Because Michael loves humanity but doesn’t understand it, he’s both reliably funny and accidentally profound. In this week’s episode, “What We Owe to Each Other,” Eleanor begins her new job as Michael’s assistant, and immediately tries to derail his investigation into the neighborhood’s “glitches” by suggesting that he take a refreshing day off. As he bowls, plays skee-ball, and sings Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” at a karaoke bar, the architect of this sliver of paradise is delighted by the pointless frivolity that makes up so much of human existence. “Some time passed, and then it was over,” he laughs with glee. Such is life.
So far on The Good Place, all the emphasis has been on “fixing” Eleanor, as she gamely endures lessons on ethics and altruism from Chidi. But “What We Owe to Each Other” suggests that our heroine has something of value to offer to the universe just by being herself, and encouraging others to loosen up. That, after all, is a big part of what it means to be a person — at least in Eleanor’s culture.
The title of this episode comes from a book about “contractualism” that Chidi suggests Eleanor read, so that she can understand why she’s obligated to honor her verbal agreement to help Michael. He explains one theory of society, which is that it’s based on common agreements as to what we should and shouldn’t do, with each of us willingly giving our fellow citizens veto power over our suggested rules. Eleanor says that if she were there at the beginning of society, she’d veto all vetoes, which Chidi reminds her is “called tyranny, and it’s genuinely frowned upon.” (Put that in a memo to a certain authoritarian presidential candidate. Or better yet, tag him in a tweet.)
To illustrate the concept of contractualism, this week’s flashback takes us to a time when Eleanor offered to house-sit and dog-sit for a friend dealing with a family crisis. She bailed a day early to go see Rihanna in Las Vegas, leaving the dog with so much “emergency food” to eat that the pooch became obese. Aside from the dog jokes, this is the show’s weakest flashback so far. Or maybe it just feels that way because “What We Owe to Each Other” has a better, subtler illustration of the central theme in its B-story.
When Tahani invites Jason on a couples’ spa retreat, her “soul mate” asks Chidi to join them and help carry on a conversation that’s more than just him surreptitiously reading off of a Magic 8-Ball. (“All signs point to yes,” Jason says in answer to one of Tahani’s questions. And, later, “Made in Taiwan.”) The subplot starts out in a blandly farcical “someone scrambles to cover for Jason’s slipups” mode, but it takes a poignant turn when Tahani is left alone with Chidi, and the two of them discover they have a lot in common. The tragedy of these people is that they might be too good. They’ve bought into what the Good Place is selling, so they wouldn’t dream of violating the implicit contract they’ve made as its residents. Well, okay, maybe they’ll dream of it. But for now, their soul mates are bust.
Which brings us back to Michael and this episode’s A-story, which involves his determination to root out the trouble with the neighborhood. This week, we learn more about the Good Place and its steward than we ever have before, and in particular we discover that Michael’s the only architect who’s ever chosen to live in and micromanage his creation. We’ve been led to believe that the various neighborhood calamities — the sinkholes and garbage-storms and such — are all Eleanor’s fault. But “What We Owe to Each Other” reminds us throughout that the extra-dimensional entity in charge doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
What’s his problem? Maybe it has to do with his admitted fanboy devotion to humankind itself. When Eleanor gets a look at Michael’s “human objects” collection — which includes wax lips, a Mark Twain bobble head, and a big dish of paperclips — he confesses that architects aren’t really supposed to hold on to souvenirs. So he’s as guilty of violating the rules of the afterlife as Eleanor or Jason or anybody. Perhaps his soft attitude toward people is why he spends more time studying suspicious rocks and “twigs that may have a nefarious agenda” than he does taking a good look at his unworthy assistant.
On the other hand, maybe Eleanor will eventually help Michael turn the Good Place into a better place by injecting a little slovenly reality into it. This episode ends on a cliffhanger, with Michael determining (not entirely incorrectly) that he’s the real danger to the neighborhood, and that he has to leave. But the real “problem” is that the contract everyone operates under doesn’t fit the community they’re actually living in. Instead, they’re living in a universe designed by a guy who obsessively watched every episode of Friends, including the ones in season eight when the writers were out of ideas and forced Joey and Rachel together.
If Michael really wants to build an afterlife fit for these people, he has to allow it to be one where sometimes Friends is great and sometimes it’s crummy. And in a way, he seems to understand that. Just listen to what he says to Eleanor when she asks why the Good Place offers frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. That’s just what humans do, Michael says. “Taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.”
- Eleanor has named the hideous clown paintings on her wall. Say hello to “Creepo,” “Freaky Feet,” and “Nightmare George Washington.”
- Jason’s idea of a great painting is one of the impressionists, like the portrait of Frank Caliendo that he wants to give to Tahani. (He eventually gives her an imitation Degas instead, saying, “I made you an art.”)
- One major hindrance to Chidi hooking up with Tahani is that Jason actually likes her. He thinks she’s pretty, like Nala from The Lion King, and smart … like Nala from The Lion King.
- Another possible Chidi/Tahani stumbling block: She loves France, and France enslaved his country. (But Paris is nice, he admits.)
- So many good Eleanor lines in this episode, but the competition for the best would be between her saying “despite your constant mockery” in a mocking tone to Chidi, or her trying to “help” Michael find the destructive Good Place neighbor by asking, “Do you think we’re looking for a man or do you think we’re looking for two men?”