There were so many theories: Was Janet God? Was Michael in the Bad Place? Was Jason's dimness fake? I even proposed that Chidi might be a demon. But what happened in The Good Place's second season finale is arguably the weirdest turn the show has taken yet: After destroying its Neighborhood and wandering the touristy side of The Bad Place, the show about heavens and judges and bureaucratic hells has finally come crashing back to Earth.
Probably. The idea is that Eleanor (and the others) have somehow been granted a second lease on life on Earth to see if they're truly capable of improvement. But there are questions concerning Chidi's American accent in this version of Earth, since it was stipulated in the fake Good Place that Chidi — who is Senegalese — was speaking to Eleanor in French which was being insta-translated by some kind of paradisal Babelfish. Chidi's accent might be evidence that this "Earth" is a simulation Janet and Michael are observing with their ticker-tape counters.
On the other hand, the show sometimes gets a little sloppy about this stuff. (It doesn't make sense that Chidi's accent is American during his own flashbacks to his own life, for instance.) So either something's off and this is a fake-Earth simulacrum, or the show just dropped a stitch or two. This bugs me more than it should if it's the latter — Michael made a point of referencing the improbability of Monica and Rachel being able to afford the apartment in Friends, which suggests that this is a show that thinks through plot holes, so I hope it thought through this one. (And no, "plenty of people are bilingual" doesn't adequately explain why a Senegalese man teaching in Australia would speak English like an American.)
Further evidence for the simulation theory — or for some more cosmic idea of destiny — is the fact that Chidi and Eleanor (who kissed right before this test, and right after Chidi compared his mental life to a fork grinding in a garbage disposal) meet on Earth in almost exactly the way Chidi once wished they would. "Is it grinding in there right now, bud?" Eleanor asked him then. "Yeah," he said, "but the point is the circumstances under which we met are completely insane. And that just makes the grinding harder. I just wish we met the way normal people meet, like at a philosophy conference, or after one of my philosophy lectures, or you came knocking on my office door asking for help with philosophy." This last turns out to be exactly how they meet. If you've seen Black Mirror's "Hang the DJ," that might give you pause. (Or hope!)
Mike Schur's show has the dexterity to pull off this kind of hairpin turn, and it's fun to see Eleanor get the literal and symbolic "pushes" she needs to improve on Earth: Michael shoves her out of the way of the carts that killed her, and later — disguised as Sam Malone, a human bartender — works the phrase "What We Owe to Each Other" into his conversation with a drunk and derailed Eleanor, who has stopped trying to be good. That's the title of the first season's sixth episode, and it's also the title of Scanlon's book on contractualism, which Chidi gives her. ("Uh, imagine a group of reasonable people are coming up with the rules for a new society," Chidi says by way of explanation. "Like if your Uber driver talks to you, the ride should be free?" Eleanor replies. "Sure, but anyone can veto any rule that they think is unfair," Chidi says.)
Scanlon's is also, of course, the book on whose flyleaf Eleanor writes "Find Chidi" before they're reprogrammed the first time in "Michael's Gambit."
[Screenshot/NBC/The Good Place]
That's a neat symbolic collapse that really pays off in the finale's treatment of theory and praxis: Eleanor once again Finds Chidi through Scanlon, but contractualism is also the basis on which her new lease on life is negotiated with the Judge (a sunny and game Maya Rudolph). Take a look at this part of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's discussion of Scanlon's theory:
Scanlon's version of contractualism is not just concerned with determining which acts are right and wrong. It is also concerned with what reasons and forms of reasoning are justifiable. Whether or not a principle is one that cannot be reasonably rejected is to be assessed by appeal to the implications of individuals or agents being either licensed or directed to reason in the way required by the principle.
This is basically what Michael argues to the Judge: The entire system by which humans are sorted into Good and Bad Places is flawed. Its reasons and forms of reasoning (and sentencing) aren't justifiable because he's proven that humans can improve even after death.
Michael and the Judge tacitly settle on a mutually satisfactory test — one condition of which is that the humans can't know that their eternal life hangs in the balance.
"What We Owe to Each Other" is also the episode where Michael — pretending to be at the end of his rope because he can't find the glitch in his neighborhood — tortures Eleanor by enlisting her aid in detecting the problem, which is her. He says there that "to prepare to meet all of you, I studied the human concept of friends. I even watched all 10 seasons of the show Friends. Boy, those friends really were friends, weren't they?" Michael was pretending when he said that, but this is a show where pretending to be good sometimes turns into the real thing. (Unless you're Tahani.) Chidi and Eleanor might have started out as fake soulmates, but they're drifting awfully close to the real thing. As for Tahani and Eleanor, and Eleanor and Michael, and Michael and Janet, and Janet and Jason? They really are friends now. This was a sweet finale that took the time to drive that point home hard.
A couple of weeks ago I was wondering whether Chidi was a demon. Having learned nothing (I'm no Eleanor), I'm now irresponsibly wondering whether Michael might be some kind of angel after all — named for the Biblical advocate of the Jews and angel of death who gives each soul a chance to redeem itself. For all the legalistic arguments Michael makes to the Judge, the subtext is that friends tend to want their friends to get a little more than just their just deserts. Never one to let a philosophical test run unmanned, Michael shows up, meddles in the neighborhood, and tips the scales.