[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Thursday's episode of The Good Place,"A Chip Driver Mystery." Read at your own risk!]
Michael (Ted Danson) may not have enough money to buy a copy of Brent's (Ben Koldyke) book, but in Thursday's episode of The Good Place he delivered the next best thing. The episode, titled "A Chip Driver Mystery," was framed around Michael visiting Bad Janet (D'Arcy Carden) in her void prison, where he told her a story about how Brent's ego nearly derailed their entire experiment. When Brent refused to apologize for turning the other humans into characters in his racist, misogynistic book, he pushed Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) — and eventually Chidi (William Jackson Harper) — to the edge, fracturing the group just when everyone was starting to get along.
But Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) aren't ready to give up, and their determination led Michael to an epiphany that summed up the thesis of the show: "What matters isn't if people are good or bad. What matters is if they're trying to be better today than they were yesterday." With that in mind, he set Bad Janet free, leaving her with a manifesto detailing everything our four humans have done so far. (And as Bad Janet knows, people who get books as gifts always read them.)
"A Chip Driver Mystery" had this season's most satisfying approach to Brent yet, tackling the problem with asking the people around him to compromise in order to keep the peace. It also raised questions about whether Michael and the rest of Team Cockroach can help a man who doesn't think he needs any help. TV Guide caught up with series creator Mike Schur to ask about incorporating a person like Brent into the fourth and final season, what it means to succeed in this experiment, and how Michael's big epiphany became the message of The Good Place.
Let's talk about Brent. This season, and especially this episode, feels very aware of the risks of telling a story that could be a redemption story with a man like that. What have been some of the most important ideas that you and the writers wanted to explore with this character?
Mike Schur: At least through the part you've seen, we were not interested in telling a redemption story. The kind of person that he is, which is a very prominent trope in at least America and I think the world these days, or at least the Western world, is — not that he's irredeemable, I wouldn't say anyone is irredeemable, but the whole problem with people like him is they never get self-reflective enough or introspective enough to even allow for the possibility of redemption, because they don't think they're doing anything wrong. That's the frustrating thing. And when we were sitting around thinking about what kind of people the Bad Place could put into this experiment that would really foul things up, that was the perfect model for one such person. Because in order to become a better person you have to believe that you have weaknesses and flaws. You have to look inside yourself and consider your actions and think about how there could be something better that you might be able to do... And people like Brent — you don't have to look very far in America to find people like this — don't feel like they have to do that. They think they're amazing. Eleanor says, "Born on third base, thought he invented the game of baseball." That is the problem with people like Brent, with — it's almost always men like Brent. Everything they do in their minds is perfect.
I rewatched the episode in Season 3 where they laid out the parameters of the experiment and the Judge (Maya Rudolph) said the new humans should be roughly the same "level of badness" as our four. And I just felt like there's no way Brent feels like he is at the same level as our four.
Schur: We did talk about that a lot, because it sure seems like he's worse, right? He's certainly worse than Chidi, for example. But roughly the same amount of badness based on the way the point system works, and this is one of the flaws of the point system, is: If Brent ran a company that employed 350 people or something, that would mean he would be getting a certain number of points for providing food, clothing, shelter, and salaries for 350 people, potentially. He does a lot of terrible things, but also the point system is agnostic... One point is as good as any other point. So we figured that roughly the same amount of bad was a reasonable way to consider someone like Brent, given the fact that — there was actually a line we cut from [Episode 6] where John (Brandon Scott Jones) goes up to Eleanor at some point after Brent has angrily stormed off out of his own book party and says, "Can I just ask you something? How did Brent get into the Good Place?" And Eleanor has an answer prepared because they've obviously learned by this point that people would be asking that question, and she says his company made a lot of medical supplies for hospitals. His company made tons of bedpans and syringe needles and stuff for hospitals. And that sort of worked for John. He was like, "OK yeah, I guess the way the system worked, if you provide a lot of medical services stuff to help people get healthier, then ohh all right." We ended up cutting that line just for time, but it was a question for us. We really wanted to use this character type as one of the four because I think people like Brent are an enormous problem in America right now, and we triangulated a reasonable way both that Eleanor could lie and say he got into the Good Place and also a way that the Bad Place could have said he's roughly the same amount of bad.
Does every human in the experiment have to become better for the experiment to be a success?
Schur: They didn't set parameters. No one was keeping score of the original four because that wasn't the point of the experiment. The point of the experiment was torture. But they firmly believe that the original four did get better, significantly better, over the course of the 802 reboots, so now they're basically doing the same thing, but they're actually going to keep score. And it wasn't said specifically what the parameters are. Is it a certain percentage? Is it a number of points? We didn't lay that out, intentionally, because the thought was that there's no way to know what the right amount would be. It's a less tangible goal that they're going for. They're basically doing the experiment, they're going to look at the results, and then they're going to discuss what the results mean.
I think that fits into the thesis at the end of the episode that what matters is someone trying to be better than they were the day before. I know you've spoken before about how your thinking on these ethical questions evolved making this show. Can you speak about what made you realize this was the message you wanted to send?
Schur: I'm speaking on behalf of all the writers now because this was a big team discussion, like everything else on this show, but I think that basically when you become amateur sleuths in the world of philosophy, as we all became, I at least had this feeling of: Look, reasonable people can disagree about methodology. Reasonable people can say, "I feel like deontologists are right and that we should just figure out what the rules are and everyone should follow the rules." And then other reasonable people could say, "But that's not practical because no one can follow all the rules, so we should be consequentialists because all that really matters is the results, and so we should just do whatever leads to the best results." And then other reasonable people can say, "No, Aristotle was right. ... We all agree there are virtues, right? We agree that courage and generosity and kindness are virtues. So let's just all try to engage in those those virtues as best we can." And ultimately what ended up happening was I felt like, well, regardless of what you believe in... if you're trying to be better along any one of those paths, that's sort of what matters. It matters a lot less to me what people's personal preferences are for how you should live a good life. What matters is: Is everyone deciding that it's important to try to live a good life?
At times it sort of seems reductive, but we live in the real world. We don't live in an abstract world of philosophical constructs; we live in the actual world where people have bills to pay, and they have children to take care of, and they have jobs that they might not like, and they might not have enough money to do the basic things that humans have to do every day. So it's a little bit unfair for Immanuel Kant to show up and go, "You didn't follow all these rules." [Laughs] It's OK for him in 18th century Prussia or whatever, because he's a philosopher. He's at a university. He's not being sexually harassed at his workplace and he's not a single mom looking after four kids and trying to find money to buy them lunches. So it doesn't matter to me what you choose as long as you choose something and then try to enact it. And that sort of became the mantra of the show... Eleanor said it on Earth in the "Jeremy Bearimy" episode when they realized that all hope was lost, and she was like, "Well, we can still try. Let's just try." So it's been the mantra of the show for a while now, and we decided to really bring it to a very crystalized construct in this episode by having Michael say it to an actual representative of the Bad Place: What matters is that you're trying to be better today than you were yesterday.
The Good Place airs Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC.