The Good Place: It’s not nihilism, it’s purgatory

Many Christian fans of the afterlife comedy objected to the series finale. But the end isn’t necessarily as bleak as some interpret it.

The cast from NBC's "The Good Place." (NBC)

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.

Nihilism

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.

Annoyance

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.

Purgatory

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.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Father Andrew Younan 1 Article
Father Andrew Younan is rector of the Chaldean Seminary of Mar Abba the Great in El Cajon, CA, and Professor of Philosophy at John Paul the Great Catholic University. He is author of Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age, as well as several works on the Chaldean liturgy. He writes, against his will, on younan.blog.

10 Comments

  1. Is there any discussion of God in this show? If not, then why should Christians try to bother to reconcile it with their beliefs?

  2. That’s an interesting take. My friend and I were discussing about how the ending of the show demonstrated that it’s much easier to believe in Hell than in Heaven, and how eternity would be unbearable without an infinite, perfect, all-loving /someone/ to share it with. The idea that maybe that’s the point of the good place, to show how even the goodness we can imagine is insufficient—it’s certainly a more hopeful spin.

  3. The first season was terrific. But much like Harry Potter, it was impossible to maintain. Still, the demons and Tehani were hysterical

  4. I really enjoyed the series, but was disappointed partly by the ending. The show was about philosophy much more than it was about religion, and while they are related, they are not the same thing. The major disappointment came from heaven being a place without God. No wonder why the characters were unsatisfied. To me, that reflects of the culture of distraction that we live in. It used to be money, sex, and power that primarily distracted us, but now it’s anything that pushes our dopamine receptors, often brought to us by a screen.

    After thinking about the show more, I’m beginning to see the show’s original hell with the demons as the lower depths of Dante’s hell (but not cold), the “Good Place” hell as the upper layers of hell, and then heaven as the climbing of the 7 story mountain. Then when I think of the arch that they walk through to the Unknown, it’s the real heaven. At least that’s the way I’ll think of it from my Catholic perspective. The Unknown that portends of dissolution is just too depressing.

  5. I started watching the first season of the good place, although I was somewhat put off by it’s statement that christians were only 5 percent right (even if every religion was equally only 5 percent right). Why did the question ‘who was right’ even needed to be addressed? I was further put off by the revelation that one of the main characters was basically sent to Hell just for being indecisive, even if his indecisiveness tormented everyone else. Ever since, I’ve tried to avoid any mentioning of the show And what you’ve said about how it ends has put me further off.

    • I agree completely Michael. I mean, the fact there’s a hell at all in the show you’d think Christians were WAY MORE than 5% right lol

  6. Father, I’d like to point out something else.

    At one point in the last season, when finding out which humans made it into the Good Place after the point system was revamped, Chidi exclaimes “YES!” very excitedly when he hears that St. Thomas Aquinas entered.

    Okay. Great. Also, duh.

    But then why would a supposed Thomist (or at least Aristotelian fan like Chidi) say something as insane as “the Western philosophers were all about rules. Go to the east” in the episode where he dissolves into the universe? The very foundation of our understanding of Heaven is EXACTLY what he claims we don’t say – it’s the ultimate return to the Logos, to the One True Holy God. We return to His Being, as part of the Body of Christ in the Church Triumphant. If that isn’t “the wave returning to the ocean”, I don’t know what is. That whole bit really threw me and showed that the two philosophers who advised on the show (both admittingly not believing in an afterlife by the way) don’t know half of what they’re talking about after all.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. The Good Place: It’s not nihilism, it’s purgatory - Catholic Mass Search

Leave a Reply to Michael Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*