“It’s not even a place, really. It’s just having enough time with the people you love.”
Following his time working on Saturday Night Live and The Office and creating Parks and Recreation for NBC (coupled with his effective stewardship on Fox with Dan Goor’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Netflix with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None), the peacock network provided Michael Schur with a blank check. On August 13, 2015, it took only a pitch from Schur to NBC executives to receive a green light for a full order of thirteen episodes for a series that hadn’t even devised a pilot yet. Five years later, considering the immense critical and commercial success (and fan devotion) of The Good Place, it’s a safe bet to trust in Schur’s creative talents. Consumed by the philosophical treatise, What We Owe to Each Other by T.M. Scanlon, Schur’s next comedy was to be set in the afterlife with a creative exploration about philosophical questions and what it means to be a good person. It was an ambitious concept for a network comedy, but Schur saw his vision through on NBC with four seasons chronicling the story he sought from September 2016 to January 2020. The Good Place was about the “Good Place,” an afterlife resembling heaven, but modeled after no specific religion. There, the immortal architect of the “Good Place” neighborhood, Michael (Ted Danson), invited four new residents, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), to experience the delights of the afterlife. Together, the group (along with A.I./all-knowing not-a-girl, Janet (D’Arcy Carden)) navigated a winding road of immaculate storytelling twists that were not necessarily anticipated from the series’ original conceit. Yet, they made The Good Place one of the most special series ever created, especially as it aired during the tenure of an American presidential administration that was hardly synonymous with “good.”
(Spoilers for The Good Place are woven into this essay. Jeremy Bearimy be damned, every episode has spoilers here. There are also spoilers for Lost, Parks and Recreation, Community, The Office, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So if you think any of that might bother you, maybe don’t venture forward. I mean they’re minor spoilers, so maybe not. Oh, jeez. Now, I’m getting a stomachache.)
“I don’t think I can change what I believe just like that!” Chidi protests after Eleanor decides she’s a moral particularist while they’re in the Bad Place during the middle of season two’s “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent.” To this, Eleanor observers their “bonkers situation” and counters, “And I didn’t think I would ever be at a cocktail party in literal Hell, lecturing my teacher/ex-lover about moral particularism, but life throws you curveballs, bro!” The Good Place was always deft at undercutting its own absurdity in moments like these, while still ensuring that nuggets of philosophy were translated to the screen. The series itself was abundantly insane, but in this particular moment, what mattered more than Hell and Jonathan Dancy’s philosophical argument was the fact that they were elements in a conversation between Chidi and Eleanor. We cared about them most of all.
The characters always mattered most on The Good Place. Yes, the plot was a main draw of the show (as it wound its way through ethereal realms and mortal plains) and the story was riveting at every turn, but they were both driven by the characters themselves. On The Good Place, we didn’t just care about what happened; we cared about what happened specifically to the merry quartet of do-gooders/do-badders and the demon and not-a-girl in charge. We loved them most of all, especially when they learned to grow out of the tropes from their own formulas.
Eleanor Shellstrop was a heartless, selfish “Arizona dirtbag” with a love of Ariana Grande and a penchant for going out of her way to only ever care about herself. Over time, though, we learn that Eleanor grew up in an environment that was entirely devoid of love. Aware of her own personal shortcomings, Eleanor decided to pursue the simple route of shoving her feelings away from the forefront of her mind, reflecting the lack of love in the interactions and relationships she maintained with others. When the group needs her to prove that she’s learned and grown, though, she becomes more than a dirtbag. She rises to the occasion and accesses her emotional, ethical side, which was within her all along.
Chidi Anagonye was a worldly academic and moral philosophy professor from Senegal with debilitating anxiety and agony over not knowing every possible outcome of his decisions. As a result, he became obnoxiously indecisive, indirectly inflicting more harm across the world as a result of his own desire to only make the right choice one hundred percent of the time. Eventually, Chidi learns to let go of his need to manipulate the world to his own impossible standards of perfection and give himself over to the pandemonium of humanity.
Tahani Al-Jamil was a superficial, British mega-philanthropist who was corruptly motivated to bring good and charity into the world because of her own. Always trying to prove herself, Tahani could never allow a topic of discussion to pass by without relating it to her own life. Whether it was acknowledging that Maggie Smith and Big Ben (yes, the clock) were her godparents or that Ben Affleck ignored her advice to avoid comic book films, Tahani always felt a burning need to prove herself. But over time, as Tahani began to understand the motivations of others, she learned that she was not alone in her insecurity.
And, of course, Jason Mendoza was the stupid, puppy-like moral scourge upon Jacksonville, Florida. Whenever he had a problem, he’d introduce a new problem by throwing a Molotov cocktail. Whenever it was Sunday, he’d tune into the Jaguars game (his obsession with Blake Bortles leads to an excellent transporting moment when Jason exclaims, “Portals!”). Whenever he was hungry, he’d eat at Stupid Nick’s Wing Dump. By the end of The Good Place, Jason was still the type of person who’d do an underwater handstand immediately after teasing his friends about whether his mom died from cancer or a crocodile (one is “The Big C”). With a little more effort to love those around him, Jason cemented his status as a big-hearted hip hop dancer/disc jockey with a one percent increase in self-awareness and how his actions impact others.
