This The Good Place review contains spoilers.
The Good Place Season 4 Episode 9
Don’t you just love it when a TV show surprises you? Through three seasons, surprises were kind of The Good Place’s thing. The Good Place season 4, bless its heart, has largely struggled with the element of surprise. Sure we’ve gotten a Bad Janet spy here or a “Chip Driver solves the crime on page 10” there. But this season’s surprises haven’t been accompanied by the crushing emotional resonance of previous seasons’.
Finally in The Good Place season 4 episode 9 “The Answer,” the show introduces its first big expectation rattler and in the process tells the most emotional and complete story of this final season yet. Perhaps, the direction “The Answer” takes shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. The episode description does read “Chidi considers his past.” It’s just that last week had built up such a serious momentum toward Chidi waking up, that it was hard to predict how closely Chidi would consider his past.
It’s actually a little disappointing at first when Michael’s reboot of Chidi takes the story back to the bespectacled philosopher’s childhood. In fact, it almost seems like a copout. The episode title promises “The Answer” and the desperate situation that Team Cockroach finds itself in requires one. Watching a half hour of Young Chidi seems counterproductive. Thankfully, “The Answer” almost immediately proves that it will be more substantial than a simple flashback episode.
The first moment we’re entreated to from Chidi’s life is utterly heartbreakingly real, sincere, and bittersweet (I will confess to crying a little twice in this episode. This was time #1. Stay tuned for #2). A nine-year-old Chidi hears his parents fighting in the other room, so he does what any young tyke would do: he opens up his philosophy textbook and flips to the chapter on divorce. From that chapter, Chidi pulls together a lecture for his parents, blackboard included and everything, to illustrate why divorce is a bad idea.
Chidi’s parents actually opt against divorce and later at school, Chidi shares his triumph with his friend, Uzo.
“I proved once and for all that you can always find the answer,” Chidi says.
“The answer to what?” Uzo asks.
“To anything! Every problem has an answer. If you just read enough books and think hard enough you can figure out the answer to any question.”
“I know you’re really smart but that sounds wrong.”
It sounds wrong because it is wrong, of course. But still this perceived victory of logic in Chidi’s early years forms the foundation for the rest of his life. We know he’s always naturally been an indecisive person (in fact he gets a noticeable stomach ache as an infant when his parents ask if he likes his name or prefers another one). Now it’s revealed that the concept of “the answer” is Chidi’s best weapon against that indecisiveness.
That doesn’t stop the idea that there might be an answer out there from failing Chidi again and again. It fails him when his college girlfriend decides to break up with him because he can’t connect with his actual emotions. It fails him when he can’t decide on a picture on an AC unit falls from the sky and crushes him. It fails him hundreds more times throughout his time in Michael’s afterlife neighborhoods.
Still, Chidi never abandons his dogmatic pursuit of the answer because that one time he needed it most when he was a kid…he got it. What’s a few stomach aches or a doomed relationship with soulmate Esmerelda up against the time his books saved mom and dad’s marriage?
“The Answer” is every bit the showcase for William Jackson Harper that last season’s “Janet(s)” was for D’Arcy Carden. The technical achievement here isn’t nearly as impressive obviously, but the feats of emotional acting are astonishing. In one episode, Harper and The Good Place go from the very beginning of Chidi’s life to essentially the end of it when Michael wipes his memory. And in the process Harper believably sells the journey from ignorance via philosophical obsession to enlightenment through love. It’s stunning stuff.
Not to be outdone, Kristen Bell’s work here in a limited role is equally as impressive. Bell is a versatile, talented actress, but for all her technical skill and charm, there’s one more human aspect of her performance that absolutely floors me every time she trots it out. There’s no special effect on television grander than when Eleanor Shellstrop simply looks at Chidi Anagonye.
We see bits of pieces of Eleanor and Chidi’s time together throughout the flashes of Chidi’s many lives in the good place. And each time Eleanor looks at him it’s like it’s the first time she’s doing so. It’s the “find someone who looks at you like this” meme only rendered heart-shreddingly, achingly real and beautiful. Then, in the very same episode that presents solid evidence that Eleanor and Chidi are soulmates, the show goes ahead and reminds us that there’s probably no such thing as soulmates anyway.
In the moments before he has his memories erased, Chidi shares one last conversation with Michael. Once bursting with questions, Chidi now only has one.
“Soulmates aren’t real are they?” Chidi asks Michael
“Chidi, in all honesty I don’t know. But I don’t think so,” Michael responds.
Then Ted Danson delivers perhaps his best brief monologue on a show that features some absolutely killer Ted Danson monologues.
“Mostly you wanted answers, The soulmate one in particular. So I used it to torture you. Which again…sorry. If soulmates do exist, they’re not found, they’re made. People meet, they get a good feeling, and then they get to work building a relationship. Like your parents. They didn’t magically stay together because you convinced them they should.”
Chidi realizes that it wasn’t the logic of his presentation that kept his parents together. It was him. The sight of a scared little kid reaching out to his mom and dad when they needed him the most. Not only that, Michael adds, but Chidi reminded them of why they fell in love in the first place. So they got back to work. They went to therapy and began building each other back up to be the soulmates they always were.
If you haven’t guessed it yet, this scene was Alec Bojalad crying event #2.
The Good Place season 4 has had a deep, abiding appreciation and love for the work. Work is all that Eleanor and company asked of their test subjects. Work is what convinced the Judge to conclude that the system was flawed. We’re not good now but we can get better…through work.
And the work means that there is no answer.
“Turns out life isn’t a puzzle that can be solved one time and it’s done. You wake up every day and you solve it again,” Chidi says.
“Terribly inefficient.” Michael responds.
What a time to learn.”
What a time to learn indeed. When Chidi wakes up from his Michael-induced coma, he’s a changed man. The self actualization that occurred just prior to sleep has carried over into his waking life. There is no “answer” as Chidi’s note to himself delivered by Janet reads. No answer save for Eleanor. But now the entire human race finds itself in a delicate moment where it needs an answer and its elected Chidi to provide it.
How can one man build a better system for divine judgment? Perhaps accepting there’s no answer is a start. Or maybe love has indeed been the real answer this whole time. The Good Place is about to embark on its final midseason hiatus. When it returns, may it be burdened with glorious clarity much like the monkish Chidi here. Whatever answer it decides upon, I’ve regained my faith in its ability to surprise us all once again.