The Good Place sets up its endgame in its final season premiere

Somehow, as The Good Place kicks off its fourth and final season, the fate of the human race has come down to four weirdos, a genderless being of pure creation, and a reformed demon. If someone had told you is how season four would begin back when the show debuted, you would have said, “What?” but here in “A Girl from Arizona, Part 1” (the season four premiere), it’s more, “Sure. Sounds about right.”

As always with this funny, frenetic show, The Good Place treats its premiere as a hard reboot, doing everything it can to slide certain elements of the season into place. (It will surely blow up this premise within in a couple of episodes.) Most of the premiere is dedicated to dealing with the dangling plot threads from season three, by introducing the final two test subjects in the grand experiment to save humanity — a horribly boring Norwegian named Linda and a braying jackass named Brent (the great Ben Koldyke).

But right away, the premiere offers twists. Linda is a demon in disguise, and after she starts beating the hell out of people when Eleanor and Michael push her too far, the Judge decrees that the final test subject will be Chidi — an elegant way to solve the story problem of “How will Eleanor be tormented by any other dead human when Chidi will torment her so much more?”

The episode more or less sidelines everybody who’s not Kristen Bell or Ted Danson, which is probably as it should be in a final season premiere. We started with these two, and The Good Place is signaling that it’s going to end with them, too. But everyone else in the cast (and many of the supporting players) get some solid moments, and at least one big laugh a piece. (Particularly funny is Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Simone, who assumes that the Good Place is a hallucination cooked up by her dying brain.)

This week, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff (who wrote all you just read), senior people-trying-to-do-good correspondent Dylan Matthews, and culture editor Jen Trolio gather to talk about the premiere and what it bodes for the show’s final season.

“A Girl from Arizona” gets back to basics

The Good Place resets everything one last time.
There’s even an opulent party.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Emily: After a third season that was so hyper-plotted with just a touch of flopsweat, it’s nice to see The Good Place get back to basics in this premiere. It’s always a good sign to me when a series returns to its core for a final season, and season four of The Good Place is clearly doing just that. I’m not yet all-in — the new human characters feel a little one-note still, and I am maybe not sufficiently invested in the Eleanor/Chidi relationship in the way the show might need me to be — but I am confident this is all headed somewhere good, if only because D’Arcy Carden… what a treasure!

Where are you folks with this premiere? And how did you feel about the Linda/Chidi switcheroo?

Jen: I think the switch worked perfectly fine as a means to a necessary end. Linda and her apparent desire for nothing but an occasional peppermint — even when presented with all the Good Place has to offer, including a baby elephant made of pure light that tells true secrets about the universe — were good for a chuckle. But she would have gotten old fast.

Linda absolutely served her purpose, however, as the driving force behind setting up the season to come. I’m relieved the Linda/Chidi switch came no later than episode one, as we’re now in position to watch Eleanor the student literally become Eleanor the teacher.

As Sean lamented toward the end of the episode, when receiving his punishment for trying to pass off a Bad Place demon as a human, we do already know that Chidi is capable of improvement, of becoming a better person. But now the pressure is on Eleanor to take on the roles of Chidi and Michael from The Good Place’s first three seasons. She’s running point on introducing the test subjects to the Good Place, and I suspect before long, she’ll be imparting what she’s learned from Chidi onto the remaining three.

All of this is complicated by her feelings for the newly returned Chidi himself. Emily, I know you’re not 100 percent invested in the Chidi/Eleanor love story. But how do you feel about it, Dylan? How do we all think the relationship stuff is going to help or hurt the show going forward?

Dylan: I will concede that I miss Linda already, if only because she’s such a great analogue to Colm on Derry Girls. Extremely boring older family members are a surprisingly durable comedy premise!

I will also concede, as a well-documented fan of the show, that the Eleanor-Chidi plotline never made a ton of sense to me. Much like (and I know this is a hotter take) Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt, the characters don’t have particularly compelling chemistry. And at times, stories devoted to their relationship have detracted from other, more important plots, like the battle for control of the Good Place’s admissions system (who needs love when there is moral theory on the line!).

This is especially true when there is a romantic plotline that I find myself deeply invested in: Jason v. Derek! Everything about it fascinates me. Janet, as the most brilliant and powerful being in the universe, seems to have a type, and that type is, as 30 Rock heiress Pizzarina Sbarro once called them, “sex idiots.” Both of Janet’s sex idiots are incredibly devoted to her, in awe of her superior intellect, and at least in Derek’s case, eager to shape up in order to be worthy of her love. I would watch a full In Treatment-style series that’s just the three of them in relationship counseling.

But more crucially, I want to see some progress toward this bet with the Bad Place. Chidi’s in the mix now. How is Team Good Place going to get the rest of the the test subjects (including Koldyke, whom I remember from his incredible turn on Big Love) in shape — and has Sean’s admission that Chidi is capable of improvement already given the game away, proving the Soul Squad is right that humanity deserves to be saved?