Each of these characters embraced the gentle sensibility of a classic Michael Schur comedy. His Jerry Seinfeld-esque quirks manifest across the series, allowing The Good Place to become (at one percent, at least) an ongoing illustration of what Schur and his writers despised. Frozen yogurt, clam chowder, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” gift shops, the Transformers franchise, hot fruit, the United States. Each of these are ribbed at some point on The Good Place, as well as social irks like waiters saying, “I guess you hated it” when clearing an empty plate or workers flossing in an open-plan workspace (both are commemorated in the Museum of Human Misery). And, of course, what would a Schur comedy be without a barrage of sports references, from “Remain loyal to Cleveland Browns” netting humans 53.83 Good Place points to Jason worshipping a flurry of Jaguars quarterbacks, from Bortles to Nick Foles to Gardner Minshew.
Through these foibles and light, specific jokes, Schur found the methodology through which he could deliver themes of existentialism, philosophy, and mortality without ever stooping to lectures or sermons for his audience. The serialized narrative of The Good Place took a cue from Lost’s entire series and The Office’s “Casino Night” by delivering on twists and plot developments, seemingly in each episode, with a “figure it out later” mentality. Sometimes, these twists reflected the Trojan horse of academia through humor (as we see in “The Trolley Problem,” which confronts Chidi with a real depiction of two trolley tracks capable of murdering someone). Other times, they only revealed themselves to us in hindsight, as we learned that puppies being kicked into the sun and a Madden-obsessed degenerate posing as a monk were qualities that could only belong in the Bad Place.
After all, the greatest twist The Good Place ever pulled off came in the season one finale, “Michael’s Gambit.” Up until this point, Danson had precious little to do in his portrayal of Michael, an affable but unremarkable deity. Yet, when Eleanor looks directly to her friends and remarks, “This is the bad place!” it seems like a trite explanation that couldn’t possibly track. However, a devilish cackle from Danson suggests that she’s right; the whole first season, they were in the Bad Place. From then on, Danson had plenty to do as Michael because the creative team would never dare waste the talents of a first-ballot television Hall of Famer. Once this twist unfurled, The Good Place could be absolutely anything it wanted to be. It’s important we remember how mind-boggling it was when it first aired.
Michael was so much more than just a bland, well-meaning architect who became a nefarious demon, though. He also pivoted away from being a demon and instead embodied the personality of a goofball and an aspiring songwriter, who loved his friends (the people he initially tried to torture) and would do absolutely anything for them. I’m still bewildered and awed when I think of how The Good Place not only managed to pull off a redemption arc for a literal demon, but they provided plenty of character development and growth within him so that it never felt like Michael reversed his principles to save himself. He did it because he, too, became a better being for having known Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason.
Michael’s not the only immortal entity on The Good Place who experiences remarkable character development, though. The series’ main antagonist/devil-equivalent, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), develops from a self-proclaimed “naughty bitch” who lights cannons filled with puppies to a reluctant participant and purveyor of a new Good Place points system that prevents wrongful eternal torture. (Jackson’s flustered delivery of “Shut up, Glenn!” when trying to not sound sinister in the series finale encapsulates the perfect bridge between Shawn’s cruelty and his attempts for betterment.) The only demon from the Bad Place who seems to not reform himself is Trevor (Adam Scott), a character so over-the-top in his cruelty that he almost comes from Community’s Darkest Timeline.
And, of course, there is also astounding character development in Janet, who is initially posited as an unfeeling, unbiased A.I. type system. By the end of the show, even the “Bad Place” version of Janet (accompanied with a “Disco Janet”) decides to side with the “Soul Squad” (the team name Michael hosts for his four humans) in an attempt to rescue the fates of those on Earth. Over time, we see Janet develop genuine feelings of affection for Jason and evolve past the point of a simple Q&A device to become an entity capable of creating life herself (Janet babies!). For many of the show’s ambitious plot points, Janet is the key character, proving that change isn’t just possible in the afterlife; it’s guaranteed. (Plus, Carden is aces in the role with her thumbs-up glee in the line, “I’m luggage!” and the apparent clumsiness as she pretends to be a Bad Janet with the insult, “You… butt ass.” Casting director Allison Jones is an all-time television MVP, but her casting of The Good Place was impeccable and impossibly good-looking.)
This phenomenal character development unfolded over four seasons alongside the tight narrative laid out by Michael Schur. Not a single element introduced to The Good Place was forgotten along the way. Every story beat, every character introduction; they were all a part of the larger narrative constructed. Janet’s development cascades throughout “Janet(s)” in season three, which depicts an all-time acting showcase from Carden (doing impressions of her fellow cast mates). The romantic relationships ebb and flow with grand kisses between Chidi and Eleanor and demoralizing arguments between them, as well. Curious outliers to the Good Place system, like heaven-obsessive Doug Forcett (Noah Garfinkel and Michael McKean) and “Medium Place” resident Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe), received plenty of attention in episodes devoted to them and the interesting questions their mere presence brought to the series, in “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By” and “Mindy St. Claire,” respectively.
