This review contains spoilers.
3.3 The Snowplow
Since Battlestar Galactica’s stunning season 2 finale back in 2006, time jumps have been a useful tool for TV dramas looking to shake things up. Battlestar Galactica’s spiritual successor (and concurrently airing peer for the most part), Lost, pulled off a bravura time jump in its equally stunning season 3 finale. Mad Men made it its business to rapidly travel forward in time between each season. Breaking Bad executed a months long time jump in the span of one “Crystal Blue Persuasion” scored montage. The Walking Dead, now in its darkest creative hour, even opted for a time jump of its own this season to help put the sins of the show’s past behind it.
The concept of a time jump isn’t just exclusive to TV dramas, though. The Good Place and Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur has turned them into a bit of an art form, himself. Parks and Recreation sprung forward there years into the future for its final season and in the process predicted a Cubs World Series victory. Last year on The Good Place, however, Schur outdid himself. The Good Place season two episode Dance Dance Resolution didn’t just feature a time jump. It was essentially nothing but time jumps. In his ongoing attempt to trick the humans into torturing one another, Michael had to reset his neighborhood experiment…and reset, and reset, and reset, and reset.
When everything was said and done, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason had all lived out more than 800 iterations of their afterlife neighborhoods. Each iteration varied in length of course but the end result was our core four of humans living out what had to amount to centuries worth of different lives – Groundhog Day style. This all happened within the 21 minute time frame afforded to a network television comedy.
Compared to Dance Dance Resolution, season three’s third offering, The Snowplow, can’t match up in sheer scale of time hopping. In this episode we’re entreated to “only” a year’s worth of our characters lives. The magic isn’t in the length of it, however, or the technical mastery of the time jump technique. The magic is in the bittersweet lessons we learn about these characters in the process.
Maybe I’m in a sensitive emotional place right now. I’ve been binging Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (it comes out tomorrow. You MUST watch it) and have been mortally afraid of every bump in the night for days. Also my brother just moved across the country to Austin, Texas. I’m going to miss him. But whether because of those factors or just because this is a profoundly well made episode of television, I found The Snowplow to be deeply moving. Arguably no show on television has a more empathetic approach to humanity itself than The Good Place. That sincere empathy is on display as sharply as its ever been in The Snowplow.
It all begins with Michael and Janet. “Okay. That was an insane thing for us to do,” Michael says in the first lines uttered of the episode. It’s an undeniably funny understatement of the enormity of Michael and Janet’s decision to defect from the Judge’s chambers. It’s also a deeper indication of how much Michael has changed in such a relatively short period of time for him. Sure, he’s spent centuries with Eleanor and friends but that’s just a blink of an eye for a eternal and transdimensional demon.
Michael and Janet’s defection is a pretty extreme act and now for as far as they know they’ll be on Earth for a long time. Still, they are singularly focused on their goal and create their own space to surveil the humans. Thankfully the journalism offices at St. John’s University are empty and abandoned. (Ouch, Mike Schur).
For the span of a year, Michael ensures that every stumbling block Eleanor and the others face is handled so that they can continue to focus on their moral studies. Eleanor can’t afford to live in Australia anymore without finding a job so Janet finds her a winning lottery ticket for $18,000. “Wow!” Chidi says. “Better luck next time,” Tahani says.
When Tahani admits to being “mad horny” and tells Eleanor of her intention to “smash” Jason, Michael arranges for Tahani to meet her ex-boyfriend, forgotten Hemsworth brother, Larry. The objectively stunningly handsome Larry is surprised that Tahani is still interested in him because “I never expect anyone to remember me because I’m only 6’4 and have one of those forgettable faces.” Tahani gets the smashing out the way though and is presumably ready to move on with her studies. Jason doesn’t mind that Tahani didn’t join him to watch the Jaguars because Michael helped him find an Australian chapter of the Jaguars fan club (I regret to inform you all that this is a real thing).
Michael tells Janet that they’re not really interfering. What they’re doing is simply “snowplowing.” They’re clearing a path through the world for their beloved humans so that they can focus on getting better. Even before Michael’s plans start to backfire with Tahani becoming engaged to Larry and Chidi concluding that the initial round of the study has run its course, it’s clear that Michael’s continual interruptions are destined to fail. The world doesn’t work this way. You can’t learn anything about morality when you always get a $18,000 lottery ticket exactly when you need it.
