Spoilers for The Good Place, including the ending.
As regular readers will know, I am a great fan of The Good Place and gushed about it not that long ago. As the finale grew closer, however, I spotted a few niggles which suggested to me that, unlike Philippa Foot in the world’s most stable trolley, the programme was about to go off the rails. It was not until the penultimate episode that I made my prediction, that the final episode would turn into a messy euthanasia tract, because I wanted to give the writers, who had fooled me before, the benefit of the doubt. I need not have worried: I was right.
Although, ultimately, the ending was disappointing, I remain in two minds.
The first mind is, obviously, disappointed. What started as a philosophical discussion, essentially, ended with cod Buddhism and trite nonsense: The real Good Place was the friends we made on the way. Not only is this a massive cop-out, but it relies upon a series of weak narrative decisions, essentially ways of cheating the premise in order to arrive at the “correct” resolution.
To begin, our main characters arrive in the Good Place only to discover that the compulsive do-gooders have become sly, manipulative liars. They have undergone this transformation because otherwise the ending will not happen. Cheat number one.
The Good Place turns out not to be a good place at all because it is nothing but hedonism, which leads to ennui, so there is no Good Place and never was. (And would that not also suggest that eternal torment leads to the same drab ennui, given that the mortal capacity for pain, like the mortal capacity for pleasure, is limited?) Cheat number two.
Then, despite having taken enormous amounts of time to plumb relatively minor philosophical problems in the last three seasons, Eleanor apparently solves the problem of eternal life in minutes and dismisses any attempt to think the issue through philosophically, because who watches television to have fun with complex ideas? Cheat number three.
To undo the sting of eternal hedonism, they re-create death, because only death brings meaning to life, according to that famous philosopher… er, Michael Schur, I guess?* Cheat number four.
So it is that, despite human nature remaining precisely as limited as it is (and thus forcing perpetual hedonism to lead to ennui in the absence of death), human nature is also sufficiently expansive for a character to know precisely when he or she is at one with the universe. That’s right: not enlightened enough to traverse all time and the infinite reaches of space with the magic at their fingertips and not become bored, but enlightened enough to know precisely when the limits of fulfilment have been reached. The experiential fabric of the Good Place cannot be detached from 21st Century city-breaks, apparently. Cheat number five.
The post-death death remains a mystery, too, for despite Janet knowing everything in the universe, and death being a phenomenon within the universe, she does not understand it, because otherwise there could be no emotional stakes. Cheat number six.
Speaking of Janet, she tells Jason she will not be sad when he is gone because she does not experience time as a human does and so, in a sense, she will always have eternity with him. A corollary of this is that she will also be in mourning for eternity, because she will always be without him, indeed eternally with the moment of his departure and cessation. The script skips over that, because apparently we do philosophy with our tears and quivering heart-strings now. Cheat number seven.
Even the humans are strangely at peace with the idea of complete oblivion. Eleanor struggles with the idea of losing Chidi for a few minutes but, again, the human psyche which, apparently, can only deal with so much happiness, can subsume the eternal grief of the most final bereavement in a nice afternoon and a sexy pin-up calendar. Cheat number eight.
So that is the Good Place with which we are presented at the end of this series on philosophy: a nonsensical appeal to emotion which asks us to accept as wholesome an eternity of loneliness and grief as people watch their loved ones pass through the door to the eternal beyond. Death and desolation in the afterlife: that is the best for which we can hope.
On the Other hand
If someone does not believe in God or an afterlife, I can imagine that ending a programme about the afterlife is somewhat tricky. It is therefore not entirely surprising that Schur ends up trying, even if in an underwhelming way, to look at what it means to have a good death. Euthanasia has entered the popular discourse as an issue which raises a host of moral dilemmas for believers and unbelievers alike. It is good to see a popular medium acknowledging that and attempting to unpick at least a very small part of it. In this case, what right an individual has over his own death.
Generally speaking, I would interpret the finale to be fundamentally in favour of an individual’s right to choose the time and manner of his death. More than that, Schur also shows, through Michael and Tahani, an argument in favour of an individual’s right to remain alive. Curiously, in Tahani’s case, an individual’s right to remain alive indefinitely, which has its own moral ramifications.
There is a great deal to unpack in all of this, which I do not propose to do so here, but I think that the hurried and unphilosophical resolution of the series represents a host of missed opportunities. In fact, one of the throw-away gags emphasized to me how lacking the ending was.
The gag in question was a reference to Thomas Aquinas. Buddhism may have been selectively and clumsily employed to put a spiritual gloss on the finale, and that is a shame, but other religions were basically ignored entirely. This is a shame because Aquinas (and other philosophers and theologians like him) have solutions to the philosophical problems which Schur did not answer. I concede that, having been shown to be wrong about the afterlife, quizzing theists on their beliefs might not have made any sense narratively, but would it really have made any less sense than having an afterlife to the afterlife?
A Third option
There is one last way in which, I suppose, the finale could be viewed: as satire. Many people, despite professing no religion or spiritual belief or philosophical commitment, express a hope that their deceased loved ones, free from pain and sorrow, are continuing a form of earthly life in some other realm. This is usually a highly emotional idea brought on by periods of grief; a hope that, despite a materialist life, there is a metaphysical after-party.
This is not terribly congruent, but then humans are not terribly congruent creatures most of the time. Schur may, perhaps, be showing the problems with this idea. I am disinclined to believe that this is deliberate, but it is not impossible.
So, there we have it. The Good Place remains a good programme, despite its disappointing final episodes. I hope that its legacy in the popular discourse is of an interest in philosophy. I am simply sad and disappointed that Schur’s own interest in the subject was not enough to finish the series in a way which did justice to the premise.
*To be fair, the flesh-eating vampire from Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines also believes this. So that makes two.