The Good Place upends itself again in an understated season finale.
The real question, Eleanor, is what do we owe to each other?
25 episodes in, it’s still remarkable that a series like The Good Place exists — a high-concept, serialized sitcom where characters have extended debates about ethical philosophies, that is clever, hilarious, exceptionally performed, and popular enough to last into at least a third season on a broadcast network? It’s almost too good to be true.
What is certainly too good to be true, however, is the image of Ted Danson casually slinging a bar towel over his shoulder like he never left Boston. Now I know for sure that Mike Schur must be some kind of celestial figure, blessing the human race with a television show we don’t deserve.
It was a safe bet that “Somewhere Else” had at least one surprise up its sleeve, because that’s become a consistent part of The Good Place’s genius — not twists for the sake of them, but the joy of following a story that doesn’t stall or spin its wheels, instead moving forward by the least expected path. “Michael’s Gambit” turned the series upside-down, but Schur & company continued to blow things up: the demon architect tried to reset our main quartet’s memories until his experiment worked; he became a reluctant ally, than a legitimate one, ultimately destroying his own neighborhood in the process. If Season 1 was about the slow growth of Eleanor Shellstrop, the lightning-plotted Season 2 was all about Michael’s metamorphosis from eternal torturer to a figure who now reflects the foibles and good intentions of his former captives.
But it’s fitting, perhaps, that last night’s finale centered almost exclusively on Eleanor. It doesn’t seem that way at first, especially in a season that has been so generous to its supporting cast — Tahani and Jason only get a couple moments here, the former with a trademark Tahani Name Drop (Maggie Smith is her godmother!), the latter remarking that there’s no way “one of the craziest years of my life” can get any crazier just before Janet says, in her own way, she loves him (his response: “Oh, word?”). Chidi also seizes his moment to kiss Eleanor (her response: “Hot diggity dog!”).
But it’s Eleanor that showed the most growth under Chidi’s tutelage; it’s Eleanor who has solved almost every puzzle; it’s Eleanor who stands firm when Michael and Judge Gen (short for Hydrogen, and hold that thought) plan to send her and her friends to their own individual Medium Places until something better can be sorted out, which might take “between a month and a million years.” They’re all here, now, because of her. She brought them together despite her original motives of self-preservation. So now, Michael wants to prove his thesis right: if people can improve after they die, the entire system is flawed and “hundreds of millions of people have been wrongly condemned,” and the best way to test that is to see if Eleanor can do it again, by resetting her back to the moment of death…except without the death.
It’s here that the comparisons to my all-time beloved series, Lost (whose co-creator, Damon Lindelof, Schur consulted with as he built this world), become more obvious than ever — even more than in the Wizard of Oz references both shows share.* How did Lost’s fifth season end, but with (spoiler!) Juliet detonating a hydrogen bomb in an effort to reset time and restore the castaways to their lives before the island? What was the entire basis of Lost’s (unfairly-)maligned sixth season but of the characters working to find each other in that sideways universe? I’m not suggesting that The Good Place ends with Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason in a church pew, enjoying a Good Place of their own making, but we don’t know the full scope of Michael’s (both the character, and the showrunner) plan, either — is Season 3 all going to be set in the real world, or is he running an elaborate simulation?
*Obviously Eleanor is Dorothy, Chidi is the Cowardly Lion, Tahani is the Tin Man, and Jason is the Scarecrow. Obviously.
Because moral philosophy is an unending conversation, I don’t have any fear of The Good Place running out of concepts to invoke within its narrative. In “Someplace Else,” it’s the idea of “moral dessert” (not to be confused with the “moral desert,” a theory rejected by John Rawls), or how people shouldn’t do good things for reward, but because they simply should. Michael aims to prove that people are innately good if they’re just given a “push in the right direction” — in this case, a near-death experience. And for a while, in Eleanor’s case at least (we never see Tahani or Jason), it seems to work. She takes a job with the environmental group she derided, comes clean to her roommate about “Dress Bitch,” and generally appears happier and more fulfilled. But the hard thing about being good is continuing to be good when it doesn’t feel like it’s benefiting you, and soon her selfishness comes roaring back.
Michael, watching this all play out on some kind of celestial ticker-tape, decides to secretly intervene once again, leading to the episode’s emotional climax at the bar. Eleanor proclaims that “being good is for suckers” — a not-unfair observation, given the current state of the world — but Michael, who not long ago was downright giddy about torturing his charges for all eternity, counsels her to keep listening to that small voice in her head (no, not Maggie Smith) and ask “what we owe to each other” — a quote that leads her to a (three-hour!) lecture given by Chidi at St. John’s University in Australia, itself inspired by the book by philosopher T.M. Scanlon, and the reunion in the final moments.
It’s a quiet place to end a season that has been boundlessly inventive and funny, but the lack of another “big twist” is, instead of a disappointment, more reflective of the thoughtful and challenging series Schur has been making all along — one where these vibrantly goofy characters are vehicles for high-minded examinations of relativism, utilitarianism, and now contractualism, while also making room for Derek’s wind chime genitals. Most fascinatingly of all, these are conversations people are itching to have right now. That’s not to call it an entirely flawless show, as like philosophies, it has evolved through trial and error and let some elements fall away (remember how Chidi was supposed to be African?) — but its raw ambition, and continual striving for enlightenment regardless of industry rewards, puts it in truly rarified air on the television landscape. It’s going to be tough to beat for the rest of 2018.