– By Joe Campbell –
(The following contains spoilers for all four seasons of The Good Place, including the series finale).
Last week saw the end of the beloved fantasy comedy show The Good Place. The hour-long series finale was a bittersweet culmination of four seasons and multiple interconnected character arcs. There were tearful goodbyes and mature growth. It has been widely praised as an earned emotional conclusion to a smart, thoughtful show.
So why did it leave me puzzled, hollow, and even a little bothered? I think it all boils down to how the show answers the big question on every character’s mind from the first episode: What does a “Good Place” look like?
Created by Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), The Good Place envisioned a new take on the Heaven/Hell dichotomy of the afterlife, where people are judged by a set of quantifiable guidelines determining whether they go to the Good Place (Heaven) or the Bad Place (Hell) when they die.
After her death, our heroine Eleanor (played by Kristen Bell) is alarmed to discover that she was filed into the Good Place through a clerical error, and spends the first season trying to hide the fact that she (by the standards of the pencil-pushing powers that be who run the afterlife) does not belong there. After it’s revealed that Eleanor isn’t actually in the Good Place but is actually in her own personal version of the Bad Place meant to psychologically torture her, she becomes entwined in a comedic adventure spanning different timelines, supernatural realms, and planes of existences.
Over the course of the next four seasons, Eleanor forms deep, meaningful bonds with a collection of characters who have also found themselves placed in unorthodox positions post-death for various reasons. It eventually becomes apparent that the entire point-based system for judging human worth is broken, as is the supernatural bureaucracy running the universe, and our wayward band is ultimately tasked with building a better afterlife. To be clear, within the show there is no God, but instead a complex system of supernatural beings (essentially angels and demons) in dress suits and ties working in offices. The show isn’t a scathing indictment against religion, but rather a light-hearted fantasy comedy running with a “What If” scenario.
But what does the Good Place look like in The Good Place? Well…it pretty much looks like how anybody’s first perception of a description of “Heaven” probably looks like: unending self-gratification. All the answers of the universe are available at the query of a supernatural Alexa-like Personal Assistant personified. You can go anywhere you want to; Athens 3,000 years ago? Paris last week? Boom, done. You want a machine that dispenses out white chocolate-flavored fried shrimp? Here you go.
You get what you want, when you want it, forever.
The show smartly recognizes that eternal indulgence isn’t the key to lasting happiness. Sooner or later you’ll grow tired of a 24/7 skate party, or a never ending stream of smoothies. As one resident of the Good Place puts it, “…when perfection goes on forever, you become this glassy-eyed mush person”.
This makes a lot of sense if that is your perception of Heaven. An endless, linear existence full of anything you want would break anyone down into a brainless blob of humanity aimlessly wandering through a pointless eternal existence. So what is our heroes’ solution?
Giving each resident of the Good Place the option to terminate his or her existence. They set up a set of doors where, “when you feel happy and satisfied and complete, and you want to leave the Good Place for good, you can walk through them and your time in the universe will end.”
As one of the characters explains the logic of the Anathema Door (my term for it), “Hopefully in knowing you don’t have to be here forever will help you feel happier while you are.”
On paper this idea makes sense. Another character aptly describes the Good Place as a, “never-ending vacation, and vacations are only special because they end”. So giving the residents the ability to permanently end their “vacation” should help them appreciate what they have more.
However, this is where the problems begin. The writers of the show have visualized perhaps the simplest interpretation of a secular view of “Heaven”, and they have correctly identified the problem with this vision, but their solution doesn’t solve the issue so much as it kicks it down the road. What actually happens when you walk through the Anathema Doors?
“We don’t really know, exactly. All we know is that it will be peaceful and your journey will be over.”
So it’s essentially the show’s version of death after death. You die, you go to the Good Place, then when you grow tired of the Good Place you can “die” again.
As characters started actually using the door, it quickly became apparent that the show had reached a moral conclusion that was deeply unsettling from a Catholic perspective. Since there is no real afterlife, just a party you can swing by before you pass on to non-existence, the show becomes about coming embracing death because there’s nothing afterwards, not despite it. Your whole existence is to level up in goodness like a video game. You start flawed, work to become a better person, help other people become happier, enjoy the end title screen telling you you’ve done a good job, then you shut the game off. It’s nice to make the world a better place, but without God the world is ultimately pointless, a self-perpetuating resource-eating machine that exists for its own sake.
The show does have some good things to say about bettering yourself not only for your own well-being, but to be an inspiration to others, and thus you help make the world a better place. The problem is once you’ve achieved that goal you serve no purpose as an existing being, and this leads to the show’s second unsettling conclusion: showing the decision to willingly end your existence as an absolute good.
In the final episode, once characters start reaching their happiness limit, they describe a “calm” washing over them, a sense of completion, that it’s “time to go”. Once they get that feeling, it’s a sign that their time in the universe has served its purpose and it’s time to stop existing. I think it’s a stretch to say that the show purposefully condones euthanasia, but it certainly (possibly unintentionally) comes off that way. It’s a messy, disturbing solution that makes perfect sense from a limited interpretation of existence.
For Catholics, God isn’t linear. He is existence, preceding time, matter, and space. Eternity doesn’t mean the same thing to Him as it does to us now. After we die, we are joined to God in His perfect happiness, and since we are joined to Him, eternity won’t mean the same thing to us either. If you die and continue living as you are now but in a never-ending bender, you will eventually want to stop existing, but the afterlife doesn’t string on as a timeline without an end, it transcends time.
The Good Place is a good show. It’s consistently funny and is genuinely intelligent, often tackling philosophical conundrums head-on. The characters are strategically created to have interesting dynamics with each other, and their individual arcs over the course of the four seasons do a good job at showing us how they’ve grown through their interactions. The show also shows us how forming an informed conscience takes effort, and that doing so not only improves oneself, but goes a long way towards helping others improve themselves as well.
It is in trying to reconcile the main premise with its secular perspective that the show struggles when it comes to solving the main question: How do you craft an ideal afterlife without God?
The answer is: you don’t. You live your life, do good deeds, then decide when you want to end your existence.
I don’t know about you, but no number of giant flying cocktail shrimp take the damper off that worldview.
About the Author
Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids. He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington. Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante. Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.
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