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Oh, Mother: The Worst Person of the Week on ‘The Good Place’

Eleanor and Tahani embark on journeys of self-discovery and betterment—but not before confronting the trauma inherited from their parents

Eleanor and Tahani of ‘The Good Place’ standing in front of an illustration of fire NBC/Ringer illustration

Fork yeah: The Good Place is back. This season, as we follow the show that is so devoted to understanding what it means to be good and bad, we will be applying the NBC comedy’s own standards and practices in determining the Worst Person of the Week. The weekly winner — well, “loser” is probably more accurate — will be judged by their ethical choices rather than any subjective measures. Think of us as another Shawn, only less into encasing traitors in slimy cocoons. At the end of this ethical exercise, we’ll also hand out episodic awards for more frivolous things. Let’s dive into Thursday night’s episode, “A Fractured Inheritance.”

OK, technically, Tahani’s parents are the worst people of this week’s The Good Place. They gleefully forced their daughters to make paintings of their “favorite moment in French military history”; then they told them that the winner’s painting would be displayed at a party, and that the loser’s would be used for kindling at that same party. They are, without doubt, absolute demons. But this weekly exercise of naming a “worst person” is more about tackling the nuances of ethics and discussing the ways in which our humanity often interferes with our ability to be moral, so we’d be better off choosing a more complicated case to focus on. (Also, I’m pretty sure I can’t just hand in a 57-word article; let’s try harder.)

As the episode title indicates, “A Fractured Inheritance” is all about parents, and the baggage they pass down on their children. In the previous episode, we learned—along with Eleanor—that her mother is actually still alive. Turns out Donna Shellstrop (Leslie Grossman) faked her death … to get out of paying for the date with Gene Simmons she had drunkenly bought at a charity auction. That cop who told Eleanor that her mother was accidentally trampled to death when she reached for her toe ring at a Rascal Flatts concert was actually an actor, and Donna is living in Tarantula Springs, Nevada (not a real place). So while Tahani, Jason, Chidi, and Janet head to Hungary to save Tahani’s sister’s soul, Eleanor and Michael fly to Nevada.

The few times we’ve seen Eleanor’s mom on The Good Place, she’s either been slipping a hotel room key to Eleanor’s boyfriend at her dad’s funeral or explaining to Eleanor that her dog died because “I didn’t know how hot it gets in cars sometimes,” so the Donna Shellstrop we meet in Nevada is more than a little shocking. She’s living a good life in a suburban home, dating a single father named Dave (Andy Daly), an architect who’s really sweet and really fancy (“His napkins are made out of, like, shirt material,” Donna explains). She’s doing laundry, having only one glass of chardonnay at the Cheesecake Factory, buying Dave’s daughter toys, and even running for secretary of the PTA board. Eleanor ventured to Nevada to put her mother on a better path, but, as Michael points out, she may already be on one.

This sends Eleanor into a self-centered tailspin and on the way to becoming the Worst Person of the Week. Unable to be happy with the fact that her mom might already be bettering herself, Eleanor instead tries to burn the whole thing down. She rifles through Dave’s daughter’s room looking for evidence that Donna—now Diana, for “police reasons”—is running a scam, takes way too much cheese at the PTA meeting, and even tells Dave the truth about her mom’s past. The thing is, Dave already knows; Donna told him everything the night after they first made out in an alley. He actually kind of likes Donna’s edge; it’s turning him into a bit of a bad boy. I mean, look at this guy:

Andy Daly as Dave fist-pumping and smiling All screen shots via NBC

Donna’s living a good, happy life, but because that life happened after Donna abandoned Eleanor, Eleanor can’t stomach it. “If Donna Shellstrop has truly changed, that means she was always capable of change,” Eleanor says. “I just wasn’t worth changing for.” Donna certainly made mistakes raising Eleanor and is the primary reason that she grew up to be a piece of Arizona garbage who went to the Bad Place. But Donna’s mistakes do not give Eleanor license to repeat the same behavior, nor do they mean that Donna doesn’t deserve the chance to be a better person. Since learning that she and the gang were irrevocably doomed, Eleanor resolved to still spend the rest of her life trying to help others. For most of “A Fractured Inheritance,” she thinks only of herself.

