Michael Schur is an optimist. He believes in the power of friendship and the existence of everlasting love. He believes that people can, with enough hard work and determination, become positives forces of good in the world. This is, in part, why people have responded to The Good Place. Amid the fantastical rigmarole and ethical dialectics and space-time warps, The Good Place is a love letter to the strength of the human spirit in the face of never-ending chaos. It’s a show that sincerely preaches the wisdom that we are all capable of so much more than we ever thought possible.
This is a perfectly valid and admirable worldview, one that gives The Good Place an emotional foundation to which it can always return whenever things threaten to fly off the handle. However, sometimes the show’s sentimental streak can veer into saccharine territory, especially when certain dramatic beats are unearned. This is, unfortunately, the problem that plagues “Pandemonium,” a season finale that entirely hinges on the audience’s investment in a certain relationship and hits yet another reset button in thoroughly underwhelming fashion.
“Pandemonium” picks up right where “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife” left off: Michael is incapacitated by a panic attack just when he’s supposed to welcome his first new human to the new Judge- and Shawn-approved neighborhood experiment. Eleanor tries to buck him up in time, but when that fails, she poses as the architect and introduces John (Brandon Scott Jones) to “The Good Place.” Despite having no memory of the 800-plus iterations of Michael’s initial Bad Place experiment, Eleanor falls into the role without a hitch, and the rest of the gang follows her lead in order to keep up the experiment.
Naturally, everything goes south very quickly. Tahani learns that John was a gossip columnist on Earth who used to relentlessly torment her with fake news items (don’t worry, his targets were rich and high-status and he was telling truth to power, so it’s okay). She logically concludes that Shawn has picked four subjects with personal connections to the gang in order to properly torture them. After realizing that the second subject is Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Chidi’s ex-girlfriend, Eleanor and the team protest to the Judge. She acknowledges that Shawn hasn’t technically broken any of the stipulated rules, but allows Michael to wipe Simone’s memory to before she met Chidi so that she doesn’t recognize the Soul Squad. Eleanor and Michael think they can weather this bump in the road, only Chidi firmly does not. He can’t avoid Simone forever and any potential slip up on his part would doom everyone to eternal damnation. Thus, he demands that Michael wipe his memory, which would necessitate him forgetting his burgeoning, passionate relationship with Eleanor.
Now, if you are deeply invested in Eleanor and Chidi’s romance and would be heartbroken by their emotional separation after three seasons of back-and-forth flirtation, then the rest of “Pandemonium” will likely work for you. But if, like me, you are in the unfortunate position of never really caring about their relationship, despite the writers’ insistence to the contrary, then the episode devolves into wheel-spinning before it reaches an inevitably pat conclusion. The Good Place consistently assumes, on spec, that its audience not only wants its leads coupled up, but also that they will be immediately captivated by their love without much effort to get them to care in the first place. Eleanor and Chidi eventually get together because it’s a Michael Schur show, so of course they’re going to get together, and by God, you will find it adorable. Unless you don’t, in which case, you’re just out of luck.
But even if I did care about Eleanor and Chidi as much as The Good Place clearly wants me too, the show has built their relationship on such firm cosmic ground that it has largely removed all hypothetical conflict or stakes from their pairing. It’s one thing to believe in the power of love. (Cue Huey Lewis and the News). It’s another thing entirely to believe this love will withstand such inter-dimensional, multi-timeline strain because it’s predestined. Michael’s video montage and Eleanor and Chidi’s tearful farewell are endearing on paper, and they still mostly work due to Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper’s respective talent, but they don’t have much actual impact because The Good Place has determined that they will always end up together regardless of what the universe throws their way. Countless reboots and a do-over on Earth couldn’t keep them apart. What’s one more memory wipe in the grand scheme of things?
Putting aside the Eleanor–Chidi issue, The Good Place’s resets have started to hit diminishing returns. The previous two season finales featured satisfying regenerations that added new complications to the existing architecture, but this one disappoints because it essentially takes a circuitous path all the way back to square one. Chidi said as much last week: It’s the exact same experiment conducted during the first season with different subjects and a whole lot more awareness. Since we’re privy to the behind-the-curtain machinations, it probably won’t take long before Shawn’s four human subjects learn the truth or for Chidi to discover Eleanor’s true identity or for the experiment to collapse under the weight of some heretofore-unexplored loophole. We’ve been down this road before.
In the interest of not being such a buzzkill, “Pandemonium” does feature a handful of good jokes, funny one-liners, and clever puns. (“Foot Lager” and “Beignet and the Jets” are good stuff.) Eleanor looking at John’s file only to find that it’s written in an inter-dimensional language was a nice sight gag. Jason gets some reliably funny material, especially his somber insistence to Eleanor that he won’t let her down after she insists he “talk to no one, go nowhere, and do nothing.” Chidi’s initial reaction to Michael’s panic attack — “Michael looks like me. That’s bad!” — is delightful. Plus, Janet’s earnest speech to Eleanor about people finding each other within the pandemonium of the universe somehow works in spite of the episode’s macro flaws because D’Arcy Carden sells the absolute hell out of it.
Still, it’s difficult not to be concerned about the series’ future based on this episode. The Good Place has always been a high-wire balancing act that could topple over at any moment. It’s not there quite yet, but it’s come closer this season than it ever has before. Here’s hoping that Schur and his own Soul Squad keep their weird, crazy ship afloat when they return next year.
In the Neighborhood
• As you have probably guessed, I am, sadly, not the incomparable Noel Murray. Your regular recapper is currently attending the Sundance Film Festival, where he’s watching a batch of the year’s newest films. I’m sure he has a different, possibly more positive, perspective on the finale.
• Apparently the craziest celebrity hookup is Drake and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They have been on and off for years and, obviously, were set up by Tahani.
• When Chidi’s mind gets erased, he won’t remember when he and Jason stayed up late and ate pizza together in Australia, but at least he will remember the concept of pizza, so it’s not a total loss.