In season two, we learn that trying to change is what matters most as Michael burns through hundreds of subsequent experiments (including one Jason figures out the Bad Place twist within, leading to a new low for Michael). In season three, we learn that help is other people (also emphasized by Schur in an interview with Jen Chaney of Vulture) as the Soul Squad attempts to help family members and friends, like Tahani’s sister, Kamilah (Rebecca Hazlewood), and Jason’s father, Donkey Doug (Mitch Narito). In season four, we see the Judge (Maya Rudolph) permit a redux of Michael’s initial experiment to see if four new participants could improve just as the original four did (resulting in a powerful almost-apology from the biggest douche of the four, Brent (Ben Koldyke), as the clock runs out).
We see Derek (Jason Mantzoukas), a Janet baby, transition from a Scrabble tile-drinking playboy to an existential nexus of reality (“The moment of Derek’s creation and the inevitable heat death of the universe are now inexorably the same”). We see learning and funerals and bonds between not-robots and demons and clues that Michael has teamed up with the Soul Squad. On The Good Place, we saw everything Schur and company had on their minds, as if The Good Place being the last stand of inventive network television (with NBC leading the charge, of course) is equivalent to the series itself serving as Schur’s last stand of comedy, desperate to convey everything he is most concerned about in thrilling plot burn-throughs, narrative tightness, and well-structured development of themes and spirit. It’s a perfectly realized creative vision and we shouldn’t take for granted how superb it was that the creative team pulled it off for four magical seasons.
Of course, all of this top-notch craft came through concepts of eternity, illustrating how even more challenging the proposition of a series based in the afterlife was. Yet, the initial conceit of the show speaks directly to this problem of eternity in the first place. When Michael initially improvises a new, more creative take on how to torture humans, it’s immediately evident that the system, as the immortal beings devised it, doesn’t actually work. (The plan is to use the four humans to prey upon their worst traits and insecurities to drive them batty.) If something lasts forever with no end, then what meaning is there in maintaining the status quo? Michael does not immediately reconcile this contradiction, as he sees his unique torture plan to be a means of promotion. If he has to get creative, why should he be in charge of torture at all? (Perhaps, the idea of “trying something a little different” was also on Schur’s mind when he upended the typical tropes of his sitcoms in favor of this high-concept follow-up to Parks and Rec.)
As Eleanor tells him in “Michael’s Gambit,” the only thing he succeeded in doing was “bringing them all together.” While Michael’s plan did technically work, as the four humans drove each other nuts, he didn’t account for the human variables. He didn’t predict that Eleanor would confess to not actually belonging to the Good Place, he didn’t predict that Chidi would actually be effective in teaching ethics (and who among us could have predicted he’d eventually save the entire universe from damnation, at that?), and he didn’t predict that Jason would actually fall in love with Janet — and that she’d fall right back. For all his demonic expertise, it was the human will to take care of one another that superseded his goals. All it took was one note (“Eleanor — find Chidi”) to upend his experiment again and again and again. It’s not as easy to torture people when they’re allowed to have thoughts beyond, “Oh dear god, let these butthole spiders stop.”
For National Novel Writing Month back in November 2015, I wrote a short story with a conclusion that ended in a traditional concept of the afterlife. One of the lines I wrote in this piece when the main character entered the afterlife was, “He was really glad heaven hadn’t taken his humanity away.” Granted, such a sentiment is made worthless by the exceptional precision with which The Good Place analyzed the same thought, but I’m still proud to share thematic interests with the craftspeople behind the NBC comedy. No wonder it speaks to me so deeply.
That’s exactly true for how the characters on The Good Place operated, though. Throughout the afterlife, they were always displaying humanity. In “Michael’s Gambit,” for example, “Real Eleanor” (Tiya Sircar, later revealed to be playing Vicky) and Bambadjan (Bambadjan Bamba) attempt to extend the torture of two of the four characters in question having to be sent to the Bad Place, rather than stay in the “Good Place.” (They’re both demons posing as virtuous residents.) However, Eleanor confidently dismisses them when she realizes they’re already in the Bad Place. This isn’t necessarily something she would’ve realized during her time on Earth, but in the afterlife, she grew cleverer, more ethical, and more inclined to self-sacrifice. The mere fact that they argued about who should be sent to the Bad Place at all is a testament to their rugged humanity over the faux-utopian sense of selecting those considered “objectively good.” And, of course, Chidi winds up with a stomachache in the same sequence. What kind of heaven would allow stomachaches?
Over the duration of the series, The Good Place had plenty of fun with what its conception of the afterlife did allow. Todd (Joe Mande), a magma rock monster, worked in the offices of the Bad Place, which also contained a station with two coffee pots (“Black is regular. Orange is antimatter”). The show’s IHOP was an acronym for the Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes (the pancakes eat you). Timothy Olyphant could even be conjured at a moment’s notice! Many of these effects were generated magnificently by David Niednagel, the visual effects supervisor on The Good Place, but they also contributed to strong rooting of the show in outlandish concepts akin to dragons on Westworld and foot statues on Lost. After all, if the show was going to be fun and fantastical, it only made sense to include world-building allusions and jokes that could only be made in a supernatural series. Every time a character was forced to utter “fork” instead of “fuck,” we were reminded of the wholly unique series setting.
