Human beings, for all our fine qualities, tend to have a universal weakness: We desperately try to avoid letting go of a good thing, once we get our hands on it.
“I worked hard for this,” we tell ourselves. “I should get to enjoy it for as long as I can. It would be senseless to let go of a good thing while I still have it.”
What if there’s no end in sight to that state of affairs, though? What meaning does true fulfillment have, if it goes on forever and ever? What happens when there’s nothing left to strive for? The answer, as revealed in the penultimate episode of NBC’s The Good Place, is stagnation. Bereft of anything to work toward, discontent is sure to follow. There needs to be a final ending, as much as we might believe we’d like to exist eternally with everything we ever wanted. Eventually, the LAST desire, and perhaps the most fulfilled of all, is simply the desire to accept the end with grace, and walk through that final door.
It’s a lesson we could all stand to learn, especially given that we must all now accept the end of one of the greatest network TV series of all time. The Good Place was something so different, so unlike the lightweight sitcoms that surrounded it, that we may never see its like again. It still seems impossible that we were gifted such an immaculately thoughtful, kind, considerate, and positive (not to mention hilarious) series in the first place. If there is a celestial judge, may he/she/they/it bless Michael Schur for the positive vibes he put out into creation, like a wave that crashes, subsides, and returns its energy to the sea.
When we left the Soul Patrol/Team Cockroach before the beginning of the series finale, they had finally and deservedly attained the kind of celestial peace they’d always wanted. Finally, FINALLY they simply had time to focus on themselves and each other, rather than being “on the clock,” desperately working toward a solution to save either themselves or the entire human race from an eternity of torture in The Bad Place. Our squad WON, folks. Not only did they “defeat” the likes of Shawn and his Bad Place coterie, but in the true fashion of this show, they also made believers of Bad Place demons like Vickie and Glenn. Even if Shawn would never (never, never, never, never…) admit it, even a middle-manager in Hell is happier with the current state of affairs than he’s ever been. That’s the heart and soul of The Good Place—one doesn’t simply triumph over your opponents here, you also begrudgingly come to peace with them, and nudge even the worst souls in a more positive direction.
“Whenever You’re Ready,” as expected, is an episode full of closure, for characters both major and minor. Shawn, as noted, is secretly ebullient about the new system. Poor old Doug Forcett is finally being rewarded and cutting loose after his lifetime of counter-intuitive self-sacrifice. John is still improving, even as he asserts that Alexander the Great’s reputation is a bit inflated from the “Alexander the Fine” he is in reality. Mindy St. Clair, who Eleanor describes as “a version of me if I never met my friends,” is finally ready to leave her private Medium Place and expose herself to the risks of self-improvement. Even The Doorman gets what he’s always wanted.
The main cast members, of course, get more individual and emotional denouements. Jason realizes his superficial goals, only to see that he’s also realized his emotional and social goals as well, and peaces out after the long-awaited performance of his dance crew, Dance Dance Resolution. Tahani heals the familial matters that drove her self-destructive tendencies in life, only to discover an entirely new calling as a potential afterlife architect. Michael stresses about yet another loss of purpose, but is then granted the ultimate opportunity to go down to Earth and live as the humans do, unsure for the first time in his existence of what tomorrow will bring. Janet offers a helping hand to everyone, as she is wont to do, D’arcy Carden reminding all of us why she was Paste’s #1 TV performer of 2018. Across the span of thousands of Jeremy Bearimy, everyone draws closer to the most self-actualized and still-lovable version of themselves.
And as for Chidi and Eleanor … well, we knew there would be tears, and lots of them. We knew as well, on some level, that it would be Chidi who was ready to depart first, and that Eleanor’s final challenge would be to summon the strength to let him go through with it. Here, of course, the old Eleanor reemerges if only briefly, in an attempt to distract Chidi and then guilt him into staying for her, but those selfish impulses immediately blow away like a wisp of smoke in the breeze. Eleanor has come entirely too far to deceive herself like that for long, and the kind of realization that might have taken her a long time in the past now comes more or less immediately: She has to let him go. For his sake, and for her sake. She asks him for a reassuring metaphor, and he lays out a bit of Eastern philosophy, which seems to imply his hopes for what lies beyond the door: That we are all waves that crash, but are not lost. The water simply returns to the sea, where it waits to gather for the next wave.
Ultimately, we don’t really get a concrete answer to that question of what lays beyond, but would we really want one? The events of The Good Place are evidence that we, as human beings, are incapable of conceiving an afterlife that would be the eternal ideal—we define existence in the way we see life on Earth, as a journey with a beginning, middle and end. True infinity is outside our grasp, and we’re unable to conceive what we could ever do with it. There is no answer that would be satisfying forever.
We do however get a bit of a hint, perhaps, at what happens to us beyond that door. As Eleanor steps through, her spirit seems to dissipate into points of light, which spread out and fade. That is, except for one, which we see drift down to Earth, touching another human being and pushing him in the direction of bettering himself. Eleanor has become, in function, that very “little voice” inside someone’s head she so often referred to as hearing herself, subtly guiding them in the direction of self-improvement. It’s a very Eastern concept indeed, as Chidi spoke of earlier in “Whenever You’re Ready,” and it implies that his hopes for the next phase of existence were spot on. No one ever truly leaves entirely—they merely return to the steady, background thrum of the collective energy field that makes up the entire universe. Ultimately, we’re all one.
And all of it is good.
Hey wait, wasn’t this a network sitcom I’m writing about? Guess I forgot, when it was also such a sublime piece of art.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.