Spoilers below for The Good Place season finale.
In the third-season finale of The Good Place, Eleanor and Chidi basically broke up and started their relationship from scratch again. Because this is The Good Place, it happened because Chidi needed to wipe his brain of all memories of his ex-girlfriend, Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who had been sent to the (fake) Good Place to mess with the gang’s latest experiment in proving that people can become better humans. In order to remove all memories of Simone, Chidi needed to eradicate all memories of his romance with Eleanor, effectively erasing their relationship. In the finale’s closing scene, he was brought back into the Good Place fold, unaware that he ever met Eleanor, or, for that matter, Simone, Jason, Tehani, and Michael.
This was The Good Place’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind moment, and it produced a touching scene in which Eleanor and Chidi said good-bye to each other after watching a Cinema Paradiso–inspired highlight reel of all the special times they’ve shared together. It was beautifully scripted and sweet and well-acted by both Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper. (Bell should 100 percent submit her teary delivery of the line, “I’m a legit snack” as her Emmy consideration reel. Like, just that line and that’s it.) I am definitely rooting for Eleanor and Chidi to find their way back to each other. But at the same time, I do not stan Eleanor and Chidi. I want their relationship to work for reasons that have more to do with the show’s central theme, rather than the usual rom-com desire to see two made-for-each-other people finally get their happy ending.
In his recap of the season finale, Vikram Murthi expressed similar feelings. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
I also have felt like the relationship has been forced, a response I have grappled with because: (1) I like both of the characters, (2) I like both of the actors breathing life into those characters, and (3) I very much like the show in which they both appear. So, what’s my problem? Am I going to the Bad Place because of this?
In my defense, and in the interest of avoiding an afterlife that requires me to clean Shawn’s demon-toilet for eternity, the connection between Eleanor and Chidi has evolved in a way that’s much more challenging than the traditional rom-com route. One of the reasons for that is, to borrow words that Chidi himself spoke in the finale: Jeremy Bearimy, baby.
The timeline in the afterlife, as Michael explained in the “Jeremy Bearimy” episode earlier this season, does not work in a normal linear fashion. It swoops and swirls and doesn’t run parallel at all to days, months, and years on Earth. Neither does the timeline on this show: There are constant reboots and redos, and, as of this season, multiple trips through a vortex to visit Earth, not to mention a two-episode hang in the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes. Keeping up with the plot machinations of The Good Place, not to mention the philosophical subtext underneath all of those developments, involves a ton of mental energy on the part of Michael Schur and the writers, as well as the audience. I have done no scientific study on this, but it makes sense that when the cerebral mind is running on overdrive, it becomes more challenging to activate the emotional side. Obviously it’s possible to think and feel at the same time — well, maybe not for Jason Mendoza — but on the scale of The Good Place experience, the weight is slightly heavier on the brainy side than the heart.
Beyond the timeline, there’s also the fact that the attraction between Eleanor and Chidi has ramped up in fits and starts. Because of the repeated reboots in season two, and then the mega-reboot in season three, neither of them can always remember how they have felt about each other before. In the season-three episode “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will,” Michael has to tell Eleanor that she and Chidi got it on in the afterlife. She learns that she was in love with him (and perhaps still is), which may help her make sense of feelings she already possesses subconsciously. But for those of us watching, that’s not the same as watching a spark slowly develop or be acknowledged between two characters over normal, non-Bearimy time.
We only see snippets of those many reboots, for obvious reasons. This is a half-hour sitcom and there isn’t enough time in the world for us to absorb everything that transpired between the characters every time Michael hit reset. By necessity, The Good Place asks us to accept that the feelings are there. But as good as Bell and Jackson Harper are together, the chemistry between them is more of the warm, comfortable, low-key variety. To use a Ted Danson–related analogy, there isn’t an obvious Sam-and-Diane fire between them. You can imagine them becoming lovers, but it’s just as easy to imagine them simply being close friends, as they were when season three began. (Since I watch the episodes in batches, based on when NBC provides them to critics and when they air, I do wonder if those who binge entire seasons feel the same way.)
And yet with all of that said, I’m still rooting for Chidi and Eleanor to hook up again in the fourth season, because their relationship is core to the show’s ultimate message: People can change, and the main catalyst for change comes from a desire not to “score heaven points,” but to honor the humanity in others. Before she met Chidi, Eleanor was an aimless anti-intellectual who not only lacked a moral compass, but couldn’t say the words “moral” and “compass” without belching in between them. Before he met Eleanor, Chidi was a cripplingly indecisive egghead who couldn’t stop thinking about ethics long enough to act on impulse. Together, they prove that two people can grow, precisely because of the magic that happens when another person inspires you to become your best self.
More than the success of any relationship, that’s what I am rooting for The Good Place to do: prove that it is possible for people to change, atone for their past sins, and commit to common decency. Given the cultural backdrop against which the show has unfolded, I’m sure I am not alone in wanting the show to reach that conclusion. (Trying to see the good in people at this particular moment in America is more difficult than believing that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Drake have been having secret trysts for years. Does that mean “Hotline Bling” is actually about RBG? So many questions!) The bond between Chidi and Eleanor isn’t simply a matter of destiny, or hard evidence that two people who are meant to be together will always find their way back to each other no matter what. Their love for each other is intertwined with the show’s ability to prove that Michael is right: People are inherently good and capable of doing good, even if they’ve temporarily taken a very wrong path.
Back in season two, Chidi told Eleanor, “I just wish we met the way normal people meet: at a philosophy conference, or after one of my philosophy lectures, or you came knocking on my office door asking for help with philosophy.” Of course, at the beginning of season three, Eleanor actually did come knocking on Chidi’s office door asking for help with philosophy. But at that point, he already had feelings for Simone. The partial Chidi reboot at the end of “Pandemonium” means that, in season four, he’ll finally get to meet Eleanor and Simone at the same time, with no preconceived notions or emotions. I’m hoping he chooses Eleanor, not because I think they have the sort of classic TV love that can’t be denied. I’m rooting for them because their ability to love one another is for the greater good.