At first, I was skeptical about The Good Place, since it aired at a time when I was generally disinterested in the direction of both network television and NBC. But who can resist the names of Schur, Bell, and Danson? I’m beyond grateful that I gave the show a chance during its first season, finding time to watch each episode on the Fridays after they aired during the brief windows of time I had between two college classes. Each twist in that first season left the viewing population entirely uncertain as to the show’s direction, but it was always thrilling and always trustworthy. When you trust a television creator to take you on a worthwhile, fulfilling journey of a story, it’s the best feeling. To then take that show on your own journey through life, through apartment living in different states, through uncertainty in your own day-to-day existence? That’s even more special.
The most uncertain I ever felt about the direction of the series came in the aforementioned installment, “Rhonda, Diana, Jake, and Trent.” The MacGuffin-based driving force of this episode is that the characters have to infiltrate the Bad Place to obtain pins permitting them safe travel to the all-knowing judge of matters of life. In this episode, everything that’s amazing about The Good Place is present. Schur’s attention to the infuriating minutiae of everyday sociology, Chidi’s restrained anguish at having to lie and maintain his composure, Eleanor’s evocation of moral particularism. (Though, The Good Place’s morality was still stuck in the idea of saving these four characters, in particular. Over time, the “ethical consumption” debacle would be stretched across all beings.) Even the unexpected value Jason brings to the table is present in the installment, as he advocates for “sick Taco Bell refs” and convinces demons that they belong among them by tapping their balls. (Jason’s greatest contribution to the group is likely in “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy” when he essentially scum reads to determine which Janet is the real Janet.)
This episode even culminates in Michael’s masterstroke of demon development, as he reveals to Eleanor that he’s learned the solution to “the trolley problem” by sacrificing himself to the figures of the Bad Place and shoving Eleanor through the portal to the judge’s chambers. It’s a distillation of everything we loved about The Good Place, but it also leaves us in a complete place of unknowing precariousness. Yes, the four humans have made it to the judge, but they no longer have Michael to help them. Instead, he’s about to face the wrath of Bad Place torture devices he assisted in developing. We have no idea where the story is headed from here, but two seasons in, there’s no reason not to trust Schur. It’s the best feeling.
Over the next two episodes to close out season two, “The Burrito” and “Somewhere Else,” we get to know Rudolph’s judge a little bit better. The Good Place was always deft at individualizing characters through specific hobbies and interests, like Jeff (Mike O’Malley), the River Styx-equivalent of the boundaries between Earth and the afterlife, who loved frogs and all things frogs, and Vicky, who slid more into a thespian role over the series, as well as adding “ah” to the end of every over-enunciated word she spoke (i.e., “disgusting-ah”). But the judge is the perfect marriage between Rudolph’s exaggerated gesticulation and unconventional pronunciations (the best way to phonetically transcribe how she says, “Looney Tunes,” is “Leweyeney tewuyns”) and the writers’ need to make her obsessed with prestige television series like The Leftovers and Justified.
The judge is a fun character, but also profoundly threatening, as she maintains the power to reset humanity with the click of a simple button. It’s what makes Eleanor’s insistence that a “medium place” is an unjust solution to their plights — due to the fact that the Soul Squad would be apart — so audacious. To challenge the judge’s planned solutions with the answer that the way forward is together is incredibly risky, especially when the judge’s entire existence has been unprovoked to that point. We do trust the ride, though, and, fortunately, the judge is a fair one (as judges should be). When Michael arrives after navigating the Bad Place, he convinces the judge to give the characters a “push in the right direction,” betting a massive gamble on the potential success of reverting the original deaths and timelines of the characters at the outset of the series.
As Michael and the judge discuss this possibility, the humans are confused (as we are, too, since The Good Place always let characters realize the twists they faced before we were privy to them), but it’s also their only hope at reforming the Good Place and proving that it’s impossible to be intrinsically good when (essentially) capitalism has disrupted everything. They have one shot at dodging eternal torture, but just as we trust in Schur, the characters must trust in Michael.
Just as the flaw in the points system of the afterlife is humanity (and how messy it can be to buy one tomato without knowing the effects of climate change, labor laws, and exploitation), the solution is also in humanity and in acknowledging the fundamental flaw of the system is that it doesn’t account for the fact that people still have the capacity to improve in the afterlife. It’s a leap of faith (or, as Chidi proclaims when trusting Michael’s clues in “Leap to Faith,” a “leap into faith”) that Michael bets a simple rescue of them from death would set them on the same path of redemption they found in the afterlife.
In “Somewhere Else,” Michael rescues each of the Soul Squad from their respective, characteristic deaths. Eleanor is saved from a careening line of shopping carts after she insulted a climate advocate, Chidi is pushed from a falling air conditioner after his bout of indecisiveness, Tahani is hurried away from a falling ice sculpture, and Jason is released from a suffocating stunt safe. From there, we know that each of the four is given a second chance at life (and they do eventually come back together), but for the rest of the season two finale, we follow only Eleanor.
The judge believes that Eleanor only improved in the fake Good Place because she believed that moral dessert, a reward for acting virtuously, was waiting for her on the other side of her improvement. When Michael sees this same moral dessert discouragement unfold against Eleanor on Earth (her friends even laugh at her for trying to be good instead of trying to have fun), he bends the rules to give her an extra push in the right direction (and who cares about decorum? Shawn frequently and flippantly broke the rules in their afterlife shenanigans). This comes in the form of seeing Ted Danson behind a bar. (I know! His tossing of a bar rag over his shoulder is fantastic!)
