“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