The Good Place finale: Kristen Bell on the emotional 'tough-love ending'
Warning: This story contains plot details from “Whenever You’re Ready,” Thursday’s series finale of The Good Place.
Farewell! Everything is fine. Sparkle on.
The Good Place put the good in goodbye, as NBC’s ambitious, ethics-laced, silly-faced comedy signed off Thursday night with an emotionally and spiritually charged finale that wrapped up four seasons of the Soul Squad’s upside down supercoaster afterlife adventures with satisfaction. While the core characters received fitting happy endings, there was a bittersweet finality to the proceedings. Not just because that’s what finales are supposed to do, but also because The Good Place — led by creator Mike Schur, who wrote and directed the episode — dared to imagine how the universe works once you died. (Sorry, but even paradise wasn’t eternal.) And so Team Cockroach went their separate ways, forever bonded, most of them dissolving into the ether from which they came, a journey complete but continuing on, at least in sparkling spirit.
Last week, reformed demon architect and aspiring human Michael (Ted Danson) and the Soul Squad devised a way to fix the Good Place, which had been stagnating with pleasure zombies, people numbed out by too many hundreds of thousands of years in perpetual bliss. The solution? A door through which souls could walk when they felt that they were ready, bringing a peaceful end to their journey, their energy returned to the universe. This week, several characters began figuratively shouting “Portals!” Jacksonville deejay Jason (Manny Jacinto), who’d found love with human database Janet (D’Arcy Carden), made the leap after the perfect game of Madden; self-consumed socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) had healed her familial wounds and thought she was ready, only to half-reverse course and become an afterlife architect to help other people. Ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) was the next to feel the itch, much to the fear of his soulmate/anarchic anchor/lone wolf-turned-pack leader Eleanor (Kristen Bell). She tried all sorts of international intrigue to get him to stay, but even she knew that true love was about letting go, especially when he turned to Buddhism and the ocean. (“The wave was just… a different way for the water to be, for a little while,” he explained.)
And so Eleanor searched for her own reason to feel complete, first helping the Medium Place resident recluse Mindy St. Clair (Maribeth Monroe) resolve to make human connections and take the afterlife test (to be administered by Tahani). But Eleanor’s true purpose was more appropriately fulfilled after persuading Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph) to transform Michael into the species that had long captured his imagination, sending him back to Earth in human form, bound for a hopeful but uncertain future. Eleanor then bid poignant goodbye to Janet in the forest, the final unknown in front of them, with Eleanor explaining that as a very wise not-robot told her, the true joy is in the mystery. And then she passed through the gate of branches, dissipating into floating particles in the universe. One such glowing particle touched down back on Earth, on the shoulder of a random dude in Arizona, prompting said fellow to remove a letter that he just threw in the trash and make that tiny extra effort to bring it to its rightful owner: Michael. Michael’s final words to his friendly neighbor, “I’ll say this to you, my friend, with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: Take it sleazy,” fulfilling a quotidian wish from season 1 when he listed all the things he’d never get to do as a human.
Let’s brush our teeth with a cat, pour a cup of anti-matter, ride the groovy wave of love, wonder if ghosts are actually racist, and ring up a Bell — Good Place standout Kristen Bell — to glean some insight into the final forkin’ chapter, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. Ever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The time knife really cut both ways on that finale, offering bursts of happiness and satisfaction, but also some brutal, bottom-lining, that’s-the-way-the-system-works sadness. Which concept hit you the hardest: That even in the forever after we wrestle with mortality or endings or the great unknown? That the joy is in the mystery?
KRISTEN BELL: The fact that once you have everything you’re striving so hard to earn, it’s still not enough. That what you need to earn is the acceptance of the complex internal decision to let go. It was so beautiful how they made everybody mush in the Good Place because it’s true. There’s one line that really sums it up. “A vacation is only so fun because it has an ending.” If everything were bliss, would everyone be happy? I don’t think so. Part of the drive and the passion is why it’s the journey, not the destination. And I was very happy with the tough-love ending that happened.
Chidi, man of great indecision, made the most important decision he ever made, and Eleanor heartwrenchingly begged him not to leave. And the capper was that he agreed to stay, although both of them knew it wasn’t cosmically right. Then she used the ethics knowledge she learned from What We Owe Each Other and explained how it was an unfair rule to try to make him stay. Then he heartwrenched some more when he gave the Buddhist waves speech. How many buckets of tears did you all shed while filming? What did you love about that sequence?
Enough buckets to make that Buddhist wave. [Laughter] That paragraph has been ringing in my head since I heard it in August. It is something that I want to say to my kids one day — the idea of us being the wave. It’s an incredible way to explain to someone that you have to let go and become whatever the world wants you to become. The hardest thing for me to shoot was on the [Pont des Arts in Paris] with Will, when I was asking him to stay because Eleanor had been emotionally healthy for so long. That was a bit of a back step and she knew it. But her impulses still brought her to beg him for selfish reasons, which is okay. I’m glad she came to her senses so quickly. And I’m also glad that she came to her senses by reading the works of other people. Human beings learn from stories; she learned from What We Owe to Each Other, and she was able to see the error of her ways. Shooting that scene, pleading with him on the bridge was probably the hardest thing I shot in the whole four years.
