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'The Good Place' recap: All aboard the Ethics Express

For The Baltimore Sun

Good morning, class. Today on “The Good Place,” we’re going to learn whether it’s better to run over a friend wearing hideous boots or five strangers just trying to make a living.

Chidi’s lesson plan focuses on the “trolley problem,” the famous ethical dilemma of either allowing a runaway train to crush five people or switching the tracks and killing one, variations and accessories sold separately. Eleanor wants to know if she knows any of the people, like the judgmental cashier from Rite Aid, and Jason just wants to be the blue team.

Michael, however, faces the biggest learning curve. He misses the point completely, and after drawing a scene of six screaming, mostly-beheaded people, must write “People = Good” 10 times on the chalkboard.

Chidi is unsure how to help his most oblivious student improve, and he definitely didn’t write a rap musical as a solution. Eleanor encourages patience: Michael is an immortal being after all, and asking him not to be evil is like asking her not to be hot. It’s going to take time and a lot of hunching over.

When class ends, Eleanor wants to hang out, but Tahani and Jason say they have homework to do, and by that they mean they’re secretly sleeping together. Jason, who may not be the brightest star in the heavens, has enough emotional intelligence to see that their secrecy stems from Tahani’s embarrassment to be seen with someone worth less than seven figures, and he encourages her to open up to a friend to examine her own insecurity. But then someone will know, Jason! Silly, beautiful idiot.

Tahani decides to confide in Janet, who reads every book in the universe on psychiatry AND gets glasses, thereby filling all of the requirements of an accredited therapist. She sits down with Tahani and eventually Jason, trying to help them work through their problems. The more she does, though, the more her body is affected. Can Janets regrow thumbs? That’s a question for next week.

Chidi still can’t get Michael to participate in a meaningful way, evidenced by his delightfully sour essay on “Les Miserables.” Michael can’t help the fact that he knows Victor Hugo is in the bad place peeing his le pants, but Chidi’s point is beyond that harsh truth. Michael believes he knows more about the human world than Chidi and doesn’t want to take the time to learn, and for a moral philosophy professor, not learning is only a few steps away from arson or murder.

Michael devises a solution: With a snap of his fingers, the three leads are all transported aboard a speeding trolley about to crash into a group of construction workers. Chidi doesn’t even have time to consider the moral ramifications of pulling the switch before the trolley smashes into the five people, and blood spatters everywhere like a gruesome Universal Studios ride.

For a moment I have to remember I’m watching a show where previously the worst thing to happen was the attack of a flying shrimp. Every week turns the tone half a shade darker, while still managing to keep the general vibe heartwarming and sweet. It’s an impressive tightrope act, but in moments like these you can definitely lose your balance. Between his Kantian flow and utter horror of having swallowed part of a fake trolley victim, William Jackson Harper is the episode standout.

Michael reboots the scenario and Chidi feels confident that killing one person to save five is the right decision, until Michael reminds him that this time he’s about to run over Henry, his friend with the terrible red boots … that come flying off when the trolley smashes him to bits.

Oh, Henry. If you had only worn more sensible shoes to your construction job, this never would have happened.

After seven varying scenarios, Chidi tells Michael he has had enough and even Eleanor, who weirdly loves the gore, agrees. So naturally, Michael snaps his fingers and sends them all to an operating theater, where five patients in need of life-saving operations will die if Chidi doesn’t use Eleanor’s organs. Ah, a good old fashioned utilitarian standoff! Chidi immediately insists he won’t sacrifice his friend for the greater good, but Michael then brings in all of the families of the patients he didn’t save and wants him to explain himself.

At this point, Chidi has had enough, for real this time, and Eleanor intervenes before Michael can send them to the next scenario (the answer to which, by the way, is you save the one awesome dog. Try harder, Michael). If there is one thing Eleanor is good at, it’s figuring out when people are being tortured, and she catches Michael once again using his powers to mess with their minds. You can take the devil out of hell…

Furious, Chidi orders Michael from his classroom and tries to cool off by staring at a table of contents (“It’s like a menu but the food is words!”). Eleanor confronts Michael, recognizing the same patterns in him that she performed on Earth: struggle at something, lash out at others, eat shrimp, repeat. In the business, they refer to that as “Pulling an Eleanor” or “Stropmongering.” It doesn’t matter that Michael is all-powerful and can see in nine dimensions and knows when someone is about to fart — he doesn’t know how to be a human, and that bothers him.

To make up for his behavior, he presents the gang with Torture Opposites, or presents, if you will. For Tahani, a boring arrangement of carbon molecules that would break a fiancée’s hand. Eleanor, you’ve been so good you get an all-you-can eat shrimp dispensary. Little Jason! Michael didn’t forget you this year — it’s a Pikachu balloon. He did apparently forget how easily Jason breaks things. And last, but most importantly, Michael has secured a replica of Kant’s notebook filled with thoughts and crude drawings for his favorite teacher.

But, of course, Chidi, being the moral philosophy professor, doesn’t care about the notebook. He wants Michael to admit that he was wrong and apologize. Should have gone for the shrimp dispensary in my opinion, but I lack Chidi’s nobility.

In the end, Michael gives a sincere apology and everyone gets to keep their Opposite Tortures. It’s a sin win-win.

Jason and Tahani make emotional progress too, and one month later, they are a stronger couple thanks to Janet’s counseling. Unfortunately, this happiness may come at a cost. With Janet acting outside of her directive, the whole world may suddenly be on the verge of ultimate collapse.

So that’s the main thing, but how are you?

The Good Lines

“I did the thing again.”

Michael’s entire essay on “Les Mis”: “Everyone in this story sucks and belongs in the bad place. The chief is bad. … The whining prostitutes are bad. Plus they’re all French, so they’re going to the bad place automatically. … If you steal a loaf of bread it’s a negative 17 points, 20 if it’s a baguette because that makes you more French. ... Sacre bleu, I peed in le pants.”

“I feel like Tahani is embarrassed that I’m not some sort of scientist who forecloses on banks.”

“But I said my bad?”

“You’re pulling an Eleanor.” “Posting my cousin’s credit card number on Reddit because she said I looked tired?”

“What you’re holding right now is basically meteorite poop.” “And I have the biggest piece!”

Special mention goes to the writer who named the trolley The Ethics Express.

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