After the rug-pulling switcheroo at the end of The Good Place’s first season, I have to imagine that a lot of the show’s fans — like myself — have spent much of this second season looking for the next big gotcha. Personally, I’ve mulled theories aplenty since The Good Place returned last fall, including the possibility that there’s no such thing as a “Good Place” at all, and that this sitcom’s version of the afterlife is only as lousy as it is because the dead human souls who first populated it eons ago are as crummy as so many of us on Earth today,
Judging by tonight’s season finale “Somewhere Else,” though, series creator Michael Schur — also credited with writing and directing this episode — hasn’t been playing fast and loose with the rules laid out back in season one, episode one. There really is a Good Place and a Bad Place, and a score that determines where we get routed. The only way for Eleanor Shellstrop, Chidi Anagonye, Tahani Al-Jamil, and Jason Mendoza to spend eternity in paradise is for them to prove that they’re worthy of the ultimate reward.
The problem, as established throughout most of this season, is that they kicked the bucket before they could put enough points on the board. They’ve been pretty good since they died, but because nobody else has lived in Michael’s experimental, purgatorial Neighborhood, there’s no official cosmic way to assess their post-mortem improvement. Even the eternal judge, Jen, admitted in last week’s episode that the “tests” she gave our heroes were more or less busy work, administered for her own amusement. Statutorily, her hands were tied.
So in “Somewhere Else,” Michael proposes yet another afterlife innovation. Since Eleanor and company were on the road toward decentness in his Neighborhood, what if the timeline were tweaked a bit, and Jen got to see what these four would’ve become if they’d never died? Might they have rebounded even without the threat of eternal damnation, or — perhaps more importantly — without the promise of what a philosophical ethicist might call “moral desserts?”
That’s an interesting question, and one that promises some potentially amusing and unpredictable new stories … in season three. Compared to last year’s finale, frankly, “Somewhere Else” is a minor letdown, if only because it feels more like a season premiere than the big finish to months-long arc. As soon as Michael suggests a “what if” for his pals, the episode immediately jumps down to Earth to see what Eleanor would’ve done with her extra time. Jason and Tahani never reappear. Janet is only seen again briefly, reading the eternal soul “stock-ticker” to check on everyone’s progress. The half-hour feels a little incomplete.
That said, the Eleanor 2.0 story is both entertaining and unexpectedly wistful. “Somewhere Else” presumes that if Eleanor hadn’t been killed in a supermarket parking lot, she still would’ve made an effort to improve herself — ditching her sleazy supplement-sales gig and joining the Clean Energy Crusaders, becoming so righteous and honest that she drives away her old friends.
But because one of the main themes of The Good Place is that decency is hard, unrewarding work, this episode also figures that over time, Eleanor would have her will sapped. After a few months of eating clean — which gives her “a loose caboose” — and fighting for the environment, she backslides into boozing and blinkered self-interest, before rejoining her old snake-oil-slinging boss in a new scheme to sell seminars explaining how to sling snake oil. (“A Ponzi scheme within a Ponzi scheme,” she observes, admiringly.)
Just when it looks like this finale is going to crater into bleak despair, Michael has yet another idea — and one which necessitates one of The Good Place’s most delightfully telephile-pandering moments. The reformed demon recalls that his humans became better people in his Neighborhood because of the time they spent with each other, so in order to nudge Eleanor towards her friends, he materializes on Earth in the form of a bartender, and plants subliminal suggestions to help her discover the existence of Chidi.
Yes, that’s right: Ted Danson plays a bartender again, helping a customer to understand that she should maybe take a break from all her worries. (Wouldn’t she like to get away?)
The Good Place purposefully has a lot in common with Lost, which means that “Somewhere Else” could be reasonably compared with that show’s mind-blowing season-three finale “Through the Looking Glass,” where viewers gradually realized they were watching the show’s castaway characters after they’d been rescued from the Island. This episode doesn’t hide its true intentions as Lost did. We always know what’s really going on. Still, this finale does set up a lot of possibilities for Eleanor to find her afterlife buddies, one by one, next season — and for us to see them in entirely new contexts.
Until then, we’re left with the sweet image of Eleanor flying to Australia to meet Chidi, the man she doesn’t yet know is her soulmate. We’re haunted by a memory she doesn’t have: of him kissing her passionately, in the great void between the Good and Bad Places, and her goofily responding, “Hot diggity dog!” Will these two crazy kids get that comfortable around each other again? The journey will be arduous, no doubt. But from the fleeting glimpses we’ve seen of Eleanor in Chidi’s arms, the destination is worth the trouble.
Beyond the Neighborhood
• The Cheers homage may not have been the only bit of winking at the audience in “Somewhere Else.” Was Schur nodding to Kristen Bell’s most famous voice-acting role when he has Eleanor describe her reaction to oncoming shopping carts as, “I was just frozen?”
• This is most definitely not self-referential, but I admit that I did raise an eyebrow at Eleanor awkwardly asking, “Are you Chidi … Annakendrick?” Sometimes I have a hard time telling Kristen Bell and Anna Kendrick apart when I hear them sing.
• Not to sound like a cultural philistine, but unlike Eleanor, I do not think that a reggae-inflected Taylor Swift tribute act called “Taylor Splift” sounds “fun.”
• I know it’s supposed to be an example of Eleanor’s awfulness, but honestly, cyberbullying Ryan Lochte until he quits Instagram sounds like reason enough to send her to the Good Place.
• Before he disappears from the episode, Jason boasts that as a kid he used to “whip spray-paint cans at flamingoes.” Later, he describes his afterlife experiences as “one of the craziest years of my life.” I’m going to miss that goofy so-and-so. See you next fall, Jortles!