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'I felt like a baby bird getting booted out of the nest'
The four humans, one demon, and one not-a-girl at the center of The Good Place will all leave the series better than they were when we found them. But while each has uncovered new depths, no one -- except maybe reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson) -- has reshaped their entire worldview more than Chidi (William Jackson Harper) has. Across hundreds of memory reboots and two encounters with the Time Knife, the anxious ethics professor has made his peace with the fact that there's more than one way to solve life's (and the afterlife's) problems. Heading into Thursday's series finale, he's right where he promised he'd be at the end of last season: together with Eleanor (Kristen Bell), "chilling in the dot of the i."
Harper can't say what fans should expect from the NBC's sitcom's sendoff. "I think it's probably best to go in not expecting anything and just let it wash over you," Harper told TV Guide. But the careful secrecy around the show has historically been for the best; The Good Place is one of the rare comedies with the capacity to reshape its entire premise on a dime. Its most famous surprises have been the big ones, particularly the instant classic "This is the Bad Place" in the Season 1 finale (a twist Harper and co-stars Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, and D'Arcy Carden were kept in the dark about at the beginning of the show). But the series has stuck around because it's equally good at catching viewers off guard emotionally, guiding the characters toward epiphanies they didn't know they needed.
The Good Place's William Jackson Harper Plays a Tough Game of Would You Rather
For Chidi, the ultimate world-shaking realization came down to his relationship with Eleanor. After being paired up as "soulmates" in Michael's first experiment, the two developed an early friendship that evolved into a reboot-spanning romance around which The Good Place increasingly began to pivot. Their relationship hit a setback at the end of Season 3 when Chidi voluntarily erased his memory for the good of, literally, all mankind, but the ninth episode of Season 4 brought him back to himself, stuffing him full of every afterlife he'd ever lived. Chidi awoke newly chill, thanks mostly to a realization he jotted down right before his memory was erased: "There is no answer, but Eleanor is the answer."
As The Good Place prepares to sign off after four seasons, TV Guide caught up with Harper to unpack that thesis for Chidi and look back on the NBC sitcom's last days.
One of my favorite moments of the season was Chidi's letter that he wrote to himself. Can you talk about how you interpret that message and what it means to the show?
William Jackson Harper: It falls in line very much with how I view life in general, which is that I think if there is one way to do things then everyone would do it, but it's more complicated than that. It's very subjective, and it really all depends on you and what your personal needs are... And for Chidi, who's just been totally in his head for his entire existence, life and afterlife, the only thing that's certain for him, that he can really hold on to, that he loves, and it takes him out of his brain and into another place that's a little more pearly-misty, it's Eleanor. There's no way you can rationalize exactly what that is.
Do you know how much of Chidi and Eleanor's relationship was the plan from the beginning?
Harper: I have no idea. In the first season, we were really good friends; that's sort of the dynamic that we set up, and then things started to shift as we went along. But they didn't walk me through all four seasons when I got the job. I mean, they didn't walk me through the beginning of the first season. There was so much that we were in the dark about, so honestly, I was kind of taking the same ride that the audience was, watching that relationship develop and watching the entire show develop.
What's it been like building the dynamic between Chidi and Eleanor with Kristen Bell?
Harper: She's great. There are echoes of the characters in who we are as people and in our dynamic. She's definitely a lot more extroverted than I am, and very bright, and you know me, I'm kind of a crabby New Yorker... But developing this with her, she's just an amazing artist and person, and so it's really easy to sort of fake having feelings for her.
Chidi transformed a lot over this past season as he chilled out and developed more confidence. How do you keep a throughline so he's still Chidi even as he changes and goes through reboots?
Harper: I think the spine of the character is pretty much the same. You know, I think he's still neurotic. He's still indecisive. It's just -- the idea of there being one fixed set of circumstances that you can find yourself in that is optimal, I think he's sort of let go of that. And it's confidence, but it's [also] knowing that there are just certain things that you're powerless against. That's what frees you up... But I will say that there were moments that it was a little tough to play, because it was just like, oh, wait, I can't do the same sort of twitchy thing that I normally do. He's a little more settled now, and trying to wrap my mind around that could be a challenge sometimes.
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Did anything surprise you about the chill version of Chidi?
Harper: That he likes warm pretzels. We're faced with oblivion and he's like, "Well, I want some pretzels." That was pretty funny. But honestly, it's just been a lot of fun to play a different version of this character I've played for so many years now... There are moments where I get to be a little bit weirder, and that's enjoyable.
In Episode 9, this season's Chidi-centric episode, we saw more of the different reboots from the original experiment. Were there any that you would have liked to spend more time in?
Harper: The scene with Esmerelda [played by Kate Berlant], where she has ravens, and it's obvious that we're really not supposed to be together. I feel like that was probably the most disarmed and un-freaked out, given [the circumstances], that Chidi had been. Like, Eleanor came in and asked him, "Hey, can you teach me about philosophy, like, right now?" I would like to have seen what that journey [for Chidi and Eleanor] was like a little bit more. We only had so much time -- they were just snippets -- but I liked the tenderness that we had there and how clear the energy was with the two of us.
In the first part of the season, you spent more time apart from the main characters, since Chidi's memory was erased. What was that like for you?
Harper: It was tough, because it's also our last season, and I wasn't really on set with them that much. And so it was kind of sad. I was like, man, I kind of miss just hanging out on set with this crew. But the folks that I was with, they were hilarious, and they were a lot of fun to be around. And I feel like we got to explore Chidi and Jason's bromance a little bit, just because [Jason] was like that grenade that you could throw into Chidi's life and it would just completely wreak havoc.
What were the final days on set like?
Harper: I felt like a baby bird. I don't know if anyone else felt like a baby bird, but I felt like a baby bird getting booted out of the nest, but if like one wing was broke. So it was tough. But it was also a lot of fun. We were also all together. And I think everyone's energy was very much like, let's be on set all the time. Let's watch each other's work all the time. No one's going back to the chairs and chilling out. Everyone's just standing back and watching everything, because we feel like we get to be a part of something pretty special. And we just want to savor every moment of it before we all go our separate ways.
What do you hope that people take from The Good Place?
Harper: I feel like we're living in a time where it's OK to be kind of a dirtbag to people. Especially with Twitter and Instagram, Facebook, and people getting in fights and saying really mean things to each other and never really dealing with the reaction that someone would have to having their feelings hurt. And I would hope that this show shows us a little bit more of the kind of world that we want, and the kind of relationships that we want, and how we want to behave towards each other... You can do that and be preachy, or there's a way that you can do that that's really subtle, but also laced with a ton of fart jokes. And I feel like that's what our show is. It doesn't have to be syrupy sweet in order to explore kindness and gentleness and loyalty. I really, really hope that people look at [The Good Place] and be like, I kind of want to make relationships in my own life feel a little bit more like this.
The series finale of The Good Place airs Thursday at 8:30/7:30c on NBC.