“A Fractured Inheritance” continues the #SoulSquad phase of The Good Place‘s third season. It is a phase, I think, a bridge between the Sydney era and Whatever Comes Next. And it’s a phase that is presumably coming to a close, as we’ve just about run out of Supporting Characters Who Previously Only Existed In Flashbacks. Though I guess it’s possible that the main characters proceduralize toward random acts of soul-saving, like every episode becomes about picking random citizens who need to learn the value of being excellent to each other. Certainly not the worst thing in the world, here in 2018, to construct a show about people who want other people to be good. But this week’s episode, “A Fractured Inheritance,” left me feeling like this was the least interesting phase of The Good Place‘s existence so far.
Like last week, the characters are split in two corners of the globe when the episode begins. Eleanor and Michael head to Nevada, where her mother (returning guest star Leslie Grossman) has fled Gene Simmons-related auction fraud by starting a new life as Diana Tremaine. In Budapest, Tahani sought a reckoning with her sister Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood, my favorite recurring Good Place performer who isn’t a giant lava creature.)
Grossman’s a delight as Eleanor’s mom, although her casting made a bit more sense in Child Eleanor flashbacks. Grossman’s not even a decade older than Kristen Bell, and maybe that’s part of the gag here, really. Wearing perpetual athleisure, the former Donna Shellstrop is another one of Good Place‘s American goofs, the kind of Real Housewife-in-waiting who was always destined to be Queen Bee in a decommissioned military bombing test site-turned-suburban township.
Except Donna seems much changed now that she’s Diana. The new man in her life, Dave, is a steady architect (played by Andy Daly!) She seems like an attentive stepmom figure for his daughter, Patricia. Why, “Diana” is the kind of person who’s excited about participating in the PTA meeting. “You’re running a scam,” Eleanor insists. She might be wrong. And Michael’s having a great time bonding with Dave over their shared professional history. “You should see the new Hooters on I-15,” Dave says, architect-to-architect. “It looks classy. Like a bank.” Dave’s really going places, you see. He’s designing a Subaru dealership slash burlesque club in Reno. “Man, Nevada’s a mess!” Michael remarks, still buzzing off Dave’s margaritas.
We move from American suburbia to the heights of Eurotrash avant-garde! Kamilah’s taken over a whole wing of an art museum, showing off her paintings and a piece of performance art where she herself will make any attendees an omelet. This is arguably less loopy than most performance art installations, like Marina Abramovic is cool and all but did she ever make you a tasty breakfast dish? Tahani takes the opportunity to make amends with her successful sister. “For whatever hurt I’ve caused you, I sincerely apologize,” she says. “I do not accept your apology,” Kamilah responds.
This worries Tahani. On one hand, she’s worried that Tahani is a charlatan. On the other hand, she now wants to strangle her sister. Chidi’s no help. His attempt at talking to Kamilah leads the famous artist-philosopher to hug away all his fears, real Leftovers type stuff. So Tahani seeks a more direct method. “I have matured into a fully formed adult with empathy and self-awareness,” she says. “But if you don’t accept my apology, I will smash your stupid art exhibit into bits!” Things spiral downhill quickly. An ax is brandished. Is it art, you might ask? Isn’t everything?
The common theme emerging here, between Tahani and Eleanor, is interesting enough. Expecting to find their respective relatives living a life of sin, they each start acting out in unhealthy ways. Eleanor thinks her mom is a charlatan, too, an inveterate confidence trickster running game on a sweet guy and his kind daughter. After a short while, though, Eleanor herself seems to be the fly in the ointment here, thinking the worst of a situation. Tahani thinks Kamilah’s a giant phony, and yet Tahani’s the one pulling out the ax. I wonder sometimes if this whole season of The Good Place is another confidence trick — if the Soul Squad has really learned anything, or is capable of saving anyone. Certainly, around the midpoint of the episode, you had a distinct impression that Tahani and Eleanor might just make things worse.
NEXT: Things don’t get worse
Eleanor watches her mother deliver a rousing speech to the PTA at the MGM Grand Elementary School. It’s clear that Diana isn’t the mother she remembers. And that’s what bothers her. “I wanted that mom,” Eleanor says. “Why does Patricia get that mom? If Donna Shellstrop has truly changed, then that means she was always capable of change. I just wasn’t worth changing for.”
Has Diana/Donna really changed? That evening, Eleanor discovers that her mom’s been grabbing cash out of Dave’s wallet, stuffing away dollar dollar bills “just in case everything grows up.” Ah ha, so she hasn’t changed! Except she kind of has. She’s splitting avocado egg rolls at the Cheesecake factory with the other moms, spiking her Chardonnay with ice cubes, switching to water so she can drive home like a nerd. She’s not all that bad, really, and Eleanor gives her a soft push in the right direction. “This is your chance to break the chain of Shellstrop mother-daughter crappiness,” she says. Her mom is thankful. “It seems like you’ve turned into a really good person.” They hug!
Back in Budapest, Chidi’s worried about spending the rest of his life living in a Hungarian prison on the charges of Destruction of Art. Tahani’s still stewing, declaring that Kamilah’s work has been mediocre for years. But a closer look at one painting reveals a deeper truth. The painting shows two large circles close together and two more far apart — “a pair of boobs and two extra sideboobs,” as Jason had mentioned earlier, for truly we all have our own interpretation of art and someone somewhere probably thinks there’s a lot going on in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Tahani’s interpretation is much closer to home. She sees the whole Al-Jamil family dynamic: The two parents united in the ongoing mission of separating their two daughters. “They forced us to compete, and that competition has fueled your art for decades,” she tells Kamilah. “I’m going to love you, because I love you, and because you feel just as alone as I do.” The two sisters bond of a foundational family secret: Their parents were wankers. They hug!
So, lotta hugs, lotta catharsis. Sweet, I guess, yet I found something a little simple about the architecture of “A Fractured Inheritance.” It feels like The Good Place used to be a show about characters spiraling through hilarious ambiguities of goodness and badness. They were never as good as they wanted to be, and they were trapped in an unfair system as gigantic as the cosmos. Now, around the halfway mark of season 3, the superteaming of the Soul Squad has turned the last couple episodes into rescue missions where basically decent people do their best to help other people who are basically decent with a very soft push from their friends. It’s a 2018 brand of escapism — imagine, decent people! — and it hasn’t hit me with the same raucous energy as the high heights of season 2.
But the new normal might already be turning into the old normal. As Eleanor and Michael drive away from her mom’s new life, she sorrowfully notes that she still feels the wounds of her upbringing. Her mom’s changed too late for Eleanor. “She’s the reason I could never get close to anyone,” Eleanor says. “I never even told a boyfriend I loved them.” Michael, a bit flustered, tells her one last important piece of information from her days in the afterlife. “In one of the reboots, you and Chidi fell in love,” Michael says. “Deeply. You told him that you loved him and he told you that he loved you back.”
What will happen when the gang reunites next week? Is a question I would be asking if this episode hadn’t opened a real can of canonical worms elsewhere. Before they leave Nevada, Michael works up a nice set of blueprints for Dave but forgets to include bathrooms. “I certainly use the bathroom, like anyone else,” Michael says. “Love to sit on the thing and shoot one out.” I admit I hadn’t been thinking very much about the biophysics of Michael’s earthly existence. Now it’s all I can think about. Does he still not eat? If he were examined by an Earth doctor, does his skin have, like, molecules? Is he even breathing?????