The Good Place’s final season looks a lot like its first season

“A Girl from Arizona, Part 2” cements what last week’s Good Place season premiere suggested: The show’s final season is going to be a spin on its first, where the characters we know and love (as well as the audience) are in on everything from the first. (Tangent: It’s really remarkable how careful The Good Place was to not become dominated by twists after it pulled off such an amazing one in its season one finale. Most shows would have given in to the temptation!)

This episode contains some great signs that a spin on season one might work. Eleanor’s decision to tell Chidi that Simone is his soulmate — in the hope it will nudge him to inadvertently help the Good Place gang convince Simone that what she’s experiencing is really happening and not a hallucination created by her dying brain — has real weight to it, in a way the romantic shenanigans on The Good Place typically don’t. And the gang’s choice to lie to Brent to trick him into performing good deeds — in the hope that his altruism will prove infectious — suggests that only challenges lie ahead.

But it’s also not hard to wonder how The Good Place might spin 13 episodes out of this setup. Granted, the show has blown up its premise many, many times before. It can and will continue to do so. But right now it feels as though the show is settling in for the long haul, and it could be hard to engage with characters like Brent when they’re so clearly dupes being slotted into a particular role in an experiment.

If nothing else, “A Girl from Arizona, Part 2” is a stirring reminder of why Kristen Bell is a big reason for The Good Place’s success. The breakdown Eleanor has when she realizes she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing is beautifully acted, and it almost makes you believe the incredibly bizarre plot point that Michael faked his nervous breakdown to place the future of humanity in the hands of an Arizona dirtbag.

This week, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff (who wrote all of the above), film critic Alissa Wilkinson, and senior people-trying-to-do-good correspondent Dylan Matthews gather to talk season four, episode two.

Do the new characters feel too indistinct to build this season around?

Tahani and Jason view someone skeptically.
Tahani and Jason aren’t so sure.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Emily: “Part 2” is more of a bridge from “Part 1” to the rest of the season than I think I expected, but there’s something about the idea that the universe might be saved by a group of miscreants who make each other better by their vague proximity to one another that’s very in line with the previous works of series creator Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). Cosmic stakes with a standard workplace sitcom setup? Why not, right?

And there’s so much funny stuff in this episode that I feel more than satisfied. But I’m also a little worried about season four’s new characters, who all still feel like caricatures more than they do real people. Even Simone seems a little bit hazy compared to her season three self. How are you folks feeling about the new additions? And can you also say some nice things about Kristen Bell?

Alissa: I am down with the caricatures, to be honest! Especially Brent. That guy’s the worst. (And there’s not a lot of time left in the series anyhow so I’d rather focus on our heroes.) I’m also very curious about where this season is headed; if there’s a big twist coming again, then maybe some of the caricatures will make more sense?

I do agree that Kristen Bell is killing it. She’s always funny, but now there’s a lot of pathos in her performance — she really misses Chidi! There’s also a lot of snark, like when Brent says that he has been asking Janet to make clothes for herself, to wear around him. (The worst.)

One thing I really enjoyed about this episode was how quietly it incorporated ideas about our actions and our motivations. There’s Jason’s (deeply belated) realization that actually we shouldn’t always act on our impulses right away. There’s Chidi’s discussion with Simone about how, even if a solipsistic view of the world could turn out to be correct, allowing that view to serve as your motivation has some pretty dire consequences. And there’s Eleanor’s realization that Brent’s badly motivated good behavior could evolve into good motivations if he gets in the habit.

I think that’s a pretty nice overview of different ways of thinking about our behavior and our motivations, and it’s spread throughout the episode nicely.

Are you two sad about Janet and Jason?

Dylan: I’m definitely bummed for Jason, though grateful that he was able to pull out of a grief spiral for long enough to honor the bro code and high-five Eleanor in honor of “dat ass.”

As for Janet, I was a bit surprised — disappointed even — by her and Tahani’s choice to sidestep Eleanor and ask Michael directly whether they should change leadership. That might have been a plot necessity for setting up Eleanor’s cathartic breakdown and heart-to-heart with Michael, but going behind Eleanor’s back and trying to conspire against her with Michael felt like a basic moral violation to me.

Their move wasn’t just disrespectful to Eleanor; the stakes of this mission are so impossibly high — the fate of humanity! — that sowing division in the ranks also seems incredibly dangerous. There had to be a better way to communicate that disagreement.

Speaking of the stakes, I appreciated Michael and Eleanor laying them out so plainly: The fate of the world rests on a girl from Arizona. That’s easy to forget amid the cosmic truth elephants and Blake Bortles mourning of this final season, and I was grateful that Schur and The Good Place’s writers had their characters say it specifically. As Emily noted, there’s a beautiful parallel between Eleanor’s role in the task at hand and the Soul Squad’s overall argument for human redemption: If even a girl from Arizona who sometimes walks out of H&M wearing more underwear than she had on to start is capable of saving the universe, doesn’t that say something about humanity deserving to be redeemed?

