All I wanna do this pandemic summer is organize for socialism, give vaccinated hugs, and watch TV — join me!
Mass movements of everyday people can join forces to dismantle capitalism and save the planet, but my knee-jerk social tendency is to isolate. The central premise of The Introverted Comrade is me telling myself I can work with others to make a better world as long as I balance that with my desire to live as a hermit. I’m not a person who’s naturally drawn to groups, yet I know building community is absolutely essential for our species to survive. Despite my tendency to pull away, I make myself work with others to build people power.
And that’s why my political organizing role model is not a dead philosopher or revolutionary, but rather a fictional, self-described “Arizona Dirtbag” who never went out of her way to help anyone until she realized her eternal salvation depended on it. I’m speaking of Eleanor Shellstrop, heroine of NBC’s high-concept sitcom “The Good Place” (which ran from 2016-2020). Portrayed by an extremely funny and charismatic Kristen Bell, Eleanor is a selfish, defensive, impulsive woman who refuses any responsibility to others. When she dies in a grocery store parking lot, she inexplicably ends up in The Good Place, a heavenly realm for only the most extraordinarily ethical humans. Eleanor knows she’s not qualified for this afterlife and fears that once she’s found out she’ll be sent to The Bad Place for eternal torture. So she enlists her assigned soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) — a moral philosophy professor who’s also recently arrived in this paradise — to teach her how to be a better person and earn her place in heaven.
Throughout the series, Eleanor assembles a band of fellow misfits to attend Chidi’s classes and help each other become better humans. At first glance, elegant socialite/philanthropist Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto) seem as if they belong in the Good Place, but the viewer quickly realizes that they and Chidi are all deeply flawed too. Their mutual salvation becomes a group project. Throughout a series of time-bending twists, they must repeatedly confront demons both internal and external and eventually learn it isn’t just their souls that need saving, but truly all of humankind. In the face of overwhelming systemic injustice, these four messed up people must work around their differences and collaborate to save everyone. So while I’m not personally concerned with religion, the afterlife, or saving souls, this high-stakes scenario sounds pretty familiar to me.
Chidi provides this misfit crew the education they need to become better versions of themselves. But Eleanor is always the one who pushes others to take action. She’s the lead organizer, something she does despite her antisocial tendencies. I started watching this show right when I joined the Democratic Socialists of America, and even though she and I are very different (I’m nicer but not nearly as funny), I consistently look at Eleanor as a reminder that you don’t need to be a people person to bring people together. In fact, her cynicism and ability to detect bullshit often come in handy when she’s persuading her peers, as does her tendency to call others (and herself) out in the most brutally honest terms.
I could give several examples of Eleanor’s harshness coming in handy, but for the sake of revealing the least number of spoilers, I’ll focus on an episode from early in the series, “Chapter 4: Jason Mendoza”. The plot picks up from the previous episode’s cliffhanger, in which the usually silent Jianyu confronts Eleanor on a darkened street. When he speaks, his sage monk demeanor gives way to a dopey American accent as he tells her he’s been mistaken for someone else. He knows she isn’t supposed to be there either and needs her help figuring out “what the fork is happening.” (Since there’s no cussing in The Good Place, fork=fuck, shirt=shit, etc.) Eleanor senses his true nature immediately and asks, “How have you managed to stay undiscovered because I have had to dodge and weave and barely escape with my life, and you don’t seem… like a super genius?”
Turns out Jianyu is actually Jason Mendoza, a dimwitted Floridian who’s just been keeping quiet ever since he came to the Good Place and got mistaken for a silent monk. Eleanor susses all this out through a rapid-fire series of questions (like a good organizer getting to know a complete stranger), leading to this exchange:
Eleanor: What did you do for a living?
Jason: I was an amateur DJ specializing in EDM… an amateur hip-hop backup dancer, an amateur body spray inventor, I did pranks on Vine —“
Eleanor: None of those are jobs. What did you do to make money?
Jason: Oh, I sold fake drugs to college kids.
Eleanor: Okay. Good.
As someone who sold fake drugs to old people, Eleanor can spot a fellow dirtbag. Turns out Jason knows her secret because she blabbed to him about it after getting blackout drunk at The Good Place welcoming party. The two agree to hide other’s real identities — Eleanor won’t tell Chidi that Jason is another misplaced inhabitant and Jason will continue not speaking to his assigned soulmate, Tahani. When the two later hang out in Jason’s “budhole” (a secret hangout that looks like a teen boy’s bedroom — bean bag chairs, video games, sexy posters of Ariana Grande), Eleanor admits she appreciates having a place to go where she can just be herself.
Unfortunately, this gives Jason a terrible idea. As Eleanor and Chidi finish a philosophy lesson at her house, they suddenly hear the pulsating bass of some awful electronic dance music. They rush over to Tahani’s mansion, where Jason is decked out in Jacksonville Jaguars gear and dancing to his self-composed beats. Determined to be himself at all costs, he reveals his true identity to Chidi. And when Tahani returns home a few minutes later, he breaks his vow of silence. She’s thrilled to hear her soulmate speaking, but Eleanor and Chidi know she won’t be so happy to learn he’s actually an amateur DJ from Florida. It seems all three are on the verge of eternal banishment to The Bad Place.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Jason’s impulsive desire to be his true self on Earth once led him to firebomb a rival DJ’s speedboat. But of course he doesn’t learn from any of this, and remains determined to drop the Jianyu disguise. Desperate to keep the real Jason under wraps so everyone can stay in The Good Place, Chidi graciously invites him to join his lessons on ethics and moral philosophy. Without a moment’s thought, Jason says, “No, I’m good.” And that’s when harsh organizer Eleanor kicks into high gear:
Eleanor: Dude! Chidi is giving you a lifeline right now and you need to take it because you suck.
Jason: You suck!
Eleanor: I know! That’s what I’m trying to tell you. We both suck. You know who doesn’t suck? Chidi. He is putting himself in danger to help us because he, unlike us, is an amazing person.
Jason: I didn’t get into heaven to go to school.
Eleanor: You didn’t get into heaven at all, shirt-for-brains.
Jason: I just want to be myself.
Eleanor: That’s a very, very bad idea. Do not be yourself. You need to be a better version of yourself, okay? And I do too. And our only hope right now is this kind, selfless, amazing nerd. Think about that.
Chidi: Do you have to call me a nerd so much?
Eleanor: I said a lot of other nice things, okay? Toughen up, nerd.
What I love about this scene is how Eleanor calls out everyone — Jason, herself, even Chidi. Of course Jason doesn’t want to attend boring ethics classes taught by someone way smarter than him. His whole life was about following his dumb, pleasure-seeking dreams without any thought of consequences. Chidi could ask him nicely a million times and get the same refusal. Eleanor understands the only way to persuade Jason is to make him see they’re completely forked if they don’t work together on self-improvement. This searing callout may not be the friendliest approach to organizing, but it ultimately works because she expresses humility in the process.
Again, I don’t see myself talking to others this way; my goal is to build political power, not to tell people they need to improve themselves. Nevertheless, I do try to model Eleanor’s humility and determination. In our past lives, neither she nor I ever saw ourselves voluntarily trying to work with people (especially the ones who get on our nerves). But once you understand human survival depends on all of us doing that work despite some of our individual tendencies to isolate, you find a way to overcome the aversion. Part of it is just admitting this work is hard, owning up to your shortcomings, and being forthright with others when they’ve misstepped. It isn’t always fun. But in my experience, doing it really does make you a better organizer and a better version of yourself.