The Good Place recap: 'Janet(s)' is a radical tour de force
Is The Good Place just better when everyone’s dead? “Janet(s)” is the best episode of season 3, and I don’t even know if it’s a close contest. The resurrection trip to Earth is over. The Study Group/Soul Squad/New Hashtaggy Team Name Pending is dead again, just like that Kenneth Branagh movie, which means a lot of this season so far feels like much ado about nothing, just like that Keanu Reeves movie.
Death isn’t the problem, though. The problem is that they’ve fled to a place beyond places: Janet’s Void. It is a white space as large as infinity, just like the infinitely large white space designers claim will really enhance the words on the page. Something got bonzered in the dimensional shift, and all the recent humans look exactly like Janet.
This playful conceit turns “Janet(s”) into a grand showcase for D’Arcy Carden. See! Carden as Jason Mendoza, capturing Manny Jacinto’s holy-fool dudely dopiness with laser-printer specificity. See! Carden as Tahani Al-Jami, channeling Jameela Jamil’s blissful aristocratic ignorance with aplomb. See! Carden as Eleanor Shellstrop, really selling Kristen Bell’s Arizona-trashbag noble sleaze. See! Carden as Chidi Anagonye, wearing glasses and lecturing. (William Jackson Harper’s playing the cerebral everydude, that’s a tough impression to nail!)
And there’s still Carden as Janet herself, who leaves the Janetized humans inside her void to join Michael on a journey to the accounting firm responsible for deciding who gets into the Good Place. More on that journey in a moment, because the big emotional story of this episode — the thing that would be The Thing, if not for the latest show-turning twist — puts the focus on Chidi and Eleanor.
Chidi has a very Chidi-ish reaction to the news that he and Eleanor fell in love untold reboots ago. Because of various philosophical principles, he argues that he isn’t the man Eleanor fell in love with, and she isn’t the woman he fell in love with. That Chidi and Eleanor from the alternate reality afterlife were two very different people, with their own unique experiences that drove them toward their own unique decisions.
Janet-Chidi explains this to his Janet-pals with a complicated whiteboard lecture. Carden’s multiple performances in these scenes are delightful, but the fun really starts when the problems begin. Eleanor’s conversation with Chidi initiates an exterior and interior breakdown. She’s losing track of her own being. Is she even really Eleanor after all these reboots? She doesn’t even look like Eleanor anymore! It’s the particular existential confusion philosophers describe as “That Feeling You Get From Watching Primer.” And Eleanor’s dissolving sense of self also contributes to a crack in the voidworld, not helped much by the gang’s tendency to conjure up things using their new Janet powers.
The solution is love, the fifth element. There’s a sweetness to Chidi’s declaration here, which rescues the Void and transforms everyone back into their familiar de-Cardenized forms. But I treasure the decision to save season 3’s Big Romantic Moment for the episode where everyone onscreen looks like Janet.
And yet, the Chidi-Eleanor drama can only be a sideshow. The freaky stuff is happening in Accounting.
NEXT PAGE: Allegory, screech!
The afterlife accounting bureau is run by none other than Stephen Merchant, perfectly cast for his ability conjure up creepy amiability onscreen. The sight gaggery and throwaway jokes throughout these scenes are elaborate — suffer the poor afterlife entity who has to quantify the ever-climbing pile of new weird sex stuff — but Michael and Janet have arrived here with a purpose. They want to find out just how people get into the Good Place.
So they ask to see the points total of a man who should, by all rights, be a shoo-in for a heavenly reward. What of Doug Forcett, the man whose long-ago acid trip gave him clarity about the afterlife’s moral calculus, who has spent his whole life doing as little as humanly possible to infringe on others’ joy? He’s accumulated an impressive number, no doubt — but, shockingly, it doesn’t seem to be enough to qualify him for a ticket to the Good Place.
What could this mean? If Doug’s not allowed in, what hope do the rest of us have?
Michael asks a more penetrating question: When’s the last time anyone got into the Good Place?
Answer: Centuries ago.
Whoooooof! In some ways, this is the wildest plot turn The Good Place has introduced yet. It’s one thing to say, like, “The characters you’ve grown to love are actually in Hell.” And then it’s a whole other thing to say, “By the way, so’s everyone who lived recently, and you’ll wind up there, too!”
All season long, I’ve been anticipating something like this. That’s partially because the show loves its twists, and partially because certain elements of this season have felt like tapdancing distractions, the kind of plot mythology shows throw out when they’re building to something big. (Not for nothing, two-thirds of the cast were semi-amnesiac for a few episodes there.) This has been frustrating, though I respect that The Good Place gave Janet an opportunity to explain the higher purpose. Together, Janet and Michael have tried to figure out some way to fix these problems facing them: fleeing the afterlife to give their humans a second chance, walking the Earth-saving souls just like Caine in Kung Fu, lifestyle-touring Doug Forcett’s chamber of decidedly moral horrors. And all those blind alleys have left Janet with one conclusion: They won’t find the person who can change things — because Michael is the person who can change things.
Interesting! Also interesting to hear how Michael specifically chastises the accounting firm, declaring that they’ve been “hacked” and they’re unwilling to admit it. The mere mention of hacking is a dose of sudden-onset topicality into The Good Place‘s saga, and I’m intrigued to see how that plays out. Has the Bad Place been secretly pushing most of humanity downwards for the last few centuries? Or is there some even-weirder revelation looming? Interesting, too, how “Janet(s)” situates all the moral questions underpinning this universe within the context of, like, a very overworked office. It almost seems like part of the afterlife’s problem is sheer overwork or an inability to keep track of the stuff it’s supposed to keep track of.
It feels like we’re in the runaway-train phase of a Good Place season — this time last year, the gang was heading to Hell — and I’m fascinated to see where the show goes as it wraps up its last few episodes (and builds toward a just-ordered fourth season, hooray!) I haven’t always grooved onto this season, but “Janet(s)” pointed in a fearsome new direction. As the credits rolled, the episode ended with the whole crew outrunning the afterlife fuzz, dodging through the accounting office to take a message-slot route to the one place they haven’t tried yet. The Good Place has finally arrived in the Good Place.