Why Did The Good Place Hide So Many Wizard of Oz References in Last Week’s Episode?

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Photo: NBC/Colleen Hayes/NBC

The Good Place creator Michael Schur has said that one of the original inspirations for his NBC sitcom was Lost, a similarly supernatural mystery about a group of humans stranded in a nether-realm. Judging by last week’s episode, “Best Self,” Schur and his writers aren’t just into Lost — they’re also into some of the same books, movies, and TV that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse once tapped for their hit sci-fi drama. In particular: The Wizard of Oz. Where Lost had episodes with titles like “The Man Behind the Curtain” and “There’s No Place Like Home,” The Good Place loaded up its most recent chapter with a hot-air balloon, a wicked witch, and even a bit of Dr. Oz.

A decade ago, Lost fans went a little batty with Oz-related theorizing, guessing that the show would end with a twist ripped straight from L. Frank Baum and the Yellow Brick Road. Very few of those bets paid off. Still, because Schur is a Lost fan himself, and because The Good Place has made a habit of springing its own “everything you know is wrong” surprises, it wouldn’t be completely out of line to think that the Wizard of Oz parallels in “Best Self” are some kind of larger clue to where the show might be headed. Like: Will Eleanor Shellstrop wake up in the series finale and find herself back in Arizona, living around people who look like Janet, Chidi, Jason, Michael, and Tahani?

While we break out the scratch paper to get busy postulating, here’s a handy reminder of just how Wizard of Oz–like “Best Self” actually is. Some of these references are overt, some more subtle, and some, to be honest, probably unintentional. They’re all collected below, from the vaguest Oz nod to the strongest.

The destruction of the Bad Place

Because the Bad Place demons trashed Michael’s experimental Neighborhood before leaving town, the main square (which always had a touch of Munchkinland in its design) looks like Dorothy’s tornado just whooshed through in “Best Self.” At the end of the episode, when the Neighborhood is finally destroyed once and for all, it disappears pixel-by-pixel, with each little block looking like the dust that flies up when the Gales’ Kansas farm is hit by the terrible storm. Also, when the humans have their final blowout booze party, the lighting effects behind them swirl around, like … well, y’know.

Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion

This isn’t specifically related to “Best Self,” and it’s not a perfect one-to-one analogy, but if we consider Eleanor to be The Good Place’s “Dorothy” — since she’s the heroine, and also the first person who wakes up way back in episode one — then it’s not too hard to extrapolate that Chidi is the Cowardly Lion because he’s afraid of everything, and that Jason is the Scarecrow because he’s lacking in the brains department. That leaves Tahani to be the Tin Man, which isn’t that much of a stretch, because she’s tall and can be pretty heartless.

Janet’s picnic basket

Like Dorothy Gale in the Oz film, Janet spends a portion of this episode carrying around a basket … although hers is a different shape, and contains what appears to be a bag of cuttlefish chips. (If you watch the extended cut of “Real Self” on Hulu, Janet explains why she packed a meal: The chips are for Tahani, Jason has Twizzlers, Chidi gets hard-boiled eggs, and Eleanor gets a tray of shrimp.)

Bad Janet trapped in a glass ball

Photo: NBC

Janet’s evil doppelgänger shows up at the end of the episode to drive the train to Bad Place headquarters, but as soon as she steps onto the platform, Michael disables her and traps her inside a glass marble. There are multiple transparent balls in The Wizard of Oz movie, too, including the one Glinda the Good Witch floats around in, and the one that the Wicked Witch of the West uses to keep tabs on her enemies.

The Emerald City

The Good Place has long featured a green motif, seen most prominently in the title card, which has white words on a bright-green background. But there’s a lot more green than usual in this episode, including the vivid (and ultimately fake) “all clear” light on Michael’s escape balloon, which is meant to indicate that the humans have improved enough to make the trip to the real Good Place. Also, during the big party on their last night in the Neighborhood, everyone dances to a song by Lorde — “Green Light” — that’s surely no coincidence.

The hot-air balloon

Photo: NBC

In both the Oz movie and the original book, “the Wizard” (who’s really an ordinary schmo from Omaha) summons a balloon to whisk Dorothy home to Kansas. The plan ultimately fails because Dorothy’s dog, Toto, runs away, leaving the heroine to figure out another way home. In “Best Self,” Michael’s golden balloon is a bust as well, failing to take the humans to the Good Place — but in this case the problem is that the balloon transport is phony from the start.

Michael becomes an “honorary human”

After Dorothy and her friends unmask the Wizard as a fraud in The Wizard of Oz, he rewards their industriousness by giving them all meaningless gifts and titles, which are really meant to prove that they never needed anything he had to offer. “Best Self” flips that script, as Eleanor and her cohorts declare that their favorite faker Michael is a human after all — a pointless designation that nevertheless means a lot to him.

Dr. Oz

One of the most winking Oz references in the whole of “Best Self” is an actual Oz reference: when the humans celebrate Michael’s progress by giving him a box of “garbage I have no real use for,” including a diet book by real-world controversial TV personality and surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz.

“Long story short, it was all a dream.”

At the time it seems like a throwaway joke, but when Jason tells a long story about how he once cost his mother her job as a pet-store manager when he tried to rob the place, he ends by admitting to an irritated Tahani that it was all a dream. If The Good Place is going to ape Oz all the way to its eventual ending, we may look back on this moment as the ultimate bit of gotcha foreshadowing.

The eternal Judge

The hopeless situation our humans find themselves in for most of this episode — unable to get to the real Good Place, unable to escape from Michael’s cruel simulacrum — nears a possible solution when Tahani waxes rhapsodic about her life on Earth, where she could solve any problem at any place of business by demanding to speak to a manager. Ultimately, Eleanor & Co. craft a Hail Mary plan to follow Tahani’s lead and plead their case before the eternal Judge. Anyone looking for a Wizard in The Good Place’s Oz riff might be tempted to pick Michael, since at the start of the show he’s lying about who he is and where the heroes really are. But the end of “Best Self,” as everyone eagerly hits the road to find the Judge, is the series’ real “off to see the Wizard” moment.

“Good-bye, clowns. Good-bye, modernist architecture.”

As badly as the humans want to leave this place where they’ve been psychologically tortured, they also have to admit that they’re going to miss it. Chidi and Eleanor’s farewell to their house, with its blackboard and clown paintings, is reminiscent of when Dorothy prepares to leave Oz in the movie, and says that she’s going to miss the way the Cowardly Lion cried for help, and will miss the Scarecrow “most of all.”

“In a way, the Good Place was inside the Bad Place … all along?”

One of the funniest lines in the episode comes at the end, when Michael waxes sentimental, saying, “As long as I’m with you guys, I’m always in the fake Good Place,” and, “The real Bad Place was the friends we made along the way.” Finally he comes up with something that satisfies Eleanor because it’s true, stating plainly that the Good Place was always inside the Bad Place. Beyond expressing one of the show’s major themes — that humans tend to make do, even under the worst of conditions — his phrasing feels like an overt nod to Glinda the Good Witch, who in The Wizard of Oz tells Dorothy that she had the power to go home “all along.” Some of the Oz nods in “Best Self” are probably inadvertent, but this one’s pretty blatant. And whether or not the rest of the series keeps shadowing L. Frank Baum, this particular observation seems like it could be key. Oh, what a world!

Every Wizard of Oz Reference in The Good Place’s ‘Best Self’