The meta television implementation of Ted Danson behind a bar is an instantly comforting image to any viewer, but for Eleanor, it’s more unknowingly comforting. (I think of Ben Affleck having no idea that Gone Girl is partially a story of his public image.) One has the sense that she feels a connection between her and Michael, even if she can think of no earthly reason why that would be the case (she’s too busy explaining the plot of Kangaroo Jack). For her, Michael is more than just a bartender to confide in, even if she doesn’t fully understand that. He tells her a story about a “friend” he once had who was a good person when she tried to be, but it was important that she continued trying. As a relay of the information that trying to be better is what counts most, this hint is the best Michael can do without outright exposing that he’s an immortal being to her. Instead, he drops the phrase, “what we owe to each other,” leading Eleanor to Google the words, find a speech from Chidi, and fly on Qantas to meet with him. She’s still a flawed human being, but she hears a tiny voice in the back of her mind — and that’s progress enough.
Episodes like these proved that The Good Place could be as dense as any literary, Dickensian drama on television. While annotating seven episodes, I practically wrote notes for two hours straight! So much was packed into every frame of the twenty-one minute run times (always too short for those Friday afternoon Hulu viewings, which I’m getting nostalgically teary over already) that it was hard to discern what exactly I did want to write about. (Not to mention, The Good Place experience was also buoyed by a podcast, hosted by Jackson, that unpacked each episode with input from the show’s staff and the question of “What’s good?”)
At the core of the series, though, The Good Place understood the importance of being funny, too, just as series like Lost, The Wire, and Mad Men knew that jokes were important antidotes to their heavy plots. The Good Place itself, though, was an antidote to the dour, cynical bends of television, providing sweetness, optimism, hopefulness, silliness, and Kristen Bell to audiences every week. (What’s a more wholesome joke mined from a horrific premise than Shawn saying that getting humans to pull each other’s teeth has no comparable analogy?)
The Good Place could always slide between goofiness and sincerity with ease, thanks in large part to the writers on the series (like Demi Adejuyigbe, Jen Statsky, Alan Yang, and Aisha Muharrar, who were all capable of doing the same), who wanted to come up with the best joke and the most profound sentiments at every turn. In any episode of The Good Place, a horse abomination from Pictionary could come to life at the same time that a character could experience a major emotional breakthrough. Yet, even though Jason observed “possession of a non-fried vegetable” as a felony in Jacksonville and William Shakespeare was tortured with a summary of the Entourage movie, the comedy was never second best on the show. It was 1A to the 1B of sentimentality and the 1C of philosophy.
The balance between absurdity and profundity is perfect in season three’s penultimate episode, “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife.” As the characters enter the IHOP, Tahani is warned not touch the “Niednagel,” a slug-esque figure draped over her neck with a persistent threat of collapsing her into madness — and Chidi goes for a ride on the time-knife! (Harper’s freak-outs were always fantastic, like when he states, “As I was saying, before, you know, I saw THE TIME-KNIFE?!” Earlier in season three, it’s equally amusing when his brain breaks at the conception of time being “Jeremy Bearimy” and he stirs a chili pot full of Peeps instead of trying to fathom it.
But in addition to this, “Chidi Sees the Time-Knife” also insists that one cannot judge humans without experiencing what they go through. Arriving on Earth, the judge realizes that, on Earth, she’s considered black, which brings an entire host of problems that Michael and Shawn wouldn’t experience if they swapped positions with her. She returns and explains that Earth is “hot and crowded,” but also “cold and lonely.” (The inclusion of Chick-fil-A’s moral depravity also reminds me of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “Moo Moo” episode, which used humor to tackle a vitally pertinent topic in the world today.) In the afterlife, these complicated conditions are eliminated and the Soul Squad was allowed to better themselves without needing to worry about race or money or capitalism or time or obligations. Only by spending time on Earth can the judge understand that. It’s a remarkable statement to make in an episode that also serves as one of the series’ funniest.
“Chidi Sees the Time-Knife” concludes with Michael, tasked with designing a new experiment to evaluate humans’ capacities to change, suffering an impenetrable anxiety attack (further blurring the line between human and demon) over the possibility that he could fail his friends. By this point at the end of season three, though, he’s no longer alone. He has the support, aid, and concern of his friends, who are better equipped to manage the unpredictable pandemonium of being a human. The best way forward to save the souls of the universe is to combine the disparate and overlapping talents of mortal and immortal entities.
Plus, by this point, Eleanor was effectively developed (through the series’ plan of chapters to tell the story) enough to take on a joint leadership role with Michael because she was invested in more than just punching her ticket to the Good Place. Now, with one season to go, she was ready to help others who might currently be in the same position in which she started. Likewise, season three ends with Chidi developed enough to make the decision (a firm one, at that) to remove himself from the experiment out of fear that he would jeopardize it, knowing that Shawn selected his earthbound girlfriend, Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), as one of the redux participants.
