Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop.
Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC
We are only a couple of weeks into 2017, and obviously things are still evolving on just about every level. But The Good Place has already made a convincing case that it deserves an award for most flawlessly executed TV twist of the year.
The second half of Thursday’s hour-long season finale — an episode called “Michael’s Gambit” — initially seemed to be leading toward a natural conclusion, one that might see Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), two far, far from perfect people who somehow landed in heaven, finally having to make their appointments with the devil.
This is the SPOILER ALERT! that reminds readers that if they are not caught up on The Good Place or have not watched “Michael’s Gambit,” they should not read further.
Shawn, an afterlife judge, decreed that two people from the good place must be sent to the bad place (read: Hades) to compensate for the Eleanor and Jason error. But he told the show’s main characters they had to decide who specifically should go. Eleanor and Jason could volunteer; the far more ethical Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Tajani (Jameela Jamil) — who had offered to sacrifice themselves on behalf of Eleanor and Jason — could; or the legitimately pious “Real Eleanor Shellstrop” (Tiya Sircar), who previously got shipped downstairs as part of the mix-up, could take one of the slots, letting at least one of the aforementioned four off the hook. One way or the other, before the episode ended, a pair of humans would have to take the nearest exit for the highway to Hell.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, The Good Place went for the twist. Actually, maybe it was more of a double twist. No, it might have been a triple Lindy.
In an episode that flashes back to the moment when Michael (Ted Danson) first gets the job as architect and overseer of the show’s post-life neighborhood, Bell’s Eleanor suddenly puts the pieces together: This seemingly benevolent leader isn’t benevolent at all. He’s a bad guy who’s been messing with her, Jason, Chidi, and Tajani by placing them side by side in an environment in which they perpetually torture each other. That’s right: The good place has actually been the bad place the whole time. (Danson’s simultaneously diabolical, Scooby-Doo–esque chortle after Bell explains all of this suggests there should be an Emmy category created just for him: Outstanding Insane Laugh Delivered at the Precise Moment a TV Twist Is Revealed.) What’s more, the good place residents who seemed so benevolent were actually either in on Michael’s scheme or, in Chidi’s and Tajani’s case, also not as flawless as they seemed.
Just when you were thinking, “Okay, clearly this means the show can’t go on for a second season,” yet another truth bomb detonates: Michael explains that, as architect, he will erase everyone’s memories and force them to repeat the same scenario we watched all season long, but under new circumstances that will successfully torture them for a longer period of time. In summary, and in the always timely and insightful words of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix: “Whoa.”
After a TV year in which twists often felt too predictable and even tiresome, what The Good Place did in last night’s episode proves that it’s still possible to unexpectedly shake up a narrative in ways that genuinely surprise and also spring organically from the arc as it’s been laid out. After scooping one’s jaw off the floor, a viewer’s immediate inclination was to go back and rewatch the whole first season to find all the clues, some of which were put on display via a flashback montage that suggested what Michael was really doing this whole time. The show pulled off a full Shyamalan, but in a good, Sixth Sense kind of way, as opposed to a gimmicky, “we’ve already seen this before, M. Night” way.
Showrunner Mike Schur said before The Good Place debuted that he patterned its world building after Lost. That makes even more sense now. I honestly don’t think my mind has been this happily blown by a TV changeup since the season three flashforward reveal on ABC’s island puzzler. That moment was punctuated by Jack Shepard’s famous declaration, “We have to go back,” words that Eleanor echoed, verbatim, in the first half of this hour finale when she declared that she and Jason had to return to the good place and try to save Chidi and Tajani from a fiery hellish fate.
This episode also evoked other television shows as well. As soon as it was over, I immediately thought: Wow, that was the best episode of Westworld ever! I hadn’t thought about the similarities between the two until that moment, but there was certainly some overlap, including trains, robot ladies (hi, Janet!), realms built by all-controlling men, and of course, unexpected twists. (Mo Ryan made a similar point in this Variety piece, so I’m clearly not alone in taking note of this.) And even though it’s a half-hour comedy, as opposed to an hour-long HBO drama, The Good Place ultimately did a more effective, entertaining job of illuminating the machinations behind storytelling and speaking to the idea that all the information we receive in life is simply a tale we have chosen to believe. Its strengths — its focus on complicated characters that we care about, its mix of sarcasm and warmth — highlight the the areas in which Westworld is weak.
Danson’s Michael — and again, we should have seen this all along — is a surrogate of sorts for Schur himself, who, like the architect he created, has been pranking us during the whole season. The fact that Eleanor and her friends will repeat the same scenario with no memory of the current season is an intriguing, irony-rich setup for what happens next on the show. But it also raises questions about what The Good Place becomes from a genre perspective. Is it fair to call season two — which, technically, NBC still has not confirmed will happen — a reboot? Does that mean The Good Place is a limited series? I don’t think it does, but the fact that it forces us to consider its place in the TV landscape is yet another way it invites us to ponder the way that narratives are framed.
As clever and intricate as The Good Place was in its first season, it never stopped being a comedy, and that’s what makes it such an outstanding piece of television. In a terrific New Yorker essay, Emily Nussbaum wrote about how jokes became “powerful accelerants” for falsehoods in the recent presidential election. “A joke can be another kind of Big Lie, shrunk to look like a toy,” she wrote. “It’s the thrill of hyperbole, of treating the extreme as normal, the shock (and the joy) of seeing the normal get violated, fast.”
In the context of politics, seeing the normal get violated, fast, is scary. But on The Good Place, the Big Lie and the jokes worked side by side in a way that was delightful, with the latter distracting us from noticing the nature of the former until the time was just right.
It was fitting, somehow, to see the full nature of The Good Place’s Big Lie on Inauguration Day Eve, especially given what it told us: that sometimes the man in charge is full of it; that hell really can be other people; and that even in hell, you can still get a chance to start all over and do things better the next time.