Thursday, October 19, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Good Place' - Michael Puts Chidi and Eleanor in a Literal Ethical Dilemma in 'The Trolley Problem'

NBC's The Good Place - Episode 2.06 "The Trolley Problem"

Chidi and Eleanor tackle a famous ethical dilemma, leading to a conflict with Michael. Tahani harbors a secret and confides in Janet.

"The Trolley Problem" doesn't do a whole lot to advance the actual plot of this season. None of the demons who are running the Bad Place and torturing the humans appear at all. It's just a solid half-hour that spends time in Chidi's classroom trying to teach everyone ethics. It's a familiar position for the show. But it's not boring either. In the first season when the show was in this environment, it proved to be more charming and cunning than actually funny. Chidi took his teachings very seriously and Eleanor genuinely wanted to become a better person. That is still fundamentally the same. Chidi loves teaching more than anything else in the world. And now, the humans and Michael all need to become better people in the hopes that they'll be able to escape this neighborhood and join the actual Good Place. They are just full of hope right now. They are playing pretend to fool the demons who are controlling the neighborhood. They have the freedom to meet together like this for these classes. But they aren't the same kind of stories that occurred in the first season. In many ways, things can be even more broad and playful this season. Last year the story could be hindered a bit because it needed to play everything straight in order to keep the ruse of what was going on. And now, everyone is aware of the true nature of their reality. They need to do this in order to avoid being tortured for all of eternity. But there are so many more possibilities for absurdity now that Michael is involved. He isn't a human. He's an immortal being. He designed this neighborhood to torture the four humans. He represents an obstacle for everyone else to deal with because he can't be taught in the same way. Plus, he has powers which can make the theoretical nature of moral philosophy into something incredibly literal. And that's where this episode truly shines.

Chidi presents the class with the familiar "trolley problem." A trolley is speeding uncontrollably down a track. If it keeps its present course, it will kill five people. Or the conductor can change course and kill one person. To Eleanor and the humans, it's an easy decision because killing one person is less bad than killing five people. But with Michael, he believes the objective of the exercise is to find a way to kill all six people. It's funny that Chidi literally makes him write down "People=Good" over and over again on a blackboard. He's still not totally getting it either. He is still refusing to change even though last week's episode proved that this is something that he needs to do as well. He needs to take this class seriously. But his old habits are hard to break. Chidi is growing more and more frustrated because he doesn't seem to be making any progress with Michael whatsoever. Eleanor definitely seems like a better person. She's going out of her way to encourage Chidi and try to get through to Michael regarding the error of his ways. It's still a lot to handle. Chidi can present this problem in any number of scenarios to make the ethics more compromised and difficult. He presents more situations to the group that make it an even more agonizing problem. Even then, Michael doesn't change. He's still killing humans.

That's what makes it so amusing when Michael takes control of the class to show things in a way that could actually make an impact for him. He turns this into a literal situation. He puts Chidi and Eleanor on an actual trolley that is heading straight for five people. He puts the pressure on Chidi. Chidi has never been great at making actual decisions. He can do lectures about moral philosophy and various ethical dilemmas. He can highlight the morality of these choices. He wants to take the time to think about the actual consequences of his actions. In this situation, he doesn't have that. The tension is raised immediately and he needs to make a quick decision. It's not something he was prepared for. He has always looked at this problem from a theoretical angle. He's never believed he would be in a situation like this that would require him to make that decision. And now, he is. Plus, Michael keeps changing up the rules at the last second to really make it even more agonizing. So at first, Chidi does kill the five people. Then, he seemingly makes the right choice but kills his friend, Henry, instead. Then, the scenario switches to a hospital where he chooses to save Eleanor's innocent life instead of donating her organs. Then, Michael has him deliver the bad news to the families of his patients. It's not surprising in the slightest that Michael is doing all of this just to torture Eleanor and Chidi once more. He's not doing it to show things from his perspective. He's just taking a thing Chidi loves and using it against him for his own pleasure.

