The Good Place recap: The show goes full Lost
The Good Place has paid homage to Lost before. Last season’s finale kickstarted a timeline-twirling reboot reality, a defining plot twist from the ABC serial’s last season. That episode also introduced Sydney as a key new setting — another nudge, since the Australian city recurred throughout Lost, a regular background for flashbacks. We’re maybe far enough from Lost‘s 2010 series finale that we don’t have to directly credit that series for The Good Place‘s flashback structure, since that episodic format’s been adapted across TV’s genre landscape: Pre-prison timelines on Orange is the New Black, island memories on Arrow, eerie peeks at a basically-right-now America on The Handmaid’s Tale. But surely Good Place‘s willfully constant philosopher shoutouts owes a debt of gratitude to the series that named one character John Locke and then renamed him Jeremy Bentham.
This week’s episode, “Don’t Let The Good Life Pass You By,” kicks off with the most specific Lost homage yet. It begins with a closeup on an eye-opening, one of the earlier series’ running visual motifs. We don’t quite see the man waking up, but we watch him begin his day with some musical accompaniment. He’s listening to an old-school audiotape: “Mama” Cass Elliott’s Mama’s Big Ones. That’s the album which features “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” the tune that memorably soundtracked a roughly identical dude-gets-up-and-does-weird-household-chores montage at the beginning of Lost‘s second season. (That LP also features “It’s Getting Better,” the tune that soundtracked a bleakly funny suicide attempt in Lost‘s fourth season.)
Our mystery man’s listening to “Don’t Let The Good Life Pass You By,” which, hey now, is the name of the episode! A knock at the door reveals Michael and Janet, who introduce themselves as journalists from the Calgary Times Examiner. “My name is Michael… Scoop,” Michael says, lyingly. “And this is my photographer, Janet… Scoop. She’s my sister. We’re the Scoops.” They know the man well, though he doesn’t realize it. For he is Doug Forcett, the fellow who Figured It All Out about the afterlife decades ago, with the aid of some mind-expanding magic mushrooms.
Doug’s now played by Michael McKean, channeling his hermetic Better Call Saul character but with a slightly cheerier outlook on life. Doug’s lysergic experience gave him total consciousness about the point totals that earn you a place in the Good Place. So now he lives out here, off the grid, growing his own food, specifically just lentils and radishes. The water he drinks comes from a compost toilet hooked up to a filtration system, just like Kevin Costner in Waterworld. He adopts every dog and wolf that wander onto his property. He’s friendly with the snails that surround his home, so friendly that he won’t even deign to name them, for surely they’ve named themselves something in the beautiful language of the snails.
In a nearby bar, the human members of the Soul Squad take a long-overdue break. It’s been a real spin-cycle of travel for them lately, Sydney to Budapest to Phoenix to Calgary. “I’m so jetlagged I can’t even regrender my chorf,” says Chidi with impressive confidence. He joins Jason for a special Jacksonville style of pool, colloquially known as Special Jacksonville Style of Pool. Meanwhile, Eleanor seeks Tahani’s advice. She’s still reeling from the revelation that she and Chidi declared their love for each other in one of Michael’s many reboots. “When is the right time,” she ponders, “to tell someone you were passionate lovers in an alternate timeline in the afterlife, but he doesn’t remember because technically none of that happened in this strand of the multiverse?” No joke, I think this was also a subplot 24 hours ago on American Horror Story: Apocalypse. Peak TV, man.
Things take a dire turn at Doug’s farm. Michael and Janet hoped to turn him into a blueprint for better living, a new good example pointing humanity in the direction of the Good Place. But Doug’s gone to a far extreme of philosophical do-gooding. He’s become a happiness pump, willing to do literally anything to make other people happy at the expense of his own happiness. His kindness is inhuman, or anyhow, anti-self. “Would you like to move in permanently?” he asks. “Would you like any more water or my kidneys?” When he accidentally steps on a snail, he insists on a funeral. Posthumously, he names the snail Martin Luther Gandhi Tyler Moore, since he imagines that snail was the greatest and most talented snail of all.
Michael tries to convince Doug that there’s another way to live. Surely, if he’s right about this whole points total thing, he’s accrued enough positive points to chill out a little. Eat some ice cream! Drink water that wasn’t previously his own urine! Doug swears he can’t risk it. He knows there’s an accountant clocking all his sins. He sets off for a long walk of penance, planning to donate dozens of dollars to the Canadian Mollusk Association.
At the bar, Eleanor sits down with Chidi, planning to tell him the truth. “You and I are…” she begins. Then she notices something terrible. “Bambadjan!” she says. And indeed, Chidi thinks they are quite Bambadjan. But no no, Eleanor’s referring to the Bad Place demon, strolling in the door right here on Earth. She calls the crew together, plotting an escape. Jason prepares a Molotov cocktail, it only takes a moment. But Vicky and the other ghouls grab them. Shawn strolls in, triumphant. Now he’s just waiting to see the look on Michael’s face.
