I am still reeling from last night’s finale of The Good Place. It was an existential mediation on love, grief and free will, wrapped in a sitcom. That shouldn’t be possible.
The Good Place attached us deeply to it’s characters and, in its final episode, understood the sadness that comes when our human empathy is attached to those characters. We don’t want to see them go, but the show carefully and compassionately shows us why they must — breaks our heart along the way — and then pastes it back together.
Midway through the finale, it becomes clear that William Jackson Harper’s Chidi Anagonye is ready to move on. In a touching speech he asks Eleanor (Kristen Bell) to:
“Picture a wave in the ocean: you can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts… and then it crashes on the shore and then it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, and where it’s supposed to be.“
But Eleanor doesn’t want him to go. Despite all their love for each other and all their kindness, their needs and desires can’t align. The idea of an afterlife as a paradise without suffering crashes against the human need for free will. Chidi chooses to stay rather than make her suffer, but she can only suffer if he stays because she can’t bare for him to suffer. So she chooses what is hard; to let him go.
They have no guidance in this, only each other. There is no higher authority to nudge or chide them. Carefully and quietly, (Maya Rudolph’s judge not withstanding,) The Good Place has shown that in a Godless universe, we must make our own meaning. These last few episodes have shown meaning literally under construction as the afterlife is reformed and reconstructed to be compassionate. Tahani (Jameela Jamil) becomes an “architect” in this afterlife — the first human allowed to take on that role.
Meanwhile Ted Danson’s Michael, a fire-squid demon in human form, is given the gift he has subconsciously desired for a few hundred Jeremy Bearimy’s: to be human. To be mortal and know mortality, which is to face the unknown and make choices without knowing what comes next.
The Good Place not only considers what eternity looks like for the human soul, but dares to suggest that eternity is too much — a gluttony of experience that, however rich and desired, would eventually sate us. The show never seems to forget that how long we exist is dwarfed by how long we’re not.
Last night, the finale answered the question “To be, or not to be?” by suggesting the promise of eternal life, (to be, to be, to be…) is too much for human consciousness and that, eventually, we are only free if we can choose not to be.
Rather than hitting a depressing and nihilist note, the story reassures us that, even then, we do not “die” — not in the sense that our existence is annihilated. In the end, (when given an end) what is left of us are the results of our actions. “The Good Place” as it turns out, is the good place inside us (though the show is never so cheesy, or on the nose, as to say so.) When Eleanor goes, her choice to move on is framed with profound love, and kindness. Our actions have consequences and what we’ve brought to the world continues beyond us. With all the love in our hearts, and all the wisdom of the universe, we can choose to pass that Good Place on.