Michael’s attempts to keep these people on the right track are still touching. He wants this to work so bad. For the second time in as many episodes, Michael declares how important these people are to him.
“This is ALL we have, Janet,” he says. “We have Chidi and Eleanor and Tahani and Jason and that’s it.”
Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason’s eternal well-being doesn’t just matter to Michael. It’s the only thing that matters. And it breaks his heart that he can’t just magically make it all work for them. Poor Michael is discovering why human beings can’t always just simply “be good.” Very few of us can spend a year with an ethics professor in a foreign country. We have shit to do. Ted Danson, with his comfortable shock of white hair and genial disposition is such a paternal presence. After some time spent playing a literal demon, The Good Place is leaning more and more into Danson’s more natural talents and the results are devastatingly effective. I feel for this demon getting a crash course on how things work on Earth. It’s hard down here. And of course it’s harder for some of us than others.
Eleanor was doing so well, she really was. In the season 2 finale we see Eleanor do something she had never done before: admit that she couldn’t do any of this on her own. It was an undeniable emotional victory for Eleanor and the show when last season concluded with her introducing herself to the nice philosophy professor she saw on YouTube. Now, just three episodes later, Eleanor briefly relapses, recovering addict that she is.
Despite Chidi deciding to end this portion of the study once Tahani and Larry head to London, Michael is convinced that this can still be salvaged. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason can stay in these philosophy classes in Australia for the rest of their lives. Everything can be okay…boozer! even. So he tells Eleanor to speak her truth. He knows that she doesn’t want this to end either. Tahani calls Eleanor up to big goodbye to their study group and Eleanor instead gives a brief impassioned speech asking that they continue to keep the good times rolling. Chidi immediately, yet diplomatically says no.
Eleanor lashes out. “I don’t need you guys! And since you don’t need me I’m just gonna take the me out of this cake,” she yells, scooping a big piece out of Tahani’s study group cake.
Damn. We are all such fragile creatures and no show on television may understand that better than The Good Place. Eleanor’s problems and fears are so deeply ingrained that even a full year of morality lessons with all obstacles snowplowed away can’t completely defeat them.
That’s when something remarkable happens though. Michael has been so laser focused on these four people that he’s seemingly overlooked that there are 7 billion others on this planet who might be able to help.
After her outburst, Eleanor waits outside for her cab. Simone sees her hiding among the brushes, fists still full of cake and approaches her.
“You’re a brain scientist. Can you tell me why I did that in there?” Eleanor asks Simone.
Simone at first tells Eleanor that she doesn’t specialise in temper tantrums but then offers a potential explanation anyway. In doing so, she cuts down to Eleanor’s core quicker and more accurately than anyone ever has on this show. She says:
“Here’s my guess. As humans evolved the first big problem we had to overcome was me vs. us – learning to sacrifice a little individual freedom for the benefit of a group. Like sharing food and resources so we don’t starve or get eaten by tigers – things like that. The next problem to overcome was us vs. them – trying to see other groups different from ours as equal. That one we’re still struggling with. That’s why we still have racism and nationalism and why fans of Stone Cold Steve Austin hate fans of The Rock. What’s interesting about you is that I don’t think you ever got past the me vs. us stage. Have you ever been part of a group that you really cared about? The Brainy Bunch is basically the first group that became a part of your self identify and now that that’s breaking up you’re feeling this new kind of loss. You’re scared of going back to being alone. That’s just my guess. The other possible medical diagnosis is that you’re just a bit of a dick.”
The Good Place’s continued manipulation of time frames isn’t just a tool for spectacle. That’s certainly part of it. That narrative trickery and skill makes it more interesting than most other shows and virtually every other comedy in its network weight class. What’s important, however, is what that time manipulation leads to. In the case of The Snowplow, it leads to Eleanor saying to Simone, “Why don’t you take my cab? I think me needs to go apologise to us.”
Like the wonderfully crafted comic book issue that each episode of The Good Place is, The Snowplow once again ends in an intriguing place with Eleanor and the rest of Team Cockroach walking in on Janet and Michael about to rush back to heaven to reset their timeline once more. Naturally the journey will continue with many other novel narrative techniques to come. While we look to the future, however, take a moment to appreciate how satisfying the journey thus far has been.