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How Kristen Bell’s terrific performance grounds The Good Place’s wildest season yet

The latest episode offers Bell a chance to play every emotion on the map, as the show shifts its status quo yet again.

Eleanor and Chidi on The Good Place
Eleanor and Chidi on The Good Place.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

This week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, film critic Alissa Wilkinson, and culture editor Jen Trolio got together to discuss “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” the ninth episode of the third season of NBC’s loopy comedy The Good Place. (Because the first two episodes of season three aired as one installment, the episode number is one ahead of the number of weeks the show has aired.) Spoilers follow! Proceed with caution if you haven’t seen the episode!

Todd VanDerWerff: Kristen Bell gives the best performance on The Good Place.

I know, I know. The show’s cast is stacked — this week it even adds Michael McKean as the grown-up version of Doug, the guy who got high and almost figured out the whole Good Place system back in the ’70s. (He was mentioned all the way back in the series’ pilot.) And whether you prefer to stump for Ted Danson or William Jackson Harper or D’arcy Carden or anybody, you won’t get too much of an argument from me.

But what Bell does seems so simple and is actually so difficult that I’m giving her the crown, especially in season three, which would have already jetted off into space if not for her grounding it. In “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” she tells Chidi about the timeline where they were in love, faces down her impending doom, and gets a little horny while watching Janet fight a bunch of demons like something out of the Matrix. And that’s within about three minutes of screentime!

Eleanor is the protagonist of The Good Place, sure, but the longer it runs, the more she also has to be the walking, talking exemplar of everything it’s trying to say about systems of morality and the rigidity of all attempts to codify those systems. It’s one thing to see that via Doug, who’s so broken by his attempt to never hurt anybody that he won’t stand up for himself even slightly. But it’s even more powerful to see that via Eleanor, who is learning that she, too, can be a good person and all it might take is caring about others before she thinks of herself.

“Good Life” is another busy episode in a season where the plotting has felt a bit like homework (and I’m saying this about a show that delights in philosophy lectures). But it was also my favorite episode of the season so far, jam-packed with weird, delightful moments and grounded by one of Bell’s very best performances in a season already full of them. However, I gather from talking to other critic friends that not everybody feels this way, so let me take your temperatures. Did you have a good time with the “Good Life”?

Doug isn’t the hero The Good Place needs, but he might be the hero it deserves

Alissa Wilkinson: I did! I love this episode! I keep calling it “the bar fight episode” when talking about it to other people, even though it’s really the Doug episode in my heart.

Honestly, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” tugged at my heart a little. I’ve had my brushes with rigid, codified systems of morality that don’t just tell you how to live a good life, but saddle you with anxiety that if you don’t operate within their rules, you’ll be basically invalid as a human, not really worthy to take up space on the planet.

That’s what Doug is up against, with his diet of radishes and lentils and his own recycled piss. At first I kind of wondered if The Good Place would eventually reveal him to be the leader of a cult of some kind, and then it became increasingly clear that there’s a good reason he isn’t the leader of a cult: Being in that cult would suck. Asceticism has its charms, but some forms of the ascetic life are a little sexier than others.

Anyhow, Doug’s desperate attempts to literally earn his entrance to the Good Place through virtuous living have twisted him into a shell of a person whose virtue narrowly edges up to vice. So much guilt over completely morally neutral things, like accidentally calling Michael the wrong name. So much labor to maintain a lifestyle that at best doesn’t cause any harm to anyone else, but doesn’t seem to truly help anyone either.

It’s a kind of self-obsessed narcissism that actually degrades virtuous living into something much less good for humanity. Note how lonely Doug is. His only interaction seems to be with the boy who comes by to abuse him. Sometimes strict rules designed to help us be “good enough” end up isolating us.

This episode also reminded me of an ongoing debate I’ve heard about the show, which is the question of why Chidi — whose biggest “vice” seems to just be indecisiveness — would ever have ended up condemned to the Bad Place in the first place. Isn’t he just sort of anxious and riddled with doubt? I wonder if Doug’s experience and wherever the show is about to bring us next holds the key?

Michael McKean guest-stars as Doug on The Good Place Colleen Hayes/NBC

Jen Trolio: Well, my recollection of Chidi’s condemnation is that his anxiety and indecisiveness did have enough of a negative effect on everyone around him that it was deserving of an eternity spent in the Bad Place. His gravest offense was that he could never force himself to make up his mind, could never change — even after he realized that his indecision carried consequences for people other than himself.

But I am interested in your question, Alissa, of how his existence and Doug’s might be thematically connected. And I’m inclined to believe you’re onto something. When Doug was talking about how lentils are a very eco-friendly crop to grow because they don’t require much water, the very first thing that popped into my mind was Chidi’s season one assumption that the reason he’d been sent to the Bad Place was that he continued to use almond milk after learning that growing almonds is rough on the planet. It’s a seemingly minor connection, sure, but if there’s one thing we know about The Good Place, it’s that the show very carefully considers even the smallest details.

