A review of this week’s The Good Place, “The Answer,” coming up just as soon as I away and tend to my ravens…
Well, that was just splendid.
Among the faults in structuring the first half of this season around the experiment was how it sidelined Chidi. We still had a version of him around, but he wasn’t as prominent as he’d been in previous years and he had no idea who the others were and what they’d all been through together. He was physically present, but not emotionally or comically in the way the show needed.
“The Answer” restores all of Chidi’s memories — including many that we in the audience never got to see before. In the process, the episode not only turns him back into the guy that both Eleanor and the series need, but may have finally converted me from Eleanor/Chidi agnostic to believer.
Most of the episode takes place in the time it takes for Michael to snap his fingers (and/or for Jason to spill his Duval Ditchwater cocktail), evoking the old cliché about someone’s life flashing before their eyes. In Chidi’s case, it’s 800-plus lifetimes, counting his original death, the many reboots, the Soul Squad’s return to Earth, and then the experiment. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and “The Answer” deftly mixes and matches between Chidi’s perspective on parts of the series we already know and events that are brand new to us.
Where the origins of Eleanor, Jason, and Tahani have been pretty exhaustively explored by now, we know surprisingly little about Chidi. He’s the only character who didn’t go home during the Soul Squad period, for instance, and the only one where we haven’t seen a parent before now. “The Answer” is concerned with Chidi’s entire life, but it’s most concerned of all with a previously untold part of it: the day that an eight-year-old Chidi believed he had constructed a moral philosophy argument to prevent his parents from getting divorced. Chidi believes so deeply in moral philosophy and in following its tenets because he saw how effective that could be, in an incredibly powerful and personal way. That belief proved fatally incompatible with his crippling indecisiveness — which the episode’s opening flashback suggests he was unfortunately born with — because it left him standing on the sidewalk when the air conditioner fell on him. But even in the afterlife, through every iteration, he stuck by those beliefs because they felt, understandably, like a superpower to him.
In an incredibly poignant scene near the end of the episode, Michael reveals that the truth is more complicated. Chidi did, in fact, interrupt his parents’ latest rough patch, but saving their marriage took much more time and hard work away from their son’s inquisitive gaze. Chidi, who in that moment is on the verge of having his memory wiped again to save the experiment, finally realizes that life isn’t a puzzle to be solved permanent, but something where you have to wake up every day to solve it all over again. Michael admits it’s a terrible system and a pained and deeply vulnerable Chidi — played spectacularly in this moment, but really throughout the episode, by William Jackson Harper — sniffles and says, “What a time to learn.”
But the note that Chidi scribbles to give to Janet — an echo of the “Find Chidi” note Eleanor gave her right before the first reboot — has two sentiments on it. The first is, “There is no ‘answer,'” which is the painful lesson he spent 800-plus lifetimes learning. The second is, “But Eleanor is the answer,” which is the complicated but much more rewarding lesson he learned over that same long span of time.
And it’s on that more intimate subject that “The Answer” works its most impressive magic. The Good Place has done a very uneven job over the years of selling Eleanor and Chidi’s romance as a thing that feels real and earned, as opposed to something necessary to properly sell the themes of the show. Harper and Kristen Bell make great comic sparring partners, but the romantic chemistry only sometimes feels there. And the constant reboots and memory wipes haven’t helped, since there have been several periods where the characters seem to be in love with one another only because they’ve been told that they already were.
But as we bounce around through Chidi’s POV on all the reboots(*), we see that Eleanor kept being drawn to Chidi no matter what else was happening and who they were told were their soul mates. (Kate Berlant as the witch-like Esmerelda was such a blast, and such a perfect fit for the tone of the series, it mainly left me wondering how it took so long for her to guest star.) The episode essentially functions as an expanded version of the Chidi/Eleanor highlight film they watched before he got his mind wiped in the Season Three finale — a few of those moments, like their kiss in the alley, play out at greater length here — but this time, it feels like we’re being shown the romance instead of just being assured that it exists. Michael admits that soul mates don’t exist in the way he presented them up front, but after a while, this episode convincingly argues that these two were meant to be together, no matter the context or obstacles.
(*) Among the reasons I wish we’d spent less time on the experiment: It would create room to do similar Jason and Tahani-centric trips through the neighborhood, and through the many reboots we only briefly glimpsed in Season Two’s “Dance Dance Resolution.”
The experiment portion of this season paired off Chidi with Simone again, but — as was the case about almost everything regarding the experiment — in a half-hearted fashion. Their relationship was meant to cause Eleanor new heartache. The problem was, we saw almost none of the important signposts of that relationship, as if the show assumed their time together in Australia already told us all that we needed to know. (Either that, or they were trying to avoid fueling the fire of the Chidi/Simone ‘shippers.) Simone is conspicuously absent from Chidi’s memories here — I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen the last of her and Brent and John — which makes the path to him falling back in love with Eleanor a bit simpler. But when Chidi stared at that note, then at Eleanor’s nervously hopeful expression, I believed more than ever in the idea of them as both a couple and as a core part of the series’ attempt to build a better version of life on earth and beyond.
“The Answer” isn’t a hugely funny episode. But in the way it seamlessly integrates bits and pieces of Chidi’s life (Uzo, the red boots) and afterlife while it reframes his emotional story, it’s easily the best chapter of Season Four, and one of the series’ best ever. It took too long to get here, but I can’t wait to see what these two crazy lovebirds do when the show returns in January for its final run.