/‘The Good Place’ Series Finale Recap: The Meaning of Life – Rolling Stone

‘The Good Place’ Series Finale Recap: The Meaning of Life – Rolling Stone

A review of The Good Place series finale, “Whenever You’re Ready,” coming up just as soon as I find out Carrie Coon was never nominated for an Emmy for The Leftovers

We’re born. We live. We die. These are absolutes, for all of us. We have absolutely no control over the first part, and a wildly varied degree of control over the second. Mostly, the third part is totally up in the air, too.

So that’s fun, right?

The Good Place repeatedly argues — up to and including this final episode — that this perpetual uncertainty is part of what makes life so precious and magical. But it can also make it really forking terrifying, you know. Why are we here on such borrowed time? What is the point of it? And what, if anything, comes after?

A TV series is not a human life, which brings with it some advantages. At minimum, the people creating shows have a great deal of control over how they begin, and the lucky ones get a big say in what happens during their lifespan, how long they live, and when and how things end.

The truly lovely “Whenever You’re Ready” is an ending to The Good Place and for several of its characters. But it’s a beginning for several others. It definitively answers many questions, and leaves others to our imagination. And in its superb final sequence, it imparts one last theory of how the universe does — or, maybe, should — work.

Because the last few episodes of the series solved the afterlife’s many problems, “Whenever You’re Ready” mostly plays as an epilogue to the series rather than “The Final Chapter,” as the last title card dubs it. This was the mode for Parks and Recreation‘s “One Last Ride,” too, and both episodes offer extended glimpses of what the characters get up to once the main story has concluded. (Both even feature Nick Offerman, albeit much more there than here.) But because The Good Place has always been about the entire moral and metaphysical human experience, following Eleanor and some of the others to the end of that experience — and seeing Michael at the start of his own version of it —  feels like the true ending of things, even after the Good and Bad Places got fixed by Team Cockroach.

The penultimate episode, “Patty,” implied a basic shape for the finale: that each of our beloved dum-dums would spend a lot of Jeremy Bearimys in paradise, before one by one deciding to go through the door that Janet created to bring their respective journeys to an end. Early on, this seems to be how things will go. Jason achieves spiritual peace when he plays a perfect Madden game with Blake Bortles as his QB(*), and decides it’s time to go through the door. He’s an easy test case for the main group, not only because his desires are so simple, but because his ultimate departure is less painful for Janet than Chidi’s will later prove for Eleanor. As she explains, she (like Dr. Manhattan on Watchmen) experiences all of time at once, so Jason will always be with her. And in one of the finale’s bigger surprises, we discover that Jason didn’t actually go through the door at that point, because he had to first find the “J&J” locket he made as a farewell present for his not-a-girl. (In one of several marvelous, full-circle moments, we see that Jason really did turn into a Buddhist monk during the long wait to see her again — not that he ever realized it.)

(*) It felt completely Jason that his ultimate fantasy wouldn’t be to actually star as the Jaguars’ QB, but to do it in a video game with Bortles as his avatar.

Tahani’s segment is our first real narrative curveball. Unlike the others in the group, she never got a soul mate — nor did she ultimately seem to need one, which felt like a strong and welcome statement about life, the universe, and everything — but instead spent her Good Place time crossing things off an impossible bucket list. (The best of these, given creator Mike Schur’s known obsession with the book: “Finish Infinite Jest.”) This being Tahani, of course, celebrities must be involved, so we see that Offerman has been helping her master the art of woodworking. She already patched up her relationship with her sister during the Soul Squad era, and when their parents finally pass the test and make it into the Good Place, the entire family gets to heal. Tahani, like Jason before her, feels complete. But rather than go through the door, she’s inspired to take a different path and become a Good Place architect. It should be impossible, but she is Tahani Al-Jamil, for whom anything is ultimately possible, including rocking a peacock bowtie.