It doesn’t last forever, fortunately. In the ninth episode of season four, “The Answer,” Chidi is woken back up with his memories restored to help the Soul Squad come up with an entirely new system of the afterlife in, like, an hour. This particular episode, though, is a Chidi showcase through and through, as it pauses the proceedings of the season for an entire episode to trace the character journey Chidi experiences through his life. We see flashbacks from before Chidi’s death, but we also see flashbacks from various episodes of the afterlife-set series, guiding us down new corridors to recontextualize episodes that came before.
At the time of its release, I remember a few fans were frustrated at The Good Place sacrificing one of its final episodes for a character study when so much still needed to be resolved (just as they were when season three took a detour to unpack the origin stories and upbringings of the main foursome), but they missed the point of how vital these angles of character development were. Without these moments to color in our own perceptions, there’d be no point to the eventual pay-offs of the series. The characters had to come first on The Good Place and, fortunately, they always did.
“The Answer” is one of the series’ best and yet, in the present timeline, it covers roughly two minutes of actual story progression? The rest takes place just in Chidi’s memories, but because of how richly developed his character was, it was more than worthwhile to spend so much time in his mind. His gloriously indecisive mind.
“Does every question have an answer?” is the essential question of “The Answer” as Chidi applies the belief that every question does have an answer to every occurrence of his life. For a dissertation, he pens a 3,600 page paper (this one’s getting there). To save his parents from divorce, he prepares an hour-long presentation from an elementary school age. While there’s some merit to such tenacity, it’s ultimately too much to expect of any tiny eight year old, who deserved to just be a normal kid. As frustrating as it is for Chidi to accept that philosophy is built on concepts inherently unknowable and unverified.
His loved ones implore him to understand that “reason is a slave to the passions.” His professor remarks that “the greatest philosophical works are emotional.” Philosophy is not meant to have all the answers; it’s inexplicable and uncertain, just like life. While Chidi never fully processes this understanding in his mortal life and he fails for much of the afterlife to unpack it, eventually he does accept the chaos of existence by realizing that the answer is inherently pandemonium in “The Answer.” The point system, for example, is the most logical construction of the afterlife, but it completely whiffed. Humanity is what managed to change and improve it. Chidi’s answers to his most profound questions, likewise, are not logical and they’re not 3,600 pages long. They’re the ones he knows in an instant, the ones he can finally let go of preparing a pros and cons list (that could run the course of three notebooks) for, the ones that speak closest to his humanity, rather than his desire for logic and firmness.
“What a time to learn,” Chidi tells Michael, choked up, when he finally unlocks the answer to his own anxieties that plagued his entire life. The reason his eyes fill with tears is because he’s preparing to sacrifice his own memories for the good of the Soul Squad’s last chance at an experiment run-through. But before he gave himself over to the mind-wipe, he spoke with Michael (Danson and Harper are flawless in this scene from “The Answer”) about whether or not soulmates exist.
He and Eleanor managed to find one another hundreds of times, on multiple planes of reality, even if it didn’t always seem like their relationship was a fairy tale. Yet, he’s still not convinced that they’re necessarily “soulmates.” At least, not in the traditional definition of the term. “Chidi, in all honesty, I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” Michael confesses, a little bit upset with himself for being unable to provide Chidi with the answer he seeks. Together, they come to the understanding that, even though Michael specifically selected the four of them for his initial experiment, it wasn’t some lucky act of chance that he ended up finding two actual soulmates. Michael could’ve picked anyone and romance would have had a chance of sparking. But Chidi and Eleanor made it with each other because if soulmates are real, then they’re not found; they’re made. It’s not some rational calculation. Love is based on a feeling and nothing more. No computer can account for a feeling in its models (just ask Nate Silver). And so, Chidi finds the answer he’s looking for. Not only is there no answer, but if there was, it wouldn’t be found with debate. It would be found with an innate sensation.
So it was that Chidi penned his best writing (and also his shortest) when he wrote a note for Janet to hold onto that read, “There is no answer. But Eleanor is the answer.” It’s all about a feeling — the same feeling that prompted both Eleanor and Chidi to leave notes regarding one another with Janet, across seasons! Pathos over logos! It’s trust and it’s the fact that they need each other, but it’s also love.
Eleanor (Bell is so funny when she flashes him finger guns and asks if he can do his “Chidi thing” to save the universe) helps Chidi find his confident self when he’s around her, from kissing her (“Hot diggety dog!”) to donning a sexy mailman costume for her to throwing his romance with her to the universe to decide. Venturing further, he finds advice about failure from Tahani and chaos from Jason (who says, “Here’s the thing about stuff,” when regaling the man he equates to a high school principal or “an owl that graduated from college”), bettering himself by factoring in the opinions of others to his calculations and growing closer to putting his hands in his pockets with a rare Anagonye contentment.
Likewise, Chidi unlocks the emotions, ethics, and the capacity to care that’s always been within her. If they’re together, they’re content in the Good Place (especially considering the series pulled off, like, four believable love arcs between them), complementing one another’s best and faults. She warms to philosophy, he leans to sex, and together, they develop through the afterlife.
Together, with the additional efforts of Tahani and Jason, Chidi and Eleanor rise to become the people equipped to save us all. One is just a “girl from Arizona.” One was once just a baby, who endured a stomachache when his parents asked if he liked his name. Seeing those early origins of the two human leads has a surreal weight to them, almost as if they’ve trained their entire lives to become the humans who would eventually be tasked with saving everyone. Who ever existed. And not even that, but in “Patty,” they develop a way for those who have died to move from the afterlife after they achieve the peace they need: a barrier between realms that would end their consciousness and put their energy back into the universe.