Toward the end of “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” once the thrill of the bar fight has calmed, our trusty gang of wasp nostrils sits down to interrogate Sean. And after Michael abruptly truncates Sean’s supervillain monologue, it’s Chidi who wonders aloud how Sean could be so confident that Doug — the presumed “blueprint for leading a good life” — is eventually headed for the Bad Place, no matter how tightly he grasps his “Pee Pee King” crown.

Granted, Michael only has a few moments to explain his long-held unease with the whole points system before a bunch more demons arrive and the show dives into a cliffhanger that seems to officially cap off its Earthbound chapter. But as The Good Place gears up for yet another change to its status quo (Janet’s void, here we come!), it’s not that difficult to envision a stretch of episodes where Chidi — armed with both Eleanor’s confession of probable love and some fresh uncertainty regarding what it means to be “good” — undergoes something of a self-imposed reckoning.

As if I could ever presume to even guess at what Mike Schur’s got in store, of course.

Jason and Tahani on The Good Place Colleen Hayes/NBC

Yet another shift in the status quo awaits. So what do we hope might be waiting in Janet’s void?

Todd: It’s apt, I suppose, that the series is leaving Earth behind just when I got used to this season taking place there (at least so far). It had to get back to the afterlife sooner or later — there are too many wonderful toys there — but I figured it would hang out on our plane for at least the whole season. I guess not!

The Good Place has always been pointed, broadly, toward overturning the kind of “morality inequality” that divides the afterlife into a system that tosses almost everyone who dies into eternal torment. It’s a cheeky way of showing how the moral rigidity we’re talking about is comforting in the abstract (if you think you’re on the right side of it, of course), but absolutely horrifying if you stop to think about its consequences. That the show is able to argue most human beings would end up going to Hell after death, while still cracking jokes, remains perhaps its finest accomplishment.

That said: Let’s talk about the fight! It felt precisely like Schur said to his writers, “You know what? Let’s do a big brawl in a bar,” and everyone involved immediately realized how much fun it would be to see Janet turn her ability to know everything into a simultaneous ability to beat people up. It was good fun seeing all of our favorite demons back (and on Earth), but the fight itself was surprisingly well-choreographed for a show that will probably never do a sequence like this again.

I particularly liked the presence of the portal to the Bad Place, which added very tangible stakes — including a moment when it seems like Janet has been sent back there, only for her to swing out, legs kicking away. To be sure, that was a little cheap (especially the idea that Janet regains her powers if even a toe is through the portal), but I’m only really saying that in retrospect. In the moment, I was jazzed.

How about you folks? Are you sad to leave Earth behind? And with just a handful of episodes left in season three — as well as the show taking a break for a few weeks — what do you still hope to see?

Alissa: I keep thinking about the fact that time works in a sort of Jeremy Bearimy fashion in the afterlife, and wondering if its loop-de-loops might hint at with what’s coming, especially if — and it seems totally possible — the rules that determine where you ultimately land may be ready for a shake-up.

I have enjoyed season three so far, but in a way that hasn’t left me quite as delighted as seasons one and two. (You can’t beat all the weird little innovations in Michael’s original universe, especially the food puns.) So I am not unhappy to see The Good Place return to the afterlife. (And like you, Todd, I was thrilled to the core by Janet’s swing back through the doorway.)

There are a few things I’m hoping to see. One is a tilting of the rules, perhaps based on the revelations of the trip to Doug’s house and some cool moves on the part of Michael and Janet. (If it means Maya Rudolph shows up again, all the better.) A rebellion! A coup! I don’t know, but I’m ready for it.

I’d also love to see the true reemergence of the Chidi-and-Eleanor relationship. On the surface, they seem so gloriously mismatched — and yet, the two of them together really do bring out something very good in one another. Maybe it will turn out that if hell is other people, heaven is too?

Jen: Thinking about how The Good Place might orchestrate the reemergence of the Chidi-and-Eleanor relationship that Alissa is hoping to see, I think I’ll put in a request for a return to the Medium Place. Not only would such a return allow for Maribeth Monroe’s Mindy St. Claire and Jason Mantzoukas’s Derek to pop back into the show for shenanigans, but it’s notably thanks to Mindy and the Medium Place that we ever learned that Eleanor and Chidi once fell in love.

It would also seem that going back to the Medium Place could facilitate some discussions about rethinking the points system. (In addition to teeing up a lot of jokes about Mindy’s taste for cocaine, of course.) And beyond that, if one of Michael’s earliest concerns about the points system was that it doesn’t allow for the notion that people can change, it sure would be interesting to see how a restructuring of the points system — or even its elimination — might alter the function of the Medium Place, or at least increase its population.

I also think I might like to visit the actual Good Place at some point, to see how it compares to a Bad Place neighborhood in disguise.

Todd: Jen, everybody knows the real Good Place is the friends we made along the way. Which means that my Good Place is these recaps!

And now, before the audience pelts me with rotten fruit... see you in a couple of weeks, everybody!