This series is a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
Watching The Good Place is like watching several wildly divergent shows in the course of a season. Every few episodes a twist appears that alters both the trajectory and tone of the entire show. While this is oftentimes delightful, leading to entertaining and surprising directions, it can be hard for someone—say, a person tasked with recapping the show—to know what to say about an individual episode in the larger context of the series.It is hard to help someone if you think you are inherently better than them.
The latest episode, “The Ballad of Donkey Doug,” makes this endeavor slightly easier. It lets us know from the first few minutes that The Good Place is serious about it being freshly in the business of saving souls. The Soul Squad is a name that sticks for the six humans, and this episode opens up with Tahani, Jason, and Michael in Florida to help save Jason’s dad (the titular Donkey Doug), while Eleanor and Janet stay in Australia to help Chidi break up with his girlfriend Simone (to whom he doesn’t want to inadvertently spill the secrets of the universe, thereby damning her to the Bad Place).
The Chidi/Eleanor/Janet subplot mostly exists for laughs (Flula!), and to set Chidi free to roam the earth saving people with the rest of the crew. However, it also allows the viewers to have a clean break with the wonderful Simone and to deepen the connection of Eleanor helping Chidi “be a person”—as she puts it. Also, Janet gets to be back in her element, helping people by setting up a virtual reality simulator, and hearkening back to earlier seasons by announcing her presence with a self-proclaimed “Bing!” It’s slightly tragic, funny, and it re-centers season 3 in nostalgia for all the history these characters have already shared.
The Jason subplot takes these same elements a step farther. Donkey Doug, who we formerly knew as a person in Jason’s 60+ people dance crew, is revealed to be his father. Florida as a stand-in joke metaphor for lower class citizens almost reaches its breaking point in this episode for me—but perhaps that is the point. Florida through Jason’s eyes is home—full of people he loves and harebrained scenarios and awesome monster truck taxi cabs. But both Tahani and Michael view Florida with distaste and confusion. Energy Drinks, Axe body spray, robberies and drugs make copious appearances as jokes—cultural signifiers of a certain class of American. But as Michael and Tahani try and help Jason save his father, it becomes apparent quickly that it is hard to help someone if you think you are inherently better than them.
I sense that savior complexes might be a theme from here on out in the season, as well as the ways that knowledge of eternal truths can relationally distance us from the ones we love, especially if we think we are capable of saving them. Michael deems Donkey Doug too far gone to be saved, so Jason focuses on Pillboi, one of my favorite characters and someone who is given bursts of empathy and humanity from the writers—his tenderness with his clients at the retirement center, his sobbing complicated handshake with Jason, the real surprise and joy at seeing his friends. But in the end, Donkey Doug does end up saving Jason in a way, further complicating the notion that our ideas about what is bad (don’t commit crimes) and good (help each other as much as possible) are set in stone. The point system for getting into the Good/Bad place looks increasingly ludicrous through the chaotic and joyful lived experiences of people like PillBoi and Jason and Donkey Doug, and I think this is an important point not to be missed.
Michael, as the demon/angel, underestimates Donkey Doug, just as he underestimated Eleanor. I think it’s a fitting picture of how those who think they have the power to save often don’t understand the flimsy exceptionalism under-girding their efforts until real, complicated lives tend to upset all of their neatly held doctrines and beliefs. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of religious beliefs, The Good Place has the same message: humans are the worst, and humans are also capable of astonishing amounts of goodness, especially where you would least expect to find it.