The Good Place
“Where I’m from, most things blow up eventually. So when something dope comes along, you gotta lock it down.” —Jason Mendoza
One of the downsides of the decision to erase Chidi’s memories at the end of The Good Place’s third season is that for much of the first half of the show’s final run, William Jackson Harper has been sidelined. While the writers have made sure Chidi has something to do each week that allows Harper to interact with his regular costars, the version of the character he’s been playing has still been somewhat simpler than usual. He’s less tortured — and thus less poignant.
The Good Place team makes up for that lapse, though, in “The Answer.” You want poignant? How about an emotionally affecting 22-minute recap of a good man’s life (and his many afterlives), culminating in a revelation about one key secret to human existence? That’s some “first ten minutes of Up”-level tearjerker stuff. And Harper plays it beautifully, balanced between the goofy and the grave. He’s an actor with true tragicomic equipoise.
Formally, “The Answer” resembles one of those old-fashioned sitcom “clip shows,” meant to remind longtime viewers of the show’s past highlights. In the opening minutes, Michael snaps his fingers to restore all of Chidi’s memories from his multiple pasts. Most of this episode takes place during that snap, which is shown in extreme slow-motion (while in the background Jason spills a disgusting-looking green cocktail, made from Midori, Coffee-mate, and ditch-water). As Michael’s fingers press together, we see inside Chidi’s head, where the key moments of his lives keep popping up in a rapid flurry, like laptop windows after a hard-drive crash.
The episode drills down into some of those moments, like the one that effectively functions as Chidi’s superhero origin story: that time he kept his parents from splitting up by delivering a reasoned one-hour presentation on marriage’s pros and divorce’s cons. (Con: “Where Would I Keep My Books?”) This was when Little Chidi decided that, “If you just read enough books and think hard enough, you can figure out the answer to any question” … which ultimately led to a lifetime of what his girlfriend would eventually dub his “thoughtful” indecision.
We get to see more of that girlfriend, from Chidi’s time in graduate school. In one of the worst weeks of his original life, she broke up with him for treating her more like a study-buddy than a lover. (“We’re not not a book group,” he countered, ineffectually.) Days later, his adviser referred to Chidi’s thesis as “an insane, tangled web of inscrutability … in the Unabomber way,” adding, “Where is the heart? Where are the guts?”
I described “The Answer” as a clip show, but it’s really more about what falls between those clips. We’d seen Chidi’s college years before, in his first-season flashbacks; but we’d never seen his breakup. The episode then does something similar when it moves ahead to the afterlife, showing scenes of the “soulmates” we never met during the Neighborhood reboots — including the spooky, raven-tending, knife-wielding Esmerelda. (When a terrified Chidi wonders aloud who brings a dagger to a friendly game night, Esmerelda snaps, “The prepared!”)
Each of these vignettes adds something to the bigger picture of who Chidi is, and of what he’s learned about himself across centuries. Even a relatively minor conversation with Tahani — about how her outward projection of confidence is born from failure — informs our understanding of how Chidi has changed since his original anxious days on Earth.
Mainly, though (and especially in the last third of this chapter), the flashbacks clarify how important the Eleanor/Chidi love story is to The Good Place — not just to the larger narrative, but to the show’s overarching themes. There’s a bit of retrofitting going on here, showing us old scenes of Eleanor and Chidi we’ve never seen before, to clarify just how their bond loosened him up and got him out of his own head, in the same way that it’s made her more attentive to other people’s needs. As Michael explains, these two may not actually be soulmates, but they did find each other, and they did recognize how they made each other better. Ever since then, it’s been an ongoing process of maintaining that connection, sometimes against long odds.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about the more meta aspects of The Good Place: all the ways that it’s a TV show about making TV shows, wherein a “showrunner” (Michael) and “staff” (Janet) and “cast” (the humans) try to create something memorable and meaningful, while adjusting to all the dead ends and disasters that inevitably befall any production. One could argue that “The Answer” serves as an explanation for why The Good Place’s creative team keeps putting the Eleanor/Chidi pairing at the center of the series … even as some fans and critics have remained unconvinced that this choice is the best one for the show as a whole. The “answer” here may actually be pretty simple: They had a good feeling about the storyline and decided to commit to it. That’s how life — and television — works.
As I said when this season started, I’ve always liked the Eleanor/Chidi coupling, so I didn’t necessarily need this week’s reminder of why it ultimately matters to The Good Place’s grand design. But even if I wasn’t already a fan, I’d like to think I could appreciate — even if just on an intellectual level — where this episode lands.
When Chidi wakes up, he recognizes that there’s never been just one idealized answer to any of life’s problems, because every solution requires constant reworking and adjustment as circumstances change. What matters, he now knows deep in his bones, is that we keep plugging away, with good people by our side.
In the Neighborhood
• Esmerelda only has about one minute of screen time here and she is already a legend. From her giving the party-game clues “a thousand years of darkness” and “fire and blood” as a way to get Chidi to say “birthday parties,” to her exit line of, “I must away and tend to my ravens,” Esmerelda is unfailingly awesome.
• There are multiple Chidi callbacks in this episode, like him casually wearing cowboy boots in his grad-student days, and Michael comparing his psyche to “a giant bowl of M&M Peeps chili.”
• Best background gag this week: Janet very slowly conjuring up a margarita for Eleanor, during Michael’s snap.
• As outstanding as William Jackson Harper is in this episode, D’Arcy Carden matches him beat-for-beat in the scenes they share. Janet’s very funny in the post-wedding scene, letting Chidi know that she and Jason are “registered at ‘me.’” But there’s also a sweet mini-arc in the depiction of the beginning and the “end” (of sorts) of the Chidi/Janet friendship. The first time they meet, she puts him at ease by telling him, “All questions are equally important to me.” Then, on the night he thinks might be the last time they ever see each other, she gives him a little kiss on the cheek — a spontaneous gesture of affection that says a lot about how they’ve both grown during their time together.