Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for season four of The Good Place.
If you’ve watched the fourth and final season of NBC’s The Good Place, you already know that the show seems to end on a point of nihilism, at least in a Zen-Buddhist sense. After our heroes help create a new system to replace the point-based one that sent basically everyone to the Bad Place, they themselves end up in the real Good Place. Their new system was purgatorial: the first phase of the afterlife for each person was a series of scenarios designed to teach him to become a better person, which could be reset a determined number of times, to allow the person to become worthy of the Good Place, or prove he truly belongs in the Bad Place as an irredeemable wretch.
After having their memories wiped and making it through their own system, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason make it to the Good Place, along with Michael and Janet, only to find that the Good Place is itself in need of serious reform.
It turns out that eternal ecstasy is not only boring, but mind-numbing: everyone they meet there, including many of their heroes, has turned into a mindless idiot incapable of keeping his attention fixed on anything for more than a few seconds. This is the result of having everything they want given to them immediately without exception. Even worse, not only is everyone bored, they are miserable.
The problem with the Good Place (the place in the show, not the show about the place), turns out to be the fact that it never ends. Unlike The Simpsons, heaven has a time limit, and when it goes on forever, it becomes as bad as hell. That is the way, more or less, that the central problem of The Good Place is presented in its fourth season. The solution—arrived at by our well-beloved team of four humans, a demon, and a not-robot—is to introduce a time limit. When each soul has had its fun, it gets to decide when it ceases to exist by walking through a doorway in the distant woods outlying heaven.
The solution has immediate success: even those souls who had been bored for centuries have a newly-awakened sense of existence, and are able to enjoy things again. The pleasures they had taken for granted become more intense now that they are again temporary. When they were eternal, they became dull, stretched out, like butter scraped over too much bread. But when the party is over, each partygoer knows, by a kind of intuition, that his time is up and that the doorway to annihilation calls. And they walk through it happily. Even Chidi, who had held back his own journey through the door because he knew Eleanor would miss him, ends up walking through before she does. Eleanor’s letting him walk into nonexistence is shown as an important moment of conversion for her.
Any show attempting to depict the afterlife is sure to run into controversy from one group or another. Atheists could certainly object to there being an afterlife at all; non-Pelagians would be bothered by the Good Place being earned by a point system tallying each person’s good works; non-Catholics might be upset that the afterlife allows for continued conversion and purification after death; Christians in general might be unhappy that Christ plays no role anywhere in the show, and certainly not in anyone’s salvation.
But all of us who watched the show suspended not only our disbelief but also our annoyance; the show’s twists kept us on the edge of our seats to see what would happen next (I have yet to meet anyone who called the twist at the end of the first season). I, for one, do not expect to see an explicitly Christian depiction of the afterlife in a secular TV show. So I took what I could get: a brilliant show about growing in virtue and friendship; one that explicitly discussed philosophical issues, referencing Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas throughout the series, and doing so in clever, most often hilarious, ways. For this alone the show was not only worth watching, but unlike any show I’ve ever seen.
But I don’t think the ending—which bothered some friends deeply and “ruined the show” for many of them—need be understood in a nihilistic way. I propose a different interpretation, not necessarily one intended explicitly by the writers (though it may have been). I think we can understand the entire series, from beginning to end, as depicting purgatory.
For most of the series, this is pretty easy to justify: Eleanor and the others are purified of their selfishness and other vices by means of their suffering. This is not explicitly due to the intention of any Supreme Being, but as I said above, the series is predicated as secular from its inception, and we should take what we can get. The same goes for the re-incarnations depicted in later seasons as well as their interactions with the Judge: everything happens so that, through effort, experience, and friendship, they lose their vices and come out purified, better people in the end.
This is somewhat more difficult to see in the last few episodes, when they are supposedly in the real Good Place. But there is no need to understand “Good” as necessarily “Best,” (which is alluded to by an obnoxious character earlier in the series). Purgatory is a good place, one where we are cleansed of all remaining evils before coming face to Face with God.
The last episodes of the series, I think, present a brilliant take on an aspect of this cleansing: even after their selfishness and vicious habits are turned into good habits, souls need to shed any remaining attachment to any worldly good. The last few episodes show how souls are detached from worldly goods by being given them to the full extent of their desires. They let go of every thing they cling to because they become sick of it. God gives them meat until it comes out of their nostrils (see Numbers 11:20).
There remains the ominous backdrop of the doorway to annihilation. But even within the narrative of the show, this need not be the only interpretation. At one point Janet, the most all-knowing of the characters, is asked what’s on the other side of the doorway—what is it that happens after this phase of existence? She does not give the answer of nonexistence. She answers that she does not know. The last phase of existence is to enter into the unknown, or even the Unknown, with complete detachment and complete willingness. When the camera passes through the doorway in the last shot of the series, it turns toward the sun and the viewer is blinded not by the darkness of nonexistence, but by white light.
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