The Good Place
All Eleanor Shellstrop ever wanted was to be left alone. Saddled with neglectful parents who constantly demanded her attention, she decided at an early age to keep all personal relationships purely transactional — and to make sure that she always got the better end of the deal. Even in the afterlife, Eleanor had been fighting to stay in The Good Place because she doesn’t want to go to The Bad Place. As soon as she hears that there might be a “Medium Place” — where the fabled Mindy St. Claire resides — she bolts for it. But at Mindy’s house, just as on earth, Eleanor ultimately discovers that a life of selfish solitude isn’t all that satisfying.
The penultimate episode of The Good Place’s first season gets to the crux of the show, and is hilarious to boot. It’s the best chapter yet — as good as The Good Place gets — because of the way it balances the bizarreness of this universe with the very real crisis of conscience that our heroine is going through. She’s realized, too late, that she’s been awful throughout her life (and afterlife). So now she’s in a catch-22: Her elevated awareness of right and wrong might qualify her to stay in paradise, but now she understands that she doesn’t belong.
As it turns out, Eleanor’s case isn’t really comparable to Mindy St. Claire’s. Mindy was a sleazy, coke-addicted, power-suited ’80s lawyer, who had a pre-death revelation about how to make the world better and designed a charity that’s done amazing work since she passed. Eleanor was a rude, careless me-firster who took an ethics class after she died. Not exactly two peas in a pod.
It’s also obvious that Mindy doesn’t have it so sweet in The Medium Place. When Eleanor watches Ms. St. Claire’s afterlife orientation video — on VHS! — she learns that her new role model’s resources are limited. She has an unlimited supply of her favorite beer, but it can only be served warm. She has a jukebox loaded up only with William Shatner spoken-word recordings and live versions of every Eagles song. Her library contains only Anne Rice vampire novels (which she’s begun to cut up to make her own pornography).
Worst of all, Mindy seems painfully lonely. Stuck with her own thoughts (plus Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s) to keep her company, she hasn’t really grown over the past 30 years. She still craves cocaine and still has reveries about the fun she used to have when she was a massive creep. When she complains to her guests that their visit is inconvenient because it’s “my masturbating time,” Eleanor snaps back, “When isn’t it?”
What makes “Mindy St. Claire” such a sharp episode is how it reveals the extent to which Eleanor has changed — in part by contrasting her with Jason, who doesn’t feel any of her sense of responsibility to the people they left behind when they stole Shawn The Eternal Judge’s train. Jason would consign a saint to an eternity of torment in exchange for being allowed to pop by 7-Eleven for some gum (and some football cards, and some scratchy tickets). Jason’s slackness even infects Janet, who takes about ten steps in their long walk to the St. Claire estate before she grumbles, “Now I’m bored. This is dumb.”
So there’s some real drama here. Will Eleanor be able to motivate these dopes to leave Mindy’s and get back to The Good Place? There’s also some urgency to that decision, since Tahani and Chidi are in danger of being sent to The Bad Place instead. As far as Shawn’s concerned, if he’s supposed to consider how Eleanor has improved since death, he should also consider how the people she’s met have worsened. According to him, Tahani and Chidi have seen a precipitous score-drop because, “They aided and abetted two criminals … one of whom was a DJ.”
Shawn exemplifies the cold logic of the universe. He refuses to consider emotional appeals — he retreats into a literal cocoon whenever he hears any — which means that Michael, Chidi, and Tahani have to drop down to “Kristen Stewart on a red carpet” levels of expressionlessness. The only problem? It’s hard to judge Eleanor without bringing emotion into it. You have to put yourself inside the skin of a girl who got used to buying her own birthday cake because her parents didn’t remember, and then extrapolate how those feelings of abandonment and prideful self-sufficiency might play out over the course of a life.
“Mindy St. Claire” ends with Eleanor and Jason getting back to The Good Place a few seconds too late, just as Tahani and Chidi are preparing to be sent to The Bad Place. (The preparations involve donning douchey fedoras, naturally.) Shawn leaves it up to the four to work it out between themselves which two should go and which should stay. That conversation will undoubtedly make up the season finale, and it should be a fascinating one that deals with how we value a person’s contributions to the world. How do you compare the life of a woman who emancipated herself from her dirtbag folks and a woman who assumes that “hell” will be all knockoff handbags and tap water? Stay tuned.
- Was Eleanor destined to die even if she hadn’t met those runaway shopping carts? On that same trip to the store, she was buying “lightly expired shrimp.” Plus, she had way too many items in her cart to be in the express lane. The lady was flirting with disaster.
- Speaking of Eleanor at the supermarket, I hope you saw the magazine rack. Next to Celebrity Baby Plastic Surgery Disasters, there was a copy of International Sophisticate with Tahani on the cover. (“Not Just Kamilah’s Sister,” the headline reads.)
- The Bad Place sends Bad Janet to argue the case for taking Eleanor and Jason. Her main point is that the pair are still behaving terribly. She also makes a poot noise. “I’ve ruled the fart inadmissible,” Shawn reassures Michael.
- As much as Eleanor wants to argue that she’s more of “a medium person,” the matrix of her crimes that Shawn pulls up is pretty damning. Scalped EpiPens? Twelve salad bars sneezed on? Showed a 9-year-old child The Shining? Brief Instagram flirtation with Kid Rock? Stole a scarecrow from a Fall Follies display and put it in her passenger seat so she could use the carpool lane? Are we absolutely sure that The Good Place hasn’t spent its first 12 episodes tricking us to sympathize with a monster?
- This episode was consistently funny from start to finish, but the best comic bits involved Jason and Janet trying to figure out how to have sex. I doubt Jason has ever worked as hard on anything in his life. He made a series of diagrams. He taught Janet all about “sexy things,” like Lamborghinis, cool snakes, spinning rims, 20,000 followers on Instagram, girls with pigtails eating lollipops, latex pants, Carl’s Jr. ads, and sex. (“Some of those are right,” Eleanor shrugs.) Yet when they get some privacy, there’s just a lot of weird bumping into each other. Our man remains undeterred, though. “We are going to be trying to make love all night long,” he pledges.
- How rare are disputes over where a dead person belongs? Eleanor’s case is #00003. Assuming that Mindy’s was either #00001 or #00002, that means there’s still another case out there that we haven’t heard about. Fodder for season two, I hope.