If I could remove one word permanently from the vocabulary of all TV writers, I’d pick “trust.” Far too often, rather than introducing actual action to a television plot — as in, “The hero needs to achieve this crucially important goal, and must accomplish the following complicated physical and intellectual tasks to do so” — writers default to a stalling tactic, by having characters spend an episode or two stewing over hurt feelings. “I can’t trust you any more,” they say to someone who lied to them or let them down. And then the “action” becomes people talking through their problems, rather than doing something exciting.
This week’s The Good Place, miraculously, executes a “trust” story line that works, for two reasons. First, the show doesn’t linger on the trust issue interminably. It’s introduced at the start of the episode and is then (mostly) resolved by the end. More importantly, this particular complication isn’t about someone struggling with a bruised ego. This is actually a matter of life and death … or, more accurately, afterlife and eternal torture.
The aptly named “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy” doesn’t waste a lot of time getting to the point. The hooded figure we saw trucking toward the Neighborhood last week arrives almost immediately, and turns out to be the bespectacled, meek-natured demon Glenn. He immediately announces why he’s there: to warn the humans that their “Michael” is actually Vicki in a Michael suit. Eleanor doesn’t want to believe Glenn, except … This big reveal forces Michael to admit that he’d already been told about the existence of Vicki’s Michael suit. Worse, he has to confess that he lied to Eleanor about his emotional breakdown, which was not actually a clever parental trick to get her to take charge. (Michael knows this was a lie, but describes it as “an inspirational one,” like “all of Instagram.”)
The lies and half-truths are troubling, not because of what they say about Michael’s relationship with the humans, but because they make dumb ol’ Glenn’s stupid accusation seem annoyingly credible. Unable to call Gen the Judge for a ruling — for fear she’ll just restart the whole experiment — the gang gathers to puzzle out who’s really telling the truth, leaving Glenn tied up in Mindy St. Claire’s living room, thirsting for a hot glass of pig urine. (Asked by Eleanor what mixer would go well with urine, Jason doesn’t miss a beat before saying, “Coconut rum.”)
Is Glenn on the up-and-up? He does seem genuinely concerned that the Bad Place is overstepping its mission, and is now torturing humans who don’t deserve it. Also, he has plausible inside info suggesting that the deployment of buff Chris as an undercover operative was all a diversion, meant to kidnap the real Michael and sneak Vicki into the Neighborhood. And he correctly declares that Shawn is just a big bully, who yells at everyone all the time. Jason can sympathize with that, because on Earth people yelled a lot at him, too, shouting things like, “You didn’t pay for that!” and “How do you plead!” and “He’s flatlining! Clear!”
As for Michael, he could answer his friends’ questions in a second if he would just take off his own skin-suit and reveal the demon-self within. But he’s too ashamed. “I’ve seen a lot of weird hogs in my life dude, get over yourself,” Eleanor says, to which Michael replies — quite movingly — that he’s worried the humans would never look at him the same way if they see him in his “fire squid” form. He’s actually 6,000 feet tall, with flaming tentacles and teeth everywhere. His neck is long and, “there’s a smell … And lots of juice… There’s so much juice.”
As the tension mounts in this episode, Janet whips up a kind of demon lie-detector wand, but the first time she uses it, Glenn explodes. While they scoop up Glenn’s goo (and glasses) so he can begin the process of reforming and becoming a demon again, Michael offers to blow himself up as well, so that, “I’m out of your hair for good … Well, parts of me will be in your actual hair.”
Again, all of this is both funny and legitimately nerve-racking. The payoff is terrific, too, when Jason — yes, Jason, the guy who can be distracted by a caramel — figures out the Bad Place didn’t switch Michael with Vicki; they switched Janet with Bad Janet. When he calls Janet “girl” and she doesn’t respond “not a girl,” he knows something’s amiss. By the end of the episode, he and Michael are on their way back to the Bad Place to go rescue the real Janet and to punch a bully in the mouth.
The thing is, though, The Good Place hasn’t entirely buried the trust question when it comes to Michael. For Eleanor & Co., from now on they won’t just be wondering, Is Michael lying to us again? but also, Has the demon we love been replaced by another demon? That’s a real wrinkle, not so easily ironed out with an apology or a long conversation. In other words: That’s good TV storytelling.
In the Neighborhood
• Not a lot of business for the new humans this week, aside from an episode-opening game of “Magic Pictionary,” wherein two teams — wearing T-shirts reading “John & Tahani & Jianyu” and “Chidi & Brent & Simone” — draw items meaningful to each other’s lives on Earth, which then come to life. John is treated to a living version of Mariah Carey’s lower-back butterfly tattoo. (“I wrote my college thesis on that back tattoo,” he boasts.) And Simone … well, Chidi tries to draw her childhood pony Daisy, and instead conjures up a misshapen blob too monstrous for this world. (Bad Janet later describes how it was killed: “I had to twist her head off. She did thrash. There was thrashing.”)
• Brent maximizes his obnoxiousness in his brief time onscreen, mainly by calling Chidi “Chippy” and encouraging him during “Magic Pictionary” to “just start drawing, my brotha!” The terribleness of this gradually washes over Simone, who just keeps saying, “Oh, no. No, no, no, no …”
• Jason exposes Bad Janet with the help of Mindy and Derek’s magnetic handcuffs, from their wall of inexplicable sex toys. This stupefyingly weird collection sets up one of the episode’s funniest lines, when a repulsed Michael groans, “I just touched the danged diaper!”
• The different stages of demon growth, per Michael: larva, slug monster, spooky little girl, teenage boy, giant ball of tongues, social media CEO, demon.