The Most Optimistic Show on TV Is Over
The Good Place, NBC’s sitcom about the afterlife, ended with a heartening meditation on the meaning of a finite existence.
This story contains spoilers for the series finale of The Good Place.
Technically, The Good Place, NBC’s freewheeling sitcom about the afterlife, ended its run last night. The hour-long series finale tied up loose plot threads, celebrated its characters’ relationships with one another, and dropped some heartening twists. For any show, even one as esoteric as The Good Place, hitting these benchmarks alone would make for a successful departure. But the comedy’s most salient philosophical takeaway resists this neat formula of linearity. Or, as the former “Arizona dirtbag” protagonist Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) finally comes to understand, “Working out the terms of moral justification is an unending task.”
The Good Place has spent four seasons asking weighty questions about the vexing condition of being alive: Can human beings become better? If so, how, and what does that even mean? The high-concept series from the Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur began as a screwball comedy with some ethical musings threaded into its zany high jinks. For every invocation of Aristotelian theory, there was a giant shrimp flying around on-screen or a joke about the former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. The sitcom’s commitment to its dual mandates never wavered, but its finale still exhibits a surprising level of care—for the show’s ragtag crew of dead characters, to be sure, but also for its viewers, who will presumably be stuck figuring out this whole “existing as a human” thing for a bit longer. Nowhere is this more evident than in the episode’s clear-eyed approach to life’s final question: The Good Place concludes that human experiences are meaningful precisely because of our mortality—and how we treat one another in that finite window is the greatest measure of our lives.
So with its tremendous heart and unwavering commitment to the stakes of The Good Place’s ethical inquiries, “Whenever You’re Ready” is a delightful return to form. Even the moments that could’ve skewed saccharine, as the show sometimes has, feel like earned indulgences. By the time Eleanor quotes the final line of T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other to her partner, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), while explaining why she’s ready to let him go, The Good Place had delivered on its early promises. Having achieved a tedious bliss in the real Good Place, the original afterlife residents continued evolving: Eleanor, once a raging narcissist, calmly prioritized others’ needs above her own. Chidi, a former philosophy professor embattled by his own chronic indecision, grew confident in even the most final of choices: the quiet urge to walk through a door that would dissolve him forever. Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who arrived in the first afterlife as a glory-chasing socialite, healed her familial wounds and pursued an eternity of service. To my mind, Jason (Manny Jacinto) is perhaps the only member of the once-doomed quartet whose lot didn’t shift profoundly enough—even at the series’ end, The Good Place had yet to meaningfully move past its conception of him as its good-looking dunce from Florida.
The Good Place has always been a highly serialized series, and its finale thankfully course-corrects some of the winding, less effective plot choices of prior episodes. The Season 3 ending, for example, repeated a machination that ended both of the first two seasons: a total system reset, which felt far less satisfying the third time around, in part because its stakes were far less believable. If Eleanor and Chidi had already found their way back to one another repeatedly throughout three seasons and several interdimensional plot loops, why would viewers believe that something as simple as a memory wipe would be a permanent obstacle for them? Much of Season 4 doubled down on this particular Season 3 drag: The Good Place’s insistence on dramatizing the clunky but inevitable romance between Eleanor and Chidi. As Angelica Bastién recently wrote for Vulture, their friendship felt like “a natural evolution in ways their romance doesn’t … Revelatory questions swirled around their dynamic in its earlier incarnation: How far are you willing to go to aid a friend? How do friendships develop under scrutiny and tension? How do friendships enrich our lives and ethical stance?”
“Whenever You’re Ready” doesn’t dispense with this romantic story line, but it does grant significant attention to the characters’ other relationships. Now that they’ve run countless afterlife experiments and successfully made the case for humans’ ability to change, the crew can luxuriate in the real Good Place along with the reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson) and the all-knowing being Janet (D’Arcy Carden). The spaciousness of this setup lends itself to some rich interpersonal developments, which render the show’s handful of convoluted past narratives nearly irrelevant.
Along with Eleanor’s difficult goodbye to Chidi, the episode spends much of its back half exploring her relationship with Michael. Like Chidi, the afterlife architect inspired by his namesake archangel attempts to walk through the final door. But because he’s a demon, not a human being, he’s unaffected after crossing the threshold. No dissolution, and certainly no rejoining the universe. In the episode’s most tender sequence, Eleanor and Janet decide to grant Michael the one wish that will put him on equal footing with nearly everyone else. Every other time someone rocketed back to the real world on The Good Place, their return to the other side was clearly laid out or manipulated by some being in the afterlife. But “Michael Realman” has no such exit plan.
And so The Good Place ends with a onetime demon coming down to Earth to experience life as the rest of us do, with all its inconveniences, delights, and fleeting connections. Again and again, the finale emphasizes the show’s most optimistic conclusion: Ethics and morality can be a losing game, but how people show up for one another will always matter most. In a rather meta sense, this principle applies to the finale itself too. At the end of a series set in a breathtakingly complex world with countless rules and points and running gags, what viewers are left with isn’t an encyclopedic knowledge of the philosophers referenced or a clear timeline of each afterlife reboot. As The Good Place bows out, what remains is how its characters made the show’s audience feel.