A mini-essay on why The Good Place didn’t end in a good place

SPOILERS AHEAD

This post will make sense only for viewers of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. If you haven’t seen it and may want to one day, then best to quit now because there are SPOILERS all over the place and I’m assuming a working knowledge of the show – which I’ve loved by the way.

The Good PlaceThe four unlikely friends, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahini (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), have spent 4 seasons of a comedy show navigating some very surprising twists and turns of the afterlife accompanied by their reformed demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) and all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

Who knew that the route to heaven was a complicated points race for good behaviour on earth? Who knew that demons, getting bored of conventional torture in the ‘bad place’, had devised ways of making deliberately incompatible groups of humans drive each other mad in a cheery paradise-hell masquerading as the real Good Place? Who knew that the afterlife was ruled by an impatient judge with little empathy for humans who likes nothing more than binge-watching the Leftovers? Who knew that due to a fault in the system, no human has qualified for heaven in hundreds of years?

Many Christians might find such a premise trivial, not to say heretical. I can understand if it’s not your cup of tea. But underneath the colourful froth and humour, Schur cleverly explores some profound moral and philosophical questions. He combines wit, warmth, fun, and surreal silliness with real emotional and intellectual depth. It’s not often a hit comedy show, with episodes of 25 minutes, includes discussion of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. Can someone be redeemed by learning to be morally good? Where is meaning ultimately to be found? When is judgment merited? On what basis is anyone worthy of heaven?

Over the 4 seasons each of the characters are, in their own way, transformed for the better to live for the good of others: Eleanor the selfish bimbo, Chidi the insufferable ethicist, Tahini the superficial socialite, and Jason the amiable wastrel from the backend of Jacksonville. So much so that finally, and to their surprise, they earn their way to the real Good Place as a reward for fixing the system and giving all humans a fighting chance of getting there.

Good Place Season 4Maybe the show should have finished as they got in a balloon and ascended toward heaven. It would have been a fond farewell to deeply human and loveable characters. But the final double length episode goes a step further to ask ‘What might life in heaven be like?’ And the answers it came up with left me feeling rather depressed.

It turns out that the Good Place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

After 50 episodes, our heroes’ arrival in the Good Place is an anti-climax. It felt, and looked, empty; reminiscent of the artificially manicured campus of an anonymous multinational. Very quickly we get a sense of imperfection. The hyper-nice managers of heaven pass the buck of running heaven on to Michael and clear off as quickly as they can. Why they do so soon becomes clear – perfection is boring. The Good Place, it turns out, is effectively life on earth with all obstacles to pleasure, happiness and fulfilment removed. However, endless satiation, we learn, dulls the mind. Phoebe from Friends is there as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher-mathematician who can hardly remember her name, let alone any algebra. Her mind is turning to mush. The citizens of heaven are a subdued lot – there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge, nothing to fight for as they sleepwalk through eternity.

Faced with such an appalling future, our friends persuade Michael to give people in the Good Place an opt-out clause – non-existence. All they have to do is, when ready, to walk through a door and dissolve into a great nothingness. This introduction of finitude into heaven, paradoxically brings everyone alive again. Life is worth living once more – the party begins and the energy rises. Joy, it seems, can only exist in opposition to loss. Love only gains depth and poignancy in the face of impending separation. Real life only flourishes when it is temporary.

A Future Hope of Non-Being

And so, one by one, our friends make their own journeys towards that pretty door of woven branches in a forest glade. They are in no rush – there is infinite enjoyment in the Good Place after all. There is a sense of perfection or fulfilment to be reached, but once this transcendent moment arrives, it is time to die to the self – literally.

Good Place doorJason cannot ever top a flawless game of Madden with his father. Chidi reaches complete peace with himself, his family and Eleanor. Tahini perfects herself by acquiring endless new skills (I was reminded of Bill Murray in Groundhog day here) and by finding reconciliation with her sister and her parents. Eleanor, the real heroine of The Good Place, finds ultimate fulfilment in helping Michael realize his dream of becoming human and experiencing life (and eventually death) as a mortal.

The mood for each parting is a strange mix of muted grief and cheerful thankfulness for love and relationship that has now reached its end. Jason says goodbye to his beloved Janet. Tahini’s about to go but finds a reason to delay in a new career as an architect creating other worlds – but we can only assume this too will eventually pall and she will return one day, alone, to the door.

