For four years, The Good Place felt like one of the most radical shows on television. A series that was initially about what happens when the wrong person goes to heaven transformed into a meditation on what it means to be a good person, and how no one is beyond redemption. That it aired during a time where cruelty led to a parade of demoralizing victories in politics and culture made it feel even more miraculous, a kind show for mean times. With its series finale, The Good Place chose not to overstay its welcome, ending gently with a 90-minute conclusion that held no surprises — except, maybe, how disappointing fulfillment can be.
“Whenever You’re Ready” begins its long goodbye with every conflict in the series resolved in the previous episode. Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, Tahani, Michael, and Janet have arrived in heaven and devised a perfect, equitable afterlife for all humans to go through. Upon death, everyone enters a time of testing and reflection, which they must pass in order to enter The Good Place. Once a person is in, they stay until they’re ready to walk through a door and fade into nothingness.
(Spoilers for the finale to follow.)
As the episode unfolds, each character eventually finds fulfillment and decides to leave, one at a time. First are Jason and Tahani, characters who have been underserved by the show for some time now, mostly reduced to one-note jokes. The show makes up for that a little: Jason’s departure is a small fake out; he ends up being stranded outside of the final door for eons because he forgot to give something to Janet. In doing this, he learns the inner peace and patience that makes him attain, inadvertently, the kind of spirituality he pretended to have at the start of the show as a silent monk.
Tahani decides to not go through the door, instead choosing to try her hand at becoming an afterlife architect — a move that signals a shift in her ambitions, applying them to the service of others instead of herself. It’s a nice ending, but one that underlines a solid two seasons of missed opportunities for the character.
The finale’s heart, however, is with the character The Good Place started with: Eleanor Shellstrop, who still has a few lessons to learn. The first involves letting go and accepting Chidi’s decision to go through the last door. The second is in helping someone else learn to let go, convincing the Middle Place’s sole inhabitant, Mindy St. Claire, to finally give up her post and enter the rebuilt afterlife. Finally, Eleanor guides Michael to the one ending that would make him truly happy: a mortal life.
There are beautiful moments in this. Despite the long-standing criticism of Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship remaining valid — the two have never worked as much as the show believed they did — actors William Jackson Harper and Kristen Bell pour their hearts into their final scene together, with a conversation about oblivion that is life-affirming and not an existential terror. The brief few moments we see of Michael’s human life are wonderfully endearing. It’s all a very nice ending for a very nice show.
It all feels a little hollow, though. The Good Place at its best was often about how being good was work. It is difficult and prone to going awry; your ideas of what constitutes “good” might not ultimately translate to a net positive in the cosmic balance. This is why, The Good Place argued, we need friends — other people who wanted to be good to others as much as you did, and who had different ideas about how to do that.
Attempting to live a good life often feels like it isn’t rewarding or ultimately worth it, but The Good Place’s best moments showed that you could build a community where it was worth it, an internal dynamic built around justice and fulfillment that, with time and good fortune, might radiate outward and change someone’s life.
There is uncertainty in this. We don’t really get to know the kind of impact we have, if we make one at all. At the apex of The Good Place’s storytelling prowess — the season 2 finale, “Somewhere Else” — the show dug into this idea, with each character having a second chance at a mortal life. With no memory of her previous life or afterlife, Eleanor tries to live ethically, and it goes poorly. The episode ends with Eleanor nudged in the direction of finding Chidi and her former friends, and fades to black before she gets there.
The Good Place I loved wasn’t one that trafficked in certainty about anything. It was a show about trying, about a secular faith in living a noble life without the guarantee of a material reward. It showed a cast of chronically selfish people learning to mitigate their selfishness by caring more for each other, even in the face of a cartoonishly elaborate demon bureaucracy that wanted them to believe none of that mattered. It was nice to see them be rewarded in the end. I want to believe they would’ve done it all the same, even if they weren’t.