“Patty” and “Whenever You’re Ready,” the series finale, are the only two episodes where the characters spend time in the actual Good Place (aside from a brief mail room stint in “The Book of Dougs”). Yet just as Shakespeare struggled in the Good Place (he wrote “The Tempest 2: Here We Blow Again”) because there were no earthly challenges to conjure quality art from his pen, so too does The Good Place come to an end when the points system is perfect and the characters are in the realm of peace and prosperity. If it’s a perfect situation, where would the conflict be? Why would we spend time there? The characters are valuable enough, but the right call is the merited one. The Good Place ends in the Good Place. Fortunately, “Whenever You’re Ready” serves as one of the most incredible series finales ever constructed — even rivaling the Scrubs ending.
Besides, even though we spent so little time in the Good Place, the characters were there for, at least, ten thousand Bearimys. Jason manages to play the perfect game of Madden, Tahani learns thousands of disparate skills (including chair-making from Nick Offerman), Chidi can regularly visit the Acropolis whenever he feels like it, and Eleanor finally connects with her mother (Leslie Grossman). Though, after Jason finished his video game, the camera swooped in on his face as he uttered a slightly confused, “I did it,” and that’s when I had no other reaction than the same one from Janet: “Oh dip.”
It’s from this moment when it becomes apparent that the finale will revolve around each character finding their ultimate closure and walking through the portal that would end their afterlife existences before eternity sets in. (Honestly, it might even include more “death” than the series finales of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad combined.) Over the course of the installment, we see Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor accept the end of their days and walk through the wooden archway to oblivion, bringing bittersweet closure to the arcs of all the characters we’d loved so dearly over the years. But it’s not just case-by-case afterlife departures. Janet, experiencing all time at once, doesn’t feel the loss of her friends so deeply. Tahani decides she wants to learn to be an architect and, in reverse, Michael decides he wants to learn to be a human. A second “death” is the right ending for some of the characters, but The Good Place’s finale made sure each character got exactly what they needed.
When Chidi and Eleanor meet together with their mothers and affection is shown from Donna Shellstrop towards her daughter, Chidi feels that he is ready to move on from the afterlife, as he only needed to know that Eleanor would still be taken care of when he departed. However, just because Chidi’s ready to move on, that doesn’t mean anyone else is. Desperate and anxious, Eleanor strides through the glittery green door connecting her home to Michael’s office (and Schur’s direction glides through the “portal” with all the cinematic gusto we’ve come to expect from hotly anticipated series finales), hoping to come up with a plan that makes Chidi want to stay.
There’s a genuine sensation of dread cascading throughout this second act of the episode, as we also don’t want to see Chidi moving on quite yet, even if it’s what he deserves and what’s best for him. Eleanor takes him on a globetrotting tour of Paris and Athens, hoping to remind him of how dope it is to travel his most desirable locations across the planet with the woman of his dreams. Instead, he takes Eleanor aside and says that he knows what she’s doing.
From here, the palpable fear in every twitch and tone of Bell’s performance is infectious for us, like a nightmare we don’t understand yet. Furthermore, on the podcast episode about the finale, Schur remarked that, before the scene on the French bridge when Eleanor begs Chidi not to go because she’s afraid of being alone, Bell was playing with her kids and laughing along with them. It’s almost as if her process was to find her most intrinsic source of joy and then step in front of a camera and immediately turn on the tears and the tension. Her performance speaks deeply to my soul, though. How can you not feel for Eleanor in this moment?
Eleanor: “No, man, this can’t be. Because Jason’s gone, Tahani’s off doing her thing, and I’m not ready to go. So if you leave, then I’m alone here. I was alone my whole life, and I told myself I like it that way, but I don’t. I like being with you.”
Chidi: “Okay. Then I won’t go.”
Chidi: “Yeah, I won’t go. There’s still plenty to do.”
Clearly, Chidi’s putting on a brave face for Eleanor, willing to sacrifice his needs once again for her. (His trip to his old Parisian apartment shows that he still can’t quite muster the same enthusiasm for the afterlife as Eleanor can.) But I also appreciated that Schur took the time to show us that, even if it wasn’t scary for Chidi, others could still be deeply stressed about his readiness to move on. Eleanor, of course, acknowledges that she can’t keep him there forever, but she fought like hell for it, at first, considering there won’t be anymore afterlife do-overs or memory wipes. Still, she has grown, too, and she knows that it’s wrong to keep him there for her own selfish needs. And so, she parts with Chidi, leading him to venture through the wooden archway.
Just like when the Parks and Rec team took to California, the camera swirls up within the Redwood Forest, showing off the enormity of the trees’ heights. Yet, there’s a surprise when Chidi hugs Janet and decisively strides into the door. Jason is hiding behind a tree, having waited myriad Bearimys to give Janet a necklace.
