Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Hell is Other People: Some Observations on The Good Place's Experiment

Halfway into its fourth and final season, if there's one thing that fans of The Good Place have learned to expect, it is surprise.  Over the course of its magnificent, exhilarating run, the show has never failed to pull the rug out from under the audience's feet, burning through storylines at a dizzying rate, blowing up its premise and settings, and just generally making people say "what the fork?" a lot.  I think we can agree that only a fool would try to formulate a response to The Good Place's argument before that argument has been fully laid out, but nevertheless, that's what I'm going to try to do here.  In a little more than a day we'll find out how our heroes' experiment, to demonstrate that humans, when removed from the rigors of the world, can improve simply out of the desire to be better friends and neighbors, played out.  (My guess?  Chidi gained points, but lost them for punching Brent.  John gained points, but lost them for spilling Jason's secret.  Simone gained no points because she saw through the experiment from the start, and probably lost points for reasons we're about to discuss.  Brent gained no points except possibly right at the end when he tried to apologize to Chidi.  Not great, in other words.)  But before we get to that, I'd like to talk a bit about the experiment itself, and about its blind spots--which the show may or may not be planning to address.

Given how crucial the experiment was to both the show's story and its central argument about ethics, it's interesting to observe just how little attention the first half of the fourth season actually paid to it.  Far more time is spent on Eleanor's teething problems as the group's leader, or on the discovery that Janet has been kidnapped and replaced, and the mission to rescue her.  The actual experiment subjects and their struggle towards better behavior are given surprisingly short shrift.  But maybe that's not so surprising when you look at the subjects themselves.  Chidi is a solved problem--all Eleanor needs to do is nudge him out of his comfort zone and away from the destructive habits of indecision that made him lose points in life.  John mainly exists because the show has once again realized that it has run out of stories to tell with Tahani.  Simone is, as I said in my discussion of the third season, already a pretty awesome person, and the wrinkle that the show puts on that fact--that she sees through the experiment and refuses to participate in it--isn't really a problem of ethics.  Which leaves Brent, who is really the only experiment subject who matters, if only because of the way he affects everyone else.

The theory on which the experiment was built was that the force preventing people from improving themselves and living ethical lives was the impossibility of making good choices in a bad world.  By removing the pressures of capitalism, placing the subjects in an environment tailored to their comfort and happiness, and gently encouraging them to think about their behavior and how it could be improved, the theory went, you could produce better, more ethical human beings.  Another way of putting it is that the neighborhood the experiment takes place in both weaponizes and neutralizes privilege.  If John, for example, felt compelled to run a catty gossip blog because of financial pressures and jealousy over being left out of the glamorous life, then the neighborhood removes those motivations, making him just as pampered and privileged as the people he once wrote about.  And by equalizing everyone's status and giving them access to the same level of luxury and carefree existence, the neighborhood defangs the privilege of someone like Brent, who can no longer hold other people's jobs or social standing over their heads (something that he clearly rankles at, immediately demanding access to the better class of heaven he thinks he deserves).

But removing systemic inequality and its effects isn't the same as removing it entirely.  People bring their prejudices with them wherever they go, heaven very much included.  We saw this already with Eleanor in the show's early seasons, when she repeatedly forgot Chidi's last name and home country.  This problem is immeasurably exacerbated with Brent, who so visibly chafes at the loss of his white male entitlement that the existence of women (or women-like beings) like Eleanor and Janet, whom he can condescend to and sexually harass, is practically a type of methadone for him.  And, of course, he relentlessly peppers Chidi, Simone, Jason, and Tahani with racist microaggressions, which finally boil over into actual aggression when his self-aggrandizing, breathtakingly offensive novel is received with less than rapturous praise.

Which means that Brent poses a fundamental challenge to the principles on which the experiment was founded.  The best thing for everyone would be to isolate him with a bunch of Janet-babies until he learns to behave like a decent human being.  But the theory the show has presented to us so far is that we seek to improve ourselves through the impetus of human connection and our desire to be good for one another.  That theory breaks down in the face of Brent, who though not actively cruel or malicious, doesn't really seem to care about anyone, certainly not more than he cares for himself and his fragile ego, and whose reaction to concrete proof that he has hurt others is to reject it, and blame them for making him feel bad.  Even worse, Brent makes everyone around him a worse person by forcing them to deal with his entitlement.  He works on Simone's last nerve until she snaps and tells him what she really thinks of him.  He provokes Chidi into physical violence.  He is, in short, toxic to the very group dynamics on which the success of the experiment depends, and yet because he is part of the experiment, Eleanor and the others have to include him in their calculations, and in so doing make the experience worse for everyone else.

