A review of this week’s The Good Place, “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy,” coming up just as soon as you get me a glass of hot pig urine…
As the John Le Carré-referencing title suggests, “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy” is a Good Place-style espionage thriller. Glenn from the Bad Place pops up on the handcar and claims that Michael is really Vicky in the Michael suit we saw Shaun demonstrate at the end of last season. As a result, Eleanor and the others spend the rest of the half hour interrogating both men to figure out whether Glenn is telling the truth or just part of another of Shaun’s plans to mess with the experiment. It’s a taut structure, with most of the story taking place inside Mindy St. Claire’s house, and results in easily the highlight of Season Four to date — albeit with an obvious flaw.
The episode is set up as a mystery about Michael’s identity. But because Glenn suggests the Michael/Vicky swap happened at the end of the first half of “A Girl From Arizona,” that would mean that the Michael/Eleanor heart-to-heart in the second half was actually a Vicki/Eleanor heart-to-heart. This doesn’t make sense from a plot or character standpoint, since why would Vicky help Eleanor through her moment of self-doubt, and how convincing could she be even if she wanted to be? But it also would undercut one of the emotional high points of the entire series — a culmination of the journey that these two have been on since Eleanor woke up in Michael’s waiting room — and that’s just not how The Good Place rolls. It wants you to care even more than it wants you to laugh, so there’s no way it wasn’t Michael giving Eleanor a pep talk that night.
But the story works wonderfully despite that lack of suspense for a few reasons. The first is that — perhaps because the creative team knew we would believe in Michael — the whole question is misdirection. Michael wasn’t the one who was replaced; instead, a Bad Janet has been impersonating our Janet since the hand-off at the train station. This is actually a smarter plan by Shaun, since Janet has more influence over the success or failure of the neighborhood than Michael does. And it tracks with everything we’ve seen Bad Janet do since the switcheroo. In hindsight, the Blake Bortles comment last week should have been the tip-off, since the real, good Janet wouldn’t be so needlessly cruel to poor Jason right as she was breaking up with him.
The second reason it works is that Chidi’s not part of Team Cockroach at the moment. He’s not infallible, but he’s also by far the smartest and most sensible human in the group. Without him involved, and with Janet not being helpful for reasons we only find out after the twist is revealed, that means the solution has to come from Eleanor, Tahani, or Jason. All three are capable of moments of insight — here, Jason unmasks Bad Janet after realizing she didn’t correct him when he called her “girl” — but they’re operating at enough of an intellectual disadvantage that their struggle to solve the problem works. Chidi and Eleanor actually link up late in the story so he can remind her of his penchant for self-sacrifice — and to inspire Eleanor to sacrifice this latest version of the experiment, even if it will make things much harder for everyone — but it’s up to the three dum-dums to figure it out.
Third, there is Ted Danson’s amazing delivery of the monologue where Michael describes what he looks like underneath his human suit: as a 6,000-foot-tall fire squid. There is so much hilarious, vulnerable anguish in his voice as he says, “I have tentacles. There’s teeth everywhere. I’m on fire, and my neck is long. And there’s a smell, and lots of juice. There’s so much juice, Eleanor.” Danson delivers the speech directly to camera, which is an unusual visual choice for the show. It works here, because Michael is laying himself so metaphorically naked (even as he’s refusing to actually strip down to his giant birthday suit), to the point where he’s looking at us as if we were Eleanor and in need of warning. That delightful speech crushed whatever reflexive eye-rolling I might have wanted to do at the question of Michael’s identity.
And while we’re waiting for Jason to solve the mystery (more deftly than he handles the word search, which he “solves” by circling the clues), this is easily the funniest episode of the season to this point, with all the explanations about demon anatomy and culture adding a lot of marvelous (and gross) scatological humor to the show’s usual wit.
Michael and Jason’s trip to the Bad Place to rescue Janet provides a strong teaser for whatever’s coming next week, but “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy” was plenty splendid on its own.
Some other thoughts:
* In a callback to Season One’s “The Eternal Shriek,” Michael prepares to self-destruct by telling the gang, “Take it sleazy!”
* Even though this episode is primarily about the core group, the three new humans do pop up briefly in the opening scene for a game of Pictionary that Bad Janet is secretly sabotaging. It still feels like we need more follow-up on where things are between would-be soul mates Chidi and Simone, but in the meantime, Brent explaining that he’s shot a lot of racehorses was an excellent reminder of the specific nature of his awfulness. (As was his attempt to call Chidi “my brother,” after previously assuming his name was “Chippy.”)
* Also, Eleanor and Chidi’s shared snack underlined the fact that, as far as Chidi and the newbies are concerned, Eleanor is a celestial being, rather than a human. Which means she gets to imitate Michael a bit and pretend to be fascinated by things like nachos.
* Finally, an interesting development from Glenn, who explains that he enjoyed torturing people — specifically, re-inflating penises so other demons could flatten them again — because he assumed that everyone in the Bad Place deserved to be there. He could be an anomaly, but it could also be foreshadowing that there are other demons like him (or Michael, for that matter) who might genuinely like humans if they could just get to know them. It’s a more hopeful take on a fundamentally broken universe than the series sometimes provides.