By Darren Franich
November 08, 2018 at 09:00 PM EST
Colleen Hayes/NBC

“The Worst Possible Use of Free Will” is nominally a Good Place episode about Eleanor and Chidi. It’s a long-awaited flashback, of sorts, to something that season 2 playfully jumped right past: The moment in one of Michael’s infinite reboots when Eleanor told Chidi “I love you,” and he said it right back.

But the episode is actually about the most important relationship on The Good Place. Eleanor and Michael have always defined the show, variously mentoring each other towards a better moral existence or plotting against each other in top-secret antagonism. They’re allies now, but that could change. Michael’s lately become a kind of father figure for Eleanor, but there were stretches of season 2 where you’d have flipped that parent-child dynamic, with Michael as an adolescent demon learning Eleanor’s facts of life.

“Free Will” begins with Michael bringing Eleanor into a library in Nevada, where the poetry section is all Jeff Foxworthy and the sex-ed section is the Bible. He wants to flood her brain with memories of the afterlife, revealing the hidden tale of her romance with Chidi. It’s a complicated process, requiring an inoculation. The first time Eleanor experiences an afterlife memory, her brain gets zapped. Hairless, sizzling, coughing out her own teeth, she looks a bit like the precogs from Minority Report (though Eleanor always dreamed she’d look good bald.)

She adjusts; the banana probably helps. Then Michael shunts her back into the telltale reboot. The memory begins in familiar circumstances. Eleanor’s taking philosophy classes from Chidi, digging deep into determinism and L’il Tommy Quine Quine (her pet name for Thomas Aquinas). It’s right about where we left off in Good Place midseason 1, a happy stasis Eleanor unknowingly destroyed the first time she admitted that she didn’t belong in the Good Place.

The Michael we see in the memories is still a secret villain, plotting social torture for his unknowing captives. His latest plot is Pick-a-Pet Day, where the neighborhood’s residents can choose a soulmate animal. Jason picks a penguin, names it Blake, and gives it a #5 jersey, a reference to the fact that William Blake wrote poems in iambic pentameter. (Kidding! Blake wrote in iambic tetrameter.) (Also kidding, BLAKE BORTLES PENGUIN!!!) Tahani gets herself a “mirror centaur,” a mythic being with her upper body named “Tahania.” Eleanor gets a lizard, cool! Chidi overthinks a choice between two cute puppies and winds up with an owl named Spencer.

There’s a big get-together planned where everyone will get to bodyswap with their animals. But Eleanor loses her lizard — cause for concern since she believes the pet’s disappearance will prove to Michael that she doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She hunts in vain for the creature (passing by the neighborhood’s latest rebooted foodery, “Kabob Patch Kids”). Unexpectedly, Chidi shows up to help her — a surprise that causes Eleanor to accidentally push him into the water. His arrival confuses her. Why isn’t he flying like an owl? “I just decided I’d rather be helping you,” he admits. “You’re amazing!” she says, kissing him.

From there, as Michael tells it, their love blossoms. They spend every moment together, got hooked on popcorn shrimp. When they escape to Mindy St. Claire’s Middle Place, they tell each other “I love you” — no fear from Eleanor of being vulnerable, no paranoia from Chidi about making such a big life choice. They return to the neighborhood with a message for Michael. They know they’ve been rebooted a hundred times, but this time is different. “Love is stronger than anything you can throw at us,” Eleanor says. “No, it’s not,” Michael retorts, insisting he could just throw an elephant at them.

Chidi insists Eleanor was speaking metaphorically. “Even metaphorically it’s lame!” Michael says. Eleanor says her and Chidi are soulmates, but that’s a gag that Michael just made up. He snaps his fingers, rebooting them all over again.

In the present, Michael admits he’s sorry about his actions, swears he’s changed. But Eleanor has absorbed a different lesson from this memory. She wasn’t watching herself fall in love. “I watched a puppeteer pull a bunch of strings to make us think we were in love,” she says. Her love for Chidi wasn’t a brave personal choice. It was a response to Michael’s social architecture. It’s simple determinism, a philosophy Eleanor describes in handy pop culture terms. “Once you made us bond, the romance was inevitable,” she says. “It’s a basic reality show playbook: Put a bunch of attractive young people in stressful situations so they act like idiots and have sex with each other.”

Of course, that’s also the basic playbook for plenty of friends-hanging-out sitcoms: Young attractives, comedic situations, feelings ever-so-gradually developing across seasons of television. It’s Jim and Pam! It’s Jake and Amy! It’s basically every human in Pawnee, Indiana! All characters on shows partially written or created by one Michael Schur, The Good Place‘s offscreen puppetmaster. When Eleanor’s accusing Michael of throwing her together with Chidi in an inevitably romantic situation — when she says Michael is the great “external force outside of our control” — she might as well be talking to her literal creator. Is love really love when there’s no choice in the matter? If two characters are designed to be a will-they-won’t-they sitcom pair, do they actually belong together? “There is no such thing as free will!” says Eleanor, a TV character declaring that she has seen her own scripts.