The centrepiece of the episode is Chidi regretfully leaving his soulmate Eleanor, despite her desperate attempts to inspire him to stay with her by revisiting together all the places he loves most on earth. But once she sees he has experienced ‘the’ moment of complete fulfilment and ‘has’ to walk through the door, she knows it would be ‘selfish’ to make him stay. It’s like both of them have no choice – they can only submit to the inevitable dissolving of their relationship – and literally of themselves.

Sugar Coated Suicide

Eschatologically speaking The Good Place presents future hope as non-being. Death, ultimately, is the goal. Jason, Chidi and Eleanor all voluntarily end their own lives, their selves fragmenting into the impersonal universe.

In other words, these were at once cheerful, sad, yet noble, suicides (‘an act of taking one’s own life intentionally and voluntarily’).  They may be a very long way from a brutal and upsetting suicide In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri that I wrote about some time ago, but they shared its portrayal of self-inflicted death as poignant and virtuous.

In the finale, in one of the only references to a specific religion in the show, Chidi explains Buddhist philosophy to Eleanor; life is like an ocean wave, it takes form for an instant, before dissolving on the beach and washing back into the ocean. The two lovers are comforted by that image as a prelude to Chidi’s dissolving. He will not be ‘gone’ altogether, his self will be absorbed into the great oneness of the universe.

Everyone I’ve talked to about the finale has shared a sense of unease, loss, ‘being cheated’ or feeling depressed. And for good reason. Let’s be blunt, the message is ‘death wins’. After all the laughs, fun, learning and growth in love among the main characters, all those relationships are eradicated. Why The Good Place was such a great show was the sheer likability of its characters. Each discovers that life at its best is self-giving love for others, but the finale celebrates the cessation of all relationship. The ‘second death’ of Jason, Chidi and Eleanor (to be followed by Tahini and Michael) not only ends the show, it negates what the show has been about.

Which eschatology?

All this made me think afresh about what Christians hope for. A number of contrasts with The Good Place come to mind.

The end of love or unending love?

First, The Good Place’s eschatology is one where individualism trumps love. Chidi has to follow his inner sense of completion all the way to the ‘death door’ in the forest. Obedience to the authentic self comes at the expense of his love with Eleanor.

In the Bible, the goal of God’s redemption is love. The message of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love in the present is just a foretaste of ‘love unleashed’ in the future. The Christian hope is of a ‘good place’ of creative, dynamic and joyful other-centered relationships, where love flourishes to an unimaginable extent as citizens of heaven are perfected to love as God loves. Love, not non-being, is the whole goal.

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

Second, I mentioned earlier the weird emptiness of The Good Place. It took me a while to pin this down and then I realised that it was because when the friends arrive there is no-one to meet them. A few moments later Michael finds himself in charge. The Good Place may be filled with people, but they remain on their own, each pursuing their own version of happiness. And when that pursuit palls, they can always dissolve themselves into an impersonal oneness.

In contrast, Christian eschatology is personal and relational through and through – God’s people together enjoying the presence of God because of his relentless commitment to restore and redeem his good creation.

Probably the most powerful image of this is in Revelation 21. The descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, marks the union of heaven and earth and of God and his people.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christian hope is not happiness, nor heaven, nor overcoming death, nor personal fulfilment: ultimately it is being in the presence of the triune God who is the source of all life and love. Believers look forward, not to an empty paradise, but a new creation in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

Third, using a literalist and individualist perspective The Good Place concluded that heaven will become boring, even oppressive, as the self comes to the ‘end of itself’.

This isn’t a new question; Christians have long speculated about what life in the new creation will be like. Rather than an endless praise service, biblical imagery suggests a dynamic, productive and creative existence full of joy and purpose. From a mortal point of view this is literally unimaginable. No human language can describe an unexperienced future. But the picture is of life in the Spirit lived outwardly to the praise of God and the good of others. It is in giving that we receive life and that is a source of inexhaustible fulfilment.

Death or Life?

The Good Place pictured death as a friend to be actively embraced, a form of release from the burden of even what the very best of life has to offer. Not without reason, there has been a lot of online comment about the finale being a trigger for those wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

In utter contrast, Christian theology sees death as an alien destructive power, an enemy to be overcome, a malign force that ruins God’s good creation and devastates relationships. It is such powerful an opponent that the climax of the whole Bible story revolves around the ‘death of death’ in the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Son, through which death has lost its power:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-56)

Christians affirm life, not a culture of death – however cheerfully and colourfully packaged.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: suicide as altruistic love

SPOILERS AHEAD

Photo: Merrick Morton / AP

I went to see Martin McDonagh’s latest in the best cinema in Dublin (The Lighthouse) with some good company who are also good critics.