Michael getting called out for his actions is very compelling as well. This has always been his job. He's had to dream up new ways of torturing humans. And now, he's being forced to change. It's frightening to him. That played out as an existential crisis last week. Here, he's lashing out at the world to show them just how ridiculous all of this actually is. He revels in that misery. But it's a trick that Eleanor knows very well. She sees so many similarities between herself and Michael. That's probably a wake-up call for her as well. She's now equating herself with someone who is actually a demon. She wonders what that actually says about her past actions. But she knows everything that Michael is doing is because he feels small and insecure. He sees the humans taking to Chidi's lessons while he just can't get it. After that, he feels like he can just bribe the humans with some extravagant gifts that would make them all love him again. He sees it as a pure action. If he can make them actually happy in this place, then that would be good enough for him to be seen as a good person. Eleanor, Tahani and Jason are easily bought off as well. But Chidi is sticking to his values because he knows bribing someone isn't the same as actually being apologetic. He demands an apology. Michael genuinely giving one is enough to show that he isn't a lost cause either. It's just going to take more work to get it out of him than anyone was expecting.

Of course, the humans may not have that kind of time either. This is a very intimate episode for them. Michael, Chidi and Eleanor are dealing with their problem while Tahani and Jason are working on their relationship with Janet. The solution for Tahani talking to someone about their relationship and why she doesn't want anyone to know about it was always going to be Janet. But it's just so much fun to see Janet fulfill that role for them. The two of them keeping their sexual relationship a secret from the rest of the group was bound to have consequences. They see that first hand in Janet's thumb just magically falling off her body and floating into the air. But they forge ahead to unravel why they are feeling the way they do in this relationship. Right now, they just need time to explore what these feelings actually mean. After that, they may be comfortable telling the rest of the group about it. But again, they may not have that time. The final scene shows that another month has gone by. The group could have made some significant progress in their various dynamics. But the more pressing concern will more than likely be Janet glitching. She doesn't know why it's happening. At first, she thinks it's because she's playing therapist even though that's not what she was designed for. But the glitches only continue to escalate until there is an earthquake in the neighborhood. That suggests that the group won't be able to keep a lid on things forever. So, it's just the latest precarious twist they'll need to deal with. As a final tease, it is very enticing as well. Of course, the explanation for why it's happening better be great.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Trolley Problem" was written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan and directed by Dean Holland.
  • At first, Janet's glitches just seem to be affecting her personally. She loses a thumb but doesn't think much of it. She throws up a frog and doesn't see it as a big deal. It's only after the glitches start affecting the rest of the neighborhood that she worries that something more serious is going on.
  • The perfect gifts that Michael has produced for the group are the world's largest diamond for Tahani, a never-ending shrimp dispensary for Eleanor, a Pikachu balloon for Jason (which he immediately pops) and a never-discovered book from Immanuel Kant for Chidi.
  • Eleanor is not supportive of Chidi trying to write a rap musical in order to get his teachings through to Michael. It's a ridiculous suggestion in the abstract. And then, it's just a hilarious joke once Chidi has his big musical moment. It goes better than expected but the actual content of the piece is a total non-starter for this actually being a sane idea.
  • It's such a nice callback to have Henry's boot come flying up into the trolley after Chidi runs him over. The joke after that is then Michael lamenting about why people hate philosophers. That shows that the story has a memory of its own past even though the humans don't know all of the ways they've been tricked across the centuries.
  • Michael on the characters in Les Miserables: "Plus, they're French. So, they're all going to the Bad Place automatically."
  • Tahani: "Janet, what's happening?" Janet: "Unclear. My guess is I'm operating in a way I'm not designed for and it's creating a small glitch. But if I'm helping you guys, I say 'what has one thumb and wants to keep going? This not lady.'"
  • Eleanor: "Chidi, think about this! I'm your hottest friend. No, Tahani. I'm your nicest friend. No, Jason. I'm your friend!"
  • Chidi: "Is this funny to you?" Michael: "Yeah, I thought that was clear from my laughter."