I’m ... not so sure.
I like Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship. I like their flirtation. I’m even tempted by the idea that they might have a great romance in this lifetime or another. But I don’t think I’m convinced the weight of that romance is enough to offset the fate of all humanity in the way “Pandemonium” sets up. On some level, I fundamentally don’t believe the two won’t be knocking boots again by the middle of season four. And I’m not sure The Good Place doubts that either.
That’s likely not a problem for the show on a holistic level, but it’s a problem for “Pandemonium,” which is built almost entirely atop this shaky foundation. If you’re all in on Eleanor and Chidi, you probably liked it. And even I, a noted curmudgeon and hater of love, thought the scenes where Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper grieved their about-to-end relationship were powerfully written and beautifully performed.
But I just don’t feel like the two of them have gone through something so life-altering that it has the kind of dramatic stakes that can carry the show going forward. The rest of “Pandemonium” is an interesting reboot, but the Eleanor and Chidi business misses the mark ever so slightly.
At a certain point, The Good Place’s use of alternate timelines and memory wipes is going to run out of juice
I had a few Twitter conversations recently with other fans of the show who like Eleanor and Chidi’s pairing but don’t quite feel that it has the emotional power The Good Place clearly intends it to. And from those conversations, I realized something that’s hanging over the entire series at this point, and it’s something that gets larger and larger with every new iteration of the show: The constant use of memory wipes and alternate timelines is threatening to bury everything else.
To wit: The central dilemma of “Pandemonium” is that the Bad Place’s ace in the hole to win its bet with Michael is that the four new humans it has selected for the latest “fake Good Place” experiment are humans who have personal histories with our four main characters. Jon, the “some kind of journalist” briefly introduced in season three’s penultimate episode, turns out to be a gossip blogger who was particularly vicious to Tahani.
And the next human brought into the experiment turns out to be Simone. As in Chidi’s Australian girlfriend from the season’s first few episodes. (Before you ask, we don’t find out whom Sean and the Bad Place crew have chosen to specifically torture Eleanor and Jason — though that will presumably come up in season four.)
The Judge decrees that Michael may wipe Simone’s memory of Chidi, which seems like it will solve the problem of Chidi trying to help improve the ethical behavior of his ex. But Chidi himself isn’t so sure. He can’t just avoid Simone forever, but he also can’t teach her if he knows about their past together. The only solution is to wipe his memory, returning it to the original timeline where he died after an air conditioner fell on his head. Not only will he forget Eleanor, he’ll think she’s the neighborhood architect and not a fellow human living through an afterlife adventure.
(A brief sidebar: There is no way the fact that Chidi saw the time-knife doesn’t come into play whenever this whole thing is resolved. Heck, the guy references the wonky timeline of “Jeremy Bearimy” in his farewell to Eleanor, so The Good Place’s writers are already winking at some timeline wackadoodle-doo.)
This is fine, as it goes, but it compounds a problem that the Eleanor and Chidi relationship has flirted with all season: Eleanor often knows way more about their connection than he does, and that imbalance of information is often what drives to the two of them falling for each other. Eleanor doesn’t fall in love with Chidi organically most of the time. Most of the time, she falls in love with him because she realizes she fell in love with him in some other timeline.
This feels like a subtle distinction at first, but the more you start to dig into it, the more you realize that this love of alternate timelines erodes some of The Good Place’s interpersonal stakes. What should feel like the gut punch of Eleanor and Chidi having an entire would-be life together is softened somewhat when you realize that Michael can simply spin up a compilation of their greatest moments together at the drop of a hat.
To some degree, The Good Place has always faced this problem. The interpersonal struggles of its main characters don’t amount to a hill of beans in a world where every member of humanity is doomed to an eternity of torment after they die, simply because a bunch of ivory tower demonfolk don’t understand the complexities of modern life.
And to some degree, no human relationship can withstand just how immense and epic Eleanor and Chidi’s love is meant to be. They have found each other across hundreds of timelines, for God’s sake! Their pairing should likely have a little more weight than Eleanor’s constant jokes about how hot they both are.
The Good Place is a prosaic show about the metaphysical. That’s always been its charm. But what if that ends up being its undoing?
Part of me perversely loves the idea that a pretty standard sitcom couple — he’s a little uptight, and she’s a freewheeling free spirit! It’s Dharma and Greg! — is at the center of this spacetime-spanning love story.
There’s something revolutionary about the possibility that the most epic love of all isn’t between, like, a teen girl and a deathless vampire, but instead between two incredibly normal people who get along really well and enjoy spending time together. It feels, in some ways, like a mission statement for the shows of Good Place creator Mike Schur in general.
But at a certain point, the fact that The Good Place is a relentlessly high-concept show that nevertheless keeps its eye squarely on presenting its huge concepts in an understandable way — and on a very human scale — feels like it might bury the series under the weight of its own metaphors. Eleanor and Chidi can’t just have a good relationship. They have to have a love that spans all of space and time in order to plausibly balance out the plot and character stakes. Eventually, things are gonna get a little wonky.
I know it sounds like I’m grousing about an episode that I actually did enjoy; Tahani’s interactions with Jon, for example, were a delight, and I’m always thrilled when any new character gets to meet Janet for the first time. But my complaints about “Pandemonium” also mirror my larger complaints with season three in general. It was a season that featured arguably The Good Place’s best episode ever (the wildly conceptual “Janet(s)”) but also one that spent a lot of time on Earth trying to make some of its more metaphysical plotting mean something. And I’m not sure if it ever quite united those two halves of itself.
The setup this finale portends for season four is a good one, if only because it gets everybody back to the fake Good Place again and lets the show return to some of its strongest material (and strongest punning). But it’s also promising because the idea of having nemeses from Earth turn up to test the main four is a devilishly smart Bad Place idea. And the show will hopefully get a lot of mileage out of everybody assuming Eleanor is in charge instead of Michael (something it’s already doing).
Still, I’m feeling increasingly anxious. I want to know this is all heading somewhere. And while I’m not saying I need The Good Place to wrap in season four or even season five, I do want some assurance that the series has a destination in mind, instead of endless noodling with time.
If Chidi and Eleanor are destined to be together, let them be destined to be together. But The Good Place shouldn’t simultaneously pretend that all the timelines when they were just friends were somehow invalid. The Good Place is a fascinating experiment in TV form and function, but all that experimenting, sooner or later, takes a toll on whatever the show’s human story is. I trust the series to know that, but “Pandemonium” made me wonder if its priorities will ultimately prove to be different from mine.