After 4 full seasons of contemplating the afterlife using a good blend of humor, emotion and chemistry, the much beloved series The Good Place came to a close this past week. Known for its ability to take deep philosophical and theological ideas and break them down into bite size questions and relevant conversation that anyone can understand and relate to regardless of religious affiliation, the show was consistently striving to present the idea of the afterlife as a mystery to explore rather than a fact to exploit.
One of the more brilliant aspects of the way the show was scripted over these 4 seasons was how it used its depiction of the afterlife to position the “good” place and the “bad” place as a working commentary both on the lives we live in the present and the nature of the afterlife itself. By placing these two ideas as a moral construct, the show then weaved through different aspects of the moral equation, particularly in how it plays into moral responsibility, judgement and motivation. By applying what C.S. Lewis refers to as the “Christian imagination” towards a more generalized spiritual concern for matters of life and death, it encouraged viewers to ofen wrestle with matters of faith in ways that could get us thinking about our relationship to faith in one way or another.
The way the show was able to keep this conversation alive through all 4 seasons is by seeing it through the lens of the great mystery. To speak of the afterlife was to speak of shared “human” concerns.
(SPOILER WARNING FOR THE FINAL EPISODES OF THE GOOD PLACE)
THE GREAT MYSTERY UNDONE
That is until the series decided it was going to bring the conversation to a close. This set up the daunting and challenging task of taking the wealth of its ideas and weaving it into a single and final episode as something that both honors the journey while bringing the character arcs to a fitting close.
And I do think there were ways the series could have achieved this. But it would have required them to stay true to this idea of the afterlife as a mystery to explore. Unfortunately, the show chose to abandon the mystery in favor of easy answers and a proper solution, the end result being a frustrating and often contradictory mess of ideas.
Just to explain this further, let me unpack exactly what I mean by walking through the final two episode arc:
THE GOOD PLACE: SEASON 4, EPISODES 13-14 (WHENEVER YOUR READY)
The second last episode takes all the mystery out of the series and exchanges it for a decidedly and determined nihilistic premise. In this final picture of the afterlife, after so much time playing around with the idea of selflessness, eternity becomes little more than an idealized version of our best life built here on earth, built around the pursuit of happiness, materialism and personal pleasure. When they come to realize that happiness based on these self predicated ideals gets tired, and that once you have accomplished all that you want to do, they come to the conclusion that what affords someone personal happiness and fulfillment is actually death itself. It is knowing that something won’t last forever that gives it meaning. Thus, whenever your ready indicates the choice to die. This is the prefered afterlife that all of us truly want deep inside.
Enter the invention of a door where, after living their best life and accomplishing all that their heart desires, the people in the good place can walk through and, we are told, cease to exist. The final message of the series at this point? It could go two ways. One is that eternal life as an idea is simply an idealized version of life on earth. The second message, which is more metaphorical, is that everything we have experienced in the afterlife is intended to say something about this life on earth being all there is, so make the most of it before you time is up.
Which is really where most of the problems begins to surface. This premise only works in a world where everyone is free to write the story of their life the way we feel it should be written. By doing away with the mystery, the show essentially creates a smoothed out and glorified depiction of death that ignores the question of suffering. Its “spiritual” imagination is basically the sum total of our earthly desires, with our experience of life on earth determining our happiness.
It romanticizes death without acknowledging what death actually means for our lives. It offers a false picture of happiness in order to elevate death as meaningful. And what makes this perhaps most dangerous of all is that it provides a meaningful argument for suicide that completely ignores its tragic nature. Yes, they are already dead, but by confusing the show’s final two points, this afterlife is presented as a metaphor for life on earth, so it becomes easy to see how the show wants us to translate these truths to the choices we make now.
Further yet, it has a serious problem to contend with in terms of explaining the immortality of the good place architects against the now mortal souls of the earthly residents. Why is it that the place responsible for life on earth is an image of immortality, while the creation itself is seemingly more enlightened? This is of course where the film begins to lean into the Eastern mysticism and philosophy, leaning towards the idea that we all become gods who then desire mortality. But the confusing mashup of ideas turns the entirely of the show into a contradictory collection of statements, a burden the second last episode places entirely on the shoulders of the final hour.
And ultimately the last hour takes the easy way out of the hole it dug for itself, ignoring the problems and going for melodramatic.
We see it backtrack on its idea of the door as necessarily nihilistic. Remember when we said the door means you cease to exist? Well, we are going to slip in a line near the end of the episode that tells us that we don’t know what happens after you walk through that door.
For all the lessons that the characters have learned about selfless love, the choice to walk through the door has nothing to do with what happens next and everything to do with what makes them ready to end their lives, all of which are a series of self serving ambitions.
And then we factor in Michaells decision to become mortal. Is that an answer to the architect/human problem? Seemingly. Maybe. But it basically turns the divine in the show into a self serving entity dependent on humanity to give it value. To experience life is the ideal, and to live and die is what gives him true dignity and purpose. Only, it turns the entire notion of the afterlife into a wishlist, a simple buffer to help erase the pain and uncertainty and struggle of life on earth so that we can die with dignity.
And then guess what. In case we had any question of a concrete world view for the show, at the last second it then decides to come back to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy as a way of coloring over the problems it chooses to ignore, but it does so in an equally disingenuous fashion. It picks and chooses in order to find the easy way out of the problems it wants to ignore, essentially ignoring the spirituality and leaning into its secularist, Westernized expression. On the surface it feels nice and emotional and complete, but once you take off the cover all the problems start to spill over, leaving me feeling very unsettled, frustrated and let down.
As someone who has long struggled with anxiety and depression, including suicidal thoughts, these final episodes left me in a pretty dark place. In his wonderful article on the finale, SPENCER KORNHABER writes, “Characters became so sated by the world’s meaningfulness, and so jaded by the seemingly infinite possibilities of creation, that they had no reason to go on. Perhaps this was a logical conclusion. It is hard for any viewer to evaluate it, much less viscerally relate, as none of them has lived an eternity—much less the specific version of eternity this show constructed.
What many people have lived are days in which the case for existence beating nonexistence seems unconvincing.”
In his article he puts into words why I felt so disillusioned with the final two episodes. This is at least in part because I was so invested in the show over these past years, a testament to its strength and vision. I had come to trust in where this narrative was going, that it would give me the freedom to enter into the mystery of life and death with freedom and grace. What I got is a show that ultimately confirmed my deepest struggles. The fact that my life looks nothing like The Good Place means that suicide and nihilism are my best option. It makes me feel lied to, not only by the show but by life.
And yet, the mystery still remains. That to me is the more powerful realization. I am reminded that there is reason to enter into the conversation and to see past myself. I’m reminded that even though this world pushes back, there is something greater to live for than my own personal happiness. That is what gives me hope. I don’t fear eternal life, nor is the answer to all my problems. What the Good Place is to me is an invitation to engage the Christian imagination and wonder about how my life here on earth points me to a life with God in ways I can only understand in part but trust that one day I will understand in whole.
I would encourage you to read through the article that Spencer wrote for the Atlantic. He articulates it so much better than I could. I would also encourage anyone who struggles with suicide or depression or anxiety to know that there is life beyond this show. Ending ones life is not the answer to our struggles with this world, it is simply the only thing we can see sometimes when everything doesn’t make a whole of sense, feels overwhelming, less than ideal and too much. If you feel that way, embrace the conversation. Seek out others. That’s the part of the show that is most important.
Here’s the link to the article: