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On The Good Place, You Can’t Escape the Past

Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

“Shut the door. Have a seat.”

Those are the final words spoken in “Derek,” the midseason finale of The Good Place. Like most things in this wonderfully weird and complicated NBC comedy, they work on more than one level.

The line immediately struck me as a reference to the season-three finale of Mad Men, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” an episode in which the key employees of Sterling Cooper form their own agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. In other words, they reboot the firm, making that particular moment in Mad Men history an especially appropriate one to evoke during a season of The Good Place that’s been obsessed with rebooting itself.

But on a more basic level, the end of “Derek” tells us something important that’s been telegraphed throughout this season: The past always catches up with you, no matter what. That’s because the person who says those words is Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), the demonic manager who previously rubber-stamped the plan to once more erase the memories of Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), then reintroduce them to the faux Good Place in order to torture them anew.

The person to whom Shawn is speaking is Michael (Ted Danson), a demon in a Sam Malone–meets–Mo Rocca disguise who secretly rebooted those four humans more than 800 times, to no avail, then forged an alliance with them in which all agreed to pretend that Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason really had been successfully rebooted and were suffering as intended. The sudden reemergence of Shawn suggests he not only knows what Michael is up to, but that he intends to punish him and the other four by sending them to the truly bad Bad Place. This is obviously lousy news for many reasons, including the fact that Chidi has no chance in hell in Hell. But it’s also a way for the show to remind us that our behavior and relationships have lasting consequences and ramifications.

There are a lot of reasons why The Good Place seems to be resonating with audiences this season. There seems to be more chatter about the show on social media, which may have raised awareness about it. (If nothing else, it’s given us the ability to share images from the Nocontext Goodplace Twitter account.) It’s also more consistently clever, entertaining, and genuinely surprising than at least 90 percent of what’s on television. For some crazy reason, I feel like that must count for something.

But I also think that theme I just mentioned — the enduring impact of our actions and relationships — may be affirming at a time when the president and his White House staff are revising American history, mischaracterizing current events, and creating new lies to replace the old lies.

The Good Place has made a point of noting that the truth and the lessons of the past cannot be erased. Although Michael scrubbed some details out of his charges’ memories in the first couple of episodes of season two, he could not prevent them from realizing that the supposed Good Place is really the Bad Place, just as they did in season one. You could say that’s because Eleanor is smart enough to figure it out every time, but that really doesn’t explain why Jason also stuck the explanation at least once. Instead, I think some part of Eleanor and her friends still remembered that they had been duped before, meaning it was only a matter of time before they caught Michael in the act again … and again … and then again.

It’s also worth noting that even after all those reboots, Eleanor still managed to access her messed-up childhood memories about death (as well as that time she cried into a plunger at a Bed Bath & Beyond), and take away something valuable from those experiences to pass on to Michael. “All humans are aware of death,” she tells him in episode four. “So we’re all a little bit sad. All the time. That’s just the deal.”

Even Janet, who is an actual robot and has been rebooted roughly a zillion times, couldn’t forget that she was once married to Jason, a fact that prevented her from celebrating his relationship with Tahani even though she couldn’t understand why. Whether it’s a memory of past love, an act of dishonesty, or clandestinely recorded film of two people in bed together that’s secretly hidden on a VHS tape of Cannonball Run II, The Good Place tells us that, while self-improvement may be possible, important facts and details about ourselves can’t just be deleted, denied, or avoided.

That’s why it made total sense that Shawn reared his head at the end of this episode. After all, Michael could only keep his scheme a secret for so long. Now that he’s presumably been found out — and now that he’s seemingly begun to develop genuine human emotions — a trip to the Bad Place could be just as horrifying for him as it will be for the others.

At this point, we’re rooting for Michael because (1) he’s now on the same team as our flawed heroes, and (2) it’s obvious that he’s trying to become a better … uh, infernal being. Yet there’s also something satisfying about seeing him getting caught because of what Chidi says earlier in this midseason finale: “Moral strength is defined by how we behave in times of stress.” In a time of stress, when his plan wasn’t working, Michael behaved in an immoral fashion, even though his secret didn’t technically hurt anyone, which makes it less of a sin according to Chidi. Now that he’s been caught and potentially faces more stress, we’ll get to find out — after The Good Place returns from its two-month winter hiatus — whether he’s evolved enough to respond with more integrity.

I’m not sure what Michael will do, but I feel slightly hopeful that he’ll try to do right by his friends. Which is yet another reason why watching The Good Place is reassuring right now: It convinces me that the once semi-deplorable characters on this show have a shot at finding virtuousness. Whereas back here on Earth, at this moment, the distance between certain authoritative figures and decency feels farther apart than it’s ever been.

On The Good Place, You Can’t Escape the Past