By Darren Franich
January 17, 2019 at 10:00 PM EST
Colleen Hayes/NBC

“Chidi Sees the Time-Knife” is a slippery episode of television, in good ways and bad. After a season that has journeyed around the world, across the Jeremy Bearimy-scape of the afterlife, and through the infinite expanse of Janet’s void, the penultimate episode of season 3 explicitly returns the characters to something like the status quo. It feels like it could be the end of the season, one of those trendy post-Game of Thrones finales that sets the foundation for next year. But the actual finale airs next week — and the general whiplash of this season’s twists makes me loathe to assume anything about the show’s future.

In many ways, “Time-Knife” echoes season 2’s penultimate episode, which marked the first appearance of Maya Rudolph’s Judge and the first time that the Judge gave Michael and his human pals the opportunity to change her mind via elaborate social experiment. This time, they’re meeting at IHOP, the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes, which either looks like a Diane Von Furstenberg pattern from Spring 2013 (per Tahani) or like a bad salvia trip that will end in a few minutes when everyone wakes up in Pillboi’s broken hot tub (per Jason.)

It’s a weird place, full of grotesque negative-zone slug creatures called neednoggles (neednoddle? neegnobble? spelling unclear, all sound gross!) The Judge pulls a filter over the frightful place so it resembles an actual IHOP. Michael gives the Judge his accumulated findings about the unfairness of Good Place points-keeping, how even just buying a tomato at a grocery store winds up creating negative consequences. The Judge is unimpressed. “Your big revelation is life is complicated?” she retorts. Michael’s got no follow-up; he does the backpack kid dance because people always enjoy that, don’t they?

The day is saved by holy fool Jason, who tells a very long story from his days in Jacksonville that concludes with a universal truth. “You can’t judge humans,” Jason tells the Judge, “Because you don’t know what we go through.” It’s a challenge the Judge accepts. She sets off for Earth — and returns, shocked. The Earth is a mess, she explains: “Also, I guess I’m black, and they do not like black ladies.” She admits that she had a good time in Hawaii, though she barely left the resort — which, c’mon Judge, you can swim anywhere, the action’s happening on the hiking trail!

What the Judge experiences most of all are the unintended consequences of modern life. So she calls up Shawn, the Bad Place demon, who’s been busy torturing William Shakespeare by describing the plot of the Entourage movie. Shawn doesn’t see anything wrong with the system. Humans invented Limp Bizkit and slavery: Case closed! Michael admits humanity has problems — Nazis, again, ugh forever — but begs for a reconsideration of the fading points system. After all, didn’t Michael’s prisoners learn to change themselves in his neighborhood? Doesn’t that imply some possibility of redemption — that humans would all be good if they lived in a place where they could just focus on being good?

That’s when Chidi announces that he has an idea. But only after he sees a trillion different realities folding into each other like thin sheets of metal forming a single blade. Y’know: The time-knife. We’ve all seen the time-knife, right?

NEXT: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse!

Chidi’s idea is simple. Why not repeat Michael’s experiment — for a different purpose? Build a new neighborhood, bring in four new recently-deceased humans who represent the roughly equivalent medium badness of Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason. This experiment will somehow involve “what Simone taught us about data collection,” Chidi explains — which, perhaps I missed something, but I think her main teaching was that data is a thing you can collect? Anyhow: Some terms are agreed upon, but where to build this new neighborhood? Shawn won’t allow it in the Bad Place. And there’s apparently no representative from the Good Place called to this meeting (the Judge is a neutral being, recall, sort of like the Living Tribunal.)

That means it’s time for a trip to see wonderful, miserable Mindy St. Claire in her Medium Place. Mindy’s still living with Derek, Janet’s son-slash-creation-slash-rebound booty call. It’s a big Janet week because Jason just revealed he’s beginning to catch feelings for her again. Unexpectedly, Derek reveals that he’s turned over a new Derek, wearing a fancy suit, drinking various fancy cocktails. He’s been rebooted several kamillion times by Mindy. Could he be a romantic threat? What’s a poor Janet to Derek?

But Derek’s appearance sparks another intriguing aspect of the reboot. Previously, the ancillary people in Michael’s neighborhood were all “played” by demons. Now, they shall all be Janet’s creations: Living beings created by the onetime omnipowerful superthing-turned-ever evolving MegaJanet.

It’s a kick to see a variation of the old neighborhood, complete with some wacky signage (“Knish From a Rose”) and Eleanor’s horrifying old clownhouse.  She told Michael to recreate the home from the reboots — it’s where she and Chidi fell in love, so why mess with success? It’s very sweet. They’re looking toward an eternity of living together like a normal couple. They can… “study philosophy!” says Eleanor. “Have sex!” says Chidi. They’re such a good/bad influence on each other!

Of course, they won’t be here forever. The terms of the deal give Michael and the gang one year to subtly guide their new humans toward redemption. And Michael receives some devastating news from the Bad Place. Shawn has built a Michael suit for Vicky — so now she resembles an Evil Michael, smirking demonically as our own Michael did back in the bad old days. Shawn promises that, if the experiment fails, Bad Michael will torture Michael’s friends for the rest of eternity. And they won’t realize it’s not him — Shawn will erase their memories — which means they’ll spend the rest of eternity thinking Michael betrayed them.

Eleanor comes into Michael’s office, having a laugh about the grand experiment they’re about to begin. Who will be their first lab rat: A murderer, a war criminal, an Instagram DJ? Michael seems to be having a nervous episode, and Eleanor only makes it worse when she tells him: “Your friends will always trust you.” That does it. There’s a man outside waiting for Michael to call him in, but he can’t do it. He’s too frightened, experiencing a full-blown panic attack. Will the experiment end before it’s even begun?

———————————

“Chidi Sees the Time-Knife” could be a new direction for The Good Place. Season 3 has wandered (and meandered) through a few different mission statements, from the study group to the Soul Squad to the recent merry run through all corners of the afterlife. In some ways, it’s strange that all that plot momentum has carried us back to the beginning. The effect is purposeful, I know: Eleanor and Michael together again in his old office, working together to weaponize their neighborhood on a mission to save nothing less than the human race.

It’s another (seemingly final?) reboot of The Good Place‘s original setting. I suspect something like this was the plan all along — and I’m still left with the feeling that certain aspects of this season look like so much water-treading in hindsight. (See also: Jason, finally re-catching feelings for Janet.) But this season’s final twists have been the most provocative. The Good Place seems to be suggesting, variously, that religion is broken, humanity is broken, or the concept of morality itself is broken. Heavy stuff, and if some of the Limp Bizkit jokes have been a bit, well, limp, the stage has still been set for an intriguing finale (and a who-knows-what season 4.)

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