What in the hell is going on with The Good Place?
We need to talk about this dizzying, wonderful show
Thursday night's thrilling episode of The Good Place —"Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent" — finally took us to The Bad Place. By the end, the audience was left wondering whether Michael, the world's friendliest demon, is doomed. Or worse: "retired."
It's worth relishing the absurdity of that even as we panic on Michael's behalf: How did this show about the afterlife manage to scramble its stakes and premises to the point where we're gasping at the noble self-sacrifice of a character (played by Ted Danson, who was born to play this part) who — last we see of him — is grinning at his boss in a grey office environment with a scary whirling portal behind him, having sent four humans through? It's hard to imagine a more ambiguous scenario. Did he save them? Did he damn them? Is he doomed? Is he saved? Has anything been lost? Will anything be lost?
I have absolutely no clue and I'm dying to find out. That's the amazing power of this beautiful little clock of a show.
Our only hints are contextual: "I just solved the Trolley Problem," Michael says to Kristen Bell's Eleanor after he's sent the first three through. The Trolley Problem — in case you've forgotten — featured prominently in the second season, when the university professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) was trying to teach everyone (including Michael) about moral philosophy. The Trolley Problem asks you to imagine that you're a bystander as a runaway trolley barrels toward five people tied to the track directly ahead. You can derail the trolley to another track, which has one person on it. The question, no matter which variant of this problem you take up, always boils down to your orientation toward death and spectatorship. Will you intervene, thereby assuming direct responsibility for the one person's death, or remain passive, knowing you've allowed five to die?
Within the show, the Trolley Problem — which Michael "helpfully" converts into a horrifyingly realistic simulation, putting Chidi on the trolley, in the driver's seat, and covering him in the blood and bits of the dead — marks an inflection point in Michael's redemption arc with the gang of humans he was (ostensibly) sent to torture. Plotwise, it's a relapse. Eleanor realizes that Michael, with whom the humans have struck an uneasy alliance, is torturing Chidi. The Trolley Problem, in other words, specifically indexes the moment the humans discover that Michael is back to his old tricks.
The show has made it clear that the humans need to read Michael with extraordinary care — it's only thanks to the clues in his speech that they were able to correctly interpret his directions. So when he says that he's solved the Trolley Problem, we'd do well to straighten up. "See, the Trolley Problem forces you to choose between two versions of letting people die," Michael says to Eleanor. "And the actual solution is very simple: Sacrifice yourself."
That this is not actually an option in the Trolley Problem as it's traditionally defined probably means we should eye this manipulative line with some suspicion. But it is a variant, and one that has led to a lot of papers on the conditions that make altruism possible. So Michael is either full of it again — and resorting to extraordinary theatrics to convince us — or he's entered so fully into Chidi's ethical problem that he's expanded the frame of its possibilities. (You'll recall that his first response to the Trolley Problem involved puzzling out how to kill all six vulnerable parties. If he's evolved to the point that he's killing himself to save four humans, that's a bigger journey than I gave him credit for. Remember, he's a bureaucrat, and a demonic one. His defining characteristic is bemused self-interest.)
The Good Place is so perky about its darkness that it's almost impossible to take its consequences seriously. Michael has twice described what it means to "retire," once when he was still spinning the neighborhood as heaven, and once after he claimed to have come clean. That suggests that there ought to be some truth to his story that retirement, for upper management, means getting annihilated, with every molecule burned on the surface of a different sun. But it's also true that we have literally never seen anyone on this show do anything that even a little bit resembles what we conventionally think of as torture. What monsters there are tend to be affably drinking coffee. The bulk of the Bad Place employees just seem petty, vindictive, and back-biting.
I had a horrifying thought as I watched our four principals imitate demons at the Museum of Human Misery in "Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent." Chidi says, "I'm good at turning every place into my personal hell," a paraphrase of Satan in Paradise Lost, who says "which way I fly is hell; myself am Hell." Chidi adjusts his speech so he's saying nothing untrue when a Bad Place bro asks him for tips. So, what if he's telling the truth when he says this: "This one time I was assigned this chick that I had to torture and I just couldn't figure it out, and then I realized she hated books so I just gave her mad books to read round the clock."
And what does it mean that Eleanor did read those books? And had a lecture on moral particularism ready? And is kind of in love with Chidi? And her love isn't reciprocated?
I don't know, but I'm excited. If you're a The Good Place evangelist, you know that one of the challenges of recruiting viewers to watch is that the show is so nimble that it's already, within two short seasons, shed most of its premises. Any attempt to describe it turns you into a Chidi; in your effort to not lie or misrepresent, you might hesitate, trip over your words, and totally bum your listener out. There are workarounds, of course (I end up leaning hard on certain noncommittal words, like "afterlife"). But the show long ago outgrew its elevator pitch, and it just keeps shedding its most legible layers. Last week, it audaciously destroyed its set. The "Neighborhood" that Michael designed had come to be the show's visual signature. Saturated with color, festooned with fro-yo and clowns, this was the only part of the show that stayed consistent and daffy. That's gone. And last night, The Good Place appears to have done the impossible: It may have sent the four humans to the "neutral zone" and shed two of its most compelling characters. (You'll notice Janet didn't accompany them.)