'The Good Place' Star Lets "the Dam Break" in Emotional Fall Finale

William Jackson Harper discusses his character's breakthrough and playing different beats in flashback scenes.
Colleen Hayes/NBC
Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper in 'The Good Place'

[This story contains spoilers for the Nov. 21 episode of The Good Place, "The Answer."]

The Good Place threw its middle-of-the-season curveball a week ago. After spending the season trying desperately to prove to the Judge (Maya Rudolph) that the afterlife's points system is flawed, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Michael (Ted Danson) and the Soul Squad won their case.

Except: The Judge decided that in order to fix the problem, she had to wipe out all life on Earth and start over. Now, with just a little bit of time to come up with a solution that doesn't involve mass extinction, Eleanor hopes she can turn to the smartest person she knows: Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who has spent the season with his memory wiped so as not to jeopardize the group's efforts to prove humanity can become better.

What unfolds in Thursday's fall finale, "The Answer," covers maybe a minute of time in the show's world, but dives deep into Chidi's memories and back story to reveal more about his character — and, especially why he's so obsessed with finding answers to all of life's questions. It also builds on the achingly romantic end to the previous season, where Chidi sacrificed his memory and relationship with Eleanor for the greater good.

"It was good to get some backstory," Harper told The Hollywood Reporter. " I feel like every other member of the Soul Squad, you've seen their life on Earth in some detail, and you've just seen snippets of Chidi's life on Earth. I feel like we know the least about him as far as back story being explored, so I was really excited to do that.

Harper discussed revisiting key moments in Chidi's life, the responsibility he feels for doing some of the emotional heavy lifting on The Good Place, and that note.

In playing the flashback scenes, how did you access where Chidi was emotionally at that time?

The core of the character is always the same. Chidi is always a little indecisive, incredibly neurotic — just nervous. So when you have that core, those things are always there, and the circumstances either ramp up or tamp down those tendencies. So I felt like these are things that are part of me at this point. Going back and revisiting those times and those renderings of Chidi were not as far away from me as I thought.

What is in his head in that extended scene with Michael before he has his memory erased?

It's one of those things where it's like, what do I want for Eleanor? In the end, I'd like for her to feel better and feel as safe as she possibly can and resolved in what we're doing as the Soul Squad — trying to, you know, save humanity [laughs] and our own skin. For me, even last year, as much as my chest did hurt a little doing that scene, it was more about "I just want you to know we're going to be OK." I wanted to comfort her more than anything else.  That sort of precluded some of the more outward shows of emotion from me.

This time, when I'm away from her — the person I know I'm hurting but I'm trying to comfort — the dam can break a little bit. I don't really want her to know how awful this feels for me. I want her to think there's some sort of certainty. It's OK for Michael to see I'm having a hard time with it. If there's anything that I'm happy about going back to do these scenes again, it's to give a certain depth in the performance that I can get only by knowing Kristen and Ted and Manny [Jacinto] and Jameela [Jamil] and D'Arcy [Carden] for a year longer.

Chidi spent most of the first part of the season with the new humans, and with Jason and Tahani. Was it tough at all adjusting to the character in the new situation?

When he's not in the pressure cooker? That was nice. I feel like we also sort of explored Chidi and Jason's/Will and Manny's bromance a little bit more. Manny breaks me on set more than anybody else. Sometimes he'll try something to make me break and end up breaking himself, or I'll get him back, so sometimes on screen it's just us trying to get each other. It's a lot of fun.

And these guys are just complete, polar opposites. Chidi overthinks everything, and Jason doesn't think about anything and has no impulse control whatsoever. They balance each other out in a way that's really beautiful. In the end, Jason's an incredibly kind character, and how sweet he is, he's able to tolerate Chidi better than most other characters on the show. He's like, "OK cool, I get that. Don't worry about it. Here's what I do."

You've been asked to carry a lot of the emotional weight over the course of the series. How do you come at that responsibility?

I take it very seriously. Sometimes living the emotional heart of something isn't just showing all your emotions. It's when you're hiding it and what's going on, and what you need the other person to feel in order to get what we all need. I take it very seriously, because I think the context of the show is what actually allows it to be really funny. If we undercut everything with a "Nah, I don't care," those moments would end up being less funny because you'd be ready for that sucker punch. But when you allow things to go to a certain depth — which I think Kristen does beautifully — it makes the really absurdist moments come completely out of the blue. Kristen has to do that a lot, and the way she does it is magic. It's really impressive. But we need it for the show to have the element of surprise that we like.

Let's talk about his note. It's both hugely romantic and a massive breakthrough in Chidi's worldview — what led to that moment?

There's an idea I've been toying with, and it's the most basic, completely un-nuanced view of contractualism, a way of looking at it that I can buy into, but the point of existence is other people. No matter what, Chidi and Eleanor wind up together. Sometimes it's friends, sometimes it's lovers, sometimes it's enemies. By some cosmic force, they are brought together in some capacity and play significant roles in each other's existence. I think the best we can do as people is to exist for other people.

I think looking for some sort of grand design — if it brings you happiness to search for that, great. If you're looking for hard and fast laws that tell you exactly how to be living, and you find those, awesome. But for me, existence is about other people, and what can you put in the world to make the world better for other people? I think if more people did that, it would be interesting to see in what ways it would improve things and what ways it really wouldn't change things and what that process would bring about as far as a shift in outlook.

But I think Chidi finally understands that these hard and fast laws just aren't for him. There's no such thing as a great, cosmic answer that makes it all clear for him. The only thing that's clear is that Eleanor is important, the most important thing in his entire universe. It's pretty easy to let that happen, because it's really easy to have a crush on Kristen Bell.

What can you say about the final episodes of the series? Is it pretty much the core group together trying to find a way not to erase all of human existence?

We go all over the place. Now there are no more secrets being held, and it's just sort of a free-for-all. It's pretty fun. We go to some strange, strange places, but we are a group again. The Soul Squad is back in full effect, which makes me happy. After shooting those other things, it was good to be back on set with the people I've been on set with the last three years. And with this being our last season, I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.