Back in 2010, AMC’s flagship drama Mad Men was in the midst of its fourth season, tracing a trajectory of self-destruction for Don Draper while charting an upward course for his fledgling independent advertising firm. Just as things were beginning to pick up (for a show both admired and resented for its leisurely pace, “picking up” simply meant seeing a steady stream of articulate Don pitches and fewer stories about his ex-wife Betty), the writers dropped “The Suitcase,” a bottle episode that, for the bulk of its runtime, features only Don and his protégé copywriter Peggy. Series creator Matt Weiner has openly admitted that the episode was conceived as filler, a temporary way to slow down the plot and utilize a smaller budget. Revolving around the simple premise of Don avoiding having to make a phone call he knows will bear bad news, most of the episode finds him and Peggy in conversation either in his office or at a cheap diner up the street. Though the episode failed to fit into its limited budget, it succeeded in nearly every other way. It brought us some of the most satisfying character work the show ever gave us, hitting dramatic and comedic beats in stride, and it stands as one of the series’ very best hours.
This week’s The Good Place feels like a sort of spiritual successor to “The Suitcase.” It’s by far the most focused episode of the season, homing in almost exclusively on Eleanor and Michael, and it comes smack dab in the middle of the season, right when the plot seemed to be picking up. If it wasn’t done right, this sudden break in the action could have seemed manipulative, but instead writer Cord Jefferson makes this episode feel like the most necessary diversion the show has taken so far on Earth.
“The Worst Possible Use of Free Will” Isn’t Exactly Your Typical Bottle Episode
While we don’t get a specific story for Tahani, Jason, Chidi, or Janet, they do each appear during the flashback scenes in the Good Place. And even within those Good Place scenes we spend time in several memorable locations, from the bright green town square, to Michael’s office, and to Eleanor’s clown-painting-filled home.
Yet, the bulk of the episode takes place in just two rooms—the ghost town of an Arizona public library and a dimly lit diner used to film porn after closing (now that I mention it, so is the library). Even more, it feels so intimate because the story builds itself around one continuous conversation, perhaps argument, between Michael and Eleanor. Eleanor is convinced that her newfound ability to feel genuine love while in the afterlife was a byproduct of Michael’s extreme conditioning and control over her everyday life. Michael, on the other hand, argues that Eleanor’s true affection for Chidi is just one example of the many ways her actions subverted his every expectation and scheme.
The constant push and pull between Eleanor and Michael takes us back to the ethical sparring that’s been largely left behind since we left Chidi’s homeschool moral philosophy class last season. What we see here is a Socratic dialogue, a twenty-two-minute argument that places a number of good points in the hands of both participants. For every claim that Michael makes about Eleanor’s agency in her fate, she has a point that calls into question her ability to overcome forces set overwhelmingly against her. And, for every claim that Eleanor makes to discredit Michael’s opinion on her life, he reminds her that he, in fact, is aware of every intimate detail of both her life and afterlife.
So much of this season has been spent deconstructing Eleanor’s psyche, especially after two seasons of building her up as an indomitable leader. We’ve seen her face the “me versus them” instinct that’s prevented her from truly becoming a part of the group, and we’ve seen her deal with her lonely childhood by directly confronting the mother responsible for her feelings of abandonment. With this foray into her ability to truly feel love for others, it seems like we’re coming closer than ever to understanding who this character we’ve been following for two and half seasons really is. The Eleanor who, after a year of ethical study, denounces her life as one giant example of determinism, is not speaking from some enlightened state of mind, but from a place of deep hurt. The truth of the matter is that if she doesn’t have to feel responsible for her actions, she can go on living the selfish way she did for years without consequence or pained conscience. By attributing her apparent love of Chidi to the highly artificial circumstances concocted by Michael, Eleanor is excusing herself of ever having to truly love again, or, more significantly, to have to feel the pain of heartbreak again. But the determinism excuse is just that—an excuse. Just as Eleanor constantly surprised Michael by making choices that foiled his fifteen-million-point torture plan, her ability to love is one more proof of free will and another bullet point to add to the ever-growing list of surprises she has demonstrated.
The Good Place Lives Again (Sort of)
Not only did this episode see the major return of ethical debates, but it also returned us to Michael’s Good Place project, and, boy, was it good to be back. In order to prove to Eleanor that she was able to love Chidi, Michael takes her back through several of the simulations, revealing in glimpses some of the most important developments in her first ever real relationship. And, after a season spent on a somewhat boring Earth, the return to the Good Place feels fresher than ever. The colors are just as green and bright as I remembered. We get some of the surrealist imagery that’s been lacking on Earth, such as the centaur that replicates Tahani’s sneering face on its upper half. The “Pick a Pet Day” event that Michael initially shows us provides ample opportunity for other gags that wouldn’t quite fit on Earth, like Eleanor walking around all day with a lizard on her head or Chidi’s face being attacked by his owl after trying to teach it to play fetch.
While we were in the Good Place for a majority of season two, this takes us back to pre-reveal moments with the gang, and it’s a wonder how easily Ted Danson is able to slip back into both the hapless architect ruse and the role of venomous tormentor. Even being back within Michael’s office and seeing him at his worst during a heated exchange with Chidi and Eleanor was one of my favorite moments of this season. “Love is stronger than anything you can throw at us,” the two claim, to which Michael responds, “I could throw an elephant at you. You think a thrown elephant wouldn’t crush you because of love?”
But Michael doesn’t want Eleanor to see these moments and recognize just how dirty of a game he was playing with the humans once upon a time. He feels personal shame over his past actions, but, until now, Eleanor has known very little of the specifics beyond what she was told in “Jeremy Bearimy.” As Michael has become more and more sympathetic, his ego seems to have shrunken into a little ball of insecurities, so his fear over losing Eleanor as a friend when she sees his evil past is understandable. And, her response that she can’t fault a demon for acting evil seems to give Michael every bit of confidence he needs to convince her that she, too, is able to overcome her nature, just as he did. In a series full of great moments between these two characters (and the marvelous actors portraying them), it was wonderful to finally get an episode spent just exploring their unique bond.
Taking Things to the Next Level
After an episode dedicated to character work, the final minute crams in not one, but two cliffhangers. First, we find out what’s next for the Soul Squad—a trip to Canada to find a conveniently unnamed proper moral compass, someone Michael purports to be a suitable “blueprint for humanity.” I’ve racked my brain about who this character might be, and, unless we’re about to visit the legendary Calgary-born Doug Forcett some forty years after he correctly predicted 92% of what happens in the afterlife while high on mushrooms, I’m going to bet that we’ll be seeing another guest star from the Mike Schur-verse.
The second cliffhanger finally reintroduces Shawn and his band of demons, who have apparently spent the previous episodes developing an illegal portal to Earth in order to track down Michael and the humans. It was a nice touch to see Vicky finish her accusations against Michael as soon as she’s released from the cocoon she was trapped in last season. What Shawn intends to do, or even what he can do without his supernatural abilities, while on Earth is uncertain, but his entrance signals that we may be coming to the endgame of the season sooner than I expected. We’ve seen the impact a reformed demon and the afterlife equivalent of Siri can have on a small group of humans, but what four demons with a taste for revenge might have in store for our heroes and humanity as a whole might be cause for higher intervention than even the Judge can provide. As we head toward a midseason break, I’m curious as to what sort of logical stopping point the writers are able to conjure up in the next episode or two, but given the progression of the season so far, it’s sure to be unexpected.