The Good Place Felt Bad in the End

The show tackled the toughest questions of existence, but its enlightenment resembled something darker.

Eleanor and Chidi in "The Good Place"
On the surface, The Good Place's ultimate vision is almost outlandishly cheerful. (NBC)

This article includes spoilers through all four seasons of The Good Place.

I did not expect, watching a candy-colored fantasy sitcom’s final episode, to think of one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Yet when The Good Place’s Chidi (played by William Jackson Harper) explained to his soul mate, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), that he wanted to leave heaven and be annihilated, my mind went to strange places. Chidi was sharing a memory of his mother wiping lipstick off of Eleanor’s cheek; it was, for him, the moment in paradise when he felt full and final contentment settling in, when it became clear there was nothing more to seek. These lyrics by the great David Berman came into my head: “The end of all wanting is all I’ve been wanting / and that’s just the way that I feel.”

Berman, of the rock bands Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, sang that line on an album he released a month before he killed himself at age 52 last summer. The song is plainly suicidal; The Good Place is plainly not, right? In 2017, the show began with its four main characters already dead, navigating a zany afterlife filled with frozen yogurt and lava monsters. Over four seasons, they discovered a glitch in the cosmos that had been sending all humans to hell for the past 500 years. By the finale, the heroes had reopened the gates to heaven, where they were able to sip on stardust and hang with loved ones for as long as they liked. A happier ending could not have been imagined.

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.

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.

Why would you choose to leave paradise? For Jason, it was because he’d completed a perfect game of Madden with his father. For Tahani, it was because she was finally embraced by her stern parents—and accomplished all the goals on a long list that included landing a triple axel. For Chidi, it was because he’d attained harmony with family and his loved ones. And for Eleanor, it turned out, it was because she’d helped Michael, the onetime demon, achieve his ultimate desire of becoming a mortal. In each case, an achievement made the person “complete.” Life had been a checklist of wounds to be healed and wants to be met, and at some point all the boxes were ticked. There was nothing left to do—and it became better to be nothing than to do nothing.

Jason, having the ability to just be, nevertheless walks through the portal into not-being. (NBC)

“It’s sort of an inescapable conclusion,” the show’s creator Michael Schur told The Hollywood Reporter. “It doesn’t matter how great things are, if they go on forever they will get boring.” Inescapable is right: The problem of heavenly tedium has been batted around by religious skeptics and apologists alike for centuries. There are Christian sources advertising heaven’s amenities as if in a travel brochure; one website’s “5 Reasons Heaven Won’t Be Boring” mentions “relishing the most delicious foods you’ve ever eaten, listening to and participating in the most soul-stirring music you’ve ever heard.” Such pitches evoke The Good Place’s pre-reform heaven, in which the architects strained unsuccessfully to sate their residents. Proposed attractions included “music you can eat” and “more hoverboards.”

Yet there are ways to conceptualize eternal bliss that don’t make it seem like an amusement park you’re trapped in. The Bible speaks of heaven’s residents building homes and planting vineyards, and of paradise and Earth one day being reconciled: heaven as a group project, for communal benefit. Or look to the Book of Isaiah, in which God promises, “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” You can read that as a prophecy akin to the solution that the Good Place gang considered and rejected: periodic memory wipes for heaven’s residents. Or it’s an acknowledgment that one’s identity and desires could molt and transform over eternity. In the 18th century, the American pastor Jonathan Edwards asserted that when in heaven, humans’ joy would be ever expanding because of God’s infinite nature. That’s a trippy thought, suggesting the heavenly experience of pleasure—and maybe of consciousness—is fundamentally different from that on Earth.

Schur’s team instead opted for a straightforward, and commonplace, view of heaven: all the nice parts of our world, maxed out. Really, though, their interest wasn’t in figuring out a viable Good Place but in figuring out what to say about our own deaths. For that, Schur has said, they looked to Eastern traditions when crafting the finale. Here he is explaining one Hindu view of karma: “You get better and better and reborn and reborn, and eventually you kind of nail it, and when you’re reborn you become a god. But the thing is, you’re not a god forever. You’re a god and you’re hanging out with the other gods, but you slowly use up your karma. You burn off those karmic chits that got you there, and when you’re out, you start over. That sort of weirdly makes sense to me.”

It does make sense—in part because it rhymes with the fact that human life must end. The twist his show worked out, though, moves mortality from a matter of requirement to a matter of choice. The sense of inevitability about death is removed, even though the show insists it’s still there by having characters recite earthly funeral koans. A life is but a wave, Chidi tells Eleanor, and “the wave is just a different way for the water to be for a little while.” Eleanor, having heard the wisdom of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped convince Martin Luther King Jr. to speak against the war robbing his countrymen of their lives, replies, “Not bad, Buddhists.”

