The Good Place
Right about the time that this week’s episode of The Good Place was beginning, I found myself in the parking lot of an airport hotel, about 30 miles away from my TV, standing next to a car with a stone-dead battery. Standing outside in dropping temperatures, waiting more than an hour for the tow truck to arrive, I paced around in a cloud of defensive self-pity as any human being would. Did I do something to deserve this, karmically speaking? If I did, does this punishment really fit the crime? Why me?
Those kinds of questions have been at the core of The Good Place since early in season one. We can all stipulate that Eleanor and her fellow Bad Place inmates were crummy more often than not during the time they spent on Earth. But an eternity of torture? Just for being selfish, vain, indecisive, and … Jason?
Season two’s penultimate episode, “The Burrito,” doesn’t yet make the argument that the afterlife’s statistical model is inherently messed up, but it does set the stage for the finale to go that route. This chapter’s primary function seems to be admitting that there will never be any magic words our heroes can say that’ll get them off the hook. The same universe that spawned humankind — in all our frustrating ugliness and baffling inconsistency — is itself inelegant and unsatisfying. In other words, there’s no “manager” that Tahani can complain to, nobody who will apologize for any inconvenience and pledge to “make it right.”
Not that she doesn’t try. Last week’s episode ended with Michael arranging it so that his four little lab rats could face the Eternal Judge, who this week turns out to be an agreeable lady named Jen, played by a perfectly cast Maya Rudolph. After initially apologizing that she can’t hear their case because they didn’t go through the proper channels, Jen — short for hydrogen, which was the only thing around when she was born — very quickly shrugs and says that she’s bored enough with the drudgery of being immortal to at least devise a sort of “Good Place” test for each of then.
It’s clear from the start, though, that Jen is mainly doing this to amuse herself (in large part because she likes Tahani’s accent). The outcome is predetermined, so the judge is just trying to make the “unacceptable” acceptable, like all skilled managers do.
The tests, to be honest, are a little inane, given all that we’ve seen this quartet endure. Jason has to play a Madden NFL video game, but as the Tennessee Titans instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars. (He immediately fumbles the kickoff, which is a testament to how much he’s pulling for the Jags, even when his very existence depends on his favorite team losing.) Chidi, meanwhile, has to choose between two very similar hats, while Tahani has to make it to the end of a hallway without entering any of the many rooms containing people who are talking about her. And Eleanor gets saddled with a Chidi clone, who tries to convince her that it’d be okay, ethicswise, for them to go to the Good Place themselves and leave their friends behind.
The test scenarios don’t offer enough payoffs, either emotionally or comedically, though they do lead to a couple of poignant moments. The big one involves Tahani, who at the last minute succumbs to her vanity and curiosity, opening a door that leads to her own parents. After listening to them belittle her for a while, she gets fed up and boasts about all the “wrong” things she’s been doing since last she saw them, from “shagging a Floridian” to consuming a Cheeto. (“Chewing it was deafening, and it was the happiest I’ve ever been!”)
As for Eleanor, just as she did many, many times in Michael’s various Neighborhood reboots, she sees through the fake Chidi scam pretty quickly. But before she does, she applies what she’s learned from her ethics teacher to weigh her options, vis-à-vis going to the Good Place by herself. What would Plato say? What would Superman do?
Ultimately, her decision not to leave without her friends means she’s the only one of the group to pass Jen’s test. And just when longtime Good Place watchers might wonder if Eleanor is only skating by because she’s figured out what the judge wants her do, she refuses to go the Good Place a second time, lying to her friends and saying she failed her assignment.
But the humans get a temporary reprieve at the end of “The Burrito,” when Michael and Janet show up to advocate for them, after they themselves escape the Bad Place thanks to Janet pretending to be Bad Janet and beating up Shawn. The scenes with Shawn are some of the funniest in this episode, as Michael defiantly admits that he filled most of his Neighborhood reports with excerpts from Stephen King novels and Pretty Little Liars, and as he devastates his boss with the worst insult he knows: “Ya basic.”
Otherwise, this episode really doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about where these people are in their journey toward worthiness (closer to fine, but not by much), or about how out of proportion their damnation is to their Earthly behavior. It’s enough to make you wonder what Michael Schur and the Good Place team have up their sleeves for next week’s finale.
Nevertheless, there’s something diabolical about the show’s conception of Judge Jen, who initially comes across so earthly and relatable — with her big burrito lunch, sprinkled with hot sauce spiked with “the concept of envy” — but is gradually revealed to be in service primarily to the afterlife’s big, cruel machine.
This feeling of powerlessness drives us all batty in real life. Even people who smile and seem willing to help are often following a script that’s been written to end in a “No.” We can’t get too mad about it, because things are as they are, and yet knowing we can’t get mad only makes us madder. Stay tuned next week to see if Eleanor finally boils over, as anyone would.
Beyond the Neighborhood
• I’m a sucker for a great door gag, and “The Burrito” has a doozy, with Eleanor walking out of one entryway on the right side of the Judge’s chambers and then immediately appearing through another door on the left. She claims to a grumbling Chidi (the fake one, anyway) that this trick helps her think. But really it’s just a great visual: movie-worthy cine-magic, repeated just enough to stay cool.
• Chidi can’t understand why he should go to the Bad Place just for taking over an hour to choose a hat, especially given that he’s pretty sure he picked the right one. An exasperated Jen responds to this by snapping, “There is no right one … they’re hats!”
• Jen apparently spends a lot of her copious spare time watching modern prestige TV, from Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War (“I’m immortal but that thing is looooong!”) to Bloodline (which she’s actually hesitating to get into because, “I can’t see Kyle Chandler as anyone but Coach Taylor.”)
• Shawn hates that humans expect everything to be “fair,” and grumbles that it’s our stupidest word, “Next to ‘staycation.’”
• Shawn also devises one of the cleverest possible tortures for Michael: an eternity in a room with an ever growing stack of New Yorker magazines that he’ll never finish reading. Yes, The New Yorker.