This sets up a later role reversal, where Michael opts to become a human even as Tahani is mastering his old job. This is a happier ending for him than simply running the afterlife would be, since his envy of humanity was a deeply ingrained character trait even when he was a Bad Place demon trying to torture our heroes. The rules are bent for him in the same way they were for the four humans, because saving the entire universe earns you special privileges. But the life we see him living(*) is a fairly ordinary one. Janet makes sure he’s not too rich, and he just has an apartment and some friends (and a guitar teacher played by Mrs. Danson herself, the great Mary Steenburgen), plus a chance to experience all of the simple pleasures that eluded him in his demon days.

(*) Interestingly, he’s sent down there at the age he appears to be, rather than getting to experience a fuller and more varied human lifetime. I imagine there would be complications in having him be a baby with knowledge of the universe (for both him and his parents). But it might have been fun, with an unlimited budget, to see him on Earth de-aged to the early Sam Malone years, at least.

Before we get to Michael’s reward, though, we first have to deal with the difficult matter of Chidi and Eleanor. For the most part, the finale dances around the What Dreams May Come question: How can heaven be heaven if the ones you love most aren’t there with you? None of our four humans had spouses or kids during their lives, and their parents eventually wind up in the Good Place, too — even Donkey Doug, who was dismissed as a hopeless cause back in Season Three. Jason has Janet for as long as he wants her (and functions just fine during his many Bearimys of solitude), while Tahani turns her energy inward. So that just leaves our main couple. A week ago, I assumed the final scene of the series would be them walking hand-in-hand through the door. That’s not what happens, though. They may be soul mates, but they are still separate people with separate hearts and souls, and his grow tired of the Good Place faster than hers do.

THE GOOD PLACE -- "Whenever You're Ready" Episode 413/414 -- Pictured: (l-r) Ted Danson as Michael, Kristen Bell as Eleanor -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Ted Danson as Michael, Kristen Bell as Eleanor. Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC

As a Chidi/Eleanor agnostic for most of the series’ run until recently, the idea of him moving on without her — and, thus, her having to continue on without him — didn’t in and of itself feel like a grand tragedy, despite Kristen Bell selling the shirt out of Eleanor’s pain and desperation. What made it land, though, is that it veers away from romance at the conclusion and instead turns into one more philosophy lesson (in an episode that allowed several of the show’s favorite modern philosophers to play themselves). The afterlife finally affords Eleanor the time to finish reading T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, and as a result, she realizes the freedom to enjoy an eternal rest is one last thing she owes Chidi. It’s a beautiful and thematically fitting gesture.

And in continuing on for a while after Chidi goes through the arch, “Whenever You’re Ready” continues to affirm the idea that selflessness was the series’ endgame, rather than true love. We jump ahead 3.22 Bearimys, by which point Eleanor seems to be doing OK with only her Chidi beefcake calendar to keep her warm at night. Instead, she closes out her time in the universe by continuing to help the people she cares about — first by convincing Mindy to take the test (once Tahani is approved to design it), then in helping Michael become human.

The episode makes a point of not showing what happens immediately after Chidi and Jason go through the arch, and of course nothing happens when Michael tries to do it while still a demon in a human suit. For a while, it seems as if Michael Schur is no more prepared to answer existence’s ultimate question than anybody else. But when it’s Eleanor’s turn, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it pans up to the sky above her, a group of ethereal lights floating up into the frame, suggesting that this is what the person that was Eleanor Shellstrop has become. And then the scene transitions to a new location, initially framed tightly enough to create the illusion that it could be any kind of building, anywhere — maybe even a new section of the afterlife that was a mystery even to the Judge. But as we pull out, we realize we are back on Earth — which has always been The Good Place‘s primary concern, even if we spent more time in the hereafter — watching a random guy go through his mail. He throws a letter in the trash, and this seems like it will be a very modest note on which to end this most cosmic and far-reaching of series…

… until Eleanor’s lights begin floating out of the sky, and one brushes against him, inspiring him to fish the letter out of the trash and hand-deliver it to its intended recipient: Michael. The letter itself is unimportant — Michael’s rewards card for Coyote Joe’s — but it nonetheless brings him great joy, because of how much he loves human nonsense.  And it’s a joy he would have been deprived had some piece of Eleanor not touched this stranger and inspired him to put a little more good into the world, rather than a little more bad.

