For all its abundance of wonderment, larger than life set pieces and reboots that left the members of Team Cockroach scrambling through Jeremy Bearimys to stand grounded in each new version of their afterlives, the thesis of The Good Place and it’s empathetic beating heart could most easily be found in its quietest moments. The moments of unflappable friendship, of eternal gratitude and the persistent sought after wisdom of what it means to be human, flaws and all.
Our characters were chock full of those aforementioned flaws, and that’s what made them human (yes, even not-a-girl Janet and fire squid Michael.) They were petty and narcissistic, impulsive and self-involved, greedy and indecisive. They were our team of dumb dumbs who managed to best the broken and crazy rules of the afterlife and because of the failings on earth were able to better instill change in the supposed thereafter, who were able to love and chase impractical impossibilities because they had a world, a family, they cared about who were worthy of all the selflessness and courageous decisions they had to make. They mattered to one another so they mattered to us, making the series finale sting in a way that all but makes up for what the season’s earlier episodes lacked with a farewell that is strikingly poised, familiarly comical and startlingly poignant that doesn’t just ask THE big question of what comes after existence, but the questions that lead up to those final character departures as well. It asks and tries to answer how we process letting people go, how we’re supposed to say goodbye and accept a loss that was inevitable, and how to live and learn and return the gifts of others presence to those who need it. It’s about how one single life can indirectly and directly affect those around them and how that even when a loved one is gone, their mere existence in the universe is enough to enact some semblance of change, to nudge a stranger into a small act of kindness. For all of the shows general silliness and unabashed vibrancy in character and set design, there’s always been an underlying current of melancholy just barely resting beneath the surface, something that’s brought into great focus as we all say a final goodbye to these messy, beautiful and brilliant characters.
As someone with a decently dealt hand of death anxiety, The Good Place found my heart easily, an oddly calming balm of storytelling that allowed us (myself) to wonder about the big questions about what happens after someone’s life has ended, something no one, not even the show in the end, is willing to put a definitive answer on. The Good Place envisioned chances, double and triple chances, to atone for misdoings on earth. It’s pushed soulmate narratives which didn’t always play as strongly as they should but are definitive constants in Mike Shur series (Lesley and Ben and Jake and Amy have better romantic chemistry than Eleanor and Chidi) but increasingly promoted the idea of lifelong, life changing friendships that were just as integral to someone’s growth as romantic ones. Their development was aided by those around them also trying to do better. It soothed anxiety with warmth and wonder – an embrace of a show.
The final message about what the imagined “good place” is was a place for time to simply be. It was meant to be time to learn new skills, see the world in never imagined ways, to contemplate great ideas or even play a video game with your favorite athlete. Time was the essence of the series, the relationships the soul, so of course these two ideas would tether themselves together to create such an immediate impact.
The penultimate episode saw the characters create an exit plan for members of the good place who have decided their time is done and are looking for the relief of a farewell – of potential oblivion-, giving them an archway to walk through when they’ve decided to end their time in paradise. In the finale, this idea is acted upon. First to go is Jason (Manny Jacinto),having accomplished everything he’s wanted and overcome with a sense of total inner peace. It’s an immediate pull at the heartstrings as one of the pack is lost – though we find out he spends about 1000 more Bearimy’s in the forest looking for a necklace meant for Janet (D’Arcy Carden), in a touching ode to how we were introduced to the character as he finally embodies the monk we first knew him as, gifted time to be still. Tahani (Jameela Jamil) next, though she instead follows in Michael’s (Ted Danson) footsteps to become an architect, delivering on a promise to put others before herself. Most heartbreaking is Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who leaves despite his love of Eleanor while she, ultimately, gives her blessing regardless of her heartache, finding in her capacity to love the equally passionate ability to give.
Before Eleanor finally takes that last walk through the gate, a wave cresting before falling back to sea, she pulls some strings to offer Michael the same level of peace and sense of humanity that has been gifted to all of them. He goes to earth, fully human, to live out the rest of his life and all the glorious mundanity that it brings, so that he can go through the process of actually entering the good or bad place on his own.
It’s a genuine, heartfelt end to a show that following it’s superb second season has been messy more often than not in its many attempts to one up themselves. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes – as has been the case in the final season – it’s taken a number of episodes for the show to find its footing. But what’s made The Good Place so consistently engaging hasn’t been the rapid fire plot twists or crazy hijinks but the hearts of the characters leading the charge, bruised and world weary, as they grapple with the uncertainty of the universe and instability of their own urges. Through it’s rough patches, the characters have never lost that allure. For a show that spent so much of its time in the afterlife, the crux of its storytelling has always been in what it means to be alive – to be human and to feel everything and nothing, sometimes all at once. More than anything, it wanted us, the viewers, along with the characters, to chew on what it means to be truly good and the work that comes with it. The Good Place left us on a note of something bittersweet and kind, funny too, as we bid adieu to Eleanor and the gang, as particles of their empathy and reflection scattered, leaving lasting impressions on those left behind. Maybe greater than anything else, Schur was able to demonstrate not what lies beyond death, but what instead follows grief: remembrance, wisdom and some laughter too.