This post contains spoilers for the second episode of The Good Place’s fourth season.
The Good Place’s kooky philosophical explorations have addressed touchy current topics before—refugees, artificial intelligence, ghosting. Now the NBC sitcom raises another one of the toughest questions of our era. Can the men exposed by #MeToo be redeemed?
Over the show’s first three seasons, the heroes of The Good Place escaped their hell-disguised-as-heaven and embarked upon a dimension-hopping quest to enter the actual Good Place—only to find out that no human had qualified for eternal bliss in hundreds of years. At the end of last season, their bid to convince the all-knowing Judge (Maya Rudolph) that universal damnation was unjust reset the show to something like its original premise: People who weren’t good on Earth get sent to something that looks like Heaven. But this time those people aren’t enduring a sneaky form of punishment. Rather they’re test cases for the question of whether humans can improve morally.
One of those test cases is Brent Norwalk (Ben Koldyke). He arrives in the afterlife in a polo shirt that reads Norwalk Materials, the name of the firm he inherited and then grew from a $90 million company to a $94 million company, he brags, in “just 18 years.” He’s not too bummed to learn he died. “Maybe it’s a good thing,” he says. “Some journalist was poking around calling all these ladies who used to work for me. You can’t make a joke these days. Everything is so PC.”
Brent is a new character, but for viewers he’s a familiar type—the sort of man who, after moving through life with impunity, has reason to sweat because of the #MeToo movement. Brent made female employees uncomfortable. He buried HR complaints. He refers to the all-knowing cosmic being Janet as his secretary and complains she’s too “uptight.” His stereotypical rich-white-male infractions go beyond matters of gender, too. He volunteers that he’s “the furthest thing from racist” because he has a black dentist—a pretty good sign he’s racist.
This is not the sort of figure whom The Good Place tends to sympathize with. The show’s lead character, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell)—acting as the “architect” of the Good Place—can’t stand him. “Born on third base, thinks he invented the game of baseball,” she says of Brent. “Guys like this think the world revolves around them, because it kind of does.” Viewers might even think back to the rude frat-boy image of Brett Kavanaugh that emerged during the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford hearings. “If this is heaven,” Brent asks, “Where’s Scotty, and Schultzy, and Porcupine? Where’s White Guillermo? And where is Mexican William? And what about Squirtman?”
But the show isn’t setting out to simply treat Brent as a punch line or a human piñata—after all, human piñatas don’t taste like candy when you break them open, reports the reformed demon and afterlife architect Michael (Ted Danson). In order to save humankind from hell, the protagonists must coax their new charges into becoming better people. The Good Place thus must furnish an answer to the riddle of how to not just punish male creeps but to also fix them.
This riddle is notably different from the more popularly discussed one on whether creeps should be redeemed. Passive-aggressive semi-mea-culpas from the likes of the comedian Louis C.K. and the journalist John Hockenberry have focused on the personal toll that accusations of impropriety have taken on the men’s lives. These men have not only asserted that every human deserves understanding and forgiveness, but they have also asserted that that understanding and forgiveness should be awarded to them now. They paint so-called cancel culture as inhumane and uncharitable.
The Good Place smartly treats that discourse as beside the point. Its heroes’ hopeful hypothesis is that everyone is flawed and many of them can be forgiven. No human has made it into the Good Place in a long time because the modern world has become such a complex web of consequence, where every consumer choice entails unseen human exploitation and environmental destruction. Eleanor and her friends are out to prove that redemption should be afforded nonetheless for those who make themselves into better people. The question thus becomes one of process: How to make bad humans good?
In the two episodes to air so far this season, a few theories of moral development have been tried on Brent. His flaw, it’s clear, is entitlement: Being born into privilege has made him think he’s fundamentally better than everyone else. Thus, Eleanor’s first strategy is to expose him to people who are more admirable than him. She arranges a panel discussion with other supposed Good Place residents, including a woman who somehow saved all the ducks on Earth (and, the woman shyly adds when pressed, all the horses too).
Brent is unmoved. “I’m pretty interesting,” he says when it’s his turn to speak, before launching into an uninteresting life story of being raised in suburban Chicago and “earning” his spot at Princeton “just like my father and his father before him.” His recalcitrance makes sense: If he were oblivious to the relative values of his accomplishments in real life, why wouldn’t he be in the afterlife?
The next attempt to rattle his self-regard is more surreal: Eleanor and Michael engineer a cosmic hurricane of golf balls, SUVs, and Princeton tiger mayhem to make it seem as if Brent’s presence has disrupted the workings of the Good Place. In Season 1, a similar, Eleanor-themed storm amped her guilt so that she began to try and rectify the fact that her actions in life didn’t merit heaven. But Eleanor’s sins had stemmed from insecurity and a lack of self-worth. Brent’s stem from the opposite. He sees the Brent-nado as a sign that he doesn’t belong in the Good Place but rather somewhere better—the best place.
Eleanor and Michael, realizing that their attempts to shame Brent into self-improvement have backfired, try more direct manipulation. They tell Brent that he’s right and that there is a “better” Good Place that awaits the cream of the moral crop. He can get there if he tries, they say. “It’s like a good-deeds contest?” he asks. “That’s easy. I’m going to crush this.” He then gets to performing displays of politeness like picking up silverware other people have dropped and holding open doors.
Is this progress? Michael notes to Eleanor that the problem now is that Brent is “saddled with a bad motivation”: He’s doing good for selfish reasons. Eleanor replies that that was how she started doing good, too—so as to not be caught. “We have to hope that over time Brent starts doing good things out of habit,” she says.
That line plays as a reference to Aristotle’s vision of morality as habit. “We become builders … by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp,” the philosopher wrote in Nicomachean Ethics. “Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.” It’s a solid concept for The Good Place to throw on its lesson plan. But it also feels too abstract, and too simple, for the issues the show has raised with Brent. It’s no wonder that when asked to perform “good deeds” he defaulted to holding open doors for people, a basic chivalrous act. Chivalry can look like a mere habit that men are taught to adopt—one that, it’s clear by now, doesn’t stop many men from acting monstrously.
Brent’s arc on the show isn’t over, and perhaps his partaking of better manners will lead to a better man. But in the real world, rehabilitation has looked more complex than that. “I feel sorry for a lot of these men, but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in a 2018 New York Times column about attempted comebacks by guys like Hockenberry. “And maybe that’s why the discussion about #MeToo and forgiveness never seems to go anywhere, because men aren’t proposing paths for restitution. They’re asking why women won’t give them absolution.”
Similarly, a 2018 Time feature on counseling for sex offenders highlighted the ways in which men who’ve hurt others often express regret for their crimes in terms of the consequences that befell them once they were caught. What really needed to be taught was empathy: “Sitting across from your victim and listening to her and understanding how she feels,” as one counselor put it. The Good Place hasn’t yet shown the extent of the damage Brent Norwalk caused in life. But getting him to really see it would seem essential for his growth—and for all of humankind’s.