And this, ultimately, is the only conception of the afterlife that I feel truly makes sense for a show like this. The Good Place has long argued that eternal torture is fundamentally unfair, and in these last two episodes has made a passionate case for the idea that eternal paradise ultimately proves more trouble than it’s worth. If that’s the case — if heaven and hell both prove unsatisfying, albeit in different ways (and at different speeds) — then, again, what the fork has been the point of it all? Why are we here, if we’re only here to go?

What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind — for some spark, some memory, some piece of whatever it is we may have inside us beyond biology, to linger and make the world a better place for everyone still lucky enough to be living in it. Maybe, the ending wonders, the last time you were suddenly inspired to call up an old friend, or pick up a piece of litter someone else dropped, or let a driver make a left turn into heavy traffic even though you had the right of way, you were in some way unconsciously inspired by a spark of goodness from someone you lost, or someone who has no one left to pass their goodness onto. Or maybe, if we’re being less literal, there’s a fundamental spark of goodness to humanity, despite abundant recent evidence to the contrary.

It’s a deceptively grand statement for such a mundane interaction. But The Good Place, like its architect, always found happiness, and sometimes beauty and deep meaning, in the mundanity of life. And because it is also a comedy on top of a grand philosophical argument, we end on one last perfect joke, as Michael responds to this stranger’s small but helpful gesture by reciting the words that make them both smile, and that Michael always dreamed of saying as a human: “Take it sleazy.”

THE GOOD PLACE -- "Whenever You're Ready" Episode 413/414 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Ted Danson as Michael, D'Arcy Carden as Janet -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Ted Danson, and D’Arcy Carden in the finale of ‘The Good Place.’ Photo credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Take it sleazy, The Good Place. Take it really forking sleazy. We owe each other at least that much.

Some other thoughts on the finale:

* Not every recurring character pops up in the finale (Eleanor and Chidi’s moms are referred to but not seen), but a lot of them do. Doug Forcett’s ability to exist as his younger self neatly answers the question of whether people who live long lives have to be old in the Good Place. (Though it deprives us of a Michael McKean appearance in the process.) The cameos by the other test subjects from the season’s first half don’t retroactively justify the amount of time the season spent on the experiment, but it would have felt odd if they were forgotten completely. John (still BFF with Tahani) and Simone (on good terms with Eleanor and Chidi) serve as quick shorthand for how many people have been getting into the Good Place, while Brent (still stuck taking the test because he’s a ding-dong who can’t think of others) serves as a reminder that lots of other people still have a long way to go to make the cut.

* Though most of production had wrapped before the NFL season was in full swing, Eugene Cordero wasn’t available until very late to play Pillboi in the Jason farewell party scene. (Which also gave us more of Dance Dance Resolution in action.) As a result, the show was able to slip a Gardner Minshew reference in under the wire, as Pillboi shouts out the Jaguars’ current QB while toasting his departing friend.

* Eleanor’s request for Chidi to leave while she’s sleeping was interesting not just because of how obviously painful this was for her, but for the notion that she still needed to sleep at all. Remember, earlier this season, I asked Schur why people still sleep in the afterlife, and he suggested it was just an easy way to get acclimated for the first 1,000 years or so. It may be that Eleanor and Chidi just chose to keep sleeping at night because they liked the routine, but the finale’s references to going to bed nonetheless stood out.

* The finale did feature some big special effects sequences, like Jason’s final Madden game. But it appears the big budget line item was for travel, as Eleanor’s last-ditch attempt to talk Chidi into staying involved trips to Athens and Paris. Parks and Rec also stopped by Paris late in its run (and England and Scotland). What are the odds that before Brooklyn Nine-Nine eventually ends, Jake goes to Russia to act out scenes from A Good Day to Die Hard? (Or maybe to Tokyo in search of the real Nakatomi headquarters?)

* Finally, one subtly effective use of special effects: Eleanor and Chidi’s house has a green door, just like the ones at the welcome-to-the-Good-Place party from “Patty,” which allows them to step immediately into Michael’s office or anywhere else they want to go. (And, like the poles that take Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson down into the Batcave, it changes their clothes for them as needed.) Not a complicated effect, but an easy way to get across the idea that the real Good Place is more impressive than Michael’s original neighborhood.