How to Break Up Ethically, According to The Good Place

In “The Ballad of Donkey Doug,” the NBC sitcom’s philosophizing gets used for one of the most commonplace moral minefields: ending a relationship.

Chidi (William Jackson Harper)

This story contains spoilers through Season 3, Episode 6 of The Good Place.

Chidi Anagonye has learned the deepest truths of existence—the nature of heaven and hell, the fate he’s eventually doomed to, and the real reason for Brexit—which means he must end things with his girlfriend. Who can’t relate? In typical fashion for NBC’s unpretentiously clever sitcom-slash-existential-epic, the most recent episode of The Good Place used a heady supernatural setup to explore a perfectly normal question: how to break up, ethically.

The show’s first two seasons saw the four main humans of the cast—the dithering professor Chidi, the sassy lowlife Eleanor, the superficial one-percenter Tahani, and the chronically confused criminal Jason—exploring a (twee, hilarious, frozen-yogurt-filled) afterlife. But for Season 3, they’ve had their minds wiped and have been sent back to Earth as part of an experiment by the divine beings above. Which means the hugely abstract questions the show has toyed with (see: the trolley problem) are going to be dealt with in more concrete, banal, real-life scenarios. It’s the season of praxis.

For a year on Earth, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) has been dating Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a chipper neuroscientist. But the immortal architect Michael (Ted Danson) and the omnipotent helper Janet (D’Arcy Carden) have accidentally informed Chidi of the afterlife’s nature, a revelation that—by inevitably compromising his motives for acting morally—will consign him to eventual hell.

What’s worse is that as a (sometimes) strict deontologist, Chidi tries to never ever lie. Which means that at some point, he’d likely have to inform his girlfriend of his arcane knowledge. Which would mean she’d also be damned for eternity. Which means he should break up with her before that happens.

If you’re not following that setup fully, that’s fine. Nor do you really need to understand how Janet builds Chidi a simulator machine so that he can test out various ways of breaking up with Simone. (Janet to Chidi: “I do know everything about you, and Simone, and computer programming, and virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, and the human brain, and everything else!”) The point is that he’s searching for a way to leave his lovely, faultless girlfriend without lying but also without doing damage. “I just wish I could end things in a way that I knew wouldn’t hurt her,” he says.

What unfolds is basically an index of breakup strategies. The first among them would seem to be the most modern. “You need to just ghost her,” Eleanor advises. “Disappear. Block her number.”

Ghosting—that’s possibly the No. 1 topic of horror stories about dating in the social-media/Tinder age, even though simply dropping out of someone’s life has always been an option. Some folks have made the case that going silent can be a healthy choice, but it’s clear it causes a special kind of pain. “For many people ghosting can result in feelings of being disrespected, used, and disposable,” wrote the psychologist Jennice Vilhauer in a 2015 Psychology Today article. She added that “ghosting is the ultimate use of the silent treatment, a tactic that has often been viewed by mental-health professionals as a form of emotional cruelty.”

It makes sense that Eleanor, who generally is struggling to not be selfish, suggests ghosting first. “I’ve done that to dozens of people, and all of them got over it,” she says. Janet—who, remember, knows everything about everyone—corrects her: “Actually, none of your exes have ever gotten over you.”

In the VR machine, Chidi first tries out the most straightforward thing: the full truth, or at least as much of it as he can say. “Simone, this has been the best year of my life because of you,” he tells his simulacrum girlfriend in a simulacrum café. “Unfortunately, I have come to learn some information, and it means that we have to end this relationship.” She’s horrified and demands to know the “information.” Chidi refuses. “You’ve either gone crazy or you’re too much of a coward to tell me how you feel,” pseudo-Simone says bitterly. “Which is it?”

From there, the gang runs through a variety of goodbye strategies. Eleanor suggests that Chidi say he’s gay; Chidi won’t, because it’s untrue. Chidi also tries out legalistic wording (“I don’t technically love you in the same way because of circumstances”), embellished excuses (“I’m dying … We’re all dying slowly when you think about it”), and diversions (he hands over an adorable puppy). None of these seems to make things any less difficult for the virtual Simone. In one scenario, Chidi has Eleanor be the bearer of breakup news on his behalf: an obviously bad idea that’s made worse when a hint of romance sparks between the two women.

Eventually, Chidi must do the deed in real life. “I’ve analyzed the 10 most successful scenarios and compiled the statistically most effective breakup strategy,” he tells Eleanor. But in the non-virtual café, his careful plans meet with the messiness of life. Simone sits in a different spot than he expected, and the wait staff interrupts Chidi’s attempt to let her down gently. Flustered, he blurts it out: “We need to break up! I am breaking up with you! It’s complicated, but it’s happening. Ya dumped!” Simone looks more heartbroken than in any of the computerized scenarios. She just says “Okay” and leaves.

Chidi’s distraught: “What if I ruined her? What if I sent her down the wrong path and she ends up in the Bad Place?” But Eleanor, as wacky as her advice has been up to this point, offers a reality check. “Just talk to her. Breakups never end with both people feeling great,” she says. “But she’s a badass and her world is bigger than your relationship. She’ll recover.”

So it goes: Chidi sits down again with Simone to tell her she’s “amazing” but his “feelings have changed” and for reasons he can’t articulate. “Well, you seem to know what you want, which is rare for you,” Simone says, seeming to begin the process of acceptance. Some awkward banter—the aptness of Simone’s “See you in the next life” freaks Chidi out—eases the tension. “You’re so weird, man,” she says with a shake of her head. “I think maybe this is for the best.”

The internet is full of guides for how to break up ethically, and the advice is usually similar. Don’t ghost, don’t lie, but also don’t tell so much of the truth that it ends up feeling like an attack on the person being broken up with. Though it relied on sci-fi technology and metaphysical strangeness, The Good Place got around to saying much the same thing. It didn’t offer the fantasy of a no-fault, no-hurt farewell. But it did offer the comfort that some plainspokenness and care can keep the situation from being hell.