What this means is that despite her original intentions, what Eleanor has created in the new neighborhood is another bad place, where people like Chidi and Simone are trapped--for all they know, for eternity--with a man who will constantly make their lives slightly worse and more unpleasant.  What's more, even though Eleanor eventually comes around to Simone's way of thinking when the latter complains that, even in paradise, she has to put up with people like Brent, a purely utilitarian analysis of her situation would suggest that she shouldn't have done that.  Eleanor can't lose points; Simone can, and she probably does lose them when, encouraged by Eleanor, she stands up for herself against Brent (or, at the very least, she sets in motion a chain of events that causes other people, like Chidi, to lose points).  The best thing for all four subjects, for the fate of humanity, and even for Simone herself would have been for Eleanor to make it clear to Simone that she has no backup, and that heaven is just as insensitive to the struggles of black women as the real world was, in hopes that she'd become demoralized and let Brent walk all over her.  (Though this is, obviously, a dangerous strategy, since it risks demoralizing Simone too much, making her less likely to gain points herself.)

I think the show realizes and intends most of this, especially when it comes to Brent.  I'm not sure it realizes the inherent problems of this story when it comes to Simone.  In its struggle to come up with a character flaw that Simone could address during her time in the experiment, the show has landed on dogmatism--Simone, Michael explains, reaches snap judgments about people and doesn't tend to question herself.  That's not entirely consistent with her portrayal on Earth during the third season--Simone is, after all, the woman who kindly but firmly put Eleanor back on the right track after an epic, potentially friendship-destroying meltdown.  It's here that we see the problem in spending so little time with the experiment subjects over the first half of the season, because the show needed to demonstrate that the previously-fantastic Simone has fundamental flaws, and instead it just informs us of them.  All the more so because those flaws are pulling the double duty of demonstrating why Simone is wrong for Chidi while Eleanor is his real soulmate.  When Simone chooses not to stay and help Chidi save Brent--something we know, from long observation of their relationship over many iterations, that Eleanor would never have done--it feels like the show telling rather than showing.  We've seen so little of Chidi and Simone together (and what we have seen is eyebrow-raising--nearly a year into their relationship, Simone can only tell Chidi that she "likes" him?) that it's hard not to feel the writers' finger on the scales.

(While discussing the handling of Simone with Samira Nadkarni, she pointed out that the character squarely embodies the trope of the Strong Black Woman, someone who is so awesome, so righteous, and so self-sufficient that it's OK to deprive her of love and nurturing, often to the benefit of a white woman.  Simone's awesomeness is, paradoxically, used to explain why she's wrong for Chidi and Eleanor is right for him.  The last episode of the experiment even draws a direct equivalence between the two by having Simone, like Eleanor before her, be the member of her group to figure out that something is wrong with the good place--an equivalence that rankles a little when you think about it, since Simone was a kind, accomplished woman in her life on Earth, and Eleanor was an Arizona trashbag--only to starkly remind us of the difference between them, a difference rooted directly in Simone's strength and independence.  Meanwhile, Simone has failed to make connections with anyone else in the neighborhood, which is once again "blamed" on her strength and decisiveness, without considering that she, too, has needs that are not being answered.)

But an even bigger problem with deciding that Simone's flaw is that she's too sure of herself is how it ignores the context from which that trait emerges.  Simone is an intelligent, successful black woman in a world that doesn't value her, and which takes pains to remind her of that fact.  Self-confidence and decisive judgment are survival strategies for a person like her.  For the show to decry them--especially in a context in which one can't even argue that they are no longer necessary--is problematic on a level that I'm not sure it fully realizes.  And while leaving someone to die because you've decided they're not worth helping, as Simone does to Brent at the end of the experiment, is obviously an objectively bad act, the fact that this choice emerges from the same trait that has informed Simone's behavior towards Brent throughout the season creates a continuity that implicitly condemns all of that behavior.  It's not unreasonable to conclude that Simone has been losing points all along, simply for standing up for herself, for making Brent "feel bad" by calling out his racism and refusing to play along with his self-image.  So the show has created a world in which a black woman can be condemned to hell for not coddling a racist white man's feelings of entitlement.  Truly, this is the bad place.

One obvious response here (and one that I got more than a few times when I discussed this issue on twitter) is that the points system is meant to be seen as flawed.  But the thing is, it's not flawed in this particular way (or at least, not that we've been told yet; and six episode before the end of the show, it feels a little late to introduce this wrinkle).  We know that the points system is flawed because it doesn't take into account the unintended consequences of living in a tightly interconnected world where purely ethical action is almost impossible.  But what Simone did to Brent wasn't unintentional at all.  She knew that she would hurt his feelings, and decided to do so anyway because her own dignity was more important to her. 

The show has so far been completely silent on where that behavior falls ethically.  But through the framework of the experiment, it has consistently put Simone in the wrong for it.  Even if she isn't losing points, her decision to write off a person who doesn't deserve a second chance from her is literally dooming the human race, in stark contrast to Chidi, who keeps giving Brent second chances.  And yes, Chidi ultimately calls out Brent and this has an effect, but would that have been the case if Brent hadn't already been given objective confirmation that he belongs in the bad place?  It seems to me that in any other circumstances, he would have brushed off Chidi's criticism as he previously did with Simone's.  And even if we assume otherwise, what does that say?  That we should be endlessly nice to self-absorbed racists on the off chance that this makes them like us enough that our criticism of them finally punctures their veneer of self-regard?

