In the penultimate episode of The Good Place, Chidi learns that most of his heroes didn’t make it.
No human had reached The Good Place for centuries, but even the very pillars of philosophical thought that he based his life on failed to stay on a moral path. Supporting slavery took down Aristotle and Plato. Socrates was “very annoying” and a “very loud chewer.” Hypatia of Alexandria, however, made the cut, and Chidi is eager to ask her important questions about the universe such as “why?” and “how?” Instead, she delivered bad news to Chidi that takes much of the penultimate episode of the show to solve. But by now the main characters of the show are very good at managing the problems of, well, all mankind.
The Good Place is a remarkably optimistic show airing in an exceedingly bleak time, and it almost certainly will end on Thursday night without ever truly answering those lofty questions Chidi ponders. It’s a show that has limits, both in the writers’ willingness to tackle life’s great mysteries and the very clear guidelines it establishes for what’s “good” and “bad.” Janet made it clear in an early episode that Christopher Columbus, for example, is in the Bad Place “because of all the raping, slave trade, and genocide.” There are some things people can do to make them impossible to salvage, the show makes clear, but for the rest of us there’s a lot of wiggle room to improve and get things right.
The Good Place is a unique comedy in a lot of ways, and one of the biggest of those is that it knew when to end. Watching as its chapters unfolded you were never quite sure where it was going, whether you’d see high-test philosophy explained by its characters or what bits and pieces of the show would evolve and grow. Some plot points were discarded as time went on, such as basically everyone falling in love with everyone else in Season One. But one moment from the final episode of that first season has remained throughout.
“You saw us all on Earth: a selfish ass, an idiot DJ, a tortured academic, a hot rich fraud with legs for days,” Eleanor said to Michael during the big reveal that The Gang was actually in The Bad Place. “You thought we would torture each other. And we did, for a little. But we also took care of each other. We improved each other. And the four of us became a team. So the only thing you succeeded in doing is bringing us all together.”
After his infamous laugh, Michael’s solution is to make the next neighborhood a “slow burn” by keeping the team apart, but it never truly works. In the show’s big heel turn, where our perception of The Good Place is turned on its head, we’re also presented with the show’s major thesis: despite everything, people try their best to be good. The page of a book that Eleanor left herself inside Janet’s mouth was from ‘What We Owe Each Other,” the implication being that we owe everyone kindness. But The Good Place offers us more than that: it’s not goodness that we owe others, it’s our basic instinct when you take all the other circumstances of life away.
In the seasons that follow, we learn why no one in modern times can make it to the Good Place. Things are just too complicated, making living a modern existence a net negative according to the old established system. That phone you carry in your pocket came to be at too great a human cost to be offset by simple acts of kindness. Even the produce you buy at your local grocery store is putting you in the hole.
It’s an elegant critique of a reality filled with social media and a rampant news cycle that often highlights the very worst things about living, and oftentimes gives anyone who spends time thinking about it too much information to process. But as the show continued, the nihilistic feeling we get from that over-saturation gave way to something different. In season 4, with The Gang conducting their own neighborhood experiment on certifiably bad people picked by demons, we discover that the improvement was replicable over time. There was no real magic between a selfish ass, an idiot DJ, a tortured academic, and a hot rich fraud. Their proximity and philosophy helped make them better, but it was human nature and experience that brought them to act better over time. With no knowledge of reward, the basic gravity of human existence brought them together despite the obstacles.
“Your big revelation is life is complicated?” asked an unimpressed Judge when Michael explained how the system is broken in Season 3. “That’s not a revelation. That’s a divorced women’s throw pillow.”
But it’s much more than that. We go through life with an incomplete set of instructions when it comes to doing what’s best. The result — going through life with partial information — creates some wholly inconstant results. The Judge’s dismissal of this is that people should simply “do the research,” which many people simply won’t do and thus, in theory, makes them bad. But one of the most important things about the show is that while it argues the system is increasingly broken and the deck stacked against us, it does so while making clear that people are trying their best.
It’s an optimism that’s pretty unheard of when it comes to entertainment, especially a comedy that’s as funny and smart as The Good Place is. There are genuinely heartwarming moments in the love between Chidi and Eleanor, and Jason and an artificial intelligence not-a-girl Janet, but it was never a crutch that saved an episode from being too nihilistic. The show addressed dark themes and stark realities about life, but never in a way that lost hope for finding a real world solution to some of the toughest moral quandaries out there.
There is true evil in the world, and in the show, but The Good Place worked hard to show carelessness for what it often is in reality: personal gain. The demons act with malice, but mostly for their amusement more than anything. Shawn is evil, sure, but only derives joy out of torturing Michael and the gang when they fight back. Taking that gain away led to important concessions. Selfishness may be a default for John, Brent, and Simone, but in the course of their education even they bent toward community and acting in good faith. Jason, reckless throughout and a criminal on Earth, learned and became a better person despite his overwhelming goofiness. There are lines you can’t cross, of course, but dying in a safe as part of a misguided heist is not the same as abetting slavery and imperialistic genocide.
In a confusing real world that seems to only get worse, a show that so thoughtfully argued for the best in humanity will be sorely missed. That it was smart and funny and had such a wonderful cast only made it that much more special. It’s sad The Good Place will end, but as we learned in its penultimate episode, endings are necessary to close the loop on even the most wonderful of things.