A thoughtful Good Place finale changed everything. Again.
In its second season, it started to feel like The Good Place could do anything. Years could pass in a blink. The main setting — Michael’s cheerfully corrupt phony Heaven — faded into oblivion. And the season 2 finale set the stage for another series-defining reset.
The scope narrowed to a few key elements: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Eleanor’s conscience, Michael (Ted Danson) as the helper-angel he used to merely pretend to be. The show is timeless enough to be a parable and too funny to ever be preachy. But coming the same week as the State of the Annihilating Union, the Good Place’s finale was a moving piece of television: An attempt to dramatize, in the length of a network sitcom episode, what goodness is, and why it’s so hard to be good, and why it’s important to be good even/especially if you will never be rewarded for your goodness. More importantly, Eleanor spoiled the end of Kangaroo Jack, you’re welcome.
The finale began where last week’s episode left off, with Michael arguing against, well, the entire moral system of Heaven and Hell. In his neighborhood, four dead “bad” people became better. “That’s not supposed to be possible,” Michael noted. Could people improve themselves in the afterlife? And doesn’t that lead to a provocative idea? That, in Michael’s words, “hundreds of millions of people have been wrongfully condemned to an eternity of torture”?
At that point, I figured this year’s Big Twist would be cosmic: That we’d see the whole foundations of the Good/Bad Places fall apart and reform. That might still happen; if season 2 has shown anything, it’s that showrunner Michael Schur and his writers are crafting a multiverse along the margins. But then the Judge and Michael decided on a stopgap solution. Eleanor and the gang would each go their own private Medium Place, awaiting a trial to decide their fate (and the fate of, like, the whole posthumous moral ecosystem).
At that point, I figured that’s where we’d begin in season 3: Each of the main characters trapped in a stunningly appropriate purgatory. What fun to see the sub-Maggie Smith celebrities that would surround Tahani (Jameela Jamil)! And wouldn’t Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the most medium and neutral of people, actually like a Medium Place, trapped perfectly between the spheres of existence?
Again, that might still happen. But this was the point where the finale laser-focused on Eleanor. She didn’t want to spend an untold amount of time alone in her Medium Place, not least because Chidi just kissed her (hot diggity dog!) But the Judge was unsatisfied with their progress. In her words, they only improved themselves because they wanted “moral dessert,” a reward in the Good Place afterlife.
So there was another reboot, but this time even more reboot-ier. Eleanor never died, was rescued from the shopping carts by a mystery man with perfect silver hair. She changed. She became a Clean Energy Crusader. She left her awful job. She ate vegetables. Michael and Janet monitored her progress, ecstatic.
And then life got in the way. It was harder to wake up in the morning with that same brush-with-death energy. She ditched her job to catch a Taylor Swift reggae cover band. She went back to her awful job, which had somehow become more awful, “a Ponzi scheme within a Ponzi scheme.” A year after she escaped death, she found herself all alone at a bar. (Her friend left her there, because her boyfriend’s wife was out of town.)
This was a light, kinetic take on heavy material. Whole seasons of great dramas have focused on the difficulty of self-improvement in the face of daily human drudgery. I’m talking Sopranos season 6, which began with a comatose Tony experiencing his own life-altering purgatory-verse. When he woke up, he tried to be a better person — “Every day is a gift!” — but time passed, and he stopped trying. Pretty bleak, and so maybe the better reference point here is Enlightened, another story of a person activated toward goodness in an indifferent world. In plot terms, of course, what this episode reminded you of most was the final season of Lost, which rebooted the main characters into slightly changed versions of their past lives, and sent them on a long journey towards their own shining Good Place.
At the bar, Eleanor met her own personal Jacob. It was Michael, of course — and it was Ted Danson, back behind the bar, a Cheers reference so spot-on it felt nigh-Biblical. She talked about Kangaroo Jack, and he talked about morality, quoting her own words about conscience back to her. After a long, boozy night, she asked him what she owed on her tab. “The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?”
This codephrase, a reference to T.M. Scanlon’s famous philosophical text, activated something in Eleanor. She looked it up on Google — and found a video of Chidi. The video was three hours, approximately two hours and 59 minutes longer than the experts say a YouTube video should be. But she watched in rapture. “Why choose to be good, if there is no guaranteed reward we can count on?” asked Chidi. “We choose to be good because of our bonds with other people, and our innate desire to treat them with dignity.”
Eleanor flew to Sydney (SCREECH LOST SCREECH) and knocked on Professor Chidi’s door. “Can we talk?” she asked, meeting him again for the first time. “Here we go!” said Michael.
We’ll clearly be spending some time in this rebooted world next season, and I’m intrigued to see how the show defines its parameters. It could be that all four people are in a separate Sideways-verse (though I doubt it), and I guess it’s possible there’s some actual element of time travel (doubt that too) or alternate universes (always fun!). Those ambiguity didn’t bother me, didn’t even feel all that ambiguous, because the emotional through-line of the finale was so earnestly clear. Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani became better people in Hell. Can they become better people on in a place like Earth, which can be pretty hellish on a good day?
This finale was less horrifying than last year’s Bad Place revelation. But it’s just as ambitious, and opens up even more possibilities for the third season. The Good Place is my favorite comedy on television, but even that superlative doesn’t quite capture my love for what Schur and his collaborators have cooked up here. As a fantasy, it makes the current small-screen flood of big-budget genre television look dim, low-ceilinged, always teasing the sort of Big Redefining Twist that Good Place has done five times already. As a work of what I will Chidi-ishly call “moral literature,” it’s cynical and hopeful, an attempt to reimagine all the great philosophies as a sitcom full of people torturing each other toward serenity. And Michael was serving drinks at a place called Sting’s Desert Rosé Wine Bar, the best piece of Sting-related content in this unexpectedly Sting-heavy week.
The Good Place is about people who change, or want to. Slightly-less-vain Tahani reached out to Eleanor in friendship. Jason (Manny Jacinto) used to be the kind of boy who whipped empty spray-paint cans at flamingoes, and he hasn’t done that recently, as far as we know. Janet (D’Arcy Carden) has fallen in love, built a Derek, downloaded untold yottabytes of information. “I’m not a girl,” Janet reminded us. “I’m also not a Janet anymore. I don’t know what I am!”
Like the characters, The Good Place keeps changing. I don’t know what it will be when it returns. I figured season 2 would follow the gang’s comically inept attempts to escape Michael’s clutches, and the show lapped that plot thread by episode 3. You suspect Eleanor and Co. won’t spend the whole season in their Sideways-verse. And the prospect of, like, an existential showdown about the structure of the afterlife sounds like an awesome season finale. So knowing The Good Place, we’ll get there by, what, episode 5? I’ll be waiting patiently for next season. In the meantime, I promise to eat my vegetables.
The Good Place