I share your worry, Emily, about season four running out of plot. Part of what I loved about season two was that reliving the plot of season one only took up the first three episodes — the last of which involved hundreds of reboots. The season one finale set up The Good Place for a full do-over and the decision to reject that option gave season two far more momentum and gravity. We’re still only two episodes into season four — do you all think we’re in for a full season-long redo or another narrative curveball?

Is this show going to end with everybody meeting God?

Jason sits pensively by a fountain.
It seems as though Jason would have some stuff to say to God.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Emily: I feel like this is likely to be what the show looks like for most of the rest of its run. I would never put it past The Good Place to do literally anything, but the stakes are too clearly established and the mirroring of season one too deliberate to suggest radical departures in the near future.

And to be clear, there is a lot of room for fun in an iteration on season one where everyone except for Chidi knows the truth about their situation. Eleanor learning how to use the malleability of the Good Place to her advantage (that golf-inflected nightmarescape!) made for some solid jokes, and the workplace comedy vibe of a bunch of friends trying to do the impossible makes this season feel subtly different from season one.

There is one clear narrative card for the show to play: Chidi will almost surely find out the truth too, and it will somehow break his brain even more. That ticking time bomb rests underneath everything else the season is doing, and we could make a real argument that the decision not to be honest with Chidi is a moral violation in and of itself, one that will dock everybody by a few points.

Honestly, though, I hope the bomb goes off soon. I love William Jackson Harper, and this season’s first two episodes have stranded him a bit. I can’t wait for him to interact more with the main ensemble again.

Lightning round: Janet’s basically God now, right? And Dylan, since you’ve studied philosophy, please tell us more about solipsism.

Dylan: Honestly most of what I know about solipsism comes not from any formal philosophical education but from actress Shirley Maclaine, who used to muse about the whole world being inside her head. Regardless, the struggle Simone’s dealing with now bears some relationship to what epistemologists call the problem of other minds: How do we know that other people feel and think the way we feel and think, or in a closely related way we can understand?

The most famous exploration of this I remember from school was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s private language argument, which is so knotty and has so many different interpretations that I hesitate to even attempt to summarize it.

What I took from it was an argument that language is inherently social: I can’t make up a language that only I know because languages have to conform to rules, and creating and following those rules in a consistent way requires other people. Some philosophers have taken that idea to be an argument against Simone’s form of solipsism. But it could also imply a form of skepticism: We never actually know what’s in another person’s head. Their perception of their pain and joy and relief and fear cannot, even in principle, be expressed to anyone else.

Wittgenstein thought this didn’t matter. He had a famous example of people owning different unopened boxes, each of which they stated contained a “beetle.” So long as the boxes are never opened, he thought, we could never really know what a “beetle” is, as all the people with their boxes could be holding different objects inside them: one “beetle” could be a marble, another could be a cronut, another could be a set of keys. But they don’t need a shared definition of “beetle” to talk about the boxes, and if the boxes are never opened that’s all you need to talk about. So too with the impenetrable beetle box that is the human mind.

But while this didn’t trouble Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein was also an extremely weird dude and it bothers me a great deal. So what do you guys think? Can Simone ever really know what’s in Chidi’s mind? Vice versa? Does it matter?

Alissa: I am very grateful that you brought up Wittgenstein, because his stuff about private languages and language games — the rules to which you refer, Dylan, that develop among groups of people to allow them to communicate with each other about the things that are important to their particular community — has been swirling around in my head since The Good Place started. Basically, if I understand Wittgenstein correctly (some of which comes from actually reading Wittgenstein and some which comes from reading David Foster Wallace, haha), we have to implicitly agree on the terms and the rules of our language games in order to communicate effectively and do things together as humans.

What’s always been most fascinating to me about The Good Place is that it sets up a moral universe where the language game, when we’re discussing concepts like good and bad, was designed by something or someone external to the humans. It’s a system the show’s character’s literally can’t escape (though they’re trying); instead they’ve spent a lot of time just trying to figure out what it is and whether there are loopholes they can exploit. Everyone seems beholden to the system and the rules dictated by it: the humans, the demons, the Judge, everyone.

They’re effectively trying to re-mold the system in season four. I suppose that’s the purpose of their experiment: to evolve the rules. But I’m still curious as to where the rules came from in the first place, if they were set up to judge humanity in the afterlife. When the characters talk about no religion having gotten it “right,” what is the “it”? If there is a transcendent moral absolute that exists outside the language games of humans … where did it originate?

I hope that’s where this season is going! And I’ll say (perhaps in contrast to Emily’s view) that I think it has to be going there — to the discovery of what or who built the system in the first place, and why it is the way it is. Maybe not; this is network TV. But the question has been nagging at me since The Good Place began.

Anyhow. To answer Emily’s question: I think Janet is basically a God proxy at this point? Maybe in a Christian formulation, that makes her the Holy Spirit. (“Not a spirit,” I can hear her saying.) And Dylan, I don’t think we can ever know what the beetle in the human mind box is. That’s the fun of life, right?

Emily: Heck yeah. I hope our gang meets God (or this universe’s godlike being) because I think Jason would have some very interesting things to say on the matter. See you next week, everybody!