Except for all the disintegrations. The finale spanned eons in which the characters had every desire met. Eventually, at the end of all wanting, they still wanted one more thing: to not exist. One by one, the huggable doofus Jason (Manny Jacinto), the noble nerd Chidi, and the reformed sleazebag Eleanor walked through a door that dissolved them into luminous particles that drifted down to Earth. Their friend Tahani (Jameela Jamil), nearly zapped herself as well, before deciding to hang on for a bit longer to go to architecture school. Michael (Ted Danson), an immortal ex-demon, got his wish to become a human—to be able to live, die, and then, in heaven, delete himself.
Read: ‘The Good Place’ was a metaphor all along
All of this made for moving TV: a gracious farewell to lovely characters, a meditation on the significance death brings to life, and a flat-out transporting piece of storytelling. The camera moved with the care of a hospice worker; slapstick cut the sentimentality and vice versa. Yet it was devastating for other reasons. A stone sat in my stomach for hours afterward, and I had a hard time figuring out why. Probably it was from watching people appear to kill themselves. Drawing from some of the most profound teachings of religions around the world, the show made a soothing, seductive, and (thankfully) shaky case for death.
Some confusion is going to be inevitable in discussing this subject. Chidi, Jason, and Eleanor did not kill themselves, as they were already dead. Suicide is in many cases a response to suffering; they ended their journey for lack of suffering. But the show has always operated at the level of metaphor, and here the real-world behavior being riffed upon—real-world behavior that is increasing and is, in some cases, contagious—was very clear. When peace set in for each of the heroes and they decided to head toward the door, their affect played on cultural expectations about depression or terminal illness. Their speech got slower and softer, and their eyes took on a sad edge. Their friends seemed quietly wrenched.
Certainly some viewers were shaken. In addition to raves from critics and fans about the finale, online you can find comments from fans of the show who were triggered into harmful thoughts, who experienced painful memories, and who felt knocked in the wrong direction. I was most struck by a teen on Twitter expressing that the show seemed to validate their suicidal feelings. Dreading what comes after high-school graduation, the teen wished for an annihilation portal to walk through. These are not universal reactions, but they also should not be written off. The Good Place bravely tackled some of the toughest questions of existence, but its vision of enlightenment could be easily mistaken for hopelessness.
On the surface, The Good Place’s ultimate vision is almost outlandishly cheerful. Even if you’re wicked on Earth, you can redeem yourself in a personalized purgatory and go to heaven. And heaven is fabulous, offering on-demand treasures, authentic relationships, and cozy dinner parties forever. Yet forever is a problem according to the show. In the moldering version of the Good Place that the heroes discovered in the penultimate episode, eternal bliss had warped the minds of the denizens, making it so they could barely form thoughts or speak. They reacted gratefully when the protagonists presented them with the option to destroy themselves forever. With a sense of finitude, mortality, and control instated, heaven became actually heavenly.