This post will contain spoilers for The Good Place series finale
Comedy often has to strike a fine balance between didactic and blindly entertaining. Michael Schur’s other current notable comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is arguably firmly rooted in the latter, offering purely escapist fun with a ridiculously endearing central ensemble. It’s been a fantastically successful model, but it’s Schur’s other show, The Good Place that has defined his reputation since the end of Parks and Recreation in 2015.
The Good Place is most definitely in the former category, the didactic. It’s in fact so deeply rooted in philosophical questions that many episodes simply descend into characters discussing complex moral issues. But the genius of the show is that it manages to remain funny, entertaining and heartbreaking while basing itself in admittedly heavy material.
Last Thursday, the show aired its final episode. Titled “When you’re ready”, it followed the Soul Squad’s individual decisions to come to terms with the end of their lives and leave the Good Place, entering the void and severing the group that has defined the show. It’s an ingenious premise. Since the beginning, the show has provided a finite answer to the afterlife question, and has invented imaginative but definite aspects of life after death in order to reflect on the human experience. Thus, the decision to focus the finale on the idea of the unknown is a refreshing choice. Each character individually makes the decision to give up the eternal happiness that The Good Place has gifted them in order to fully die. On a lesser show, this morbid idea would be downright depressing, but in Schur’s series, it’s beautiful and heartfelt.
We start the episode with Jason, arguably the least likely to want to leave the fictional heaven. In fact, at the end of the previous episode, I predicted that the core four would become bored of the Good Place with the exception of Jason, whose naivety and childishness would result in less self-awareness. But the show cleverly subverts this. Jason has seen everything he’s wanted, spending time with his father Donkey Doug and DJ-ing the greatest party the Good Place has ever seen. He’s ready to go, and the audience received its first heartbreak of the episode.
Due to the previously assumed stupidity of Jason, his decision to die was arguably the only way to begin the domino effect that would see the other characters want to do the same. It was a way for more three dimensional characters (Chidi, Eleanor, Tahani, even Michael) to stop denying that the end must come and embrace the unknown.
Tahani is next to reach this conclusion. She reconciles with her parents and spends plenty of bearimies with them, only to realise that that’s all she wanted. While she chooses to become an architect and not leave the Good Place, the same process of coming to terms with her aims and experiences still applies. What’s surprising about these heartbreaking moments is how filled with happiness they are. Too often, The Good Place was a show that put its characters through hell (literally) through endless twists and turns, rug-pulls and subversions in order to keep them from happiness. So it’s interesting that the ultimate twist in the tale: death, is treated with such calm and inevitability.
That sense of tranquility extends even to the beating heart of the show: the relationship between Chidi and Eleanor. This is fitting. Season 3 ended with such sadness between them that their final parting ran the risk of repeating that sentiment. What the show chooses to do is allow Eleanor to acknowledge Chidi’s desire to leave the Good Place (now that he can be decisive about anything), as it’s the ultimate expression of her growth from selfish individual to a considerate half of a loving couple. The best way of her showing her moral improvement under Chidi is to let him do what he wants. It gives a sense of catharsis to the audience despite the bittersweet nature of the decision, nothing is more appropriate for completing Eleanor’s arc.
The rest of the hour long episode catches deals with Michael, the trigger for many of the events in the series. Ted Danson is always a highlight, but in this episode he’s particularly magnetic, as he himself goes through the journey of ending his life… as a demon that is. Like Eleanor, much of the show is devoted to his character’s improvement, from scheming architect to ultimate ally of the Soul Squad. He also deserves the happiness that the other four achieve, and The Good Place manifests that in his wish to become human. The scene in which Janet laments his departure is one of the most heartbreaking to watch (Darcey Carden can seemingly do anything at this point) but it’s rewarding to see Michael achieve something of his own rather than on behalf of the core four. Every character was able to get their due, something not common in network comedies.
Thus, The Good Place ends with most of the characters effectively dead, Michael now a mortal (and therefore doomed to one day die) and the gang no longer together. If this finale was revealed after watching the first episode, or even first season, I would see this as quite possibly the saddest ending in TV history. But the most wonderful thing about it is that after seeing the series to the end, somehow it became the happiest. It’s TV sleight of hand, a magic trick that I won’t soon forget. Thank you The Good Place, you’ve been wonderful.