The Good Place Recap: The Worst Possible Use of Free Will (Season 3, Episode 8)
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).
Do you want to spend 22 minutes with mythical centaurs, a plot line involving a touching romantic relationship, demons, and a discussion of free will versus determinism? Then you, my friends, are in luck with the latest episode of The Good Place.Do we live as if our fates are determined? Or do we live as though we are free to love other people in ways that annoy, inconvenience, and even hurt us sometimes?
Eleanor, after badgering Michael to give back her memories, finds out she had a real relationship and connection with Chidi in the afterlife, and she spends the rest of the episode dealing with her own response to that news. Eleanor, as discussed earlier, has an avoidant attachment style, which means that the thought of being vulnerable with someone punctures her self-image as someone who both can’t and doesn’t want to have to rely on other people.
Personally, I was SO thrilled to be back in the fake Good Place of previous season—this episode makes great use of Eleanor wanting to know the truth about her and Chidi in order to plunge us back into the vibrant, magical, and interesting world we came to love. The viewer, and Eleanor, know it is all a sham/flashback, but it makes the show more engaging (perhaps allowing us to feel a bit like little gods as well?). And no shame here—I loved seeing Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship progress. Both because they are complicated characters that you want to root for, and also because we know how much they (and Eleanor in particular) have struggled in connecting with people. We find two people growing, progressing, and engaging in the vulnerability of real love and care for another person. It’s a rom-com set in hell—what isn’t there to love about that?
The other themes that jumped out to me surround both Michael and Eleanor. In this episode, Ted Danson gets to toggle back and forth between playing cruel/mean/confused Michael the demon in the fake Good Place, and embarrassed/wise/friend Michael now on earth. His journey is very visible and evident in this episode, which leaves me wondering at the significance of his transformation and what it means when even demons can change to be good.
Eleanor, who was voted most likely to die young and unaccomplished by her high school classmates, latches onto the idea of determinism in this episode as a way of dealing with her new revelations. “I’m incapable of love” she tells Michael, and he embarks on a journey to prove her wrong by focusing on the reality of free will and how it opens us up to the possibilities of cruelty, change, and sometimes love.
In a flashback, Chidi and Eleanor leave the Medium place and go confront Michael. Eleanor, full of calm confidence, tells him: “Love is stronger than anything you can throw at us.” Micheal, dismissively, says: “No, it’s not.” And this is why I love this show. Both Eleanor and Michael are right. Love is incredibly strong and changes people in ways that are profound and touch other people. But also, it’s not enough to protect us from bad things happening to us outside of our control. As a Christian, this episode brings up questions I have been thinking about my whole life, questions surrounding theodicy, the sovereignty of God, and free will. There are no answers, but there are clues as to how the ways we choose to answer these questions end up influencing our lives.
The key to a love that changes people in this show is the element of self-sacrifice: Eleanor giving herself up in the Good Place in order to ease Chidi’s suffering, Michael turning himself into Shaun the demon so the gang could get to the judge. The importance of self-sacrificial love has always been present in Christian theology, but how often does it show up in how we actually live our lives? Do we live as if our fates are determined? Or do we live as though we are free—free to love other people in ways that annoy, inconvenience, and even hurt us sometimes? It’s an excellent question to mull over.
The Good Place is serving as a sort of moral philosophy for dummies class—asking the questions and then letting the viewer think them over. The writers and creators do a great job of being brazen in their desire to educate the people of the United States on the moral philosophies that consciously or subconsciously guide us. The worst possible use of free will is picking someone up at the airport, Michael says at the end as he gathers his jacket. And then he goes out and does that very horrible chore. Because that’s what you do for people you love.