NEXT: Michael has a counter-argument

The Good Place has spent a lot of this season freely throwing out heavy philosophical concepts, at one point cutting the plot out altogether so Chidi could deliver a lecture on the three essential flavors of moral logic. “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will” works better than some recent outings have by structuring its central conflict as, well, a conflict. Michael tries to convince Eleanor that she is possessed of free will; Eleanor inevitably retorts that her free will was always just an illusion. Sort of like what everyone talked about during Westworld season 2, but this was funny and not terrible.

They leave the library because it’s closing time and that means they’re about to start shooting pornos there. At a local diner, Michael collects some counterexamples. He produces a memory that us viewers recognize: Eleanor declaring that she doesn’t actually belong in the Good Place. “You saw your friend in pain and you decided to sacrifice yourself to help him,” Michael says. He didn’t plan for that. When Eleanor still disagrees, he pulls up another memory: The time Chidi was trapped in a purple space bubble. Wait, no, not that time! (Though there’s the very tantalizing possibility that there are ever-more-surreal adventures lingering in the several hundred neighborhood reboots. Perhaps that can be a Good Place spinoff on Disney’s streaming service in a few years when Disney owns everything!)

No, the memory Michael calls up is a very personal moment for our angelic demon. Amidst the reboots, Michael brings a newly-arrived Eleanor into his office. He’s out of sorts, furious at the demise of his latest attempt at eternal torture. He asks Eleanor directly: What is it about her? He’s studied her hopes, her fears, her psychology. He knows about all her secret shame, and keeps them in a graph full of screenshot gags (apparently Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t get along with Eleanor.) “You keep making crazy choices,” Michael says. “Am I missing something?”

In the present, Eleanor’s still not convinced. She theorizes that Michael himself is a pawn, imprisoned by some megademon who built a torture chamber for demons. And maybe those megademons are just fulfilling a destiny…set out for them by super intelligent tarantula squids! Michael empties his glass of ice tea on Eleanor, because she’s being annoying and because by golly he has free will. Maybe not infinite free will — after all, they are trapped in an all-too-real system of cosmic morality, both of them slated for certain eternal damnation. But here in the moment, Michael wants to leave the diner and go pick up their friends from the airport. “It’s the worst possible use of free will,” he says. “But I’m gonna do it anyway. Because I care about them.”

It is a sweet note to end on, a typical vibe toward the end of most Good Place episodes this season. Do I buy it? Half-half. In Michael’s estimation, Eleanor doesn’t really believe in her deterministic argument. She’s just using the philosophy as an excuse, a way to justify her own fear of vulnerability. He tells her this and…well, she basically agrees. Argument solved! By episode’s end, she’s telling Michael that their conversation has newly inspired her.

Which feels, well, a bit easy. On a philosophical level, Michael’s perspective makes sense, at least to me. Are all our actions the result of structures beyond our control? Yes, shrug, maybe, who knows, just be a good person, you dumbo. But the personal tale here feels a bit lost. Like, Eleanor has a right to question this whole situation. After all, she’s the one getting morally My Fair Lady‘d over the course of this process, developing a moral code while she falls in love with the pleasant dude teaching her all the great secrets of graduate philosophy. There’s a fundamental weirdness here that “The Worst Possible Use of Free Will” can only glance at, before concluding — in a very nice, pleasant way! — that yes, the Eleanor-Chidi love was real.

I guess it’s a struggle I have in general with this season of The Good Place. It’s asking a lot of fascinating questions, but the answers it’s seeking are simple. “We’re the only truly free beings in the universe,” Eleanor tells Michael, as they prepare to take the Soul Squad “to the next level.” Indeed, these characters are pretty free, insofar as they apparently have no lives outside of their mission (and infinite Al-Jamil family resources, and Janet’s omniscience.) This episode has great fun with the memory structure, but it’s weird that for all the big talk about determinism, The Good Place seems extremely comfortable becoming a kind of soul-saving procedural, a TV format as deterministic as they come.

The soul-saving is reaching an apex, maybe. Michael has an idea for finding someone who can serve as a blueprint for humanity, someone whose life is so great they want to use it as a model. That journey will take them to rural Canada, and while it’s fun to speculate about who this wonderful person is (not Rihanna, alas!) it’s also fascinating to consider what it looks like when The Good Place creates its own personal Messiah.

Plot momentum is carrying us towards a reckoning. In the Bad Place, Shawn finalizes a devious plot to construct a backdoor portal to Earth. To test it, he calls upon Vicky, who’s been cocooned on a Zach Braff sitcom. All hail the return of Tiya Sircar to The Good Place, as Vicky steps into the mortal plane. Trevor was just the beginning. Now, the Bad Place has officially arrived on Earth. Where will they go first? Not Canada, I hope! Can’t we have just one nice place?


Episode Recaps

The Good Place

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