Gaming

Review: It’s a wonderful afterlife in The Good Place’s bittersweet finale

We have bid a tearful farewell to The Good Place, NBC’s hilariously inventive, yet thoughtful, take on the afterlife. The show delivered rich characters and plenty of laughs, but it also challenged us to ponder deeper questions of what it really means to be a good person. Consistently intelligent and insightful, particularly about human foibles, each season held enough surprising turns and unexpected twists to keep a typical sitcom running for twice as many seasons. But The Good Place was never a typical sitcom. I’m pleased to report that in the series finale, the writers didn’t blink while grappling with (among other things) the troubling implications of an infinite afterlife for finite humans.

(Spoilers for first three and a half seasons below. Major spoilers from the last half of S4 are below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up when we get there.)

In the pilot episode, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) woke up in a generically pleasant waiting room and discovered she was dead and in “the Good Place.” Neighborhood architect Michael (Ted Danson) explained the afterlife point system and introduced her to Janet (D’Arcy Carden), an AI guide who serves as the Good Place’s main source of information and can pretty much give residents anything they desire (however ludicrous). Eleanor also met her “soulmate”: a moral philosophy professor named Chidi (William Jackson Harper). Once they were alone, Eleanor confessed to Chidi that she’d been admitted to paradise by mistake and asked him to help her become a better person—no small feat, since by her own admission, Eleanor was a “trash bag” of a human being back on Earth.

It soon turned out she wasn’t the only person mistakenly admitted. The silent monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), soulmate to the rich, perpetually name-dropping socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), was actually a dim-witted DJ from Jacksonville, Florida. We also met Mindy St. Clair (Maribeth Monroe), a former corporate lawyer whose final act of charity (while high on cocaine) made her the sole inhabitant of the Medium Place, where everything is just kind of… okay. The season ended with a genuinely shocking twist: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani were actually in the Bad Place; throwing them together was a novel form of torment, whereby they tortured each other. Michael was a Bad Place demon architect in disguise, and once found out, he rebooted the entire experiment, wiping the fab four’s memories in the process.

S2 dug deep into the question of whether it is possible for a damned soul to become a better person after death. Eleanor kept figuring out they were really in the Bad Place for a whopping total of 803 reboots. When the demon staffers revolted, Michael joined forces with Eleanor & Company, meaning he, too, ended up studying moral philosophy under Chidi’s tutelage. The many philosophers name-checked include Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, and T.M. Scanlon‘s seminal text What We Owe to Each Other. The series may be over, but we’ll always have Chidi’s brave attempt at a Kierkegaard rap, and Michael’s brilliant-but-bloody simulation of the Trolley Problem.

William Jackson Harper spits the rest of Chidi’s Kierkegaard rap from S2 of The Good Place.

S2 ended with another radical reset: Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) gives the Soul Squad one more chance to become better people on Earth. It was a bold move, since Earth just isn’t as interesting as the crazy surreal illogic of the show’s brilliant conception of the afterlife. But S3 soon hit its stride. Among the standout moments: Michael’s mind-bending mini-tutorial about how time works in the afterlife. Time isn’t linear. It “doubles back and loops around,” and the resulting timeline just happens to look like the signature of the name Jeremy Bearimy. (The dot over the “i” is Tuesdays. And also July. And occasionally never.)  

Who could forget Chidi’s momentary breakdown upon hearing this, making a huge pot of “chili” out of Peeps and candy? When Janet whisks everyone off to her void, they all take on her appearance, causing Eleanor to have an identity crisis and giving Chidi the perfect opportunity to pontificate on the philosophy of the self. (It’s quite a performance from Carden, who must mimic each character’s idiosyncrasies.) The scene where Eleanor and Michael debate determinism and free will is The Good Place at its best: delving into deep philosophical quandaries with intelligence and a light touch.

Then Michael learned that no human had earned enough points to get into the Good Place for more than 500 years and suspected the system was rigged, or at least hopelessly flawed. In the S3 finale, Michael convinced Judge Gen to repeat the original experiment of S1 with four new humans, chosen by the Bad Place. The Soul Squad would be on hand to assist. But there’s always a catch when the Bad Place gets involved, and this one was particularly heartbreaking for fans of the Eleanor-Chidi soulmate coupling. Chidi was rebooted along with everything else, which removed his memories of Eleanor.

Remaking the afterlife

S4 brought everyone back to the afterlife, with all the cheesy puns and comic absurdity that comes with that goofy eternal realm. For instance, there’s a magical game of Pictionary in which the drawn images come to life. It ends in utter chaos, thanks to a terrifying mutation produced by Chidi’s crude drawing of a horse.

