On “The Good Place” and how not all good things have to come to an end
“The Good Place” was the most satisfying and intellectually tantalizing show on network television until it wasn’t.
Right off the bat, a major fly in this otherwise charming afterlife ointment has always been the elevation of Kant as the highest moral authority. This is probably going to come back to bite us later, I squirmed in the midst of Chidi’s philosophy lessons of Season One. But the show, for the most part, proved me wrong. “The Good Place” traipsed through Season One, vaulted over the heads of its dumbstruck viewers, and created a labyrinthine maze of entertaining morality tale during which it became one of the most luminous meditations on structural sin, culpability, freedom, and love.
“The Good Place” wrestled with what it meant to be a good person in a universe with no God. And, for the most part, it provided thrilling, heartfelt, and humanist answers.
But, as I suppose is to be expected, when your multiverse is operated by a hapless North Face-vested bureaucratic committee rather than a triune God of love, endings are a disappointment.
“The Good Place” had a deeply humanitarian and communitarian ethos. Perhaps Sean the Demon Judge (Satan?) is the ultimate power in the universe, Descartes is correct, the deceiver is the dictator of reality. So what? What do we do now? Chin up, we have each other, chirps “The Good Place”, Samwise Gamgee to our anxious Frodo’s, so we might as well take care of what we’ve got—us.
One magnificent touch of the simulacrum Good Place of the first two seasons—Michael’s elaborate torture chamber—was that it parroted our puerile dreams of what heaven would be—endless personal fulfillment. Unlimited fro-yo, our own Barbie Dream Houses, sleeping in for breakfast in bed in the mornings and flying the afternoons: an endless vacation dictated by no one’s whims, desires or needs other than our own.
The four human being protagonists, however, exploit an Achilles heel of Michaels’s plan, stumble towards salvation. Where two or three humans are ever gathered, there is the possibility of love. The humans, met with other humans among the demon actors in this afterlife, learn to become better through learning to love one another. Michael reboots the experimental neighborhood again and again, only to find each time that the humans choose each other, that their love, friendship, and community reveals the hell around them for what it is.
From this, we could deduce that, in this candy-colored universe, the real heaven is an endless eternity not of parties or beaches or yurts in scenic forest, but an eternity of one another. This is the conclusion that Michael Schur’s tightly-run show seems to be leading us to, and it’s a conclusion that fits easily into the moral universe of soft deontology within which the show has operated.
After a showstopping Season Three finale, an ingenious beginning to the Fourth Season, the final few episodes lurched and jolted towards a conclusion that ultimately revealed the foundation of Schur’s moral universe was not the Other but the Self. The ending is dressed up in slight nods to Buddhism and a quick wave at Brahman—the ultimate reality of the universe, or as Chidi puts it—an ocean of which we are waves. Ultimately, then, when we die, we turn back to the stardust we are made of.
“The Good Place”‘s ending is a disappointment, because all it offers is endless stretches of the self. An eternity of self-fulfillment. Michael’s imitation was startlingly like the real thing. Thus, the only cure for the self is annihilation—not community, not love, but the actual, final possibility of mortality. It’s a dark conclusion.
It’s not bad television—Eleanor argues that death gives life meaning. A fundamentally problematic proposition but certainly endings are necessary for well-told stories, which demand a beginning, middle, and end. Bucking the grey eternity of an endless sitcom lifespan, “The Good Place” delivers us a rollicking tale with a beginning, middle, and end.
All gaping theological sinkholes aside, the ending is a disappointment because “The Good Place” doesn’t live up to its own goodness. The moral promise the show made in its first few seasons: that love would triumph over despair, that the real heaven was the friends we made along the way, that friendship and relationship, not death give life meaning, is left unfulfilled.
The humans spend their Bearimies in heaven working through their bucket lists, their tangle relationships, and their stacks of books, until their attention span runs its course.
I’m not sure if it’s intentional, or a damning indictment of its feeble moral fabric, but once the show reaches the actual Good Place, it becomes bleakly nihilistic. Its portrait of paradise is an argument that it is impossible for anything—even your soulmate, even your friends, even the very humans you worked so hard to save, anything!—to hold your attention forever. Eventually, you will tire of being sated, eventually, your appetite will wear itself down, and you will find rest not in the gaze of love or the endless dance of relationship, but in nothing.
Obviously, “The Good Place” has never tried to be Dante. It’s an entirely different project, and it offers its caveat emptor about is eschewal of a Judeo-Christian system ofthe afterlife up front. But, that said, it is sad that “The Good Place” has no paradise—there is no rapture into the mystery of love, there is not even the failure, as Dante repeatedly claims, to portray that mystery well.
Many reviewers have noted that, of course, “The Good Place” was never about how we die but about how we live, and as such, it has been a beacon of hope and a loud prophet of the fundamental redeemability of humans in a time when prospects seem bleak.
As a commentary on how to live well, “The Good Place” is a success. Perhaps as a show that has always played fast and loose with death and finality, it is no surprise that it stumbles when it tries to include them in its system.
In the end, “The Good Place” declares that death is not evil because it is the cessation of being or a cessation of relationship. Death, the show posits, is not to be feared because it marks the end of the self and the end of relationships and love, but because it is something we can’t control. Death is evil because it marks the borders of our autonomy.
Introduced back into the world, however, as a door you can enter through at any time, death comes under the control of our wills. The Good Place becomes a livable place, because our autonomy remains the highest power in the universe. Death is redeemed by Michael and Eleanor not when love and friendship persist on its nether side. Death is redeemed when it is subjugated to human will.
Like “The Good Place,” the Christian imagination believes death has been redeemed—that its onset can be met with peace and acceptance, and that it is not the cessation of love. The Christian imagination holds that this is true only because the body we are part of has a beating heart on the other side of the Hades it has harrowed. We can be assured that love is on the other side of death, because Love has died and, risen, awaits us on the other side. We can be sure that love still remains even in the failure of our own will or the death of the self, because love is the source of reality. Love is the Brahman we seek to articulate; it has the first word and it will also have the last. Even in the midst of short attention spans, death, and endings, love endures.
Love conquers all, but not, in “The Good Place,” our self.