“Young lady, you will stop this nonsense, go to the PTA meeting, and support your mother. I won’t hear another word about it!”
In the middle of this week’s The Good Place, Michael assumes the demeanor of a surrogate father, pushing Eleanor to reconcile with her lost-then-found real mother. Though this is a rather overt instance of it, Michael’s words remind us that he’s played a fatherly role toward Eleanor for a bulk of the series. At first, he was a paternal architect turned disciplinarian. When he was revealed to be a demon, he became the terrible bringer of justice, an angry father with all his secrets on the table. With his acceptance as an appreciated member of the group he once sought to torture, he revealed himself to be a seasoned figure of knowledge, if not exactly wisdom, dispensing advice to his newly adopted human children. Since the group has made the break from the Bad Place, and especially since their time on Earth, Michael’s become the protector and guardian of his friends, watching at a distance and knocking down obstacles that might impede their progress. Whether he’s the devil or God Almighty, Michael has always been watching, guarding, and intervening.
For Eleanor, whose childhood was marked by both an absent mother and father, Michael’s presence in her life seems to have been a steadying force. Even if his verbal attempts to command the respect of a father are “not even in the ballpark,” as Eleanor says, her own tone sounds like a daughter rolling her eyes at a dad joke. As she’s preparing to confront her mother Donna, she also, consciously or unconsciously, is preparing to confront the traumas of a childhood spent in the presence of a young, neglectful parent. Even so, there’s a sense that no matter what emotional turbulence she is about to encounter, she’ll be OK—she has Michael to fall back on regardless of whether she has her mom or not. Michael’s pep talk in the car at the beginning of the episode is quiet and calming, even as he elaborates on the ridiculous reasons behind her mother’s disappearance (which is more absurd: Donna’s invented cause of death at a Rascal Flatts concert or her actually skipping town to avoid ponying up the $30,000 she bid for a date with Gene Simmons at a charity auction?) and the new life she’s plucked out of thin air. For every moment that Eleanor is on the verge of letting her anxiety and anger get the best of her, Michael is there to talk her down.
This father-daughter relationship of course goes two ways, and we’ve seen countless moments before where Eleanor has helped Michael through his own life crises. But it’s special for being the only real instance of a functional parental relationship on the show. Though we have yet to see what sort of upbringing Chidi endured, the other three humans are clearly products of their environments. Jason is a mirror image of the drug-peddling Donkey Doug, Tahani constantly strives to outperform her sister to garner the affection of her parents (more on that below), and Eleanor’s tendency toward brashness and isolation are either inherited directly from her mother or defense mechanisms born of her absence. Even Janet, who is becoming more and more indistinguishable from the humans, recognizes a lack of parental figures in her own life when she refers to the Judge and Michael as mom and dad in “Everything is Bonzer!” So, when an episode like this comes along to delve into parental failures, Michael and Eleanor’s relationship is a reminder of the positive impact a functioning family unit can have on a person’s life.
Whose McMansion is This?
Eleanor and Michael find Donna Shellstrop living in Nevada under the fake name “Diana Tremaine.” Donna is dating Dave, who, we learn, is the first ever architect to build a Hooters out of brick, and whose delightful dad-vibes are brought to life by Andy Daly. She also is helping care for Dave’s nine-year-old daughter Patricia, who appears to receive every ounce of attention that Eleanor desperately wanted throughout her own childhood. The four adults enjoy margaritas together, and we learn that Donna is running for head of the local parent-teacher association. Every bit of this new suburban, yoga-pants lifestyle seems in complete contrast to the woman Eleanor once called her mother, and she grows increasingly uneasy about it all.
The moment that truly seems to do Eleanor in is when, from the podium at the PTA meeting, Donna calls on Patricia to stand and be recognized by the attendees. As a kid, Eleanor could hardly get her mother’s attention long enough to sign a permission slip, but now this other child is being congratulated and applauded simply for being a “great kid.” This is the last straw for Eleanor, who directly confronts Dave with the truth about her mother, but she is shocked to find out that he already knows the full story. For Eleanor, the only thing worse than her mother running away would be her finding happiness in the arms of someone who is OK with her actions. So, she tries to theorize a way that Donna revealing her secrets to Dave might play into some larger scheme.
When Michael asks why she can’t believe her mother’s story, Eleanor finally breaks. “I wanted that mom!” she exclaims. “If Donna Shellstrop has truly changed then that means she was always capable of change; I just wasn’t worth changing for.” The slight breaking in Kristen Bell’s voice here is somewhat shrouded by the campy electric piano chords that soundtrack this scene, but it’s nonetheless a great display of her range as an actress. As much as Eleanor’s comment comes from her trauma as an ignored daughter, it seems like she’s analyzing her own motivation to change at the same time. Now that she knows she hasn’t got a chance at making it into the Good Place, what, or who, is worth changing for? When she abandoned the Brainy Bunch after Trevor’s meddling at the beginning of the season, she wasn’t merely renouncing her will to change, but was also declaring that the rest of her friends weren’t worth the hassle of changing for. But Eleanor at least felt bad enough to return to the group. Her mother never wrote or called, and now that the two are reunited, she doesn’t seem particularly remorseful for her actions, either.