When she first brought him to the forest, he reached into his pocket and bluntly observed, “Oh dip, I lost it.” However, he didn’t want to go through the arch because he was nervous Janet would forget him. This was a sentiment posed earlier to Chidi and Eleanor, who took the logical and emotional approaches to comforting Jason, respectively. (Chidi informs him that she literally cannot forget him while Eleanor believes that she wouldn’t ever forget someone like Jason, even if she could.) Yet, Jason is still only fully believing of something when he learns it for himself. So he hangs out in the woods, lets go of his mind, and becomes the monk he used to pretend to be. He’s reassured by Janet telling him, “There was no bad stuff. It was all good.” This isn’t true, so much as it’s honest because finding true love like that can only be good, even if there were conventionally bad moments, temporary as they may be — as everything is. From there, Jason gives Janet her necklace and runs after Chidi, eager to hang out with him, wherever they end up in the universe.
Her sentiment is akin to Chidi’s “None of this is bad,” as he attempts to comfort Eleanor on their couch overlooking a gorgeous view of the afterlife. For spiritual security to help her feelings, Chidi “turns to the east” and as, Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (also used in About Time), soothes the scene, one of the most gorgeous television monologues in history is delivered flawlessly by Harper.
“Picture a wave. In the ocean. You can see it, measure its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there. You can see it, you know what it is; it’s a wave. And then, it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a a different way for the water to be for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, and where it’s supposed to be.”
Nothing written or performed has ever brought me as close to being at peace with death than this monologue does. I felt like Eleanor/Kristen Bell in that scene, feeling the tears rise to my eyes as a strange feeling of acceptance replaces the bittersweet sensation I’d been feeling up until this point. It’s not right to seek immortality when meaning only comes from mortality and navigating the why we’re alive and what we’re called to do and why we’re humans, instead of demons or gods or architects or judges or Bambadjons.
After all, “Whenever You’re Ready” doesn’t really speak about what the afterlife is meant to be, so much as it deals with what it means to experience a real human life — even if the best we can do is coin the word, “infinity,” rather than ever truly experience it. When Chidi died on Earth, he had no chance at a monologue before an air conditioner crushed him. In the afterlife, though, he speaks to what it’s like to really die, to really lose consciousness. If matter can neither be created or removed from the universe, then we really are just waves. For now, our energy is in the form of a body and a mind and a moral compass and a level of intelligence and compassion, kindness and spirit. But the ocean is vast and, within it, waves take many forms. It’s just special to be in the ocean, really.
It’s a feeling Chidi embodies, but it’s one that Eleanor tries to force as she winds to her own conclusion, concurrently with Michael. (The dynamic between Michael and Eleanor was as much a heart of the series as Chidi was, of course.) Trying to find peace and what would make her complete, Eleanor watches old tapes of her and Chidi together and convinces Mindy St. Claire to enter into the Good Place system, away from the Medium Place. Essentially, it’s just various forms of stimulation, like a monkey navigating a food-based puzzle box to maintain intellectual challenges. Ultimately, though, Eleanor’s last reason for staying behind in the afterlife is that she needs to help Michael achieve his true purpose: mortality instead of retirement.
Eleanor and Janet warn him that he won’t know exactly what will happen in the afterlife when he’s gone, but he sincerely takes them aside and assures them, “That’s what makes it special. I won’t exactly know what’s going to happen after I die. Nothing more human than that.” (In another fun human turn, Janet worries about Michael deeply when she practically acts like an emotional mother, sending her kid off to college, to the real world. In that moment, Michael is what she needs (the camera zooms in once more) and Eleanor is what Michael needs (he enters into the dry heat climate of Arizona). And so, Eleanor is ready for the door herself.
Before she ends her time in the afterlife, she has a laugh with Janet over how Michael’s time on Earth is going.
“I assume he’s doing the same as every human. Some good days. Some bad days. He’s got a few friends. A few people he can’t stand. He’s learning some things — all by himself. And hopefully learning to ask for help when he needs it.”
In this moment, we can see that The Good Place, for all its fantasy elements and occasional absurdity, was always about what it means to be human, to be the best kind of human we can be. (In a lovely touch, Michael’s guitar teacher on Earth is played by Mary Steenburgen, Danson’s real life spouse.) Contented, Eleanor hugs Janet and steps through the door, her body becoming beams of golden light that dance across the universe and its skies.
As the story runs ‘round, one of these orbs of Eleanor’s essence floats down to Earth and touches a man (Kurt Braunohler), who just callously threw away a piece of mail that was incorrectly delivered to his home. When Eleanor’s light touches him (and he has no idea who Eleanor is and what she has done to help people like him), though, he has a small spark of inspiration and reaches into the garbage to retrieve the letter. It’s addressed to “Michael Realman” and to the stranger, it’s innocuous junk mail. But for Michael, it makes his day and with jolliness, he laughs and thanks the man profusely for bringing him this piece of mail and going out of his way to do so.
He might not get into the Good Place for the act and he certainly didn’t receive a prize from Michael for “passing the test,” but what he does receive is gratitude, an unexpected smile, and a funny little story to tell to his friends about the time he committed a good deed and met a slightly offbeat man. A man who told him, “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.” A little bit of Eleanor went into that man, sure, but a ton of Eleanor went into Michael, too. Each life touches so many others and it helps our stories, our lives, and the love we share circulate around the universe. The wave ripples throughout and everywhere it touches is good. It was all good and it always will be good.