Tahani doesn’t do much better. At her sister Kamilah’s latest art installation, “The Persistence of Conception”—which prominently features Kamilah cooking eggs for people, because “making omelettes is art now”—Tahani once again reverts to lashing out. This is a woman who literally died trying to tear down her sister, but she has seemingly learned nothing from that ignominious affair. Tahani hurls eggs at a painting, which only makes the painting more profound—“An egg on an egg! Genius!” two Hungarian art-types exclaim—and then takes an ax to Kamilah’s cook station. It’s Cleveland all over again.

For Tahani’s whole life, she’s seen herself as being in a losing competition with her sister. It’s permeated her entire existence, driven most of her decisions, and dictated her level of self-worth. All along, she’s seen Kamilah as the rival, the one with the good eyebrow gene, the one her parents love more, the one who’s tricking the entire world. But as Chidi points out—after Kamilah takes all of his fears and makes them hers—Kamilah is a genuinely amazing person. She isn’t this massive phony. Tahani is the only one unable to appreciate who her sister is because she’s been driven by envy and wrath her entire life, and those emotions have obscuredthe truth: that Kamilah was just as victimized by their parents as she was. The Al-Jamils robbed Tahani and Kamilah of a loving relationship and a normal childhood, but Tahani has long punished her sister for those crimes because she’s been too narcissistic and incapable of empathy.

In the good, ol’ fashioned sitcom-y end, both Eleanor and Tahani recognize their own awfulness and make amends. Eleanor eases her mom’s anxiety over having settled into a comfortable life, while Tahani swallows her pride and hugs Kamilah, a simple but moving act that she should have done a long time ago. As the study group in The Good Place travels the world in Season 3, trying to help others become better people, it’s becoming clear that they’re still primarily on their own quests for self-betterment. Whereas Eleanor et. al. were once learning ethics in a vacuum, they’re now exercising those values in real life, recognizing their mistakes and apologizing for them, shedding the insecurities that have obstructed their ability to act benevolently. Michael thinks he’s doomed Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, and Jason to an afterlife of torture by disrupting the conditions of his earthly experiment, but I wouldn’t be so sure. As they continue to improve—motivated by only the desire to be better people—there may still be hope for the Soul Squad.

And now, some weekly awards.

Best Nevada Jokes: The Good Place likes making fun of the United States’ less reputable locations. They’ve taken aim at Arizona and Jacksonville before, and “A Fractured Inheritance” was overflowing with shots at Nevada. Here are the best ones:

  • Donna describes Tarantula Springs as a “decommissioned military test site turned suburban township.”
  • For Dave’s next job as an architect, he’s designing a Subaru dealership–burlesque club in Reno.
  • The school Dave’s daughter goes to is the MGM Grand Luxury Resort and Casino Elementary School. Their slogan? “Always Bet on Read!”
A blond woman speaking at a lectern in front of a sign that reads: MGM Grand Luxury Resort and Casino Elementary School. “Always Bet on Read!”

“Man, Nevada’s a mess,” Michael correctly points out.

Toughest Look: I don’t know about Eleanor’s turtleneck.

Eleanor standing next to an iron and wearing a denim jacket over a striped orange and pink turtleneck Colleen Hayes/NBC

In Nevada, no less!

Best Tahani Name-Drop: “There are plenty of other people I could help, like my good friend Ben Affleck and his crippling addiction to back tattoos. Or my other good friend Matt Damon and his crippling addiction to Ben Affleck.”

Jason’s Best Interpretation of Art: “Those aren’t dumb shapes,” Jason says. “They’re a pair of boobs … and then two extra side boobs.”

Jason pointing at a painting with red and blue circles, with smaller purple and black ones off to the side

“It symbolizes that boobs come in all shapes and sizes. And distances apart!” Honestly, Chidi’s right—once Jason said it, it was impossible to see anything else.