NEXT: The Fight
Now, watching Lost was one of the great TV experiences of my life, and I still don’t entirely know what to make of it. After the show’s finale — an episode of television that left me drowning in my own tears, but now hmm does the narrative logic really work was a thought I surely had a few weeks later — it became blandly conventional to condemn its final season for a variety of perceived sins. But many of the oddest elements of Lost‘s late phase look endearingly strange now, given hindsight and some years spent in a pop culture era dominated by rebooted variations of franchises that were already old hat when Lost started in 2004. You appreciate swinging for the fences after a few years of ground-rule doubles, and I’m not sure that’s an actual baseball reference, but I definitely intended that as Manifest shade.
Unexpectedly, season 3 of The Good Place has built itself as a kind of spiritual sibling to Lost‘s final season. It began with the return to Earth, less of a reboot than an un-boot that suggested a Sideways universe where the whole concept of the series never happened. With the good comes the bad, though. If I had to push my glasses up my nose and declare One Foundational Problem with Lost‘s final act, I’d choose the full-blown embrace of a superheroic narrative structure: The oft-bandied-about notion that the characters were Saving The World (and the corollary necessity that various characters engage in a Messianic communion ritual.) This is a problem that’s dogged The Good Place lately, too, a complete swerve from the personal (we must save these four humans!) to the cosmic (we must save everyone’s souls!).
Also, Lost had some good fight scenes, but you wouldn’t say the fight scenes were The Stuff You Should Pay Homage To. (Except Sayid/Keamy, that fight scene was the Fight Scene.) But a brawl breaks out when Michael and Janet arrive in the bar. It’s a funny brawl, I guess, question mark? It’s a kick to see Janet as a demon-kicking badass. Tahani bops dear sex idiot Chris Baker on the head with a pool cue, thank you twelve years of fencing. Eleanor finds a moment to tell Chidi they were once in love, and she’s maybe in love with him again!
I dunno. I respect how quickly this season of The Good Place has chewed through plot, moving the characters around the world. Like Chidi said: Sydney, Budapest, Phoenix, Calgary. But a side effect of all this constant motion is that the show can barely regrender its own chorf. The Bad Place Demons spent a year or so of Earthtime building a cosmically illegal life portal, all so they could…um, corner the humans in a bar? And then the way to defeat them was to fight them? You feel some clever opportunities got a bit lost here, the way certain Zack Snyder films forget that Superman has more powers than punchfists.
A revelation, maybe, about some of the odd storytelling decisions this season. Held captive, Shawn tells the Soul Squad something quite disturbing. He says, with eerie assurance, that the Bad Place will get everyone — Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason, sure, but also their loved ones, even Doug Forcett.
What could this mean? Michael’s disturbed. He used to think there was something wrong with how the holy points system evaluated humans, refuting the possibility of change. “Now, I’m worried the problems with the system might be much more serious.” They need more evidence, he says. They have to go to the Accountant’s Office. He tells the humans to hang out at Doug Forcett’s house, feed the dogwolves, appease the local teen sociopath, watch out for the snails.
The credits are already rolling as he says this, a classic televisual sign that it’s time for the audience to relax. But then some more demons show up in the bar — along with Bad Janet! So it’s time for a new plan. “I think I can take you into my void,” Janet says. Sounds like a good idea. Of course, she’s not sure they’ll be able to survive in there. But: “All of you will definitely die on Earth when I do this, so look around and say goodbye.” The gang seems to barely hear this, and then they’re gone, blinked out of existence.
So: Dead again? The precise existential state of their souls will have to exist in Schrödinger territory until the show returns in December. If their resurrected days on Earth have come to an end, I remain uncertain what to make of this new timeline. Was it like Lost‘s season 6 Sideways Universe, a fascinating alternate history that maybe didn’t always add up plotwise but provided a movingly intimate look into the characters’ best hopes? Was it more like Lost‘s season 5 trip to the Island’s Past, a cool-idea setting shift that depended on some occasionally shaky science-fictional logic?
Right now, I’m left thinking about an earlier point in Lost‘s run: The long days spent on Hydra Island, a handy definition for what it looks like when a show’s wheel-spinning in anticipation of radical change. Shawn’s dark words left me feeling like this season has been protecting another radical show-turning twist. Precisely what that twist is is elusive just now. I guess the full nihilist read would ponder whether Shawn knows a hidden truth of the afterlife: That there is no Good Place at all, or if there is, then no human beings living in our venial modern age ever get in. Or maybe the architecture of the afterlife is shifting somehow. Could it be that the Good Place is an overworked utopia, and it needs to outsource its operations to the effective employees in the Bad Place who keep the demon trains running on time? Michael seems to think there’s something rotten with the whole core of the afterlife system, something that goes deeper than the loopy point totals. What could it be? Maybe our characters will find out. Or maybe they’ll perish in Janet’s Void. The Soul Squad is dead. How much worse can it get?