Speaking of Paris, you filmed there and in Athens. Are they into The Good Place in Greece and France?
Shockingly, people were saying, “Oh, we watch The Good Place,” which was, like, blowing our minds.
What sticks out to you about those secret shoots?
It felt like a senior trip right before you graduated high school. It was so much fun to go with everyone. We went for seven days. We shot all over in some of those beautiful locations. I think we might be the only people that have ever shot at the Parthenon at sunrise, on the Acropolis. It was breathtaking watching the sunrise come up. There were so many stray cats. I didn’t even know what to do with myself. But it was incredibly, beautifully humbling to feel so insignificant. I loved that feeling. There were so many people who tread on those stones before me. It made me feel oddly like a part of a team. Team Human.
And the man who chose to be human, Michael, therefore chose the path of the most uncertainty, a dream made possible by Eleanor. When Mike Schur told you that this was going to be Eleanor’s ultimate mission before she passed, what was your first reaction?
That was my very favorite part of what he wrote in that final episode. The fact that Eleanor’s final mission is to give a gift to the person that has been there for her through and through, who was her enemy and then her frenemy, and finally one of her closest allies. The fact that she could use her weight with the judge to give him the ultimate gift just made my heart smile. And what made me even more excited was that Mary Steenburgen jumped at the opportunity to play his guitar teacher.
Nick Offerman also made a cameo. [The credits listed Offerman as playing himself.] Was that the Parks’ wink that you were expecting?
The Parks winks have been happening since we started the show, with Adam [Scott, who starred on Parks as Ben Wyatt and guest-starred on The Good Place as Trevor]. There are tidbits all around the show, Easter eggs, but that was a real nice cherry on the cake that Nick came in and did that. And by the way, that speaks to some evidence as to when we say the show was just a delicious experience. Maya [Rudolph] and Nick don’t just come back and do jobs for anyone. They come back to the world that Mike Schur creates because he hires wonderful people and he’s great to work for.
When Eleanor walks through the door of branches, we see her dissolve into sparkling particles, returned to the universe. One particle falls to Earth, prompting a man to bring that letter to its rightful owner: Michael. Are the many particles of the departed souls sprinkling down on people, sparking goodwill in an act of divine intervention?
I think everybody’s particles sprinkle down. The way they reevaluated how to get into the Good Place with these manufactured tests that once you got to the Good Place, you were allowed to celebrate being there as long as you want. Then you are allowed to end it. Then you become these tiny, sparkly particles that rain down on the people on Earth to give them an extra boost. Those are the tiny voices inside your head that say, “Don’t throw that person’s mail away. Just walk to their door. It takes two seconds and it probably will make their day.” I would love to believe that that’s what happens. That’s such a beautiful way of thinking about it. Because we are all one, right? We’re all part of each other. Whether we want to believe it or not. There’s something that connects us all. I would love to believe that people who die become sparkly particles that make the voices inside our head give us good guidance.
It softens the sadness that when these characters pass on, they’re ending their journey, but the memory lives on. The story has a definitive ending; the story goes on.
Yes, it’s a beautiful example of paying it forward. You didn’t just walk through the door, you became something that helped someone else. And the major lesson here is you can be something that helps someone else your entire life if you choose to.
Who has the Chidi calendar? I feel like it should be you.
No, you know what? I’ll give you one more appropriate try. It’s Will’s girlfriend. I was so proud of him because he doesn’t even like to talk about the fact that he’s ever taken his shirt off. But I’m on Team Will Take Your Shirt Off, and so is his girlfriend. He took it home and gave it to Ali, his wonderful girlfriend who’s also an actress, which is an amazing choice. That’s where the calendar should live.
Your most memorable moment sipping margaritas with D’Arcy in the Redwoods?
That she could not stop crying. We were both crying a lot, but she was definitely crying more than me. And when someone cries more than me, I’m a little taken aback. Because normally I have that title. But D’Arcy, this ending really hit her hard. And Janet the robot cried quite a bit in the finale, which I love so much.
As you become untethered from the physical show, how will The Good Place continue to manifest in your essence?
Ooh. I am taking some time to look inward, to be present for my family. I will keep up the friendships with these people and the crew. I know where all the camera guys have landed and on what shows. I know where the grips have landed. These friendships will be forever. As far as my life, I am hoping to affect people in a little bit more personal, intimate way. I think I’m going to take a step back from shooting anything for a while, be there for my kids, be there for my husband, do some charity work and affect the people directly around me.
So, fair to say that your points went up while making this show?
I certainly hope so. But look, I’m a very competitive game player, so don’t you worry — I’ll get them much, much higher.
For much more from creator Mike Schur on four seasons of The Good Place, head over here.