This isn’t a review – there are far better reviewers than me out there who can be read with a couple of clicks. It is a reflection on one particular scene in what is a pitch-black look at life, death and hate in small town Missouri.

McDonagh’s dialogue is brilliant, profane, darkly funny and utterly depressing all at once. Someone I was with said she’s seen the film a few days before and the audience in Belfast laughed throughout. There was hardly a peep in Dublin … the tragedy trumped any comedy it seems. Now what to make of that inversion of caricatures of dour sober-sided northerners and fun-loving southerners?!

I digress. Here’s why this post.

Woody Harrelson’s Police Chief Willoughby has pancreatic cancer and has months to live. Much is made of how he is practically the only main character who is not in some way consumed by hate and bitterness. His nemesis is Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes, a scorching performance as a mother engulfed with grief and driven by rage at her daughter’s killer, the police, her violent ex-husband and very possibly herself.

Compared to her, Willoughby is a saint. He’s done his best on her daughter’s case but has no leads. He’s an older husband to his picture-perfect young wife Anne (at least 20 years his junior, over the top on the schmaltz here) and a doting dad to two lovely young daughters. There is time given to an idyllic family picnic; of the girls left to play a fun game set up by their dad beside a lake while their parents sneak off to make love (one last time as it turns out).

Willoughby (as we later learn) shows remarkable grace to, and belief in, Sam Rockwell’s vicious racist, homophobic and stupid policeman by writing him a letter (they must still do that in Ebbing Missouri) telling him (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that he is at heart a good man who needs to learn to love rather than hate. He also makes peace with Mildred despite her hounding of him in the in final weeks of his life (the three billboards of the film’s title ask why Willoughby has made no arrests for the murder and rape of her daughter). He writes her a letter too, hoping she catches the killer and regretting that he was not able to. He even pays for her three Billboards for another month.

I mention all of this because it sets Willoughby up in maximum sympathetic terms. Which all goes to make the scene which follows all the more horrible. After writing a third and final letter – this time to his wife after their day at the lake – he goes out to the stables, puts a black bag over his head, and shoots himself in the head. A message for Anne is written on the bag – something like don’t look, and call the boys at the station.

The letter to Anne is voiced by Harrelson. In it he explains why he has killed himself. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but he won’t have her watching him waste away and die a slow death. He wants to spare her that. He acknowledges she may hate him but he hopes only for a while. In time, he hopes she will come to see it was the best thing. The tone is tender and loving.

I gotta say I detested this scene. It made me feel sick. It was not only manipulative and fake, but the whole narrative arc was set to make Willoughby’s suicide a heroic act of love, wanting to spare his wife and children suffering. The note on the bag was obscene – as if it was one last act of kindness. Yet she still finds a bloodied corpse of her husband with his brains on the stable floor – an executioners bag over his head hardly makes a difference to the brutality of the act.

In Ireland, rates of suicide, especially in young men, are shocking. The impact is devastating. Somehow it is seen as ‘a way out’ of a hopeless future. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri plays right into that destructive narrative by dressing up suicide as a brave act of altruistic love.

Yes I know it is a film. Yes, it is ‘just’ telling a story and it is not necessarily ‘endorsing’ or promoting suicide. Yes, it shows the subsequent agony of Anne who asks ‘What are you supposed to do the day after your husband shoots himself?’ Yes, it advances the plot, because it raises the question in the public mind of whether Mildred’s billboards drove him to take his own life.

But, for me, McDonagh’s script glorifies suicide. The context portrays Willoughby as beyond reproach. He is not mentally disturbed or depressed. He calmly and almost naturally takes his own life, as if it was an obvious next step. The reading of the three letters after his death all portray him as noble.

Yet his supposed act of kindness was one of the most aggressive and violent scenes in a very aggressive and violent movie. Anne is left not only not knowing what to do for one day, but for the rest of her life as the widow of husband who blew his brains out. His children are left with the trauma of a daddy who killed himself. His suicide robbed them all of the time to love him, care for him and be with him when he died. To say goodbye and grieve with dignity. It left them victims of a violent crime. It was far from a loving, kind, considerate act.

I have known someone die from pancreatic cancer. It was awful but that person died with joy, faith and love, surrounded by family and friends. The Christian funeral was suffused with hope and thanksgiving for a life well lived. Pancreatic cancer, and the death it caused, did not, and does not, have the last word. There was no need either to play God by taking life, or grimly clinging on to life at all costs.

I hope, that when I die, I can do so with a little bit of that person’s faith in the God of life.

In other words, to be able to trust that dying is not the worst thing in the world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.