Before I fired up this week’s The Good Place, “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will,” I mentioned to my viewing companions that it’d been a while since the writers had thrown a big, game-changing curveball at us — y’know, the kind this show usually tosses our way every three or four episodes. Then, for the next ten minutes or so, I watched with mild but mounting dismay as chapter 34 stubbornly edged backwards, rather than leaping ahead.
The episode begins in an Arizona library — or more specifically the “Tostitos Presents Public Library, Presented by GoDaddy” — where Michael has promised to use Janet’s detailed records of every Neighborhood reboot to prove to Eleanor that she was once openly in love with Chidi. After an inoculating three-second sample memory (which leaves Eleanor with her hair burned off and her teeth falling out, at least temporarily), we’re whisked back to some scenes from the Neighborhood we’ve never seen before and …
Well, honestly, it’s like we’re back to watching one of the more fumble-y season one Good Places, in which creator Michael Schur and his staff were still playing around with the limitless possibilities of the afterlife, and hadn’t yet started blowing everything up willy-nilly … Y’know, back before The Good Place became great.
It’s not that there aren’t some funny jokes in those Neighborhood scenes. The big storyline in this flashback involves the humans enjoying (at least at first) “Pick-a-Pet Day,” on which they get to choose an animal, real or mythical, to bond with for eternity. Tahani picks a “mirror centaur,” which looks and acts like a haughtier version of herself, and gives her a withering stare when she asks if she can ride her. Jason claims a penguin (not mythical, no matter what he thinks), which he dresses up in a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey and names “Blake.” Eleanor takes a lizard, which crawls all over her head while she’s trying to talk, and which Tahani thinks is perfect for her because it, too, has “combination skin.” And Chidi has trouble picking between two “heaven puppies,” and so is stuck with an owl that scratches him.
But there’s something old-hat about the dilemma the heroes find themselves in with their pets — from Eleanor worrying that losing her lizard will expose her as a fraud, to Chidi opting not to take advantage of the opportunity to attend a party where he can fly like his owl, so he can instead help his “soul mate” with her crisis. It’s nice to take a little nostalgic trip back to the early days of The Good Place, and a Neighborhood full of novelty restaurants like “Kabob Patch Kids,” where one of the potential pets the humans could choose was “something called a tarantula squid.” But it’s been done.
The second half of “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will,” though, shakes the episode up, and makes the first half look better in retrospect. (As I usually do, I rewatched the whole thing before writing this recap, and found the first part much more enjoyable once I understood its purpose.) Michael tries to cut off the flashback after Eleanor kisses Chidi, insisting that’s enough for her to understand that she’s capable of love. But she insists he keep going, showing her how this reboot ended — after sarcastically saying that she’s fine with moving on, snapping, “Just watching myself fall in love for the first time in fake heaven, what else is on?”
Immediately, the story changes, and the episode becomes another enjoyably freewheeling The Good Place that jumps around in time, on the way to making a sharper, larger point.
First, Michael reluctantly catches Eleanor up on the rest of that reboot, which ended with him telling her and Chidi that their love would never be stronger than his demonic power, because if he wanted to, he could throw an elephant at them. “You think a thrown elephant wouldn’t crush you because of love? … Even metaphorically, it’s lame.” Back in the present (or wherever we are in this “Jeremy Bearimy” timeline), Michael admits that he didn’t want to show Eleanor any of the above, because he’s ashamed of how cruel he used to be — and of how cool he thought French cuffs looked back then.
What follows is a fun dialectic between Michael and Eleanor, the latter of whom refuses to believe that she’s ever felt or expressed love for Chidi of her own free will. Pulling down the library’s not-so-well-thumbed copy of Philosophy for Dingdongs … For Morons, she explains to Michael what she’s learned from her classes with Chidi about the concept of “determinism,” arguing that she’s never actually made a free choice. She’s always been a puppet, yanked around by people like Michael — a demon whom she describes as being like an afterlife reality TV producer, getting the participants drunk in the hopes that they’ll screw.
Michael pulls out all the stops in trying to illustrate the myriad ways that Eleanor’s acted on her own in the centuries that he’s known her. He shows her the time she confessed to being a fraud, to protect Chidi, in the first version of the Neighborhood; and he pops in the reboot in which he confessed everything about the Bad Place experiment in the first minute, in hopes of learning more about what makes such a historically terrible person as Eleanor so hard to torture.
(By the way, it’s been a while since we’ve had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Good Place matrix like the one Michael pulls up, listing Eleanor’s many sins and shames. Highlights include: “Mom Once Made Mac ’N’ Cheese With Wine Instead of Milk,” “Dad Forgot Birthday, Changed Birth Certificate So He Wasn’t Wrong,” “Can’t Remember How To Spell ‘Calendar’ No Matter How Many Times She Learns,” and, of course, “Sexual Attraction to Sam the Eagle.” Eleanor explains the latter: “He’s very authoritative and I find that reassuring.”)
For her part, Eleanor suggests that maybe Michael’s been manipulated himself throughout his whole existence, by some kind of “mega-demon,” which in turn is being controlled by “super-intelligent tarantula squids.” That makes much more sense to her than the notion that she could freely fall in love.
And so, finally — finally — we get the first good The Good Place twist we’ve gotten in a few weeks. To put Eleanor’s mind at ease, Michael promises to take the humans to one of the only free beings on Earth, who lives in rural Canada, and could potentially “serve as a blueprint for humanity.” Simultaneously, Michael’s afterlife arch-nemesis Shawn un-cocoons the insufferable Vicky, and sends her through an illegal portal to Earth, with Shawn himself close behind.
The mid-season break is approaching. And whether The Good Place writers are freely making this choice or not, the time has come for this show to get back to being super strange, and unpredictable.
• The title of this episode, by the way, refers to Michael’s picking up the rest of his human friends at the airport. Hard to refute that assessment.
• The Good Place writers are just as savage to Arizona as they’ve been to Florida. At the local library, the most popular book in the poetry section is Jeff Foxworthy’s Roses Are Red and So Is My Neck; and the only book in the sex-ed section is the Bible. Also, if you stay in any place of business past closing time, there’s a good chance you’ll catch someone shooting a porno.
• Tahani’s centaur troubles are surprising, given that her family owned horses, though she admits that the animals in the Al-Jamil stable only “pulled our carriages or performed in horse ballets.”
• It’s too bad we didn’t spend more time in reboot 444: the one in which Chidi’s trapped in a purple space-bubble, “almost certainly” in pain.
• My wife, a theologian, especially enjoyed Eleanor calling Saint Thomas Aquinas “Tommy Quine-Quine.”
• Waitress: “Want something to drink?”
Eleanor: “Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. But whatever I choose will be the result of millions of biological, genetic, and societal factors that are entirely outside my control.”
Michael: “Iced tea.”
Eleanor: “Oh, that sounds good! I’ll have one, too.”