Bad Place. Up is down. Chimpanzees and baby tigers have become friends, and not in a fun, heartwarming way.
Sure, the Good Place may have looked like heaven, but looking back, it now seems thunderingly obvious that it violated the Radiator Lady Directive of Heaven, namely that in heaven, everything is fine. Frozen yogurt or no, nothing was ever really fine for Eleanor, Jason, Chidi, and Tahani, and they were specifically placed in what looked like utopia in order to make for an even more effective living nightmare.
As Eleanor astutely realizes, all four were being tortured in their own specific way. Eleanor was surrounded by people whom she was convinced were better than her, even though they weren’t. Chidi had to live in a series of ongoing ethical dilemmas. Tahani, always desperate for approval, had no one to listen or pay attention to her. And Jason … well, Jason may be too clueless to ever sustain true psychological torture, but he certainly wasn’t having a good time.
A cast of thousands ensured they were never too far from driving each other mad, and Michael was the biggest actor of them all, a testament to why you should never trust a seemingly bumbling man in an extremely sharp suit. (Ted Danson, who’s been great all season, utterly nailed the heel turn here.)
In many ways, “Michael’s Gambit” couldn’t be a better reflection on the world we’re about to live in, where Donald Trump is president: One man’s desire to do something entirely different and to be the envy of his peers leads to hell for many, many other people, who are mostly being punished for the crime of being human.
Yet, the episode is also a reminder that humanity always finds a way. Friendships develop, love blossoms (in a sea of unreality, Jason and Janet’s romance is actually 100 percent genuine), and people can change and become better — if much larger extenuating circumstances don’t get in their way.
Michael Schur has said from the beginning that he was patterning The Good Place on Lost, and while the first season certainly had its twisty moments, from the note under Eleanor’s door to the sudden arrival of Real Eleanor, upending the entire premise in the finale is the sort of move that masterfully adds depth to all the show’s emotional bonding. Suddenly, these relationships matter a lot more: Just like Lost became about more than escaping a desert island, Chidi and Eleanor’s friendship could become not only what saves them from a lifetime of torture, but untold numbers of future souls.
If you look at it from the perspective of Schur’s career thus far, hitting reset on The Good Place is also a genius compensation for his weaknesses as a showrunner. The Office, Parks and Rec, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine all needed at least a half-season of air to really gel, so Schur decided to lean into that and build up a group of characters just enough before totally resetting the board.
I’ve never seen a creator build a structure around their own perceived weaknesses quite as intuitively (and simultaneously create something that instantly merits a full rewatch, which NBC surely hopes will compensate for the 13-episode order and the lack of buzz in a Peak TV world). In the process, Schur has also created an arch little bit of commentary on the creation of every sitcom ever made — namely, by finding six people to endlessly torture each other, until the puppets get bored or the puppeteers have had enough.
There is a reason the devil in this show is named Michael, and the episode you just watched is, indeed, his gambit. It’s a darn good one.
- NBC didn’t release this episode to press before it aired, and for good reason, I think. So take comfort that all the TV critics are just as shocked as you are.
- Why working in Hell is the worst: “Even getting [humans] to do simple things like pulling each other’s teeth is, like … I can’t think of the right analogy.”
- I like the idea that the back office of Hell is like a weirdly grandiose version of Mad Men’s typing pool, complete with mixed-up meeting rooms and mediocre cups of French vanilla antimatter. I hope the “Big Guy” turns out to be Jon Hamm.
- If she couldn’t make it to heaven, Tahani at least achieved heaven on earth: “My only real goal was to snog Ryan Gosling at the Met Ball. Which I did. A couple of times, actually.”
- Judge Shawn appears to have gotten his wish in one regard, because the new Good Place doesn’t have frozen yogurt anymore — did you catch the signs for Perfect Temperature Pizza and All the Pizza?
- So many questions to ponder between now and next fall. Here are a couple: What do you think the actual Good Place is like? And if you wanted to get there, how would you do it?