In order to create a world that is truly perfect, that allows its inhabitants to become their best selves, it's not enough to remove hardship.  You also have to add justice, so that the maliciousness that people bring into that world can be addressed.  Which not only raises thorny questions--where does the line lie between righteous condemnation of evil, and acts that are evil in their own right?--but brings me back to my problem with the third season's conclusion, that this entire exercise feels pointless.  Why bother waiting until after people have died to help them become better, if the perfect world that's supposed to enable them to do this still has to deal with fundamental questions of prejudice and injustice?

Where I think the show is going with this is something like the concept of the bodhisattva, where people choose to spend time with the Brents of the world, and tolerate their ugliness, in the hope of helping them advance (and I suspect that this will end up happening in the real world, not just the afterlife).  But that has to be a choice, and by denying that choice to Simone, Eleanor not only makes it harder for her to improve, but literally places her in a form of hell.  I'd like to see the show acknowledge that going forward.


Brett said...

I think there's going to be a twist, where it turns out the Judge was evaluating our protagonists the whole time, and the whole experiment was just a way of seeing whether they'd keep on trying to help people get better even faced with the difficulty of it - or something like that.

But the answer is tonight, so who knows? I'll probably be wrong.

Unknown said...

"The Experiment" is a weird direction to have taken the final season, especially with so few episodes remaining (the trip to save Janet was really a bizarre use of an episode). But like Brett says, the show is mostly concerned about the fate of Eleanor and to a somewhat lesser extent Jason, Tahani, Chidi and Michael. The overall ethical message of the show is not going to rest on the improvement (or lack thereof) of Brent and Simone but of how Eleanor behaves.

Which is why I can't dismiss the John/Tahani plotline as much. Tahani actually got through to John and while he is not cured of his addiction to HOT GOSS, he did recognize that it hurt people and worked to remedy that. Eleanor not recognizing Tahani's contribution (never giving her Employee of the Month or whatever that prize was), assuming Simone was basically fine as-is and never working on her improvement aside for convincing her it wasn't all in her head, and tunnel-visioning so hard on fixing the unfixable Brent, I think, are going to be the issues that the Judge has with The Experiment.

Of course, this is all going to be proven wrong in a couple of hours, so...

Retlawyen said...

The show shoots the Simone/Chidi/Brent deal pretty hard in the foot by making Brent such a helpless fool. Like, even if you are double libertarian or whatever, and don't want to automatically pull for the person who is dealing with oppression, Simone is much smarter and better in every way. I mean, even if we ignore that she's super successful by pulling herself up by her own bootstraps and don't need no yada yada, Eleanor is also smarter than Brent. So is Tahani. Dude is hapless. Jason is debatably smarter.

Like, if they showed a scene of Simone and Brent golfing...we all agree that she would win at it, right? She's Trinity, omnicompetent and nothing aside. Her 'flaws' are things like 'she doesn't hide her light under enough of a bushel and that makes the insecure males around her daunted due to their flimsy egos'.

But, like, the interesting question of ethics isn't what Superman must do! Trinity is always in the right, she can either nobly bear up in the face of his oppression or nobly show him up in a victory for yada yada. Her choice amounts to what kind of victory she should deign to achieve, and so her resentment of him comes off as cruelty of the ant/magnifying glass kind. Simone can whip him with the whole Patriarchy on his side, she has no trouble whatsoever when his frat doesn't have his back.

The interesting way to make the Chidi/Simone/Brent point is to take the Trinity out of the group, let them just be people, and get Chidi/Simone to react from a position that isn't one of undaunted supremacy. Their decision is far more meaningful if you don't have Eleanor helpfully narrating that there is no reason whatsoever to save this guy.

Andrew Stevens said...

That we should be endlessly nice to self-absorbed racists on the off chance that this makes them like us enough that our criticism of them finally punctures their veneer of self-regard?

That was Daryl Davis's strategy. Worked pretty well for him, though by no means am I saying everybody has to do that or even that anybody should want to. It's usually my own strategy, though I live a sheltered life where I don't normally come across any particularly vile racists. The Good Place is even mirroring reality somewhat - as you point out, Brent is a loser who is clawing for his self-esteem wherever he can find it. This is usually the case with racists. I am always bemused by people who are more than happy to argue for the potential redemption of murderers, but not for the redemption of racists because they're just such a drag. The demons really let our heroes off incredibly easily - Eleanor and crew should give a try to redeeming Jeffrey Dahmer. Brent's just kind of dumb. The human race has been teaching morality to dumb people for millennia.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Brent is a loser who is clawing for his self-esteem wherever he can find it. This is usually the case with racists.

[citation needed]

Andrew Stevens said...

Read the article I linked. KKK members are nowadays invariably sad people, desperately looking for someone to look down on. Of course, whole societies are racist as well (almost always!). But in societies where racism is socially unacceptable, racism is most virulent among the insecure. Brent knows his accomplishments are unimpressive. How can he not? So he gets his self-esteem from the status he was born to and by exaggerating his own meager talents. It's why Donald Trump makes up lies about being loaned "only" a million dollars. He knows the truth is unimpressive.

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