There’s another overt Buddhism reference in the finale that hints at alternative—if potentially less dramatic—endgames the show could have attempted. The reference comes when it’s revealed Jason did not, in fact, walk though the door when he originally planned to. Instead, he decided to wait around for his extradimensional girlfriend, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), to return so that he could give her a necklace he had lost. He ends up passing a thousand Jeremy Bearimys in the wilderness, at peace, contemplating existence. When Janet discovers he’s been waiting all this time, she remarks that he’s essentially become a monk, which is funny because he was originally disguised as one in Season 1. A twist is implied: Turns out it’s possible to transcend wanting and still stick around. Sadly, it only amounts to a punch line. Jason, having the ability to just be, nevertheless walks through the portal into not-being.

What’s wrenching is the thought of the loved ones left behind after self-evaporation. Jason’s double-fakeout demise would seem unbearably sad or even cruel to Janet had she not conveniently revealed, in this final episode, that she doesn’t have the capacity to “miss” anyone because she experiences memories as if they were the present. It’s tougher still to watch Chidi leave Eleanor. She pleads and cries that she doesn’t want to be left alone. Eventually, though, she gives Chidi her blessing to disappear. It would be “selfish” to ask him to stay, she says, adding, “I owe it to you to let you go.”

The writers have made a deft move here that hides a betrayal of their show’s fundamental tenets by using the language of one of its fundamental texts. T. M. Scanlon’s 1998 philosophy book What We Owe to Each Other has been a reference point throughout the series, and in the finale, after centuries of working her way through its dense prose, Eleanor finally gets to the end. In the book, as the Boston Review summarized it, Scanlon counsels “giving others their due.” Broadly, the preaching of The Good Place has been about helping others, and about shared progress. People become better by learning from others; the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions has a lot to do with their effects beyond the individual.

But in the final chapter, the characters embrace an abstract notion of selflessness—literally the destruction of the self—while leaving behind the socially constructed kind upon which the show’s moral system rests. These characters have spun webs of interdependent relationships based on love, trust, and generosity. Then they snip those webs because they’ve reached some sense of internal “completion” that is individualistic even though it relied upon them working with others to achieve it. Beautiful relationships do not turn out to provide unending nourishment; the pain caused to those left behind does not outweigh the prerogative to leave.

That’s bleak math, but the show cleverly alchemizes it into uplift. In the finale’s conclusion, Eleanor’s energy dust swirls down to the mortal realm and lands on a man who was about to throw out a piece of mail that had gone to the wrong address. Apparently infused with a touch of Eleanor’s goodness, he retrieves the envelope from the trash and delivers it to its rightful owner, Michael. The implication is that every time a heavenly person ends themselves, kind deeds get sprinkled around the world. The characters have, thus, sacrificed themselves for a good cause. Of course, when they walked through the door, they did not know that’s what they were doing. They’d gone through for their own sakes.

To talk about self-destruction with the terminology I’ve been using—and that the show points toward—is dicey. There is a judgmental social tradition of referring to people who die by suicide as “selfish” when really what they were was in need of help. There is also an ongoing debate among experts and clinicians about whether suicide should ever be discussed as rational. Most people who kill themselves experienced mental illness, and “acute suicidality, which involves feeling like one should die now, is a genuine altered state of consciousness,” according to Jesse Bering, a psychologist and the author of a book on suicide. But, as Bering also writes, some people have carefully thought through the pros and cons of remaining alive and made an informed choice to die—a process a lot like what The Good Place reverently portrayed at the end.

It’s fitting that in the finale, Chidi and Eleanor visit the Parisian haunts of the existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide,” Camus wrote at the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus, which laid out his philosophy of absurdism: an embrace of freedom in a world that is likely meaningless. Suicide might seem an obvious way to deal with such meaninglessness, but he actually argued that choosing to live made sense given our fleeting states. Sartre, analyzing Camus’ The Stranger, wrote, “The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions ... and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him.”

The Good Place quite eagerly scanned as absurdist: This was a world in which Mariah Carey’s butterfly tattoo took flight and pandas could become woodworking assistants. But whereas Camus endorsed a dreamlike aesthetic to reckon with death’s finality, The Good Place seemed to do the opposite. The freedom of play eventually became uninteresting in The Good Place’s eternity. 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. Listening to Berman’s latter-day music, which precisely described his despair and fatalism, invokes not only sadness but also a feeling of understanding that might be best kept at arm’s length. There’s a beautiful eulogy from someone at his record label, Drag City, that reckons with this feeling. “Some of [Berman’s] incredible turns of phrase seem to have been written for this awful moment,” reads the unsigned note. “But know that they weren’t. They were written in lieu of this moment, to replace this moment, showing the world (and himself) that maybe he didn’t truly know what was going to happen next.”

In a complex and infinite timescale, the logic of sticking around would remain the same as it is on Earth: You don’t know what happens next, you’re bound to others, change is possible, and this existence might be all you get. Yet The Good Place ended up, for all its endless wonders, emphasizing consciousness as a shlep. Its heaven replicated the way life can feel like a jog through milestones and sensations, but not the way that life allows for surprise, evolution, and contentment with the present. Saying goodbye was so hard not simply because it was goodbye, but because those departing appeared to have moved past their own preciousness, and the preciousness of those around them.