In Heaven, Apparently, Everything is Fine
Seldom has a TV show met with such widespread acclaim as The Good Place did in its fourth and final season. It “concludes that human experiences are meaningful precisely because of our mortality—and how we treat one another in that finite window is the greatest measure of our lives,” as Hannah Giorgis says in The Atlantic. But Kathryn VanArendonk’s paean at Vulture tops it: “a glorious, straightforward, naked embrace of the essential fact about life we all know. Everything ends, and no one knows for certain what that ending looks like.”
Pretty weighty stuff, for a prime-time sitcom. But that’s been the show’s game for its whole run, to elicit snickers (which it did) while dwelling on the mysteries of life, death, the universe, and everything—with death, probably, at the top of that list. But at its conclusion, The Good Place flubs it. The series finale offers few laughs (granted, it doesn’t seem to be aiming for them), and the answer it gives to the meaning of existence is that it has none, unless you have the option of leaving it on your own terms. Death, then, is what gives significance to life.
The Spiritual Stuff
The show embraces death, not the idea of mortality per se, but suicide. What else can you call it, when, having achieved their own personal versions of equanimity, three of the show’s six main characters walk through a prettily pastoral arch of flowered branches and disperse back into the universe?
The writers gussy it up, giving even quintessential Florida Man Jason the semi-profound statement that he knew it was time to go when he had the feeling that “the air inside my lungs was the same as the air outside my body.” He’s beaten the Madden NFL video game with his dad, Donkey Doug, cheering him on. What else is there to live for? Apparently not his not-a-girl-sort-of-a-database-girlfriend Janet. He gets let off easy, though: “To me, remembering moments with you is the same as living in them,” Janet says before she leaves him to take the final step into oblivion. No guilt, then. She won’t miss him anyway.
Chidi, the professor of moral philosophy, has it harder. He tells Eleanor (his self-described “best eternal girlfriend ever”) that he, too, has experienced that sense of “quietude” that means that though he loves her “completely and utterly,” he has to “go.” That is, he has to leave her, and existence itself. After her teary protest on a (virtual) bridge over the (virtual) Seine, he at first relents. But after four seasons spanning almost infinite time, trailer-trash Eleanor has learned that her point of view does not and cannot define moral rules for everyone.
“I proposed a rule: that Chidis shouldn’t be allowed to leave, because it makes Eleanors sad,” she tells him, but “it’s a selfish rule.” Fair enough. But there’s an obvious converse that the show doesn’t seriously entertain: that Chidis shouldn’t make Eleanors sad, because they want to leave. If the show’s moral point has been that through forming true and selfless connections to others we become not just better people, but the people we’re meant to be, then this failure undercuts it. So much for selflessness. He wants to go, and to heck with anybody else.
On their final evening together, Chidi speaks of his imminent departure as no more than a wave returning to the ocean (“For spiritual stuff, you have to turn to the East,” he says, as though St. John of the Cross never lived). It’s all very poetic, and quasi-Buddhist in a meme-worthy sort of way. Yet he’s not a wave, a collection of water molecules grouped together for a brief time, interacting with other molecules according to simple rules of physics. He’s a person. And so is the show’s protagonist, Eleanor, who against all odds has turned out to be his true soul mate.
A Little Bit Sad
The metaphor doesn’t stand, because water molecules make no choices. They have no moral lives. They don’t become themselves by sacrificing their desires for the sake of others, and they do not love. And, in the end, neither does Chidi, who leaves Eleanor for his vague oceanic oblivion. The only moral rule that The Good Place gives us is that our relationships with others place no burden on our choices. We’re right back to the beginning, to the point that Eleanor disavowed when she let Chidi go: we each are the sole arbiters of our meaning, not just our own but of all existence. There is no outside standard to which we must conform ourselves. There’s no ultimate truth.
Except, perhaps, that killing yourself is a good thing, if that’s what you want to do. “In heaven, everything is fine,” the Lady in the Radiator sang in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. “You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine.” (Side note: the Pixies’ version is especially good.) Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani, almost despite themselves, in the end make it to the honest-to-goodness Good Place. They get there by virtue of the friendship, the love, they’ve built together. When it turns out not to be a place of joy and fulfillment, but one of malaise and tedium, they do what they do and get their heads together to try and fix it. The best they can come up with is Eleanor’s pithy “Every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re going to die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”’
So the door into nothingness appears, to universal adulation, complete with dance party. We’re now free to take everything that made us who we are, all the love and all the striving and all the pain, and chuck it. And everything that we gained because of those who loved us, is ours to chuck. Their love is ours to negate. Your good thing is mine.
“Everything ends,” according to Vulture. There are billions of people on Earth who would beg to differ, who believe that our choices in this life have eternal ramifications beyond our comprehension. The Good Place gives lip service to this idea, but doesn’t take it seriously. For all its toying with Last Things, it provides us no more than a facile, hopeless vision, in which we are all, at bottom, alone.