The Good Place Season 3, Episode 8 (“The Worst Possible Use of Free Will”)

NBC

Nov 08, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Free will: Does it exist? Although this question may seem bizzare to ask, it isn't off limits in philosophy. The Good Place's latest episode, "The Worst Possible Use of Free Will," goes deep on it. In creator Michael Schur's world, which remains rooted on Earth despite this episode's frequent flashbacks to the afterlife (including what are, presumably, newly filmed afterlife scenes), free will does indeed exist. In this way, the world Schur conjures is realistic, though not everything in the episode is perfectly believable.

To be certain, "The Worst Possible Use of Free Will," on a purely philosophical level, is an excellent analysis of free will and determinism (the definition of which Eleanor reads straight from a Philosophy for Dummies book pulled from the shelf of an Arizona library, a setting she describes as among the world's most deserted). Outside the bounds of philosophy, it's also a solid take on the power of love. It's just a bit messy in its setup and delivery.

For example, Janet having saved a complete record of all Michael's Bad Place reboots is awfully convenient. Sure, there's no other way that Schur and the show's writers could have set this episode up, but still, it's just a bit too good to be true. To access the record, Michael and Eleanor use a machine that appears similar to Janet's Simone breakup simulator from "The Ballad of Donkey Doug," another pretty convenient plot point, them just having all these magical devices here on Earth.

Through this machine, Michael shows Eleanor real, lived moments from her many iterations in The Bad Place. Most of them are from the reboot in which she and Chidi fall in love, because the episode begins with Michael showing Eleanor that she is, in fact, capable of deeply loving someone. Unfortunately, this notion falls apart when Eleanor sees Michael, operating in his prior full-demon mode, brag about his power over the humans in the afterlife: "I made it all up!"

Naturally, Eleanor, queen of defense mechanisms that she is, latches onto determinism-"the theory that we have no control over our actions. Everything we do happens because of some external force which exists outside our control"-to convince herself that Michael forced her and Chidi to fall in love. She's not capable of love after all; she was just in a simulation that Michael controlled.

Eventually, Eleanor admits that Michael is right after he almost succumbs to her level of hopelessness: "If everything is determined and we have no free will, then all the stuff we're doing to put more good into the world is pointless, and I want to believe it matters," he says. This moment is among the episode's most rewarding, and it arrives right after what might be forkshadowing (more on this later): "Maybe there's a mega-demon who built a torture chamber for demons and this whole thing is just him torturing you," Eleanor suggests to Michael while she's still got her defenses up.

Michael's plea for Eleanor to believe in the work the Soul Squad is doing paints him as more human than Eleanor is, a striking position for him to have arrived at given that he's, well, an afterlife demon who built a fake Good Place to torture four humans for eternity (and really, really loved doing so for a long time). Michael continues to be an incredibly rewarding character in The Good Place, both for his continued growth as a human(oid) character and as the purveyor of some of the show's funniest jokes.

Over iced tea aside Eleanor at a diner, Michael's memory-conjuring earbuds prevent him from hearing himself as he talks, so he shouts at Eleanor the way people do when they've got their music playing too loudly in their earbuds. When he's setting up the memory-conjuring system for Eleanor, he says, among other human-approximation instant classics, "I have no real ability to gauge physical attractiveness in humans, but no you did not pull it off," and "You guys are always sleeping or chewing something." When Eleanor discovers Michael admitting his power over the Bad Place reboots, he reflects on that era by saying, "I wore a lot of French cuff shirts back then. I thought it made me look classy, but it's all embarrassing." Michael's approximations of humanity have been among The Good Place's strongest comedic fodder so far this season, and "Free Will" is no exception to this trend.

It's otherwise not that funny of an episode. Instead, its charm comes in how, finally, we get to see more of Eleanor and Chidi's romance. The Good Place is tending towards Eleanor and Chidi kindling their oft-teased afterlife love on Earth, and with "Free Will," we get to see just how wholesomely and authentically it all came together in that one fated reboot. Chidi's smirking at Eleanor early in the episode, Eleanor's pushing Chidi into the pond later, their escape to the Medium Place, their feeble attempt to stop Michael's demonry with the power of love-it's all adorable and smarmy in the way that rom-coms are, and boy does it work well for The Good Place. Even though the laughs are fewer and farther between in "The Worst Possible Use of Free Will"-Jason thinking penguins are mythical in the same way that unicorns are, Tahani's afterlife pet centaur Tahania literally holding a mirror to her ostentatiousness in the most delightfully absurd way-the warmth of Eleanor and Chidi's one successful romance largely makes up for this discrepancy.

It's the plot elements of "Free Will" that cause it to falter. The Janet miracle is just one part that's a bit tough to accept. Eleanor and Michael's time in the library and then in the diner afterwards are similarly convenient for reasons that are both difficult to articulate and understandable to the average longtime The Good Place viewer (but the fact that "the second we close, they use this place to shoot pornos" applies to both locations is incredible). More annoying is the episode's false ending, in which Eleanor suggests taking the Soul Squad to the next level and Michael reroutes the group to rural Canada, without anyone really understanding what it is that's about to happen.

Almost gratingly played out is the actual ending, in which the highest beings of the Bad Place-Shawn, Vicky, Glenn, and the other one whose name we've never quite gotten-are reintroduced out of absolutely nowhere now that they've apparently built an illegal door from the afterlife to Earth. Is this necessary? What does The Good Place add to its value by reintroducing these demons and implying that hell might be unleashed on earth? Sure, these demons have been fodder for some fantastic jokes, especially in the show's second season, but if The Good Place is going to happen on Earth, let it take place on Earth. In this season's arc about saving others rather than saving oneself, the reintroduction of these demons is bound to feel out of place.

Unless, of course, this is them pulling the plug on the torture chamber for demons that Eleanor may have forkshadowed earlier. It would take some serious finagling to pull off a plot twist this complex and insane, but The Good Place has done it before. It would be an interesting swerve in the plot, to be sure: Throughout its third season, The Good Place has struggled somewhat to form an overarching narrative that appropriately fits its mission.

This is a TV show that, again, is no stranger to plot twists and settings that provide immense amounts of creative flexibility, and it's also a show that knows how to save itself after what might seem like a dip in a strange direction (see "Jeremy Bearimy" following the humans discovering the door to the afterlife). "The Worst Possible Use of Free Will" leaves the desire for another plot-saving moment to swoop in and redirect the show. Until then, at least the jokes are still solid, and the romances are more concrete and amazing than ever. Let's just hope the show uses its free will to get back on track. (www.nbc.com/the-good-place)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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