Of course, it turns out that Eleanor’s intuitions are right—Donna has been hiding away cash in a box of laundry detergent, keeping it safe for the day this new family arrangement falls apart and she needs to skip town again. But rather than tattle to Dave and potentially ruin her mother’s new life, Eleanor recognizes that Donna’s newfound happiness has actually made her a better person, and she advises her to hold onto this new relationship as long as she can. Eleanor even ends the one-way feud between herself and Patricia by advising her mother to set aside money for the girl’s college fund. Unlike Eleanor, who’s had more than a year to go back to Earth and change the way she lived, Donna will never be able to go back and adjust the way she treated her daughter, but she certainly can prevent that hurt from happening to Patricia. That Eleanor is able to make peace with her mother after years of neglect and deception proves just how far she’s come on her moral journey, even if there is a bittersweet taste in her mouth on departure.
The Absolute Biggest Wankers on Earth
Eleanor’s not the only one confronting the realities of a tarnished childhood in this episode. Back in Budapest, Tahani attempts to make amends with her spotlight-hogging sister Kamilah, who, as part of her new art exhibit, is cooking designer omelets. Of course, Tahani is unable to withstand the humiliation of waiting in line for the exhibit to see her sister, so she cuts to the front to meet her directly. Kamilah will have nothing of Tahani’s half-meant apologies for her jealousy over the years, and when Chidi attempts to help mediate, he comes back from Kamilah in the same state of awe as the hundreds of people waiting hours in line for her. After another heated interchange, Tahani breaks out Chekov’s axe that’s conveniently placed in the middle of the museum, and she and Chidi end up in handcuffs. Taking a moment to ponder the paintings her sister has produced, she realizes that each depicts two diverging forms (or, as Jason puts it, boobs) in conflict with each other.
This discovery leads Tahani to a moment of clarity that we viewers have suspected for a while: the sibling rivalry isn’t rooted in an innate hatred of each other, but a result of the competition their parents willfully threw them into. That Tahani wouldn’t have previously considered the parents she spent so long trying to please as the source of her misery reflects her own preconceived notions about parenthood. Unlike Eleanor, she grew up in a lavish house and was always well-provided for. Unlike Jason, she had both mother and father watching over her every move. In fact, since neither of those two have any siblings (unless next it turns out that Pillboi has been Jason’s brother this whole time), it might make sense that her lack of “only child” status is what leads her to widen the attention-sucking blackhole of her personality in the context of the group. Eleanor never had to compete with an equal for her mother’s attention, but Tahani did and, as a result, has been left a mess of insecurity, constantly trying to win over her friends by name dropping famous celebrities. The psychological damage inflicted upon both her and Kamilah by their parents is just as bad as anything Eleanor endured, and it’s interesting to see how people of radically different backgrounds can both end up so miserable with the hands they were dealt.
Tahani wraps her handcuffed arms around her sister and apologizes again—but this time she calls attention to how foolish they’ve been in competing with each other simply because their parents wanted to crown a victor. In just a few words and with a voice shaken by tears, Jameela Jamil communicates years’ worth of tension and pain being lifted from Tahani’s shoulders. For a character too-often relegated to the comic-relief part of the ensemble, Tahani tugs a heavy amount of emotional baggage silently into every scene, and Jameela is absolutely up to the task of portraying it all.
If last week’s episode felt like a procedural, this week it’s a family drama, and a great one at that. By the end of the half hour, Eleanor has found closure with her mother while leaning hard into Michael’s fatherly qualities, and Tahani has finally made peace with Kamilah. Though neither of these stories work to advance the major arc of the season, they’re both incredibly effective in showing how much the humans are changing for the better on Earth. Where early episodes this season sped through important character development, here each character beat is allowed to breathe. Last week, Jason showed signs of distress that we had rarely seen before, and now both Eleanor and Tahani dive deep into their pasts to uproot the rot from their lives. It seems like the writers keep bouncing between rushing through plot points and slowing things down to a crawl, and, while this episode was marvelously executed, it still speaks to the unmeasured pace of the season as a whole. It’s especially weird considering previous seasons rarely had this pacing issue, let alone an issue of balancing character development with every twist and turn.
If the final seconds of “A Fractured Inheritance” are any indication, the upcoming episode will continue further down the slow-going emotional path of unpacking Eleanor’s past, albeit this time her future-past in the afterlife (thanks a lot, Jeremy Bearimy). Michael’s confession that Eleanor and Chidi have fallen in love in previous Bad Place resets feels a bit like a writing crutch for the lack of romantic chemistry the pair have displayed since their time on Earth. But the likelihood that we’ll finally get to see the two explore their relationship after it being mostly pushed to the side this season is still exciting. We’re just about halfway through season 3, and, knowing The Good Place, things are only going to get crazier from here on out.