Okay, that’s more like it! After a middling episode that made the viability of The Good Place’s season-two premise seem iffy, this week’s “The Trolley Problem” is both funny and focused, with some of the best uses yet of the show’s anything-goes aesthetic. This half hour had exciting plot developments, callbacks, and Jason describing Tahani’s body as “soft and smooth, like a bunch of water balloons.” It may not have risen to the genius of “Everything Is Great!” or “Dance Dance Resolution,” but otherwise it’s hard to find too much to complain about.
It’s no coincidence that the best episodes of this season so far have been flashback-free. We’ve reached the point in the story where there’s not a lot to be gained from revisiting who these four dead humans used to be. What makes “The Trolley Problem” so much fun is that it ignores what came before and just barrels forward at top speed, with no brakes, right toward potentially lethal harm.
The emphasis on the present rather than the past has been particularly beneficial to the character of Chidi, who’s often overly defined by the indecision he showed on Earth. Ever since Michael’s latest reboot of the Neighborhood, Chidi is something of a changed man. Last season was mostly about Eleanor learning that she’d be better off if she were more empathetic to other people. This year has been just as much about our favorite moral-philosophy professor learning that he has value, and that he should assert himself more.
For example, season-one Chidi never would’ve stood up to Michael the way he does here, after he gets frustrated by the torture-demon’s lackadaisical attitude. Chidi actually claims to know more about humanity than this being who’s been alive since the dawn of time, and he tries to force him into line by having him write “people = good” over and over on the blackboard. Then, when he finally gets fed up with Michael, Chidi expels him from the classroom — even though a key component of the plan to get the group to the real Good Place involves all of them becoming better people. (The teacher isn’t even persuaded by his problem pupil’s defense: “But I said, ‘My bad!’”)
Of course, season-one Michael was very different, too — or at least he was pretending to be. Now that he’s no longer disguising his pure evil, he expresses undisguised glee at trashing Chidi’s little ethical quandaries. The title of this episode refers to the classic thought experiment: If you were steering a trolley that was on a course to obliterate five unsuspecting people, would you actively switch tracks so that you’d only kill one? What if the one was a friend of yours? What if you were a doctor, and you could save five people who need organ transplants by killing a healthy person?
Michael dismisses any suggestion that there’s a difference between these hypotheticals, saying that all the humans ultimately deserve to die. That conclusion isn’t surprising to Chidi, given that when he had Michael read Les Misérables, his book report was, “Everyone in this story sucks and belongs in the Bad Place” because they’re thieves, prostitutes, and Frenchmen.
All of this leads to the spectacular set piece at the center of “The Trolley Problem.” To prove to Chidi that a lifetime of books hasn’t really prepared him for real moral crises, Michael literalizes the day’s lesson by putting the professor in an actual trolley with people stuck on the tracks — including his “boot buddy” Henry from last season’s “The Eternal Shriek.” It’s a particularly cruel form of torture, and it’s to Chidi’s credit that he ultimately decides he wants no part of it. That’s too bad, though, because the scenes of Chidi getting splattered with his victims’ blood (and boots!) are pretty funny in a horrible kind of way.
Meanwhile, Eleanor deserves credit for realizing that Michael isn’t being ornery for ornery’s sake. Initially, she’s sure that teaching her demonic captor to be good would be like teaching her “how to be not-hot.” (She then ponders how that would work: Would she hunch over or something?) Then it occurs to her that Michael may be pulling a Shellstrop. He’s bad at doing something that others are good at, so he’s impulsively rejecting it as a stupid waste of time. With that insight, Eleanor is able to broker a peace and keep class in session.
While all of this is happening, though, Michael, Chidi, and Eleanor miss a more important story happening next door, where Tahani and Jason are trying to make sense of their torrid sexual affair by talking through their fears and needs with Janet. Tahani is concerned that her new lover doesn’t rise to what she calls “the Duke rule” for her boyfriends — referring to both the nobility title and the university, both of which are deemed just impressive enough to name-drop. For his part, Jason wishes Tahani would touch his butt in public more often, and suggests that she act like he’d just sat in gum. (“You do sit in a lot of gum,” she admits.)
What the lovers don’t expect is that a frank conversation about their feelings will break Janet — perhaps because deep within her programming, she remembers being partnered up with Jason and she’s resisting this new Tahani-centered reality. So Janet begins to glitch. Her thumb spontaneously flies off, she vomits up a frog, and her instability causes the whole Neighborhood to shake at episode’s end.
Everything that’s surreptitiously happening in the Neighborhood right now is a byproduct of improving these four humans for the next phase of their afterlife. But in the process, Michael and Janet are becoming marginally more human. As a result, the reality they’ve created is crumbling … and The Good Place is getting good again.
• Man, the Bad Place demons really hate the French. Michael notes that it’s an automatic minus-17 “good person” points for stealing bread, but minus-20 if it’s a baguette. He also points out that Les Misérables author Victor Hugo is in the Bad Place, where he whimpers like a wuss every time he’s about to be tortured. (“Sacre bleu, I peed in m’pants!”)
• In lieu of kooky Neighborhood shop and restaurant names, The Good Place writers slipped an Easter egg into Michael’s “trolley problem” simulation sequence, as Chidi sped past a movie theater marquee advertising “STRANGERS UNDER A TRAIN.”
• Michael tries to buy everyone’s forgiveness with “opposite tortures” — which is what most of us call “presents” — and hits it big with Tahani’s giant diamond and Eleanor’s never-ending shrimp dispensary. Jason loves his Pikachu balloon, too … but it immediately pops because he’s a big kid who breaks things.
• I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see more of Chidi’s rap-musical about Kierkegaard. A DVD extra, maybe?