Editor’s note: spoilers for season 1 of The Good Place.
In the season 2 premiere of NBC’s brilliant show The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop, (Kristen Bell) attends a gala welcoming her to the titular Good Place, a heaven-like afterlife where all the good people go. Eleanor attended the same gala during the season 1 premiere, but this time around she wears a giant sash that reads “BEST PERSON.” Soon after, Eleanor’s frenemy Tahani (Jameela Jamil), intimidated by the sash and the apparent “Best Person” wearing it, does her best to undercut the award.
“Apparently, sashes are out this season,” goes Tahani’s passive-aggressive jab. “The diagonal line really draws one’s eye to the chin bloat.”
What neither character realizes at this moment — and what no audience member realized until the show’s season 1 finale — is that the sash, and everything else in and about the Good Place, is all part of Eleanor’s torture. They’re actually in the Bad Place, it turns out; their neighborhood is the brainchild of creative demon Michael (Ted Danson), who sets up a Truman Show-like version of hell to emotionally terrorize a handful of humans, all while making them think they’re in the Great Upstairs.
The “Best Person” sash, then, acts as a perfect symbol of Eleanor’s bespoke torture. Before death, she was a smart but selfish woman with a serious inferiority complex: Eleanor hated feeling like she wasn’t as good as other people. Her torment in the Good Place, then, is that she believes she has falsely gotten into heaven through a clerical error that mixed her up with another Eleanor Shellstrop. This “Good Eleanor” is a University of Michigan Law School alumna, international human rights attorney, and all-around humanitarian, and so assuming this (fictional) identity in the (fictional) Good Place is, quite literally, Eleanor’s personal hell.
While the “Best Person” sash is a hilariously unsubtle touch during season 2’s torture, clothing has been an embedded form of Eleanor’s torment all along. As the show’s costume designer, Kirston Mann, explains it, “The idea behind that was that she inherited the other Eleanor’s closet.” And by comparing this wardrobe with flashback scenes of Eleanor’s fashion back in her home state of Arizona, it’s clear that Eleanor’s inherited closet is an understated but crucial part of her hell.
Flashback scenes, during which we see Eleanor scamming the elderly, bailing on designated driver duties, and berating eco-activists, let us see Eleanor in a variety of clothing. According to Mann, “She’s a ‘whatever’ girl. She’s just like, ‘I can’t be bothered.’” Arizona Eleanor’s outfits are just good-looking enough, but not too fashion-forward (boot-cut jeans with a suede motorcycle jacket, denim shorts and graphic-print tank tops).
Everything is youthful and fits well, but she never puts in the effort to wear the latest trend. Occasionally, pops of color or shine show off Eleanor’s cheekiness, like a silk bomber jacket or a retro, graphic-printed top. But for the most part, Arizona Eleanor tries to look like a conventionally attractive “party girl” while still doing the least — which is what her character on Earth is best at.
Eleanor’s inherited wardrobe, by contrast, is what Mann refers to as a “Peace Corps wardrobe.” Good Place Eleanor’s closet is dominated by button-downs, straight-leg jeans, and flow-y patterned tops. “For Good Place Eleanor, it’s shirts of somebody who might travel, who might work in orphanages. It’s somebody who isn’t that vain and not trying to be that fashionable.”
Arizona Eleanor’s Forever 21 tops and denim skirts are replaced by boatneck T-shirts and cargo pants in neutral tones. When outfits aren’t giving off pragmatic Peace Corps vibes, like in scenes where Eleanor is at the gala or at a dinner party, her outfits are mature and modest, vacillating between a stereotypical kindergarten teacher and a woman giving a very important TED Talk.
When asked, Mann says that she absolutely believed these were clothes Arizona Eleanor would hate to wear. However, what’s remarkable is that this torture is subtly done. Arizona Eleanor’s outfits are not flashy (like the pleathered, studded Bad Place characters we see in season 1), and neither is Good Place Eleanor, meaning her outfits almost fly under the radar. Mann also credits Kristen Bell with being able to pull off any outfit (which is absolutely true), but there’s more to it: Whereas Jason Mendoza (a boisterous Florida native whose torture is being forced to pretend he’s a Buddhist monk) is compelled to wear something so obviously different from his earthly persona, Eleanor still looks cute and casual in most outfits — helping her keep up the ruse of being the Best Person.
Even with Bell’s ability to pull off any outfit, this parallels each of the characters’ individualized torture: Jason is tortured by having his entire personality bluntly silenced (both in his speech and fashion), but Eleanor is constantly reminded through her clothes that she would not choose this outfit because she is not the Best Person, or even a good person. That fundamental insecurity means even the most adorable knee-length cocktail dress is an ambient reminder of Eleanor’s shortcomings.
Mann also points out that the wardrobe-as-torture is unique in that it carries through even when Eleanor is alone, and it’s the first difference she experiences when getting to the Good Place. Eleanor died buying margarita mix in sweatpants, but comes to in the Good Place wearing a flannel button-down in an empty room. Before Eleanor is given the keys to a clown-infested home or introduced to her nerdy soul mate, her outfit is the very first move Michael makes in imposing the Good Eleanor persona.
One pressing question for Mann: Was Eleanor dressed a little more casually (a little more Arizona) during season 2, when she finally knows she’s in the Bad Place? Didn’t it seem like there were more sweatshirts for Eleanor to throw on behind closed doors? However, Mann responds that the wardrobe was meant to stay consistent for Eleanor across seasons. (Upon re-watching the entire series, the sweatshirt count does stay the same.) If anything, Mann says, it’s a testament to Bell’s acting if Eleanor looks more comfortable and casual in each outfit as Eleanor becomes more comfortable.
Mann points out that Eleanor, as a character, may not be the most ethical person, but she’s incredibly smart and cunning. “She masters things, like in the office,” Mann says. “She’s smart, and she figures things out, and with minimum effort — she does what she needs to.”
That Eleanor is able to sink into her inherited wardrobe and make it look like her own parallels her cunning ability to realize she’s in the Bad Place after all. A woman who spent her time on Earth scamming the elderly into buying pills is now scamming demons into believing she hasn’t figured the whole thing out, and she knows how to look just good enough doing it. Eleanor’s general flippancy about her appearance on earth ends up being her unexpected strength in the Bad Place. What her torturers underestimate is Eleanor’s ability to simply move forward and be a “whatever” girl, to “be game with anything,” as Mann says.
Just like a Peace Corps volunteer in a practical shirt, clothes were a means to an end for Arizona Eleanor: looking good enough to impress a guy in a bar, fit in with friends, or do her awful job. Now that season 2 gives Eleanor purpose, her inherited wardrobe can be weaponized — becoming a disguise — and while the clothes stay the same, Eleanor looks a lot more comfortable.