Eleanor is now running the experiment in the Medium Place, with four new test subjects: John (Brandon Scott Jones), a former gossip columnist who wrote nasty things about Tahani back on Earth; uber-douche male chauvinist Brent (Benjamin Koldyke); Chidi’s Australian neuroscientist love interest from S3, Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste); and Chidi himself (a replacement for Linda—played by Rachel Winfree—who turned out to be a demon in disguise). There were twists and double crosses and daring rescues, ending with Judge Gen concluding that, yes, the afterlife’s point system is flawed. But her solution is to wipe out all humans from existence in a reset to start over—not the outcome the Soul Squad was hoping for.

(Warning: major spoilers for the finale below. STOP reading if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Fortunately, an army of Janets—led by a Bad Janet newly converted to the cause—hides the garage door opener clicker thingy Judge Gen was going to use to erase the Earth. While the judge searches each of Janet’s void—Disco Janet has the most awesome void, while we catch a glimpse of Chidi’s mutant horse roaming in a Bad Janet’s void—Michael wakes up Chidi and tasks him with designing a new version of the afterlife. If they can get arch-demon Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson) on board, the judge will relent and give humanity another chance.

And this is where everything that’s been building, theme-wise, in prior seasons finally comes to fruition. The gang first comes up with a mishmash version of the current afterlife, with the addition of a permanent Medium Place for people who are neither truly good nor truly bad. But that doesn’t really solve the problem of the flawed point system, which everyone agrees is a terrible metric for assessing human behavior and potential for improvement. After 803 reboots, the original Soul Squad have all become much better, self-aware people. And so has Michael, a Bad Place demon, and Janet, now the most advanced of her kind—heck, she even gave the judge a chance to meet Timothy Olyphant, star of her favorite Earth show, Justified.

Those reboots were the key. Maybe all human beings need is more time to learn from their mistakes. In the new afterlife, all humans will have the chance to be rebooted, as many times as necessary, until they show enough improvement to earn admission to The Good Place. Bad Place and Good Place architects will collaborate on designing custom scenarios to challenge (or “torture,” from the demons’ perspective) each person. Shawn reluctantly agrees, and the judge approves the new system.

To infinity and beyond

For saving all of humanity, the Soul Squad finally gets into the Good Place. On any other show, this might have been the perfect ending, but when Chidi meets one of his philosophical heroes, Hypatia of Alexandria (a cameo by Friends star Lisa Kudrow), we learn that an eternity of perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. The Good Place residents are frankly bored, and “Patty” (as Hypatia calls herself) mourns the loss of her once-sharp intellect due to the lack of any kind of challenge. Meanwhile, Michael is tricked into taking over the Good Place, and the former staffers flee.

This was my favorite twist of all, because let’s face it: perfection is boring. It’s why Dante’s Inferno is far more powerful (and more widely read) than his Paradisio. It’s why the first version of The Matrix failed to keep humans lost in the fantasy world; their minds couldn’t accept a construct of a perfect world. Perfection for infinity proves unbearable: there’s only so many times you can fulfill all your deepest desires before it just becomes run-of-the-mill. Heck, one reason Shawn agreed to Michael’s original concept, and the new afterlife, was because he was bored with the usual torture. After your umpteenth penis-flattening, the joy really fades, even for a Bad Place demon.

After your umpteenth penis-flattening, the joy really fades.

Julian Barnes explores this dilemma at length in “The Dream,” the final chapter in his 1989 novel, A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters. In his version of heaven, everyone gets exactly the kind of afterlife they want—which mostly turns out to be a continuation of life, only better. But as the millennia pass, everything that seemed amazing at first starts to seem banal and pointless. So everyone also has the option of opting to die off a second time, for good, and everyone takes that option eventually. As the narrator concludes, “Heaven’s a very good idea, it’s a perfect idea you could say, but not for us. Not given the way we are.”

And that is the solution to the Good Place dilemma. Michael announces that he has created one last door. Anyone in the Good Place, when they feel they are ready, can simply walk through it and end their afterlife. Maybe. What happens beyond the door remains an unknowable mystery, much like that faced by humans on Earth pondering what happens after you die. It’s the fact that life ends, and we don’t know what comes next, that gives our lives purpose and meaning. It’s why our actions, relationships, and so forth matter so much. The episode closes with Eleanor and Chidi snuggling on the couch, watching a perfect sunset.

Honestly, the series could have ended right there and I would have been pleased. But did you really think series creator Michael Schur was going to let us off that easy? The roughly 80-minute finale was essentially a prolonged denouement. While it seemed like fan service at times, it also brought an element of disquiet and sadness, as we see each original member of the Soul Squad reach a point where they want to move on in some way—whether they choose to walk through the final door or not.

Schur could have spun out the show for many more seasons, but in the end he applied the same principle to the series as Michael did to fix the Good Place. Knowing that its time was finite made this final season—and the entire run—especially bittersweet, and hence that much more meaningful, to its fans. Are we sad to say goodbye to the Soul Squad? Most definitely. But their madcap philosophical journey will always be with us via streaming and/or syndication.

Chidi’s wave returns to the ocean on The Good Place.

Listing image by NBC/Universal

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