So, this post contains spoilers about the TV series “The Good Place” through the episode that aired Oct. 11. It will also discuss elements of the show from past episodes, so caveat emptor.
One thing stuck with me at the end of the last aired episode, “The Snowplow.” Simply put (and without major spoilers) — Michael failed the Trolley Problem.
Viewers that have watched the NBC series “The Good Place” to this point know that the show is generally about four people wishing to improve themselves after learning that they were sorta sucky people. (Of course, the show has a lot more twists and turns than that, but I don’t want to rehash all of those fun moments right now.)
Anyway, in the show’s second season, the most current incarnation of this band of four have banded together as “Team Cockroach” and continued working to improve themselves. At the same time, they’re helping and are being aided by Michael, the otherworldly architect who initially brought them all together. As part of this alliance, Michael was coerced into taking part in the same ethics lessons that the rest of the group was voluntarily participating in.
While the entire series has been about the growth of the four initial characters, the second season also showed the development of Michael, who shifted from a devilish agent who sought to sow misery to a friend and ally of the group. It also showed that while Michael may be an immortal being, he needed considerable work to understand human ethics (as depicted on the show).
As this third season has unfolded, Michael remains a stalwart ally of the group, but his monomaniacal focus on the plight of his four friends has led to a critical flaw.
Michael himself is failing the ethics lessons that he and the group learned.
This backslide became apparent at the end of the third episode of season 3, “The Snowplow.” Throughout the episode, Michael and his assistant and Siri-like friend Janet worked behind the scenes to help their four friends. It was primarily a continuation of an intervention that began earlier in the season, but became more overt over time.
Earlier in the season, Michael — forced to act as an outsider — provided “nudges” to encourage the four friends to reunite because that is where they saw the most progress. Once the group was reunited (er, for the first time in the current context), Michael and Janet felt they needed to continue overseeing them and providing covert assistance.
From there, the possible ethical lapses began piling up. First, the whole intervention was in apparent violation of the conditions set by the judge that created the current context.
Second, some of Michael and Janet’s acts were morally dubious. For example, they used Janet’s unique powers to find a winning scratcher ticket to help provide money so that Eleanor, the main protagonist, can stay with the group. In addition to Michael and Janet gaming the system to find the ticket, they created a possible ethical problem for Eleanor when she found the unscratched ticket outside her hotel room door. Arguably, Eleanor failed that test by scratching off the ticket that didn’t belong to her and keeping the money.
Third, Michael’s regression solidified near the end of the episode when he suggested “rebooting” the scenario and starting over to try to create a more optimal outcome. Aside from the fact that the judge warned she would be waiting for them, Michael doesn’t have any real idea how to start over. Although his motivations are different, his behavior has reverted back to the start of the second season where he constantly tried changing the scenario so he could continue tormenting the four humans without them discovering that they’re being tortured.
Before deciding to try and tear things down and starting over, Michael shows his desperation and ethical failings with the following line:
“OK. I think I’ve figured out a plan where they stay in Australia and only five random bystanders get hurt. It’s called arson.”
Although the scenario is different, it appears to be a variation of the Trolley Problem, an ethical thought experiment that the series literally named an episode after in season two. In the Trolley Problem, the participant sees a runaway streetcar and must decide whether to keep it on its current track and kill five people, or throw a switch to shift the car on to a track where there would be only one victim.
Although one of the friends, ethics professor Chidi Anagonye, suggested during that earlier episode that there is no optimal answer, Michael later devised a solution during a crisis that didn’t require sacrificing any bystanders.
Now, a desperate Michael faces the Trolley Problem again and he utterly failed it. In order to help save his four friends, he’s willing to cause harm to five bystanders.
For as much as the series and Michael have focused on the four humans, it’s apparent that Michael also benefitted from the ethics classes and his behavior has regressed somewhat without them (which is a little ironic because he and Janet are constantly watching the group, including the group’s participation in ethics classes). It’s also ironic because Michael and Janet were concerned about their friends’ ethical lapses but don’t appear to have focused at all on the ramifications of their own actions.
To be sure, Michael’s current motivations are wholly different than where they started out from. However, how Michael is acting on those motivations is ethically suspect.
By subtly evoking the Trolley Problem, I feel that the showrunners of “The Good Place” will address this situation at some point. I don’t know when it will come to pass, but I wanted to jot down my observations before tonight’s episode airs. Given how this show has developed, it would be foolhardy to guess but I can’t wait to watch it.