The Good Place is building a solid sense of finality, right from the start of this last season

D’Arcy Carden and Jameela Jamil star in The Good Place.
Janet and Tahani spy on something or other.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Emily: Well an experiment is only good if it’s replicable, right? Our fivesome theoretically has the knowledge that Chidi can improve and how to achieve that effect — but they also carry this huge and weighty secret that, should Chidi ever find out about it, would send him into some weird spiral. (He’s definitely going to find out about it.) That’s at least a theoretically interesting tension.

Dylan, I want to thank you for taking the bold stand against Leslie and Ben that this website needs. I love the shows of Mike Schur, but my controversial take is that he’s not particularly great at writing actual romances so much as he is work romances. And don’t get me wrong — having a good work spouse who’s looking out for you is a powerful thing. But it’s not not not an actual romantic partner.

That’s probably fine on Parks and Recreation (though when Leslie and Ben got together for good early in season four is when that show started to sag a bit for me, and I can see somebody coming to haul me off stage, so I’ll return to the point). But what concerns me on The Good Place is that the stakes of Eleanor and Chidi’s relationship aren’t just whether these two crazy kids can make it work. They’re whether humanity can make it work. The stakes are the fate of the very universe itself.

But the Jason/Derek rivalry is exactly the kind of bizarro romance this show handles perfectly. It’s probably best that The Good Place just didn’t bother coming up with an actual character to be a perfect damnation foil for Jason, because the guy seems pretty unflappable, but danged if the show didn’t do exactly this with the Derek/Janet dynamic. The more Jason works to navigate this weird middle ground, the more ethically questionable stuff he does. Killing Derek isn’t wrong, but his motives are selfish all the same. So it’s hard to say it’s right either.

(I do wonder if the show should have thought a little harder about someone who would specifically torment Eleanor than “braying jackass,” but I suppose Chidi is going to accomplish the same effect.)

In general, I loved how this premiere reminded us of just how many pieces are still on the board in the final season. Mindy St. Clair turns up. The Bad Place demons are here. Derek is around. It’s a twisty grab bag of plot elements and characters you might have forgotten about, and it has a real sense of finality to it. My biggest concern was that The Good Place’s sunny tone wouldn’t mesh particularly well with the weightiness of a Planned Final Season. But so far, so good.

Then again, this episode’s cliffhanger just seemed to underline that “A Girl from Arizona, Part One” was probably meant to roll over right away into next week’s “Part Two.” It’s a little soft, but that’s probably not the worst thing. Which mainstays of The Good Place were you most happy to see turn up again, beyond Derek and his cocktails?

Dylan: I was pretty chuffed to see Simone return, not least because I think, as happened with The Office’s Karen Filippelli, the writers might have introduced a better-suited love interest for the male lead so as to throw some obstacles in the way of the central romantic storyline. She and Chidi work well together, and while I’m aware they’re not endgame, I hope they at least get to have some professional, platonic collaboration as the experiment goes forward.

I think the character I want to see the most of, going forward, is the Judge. The afterlife is clearly polytheistic — the Bad Place and Good Place operate separately from each other and the Bad Place seems capable of breaking into and manipulating the Good Place — but insofar as there’s a top dog, a Zeus-style first among equals, it’s her horny, Chidi-thirsty Judgeship.

When I talked to Michael Schur about this season he said a major theme that’ll come up is whether Bad Place-style punishment is ever acceptable. The end of season three was largely about whether or not the points system is correctly calibrated: How could Doug Forcett not even merit inclusion? How could it be that no one for the last few hundred years, not even Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela or Stanislav Petrov, got into the Good Place?

The harder question, though, is whether anyone, even an annoying Princeton WASP like Brent or a bottom-feeding gossip columnist like John, deserves penis flattening and butthole spiders. And the only person really capable of answering that, and creating a more just system, is Maya Rudolph.

How about you, Jen? Whose return are you awaiting most?

Jen: Instead of having someone return, now I kind of want to meet Disco Janet.

But more than anything, I am glad to have The Good Place’s particular sense of humor back for one last go-round. When Michael and Sean were giving their respective pep talks early in the episode, it was a truly welcome return to the show, with Team Bad Place singing the Kars4Kids jingle as their theme song, and later, Michael chanting “Dead eyes, eat hearts, can’t lose!” as a holdover from his Bad Place days.

The stakes of this final season aren’t just high because the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, but because it’s still going to be tricky, I think, for The Good Place to stick the landing. I am especially curious as to how definitive an answer it will give on whether anyone ever deserves, as Dylan pointed out above, to experience terrible things like mouth fleas, and how much the series will dare to reveal in terms of the future Good Place/Bad Place system. But I will always and forever appreciate the show’s particular delight in passing judgment on good and bad in the form of cultural references.

Emily: I, for one, hope that the eternal moral quandaries of the universe are solved by the final season of this show, and I will be horribly disappointed if they are not.