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The Good Place was groundbreaking TV. Did its finale measure up?

The Good Place’s bet was that you would care about its characters more than its world. So did you?

The Soul Squad at Tahani’s going-away party.
The Soul Squad prepares for one last ride.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

After four seasons and 51 episodes of ever-increasing afterlife wackiness, The Good Place ended forever — and we do mean forever — with its 52nd and final episode, “Whenever You’re Ready.” Written and directed by series creator Michael Schur, the finale put a button on each of The Good Place’s six main characters, while also allowing for quick cameos from friends old (Vicky! The Judge! Derek!) and new (a guitar teacher played by Mary Steenburgen, a.k.a. star Ted Danson’s wife).

Like most sitcom finales — and particularly like Schur’s last big finale, the 2015 ending of his series Parks & RecreationThe Good Place wrapped up with a hefty dose of sentimentality and friendship, as the characters said their last goodbyes, then moved on into the wider universe.

And if you’re asking, “Wait, didn’t they all die back in the series’ first episode? How are they ‘moving on’?” then you’ve reached the part where you should exit the article, because spoilers abound. In this special finale postmortem, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff, film critic Alissa Wilkinson, and senior correspondent Dylan Matthews discuss what happened to all six major characters, the series’ ultimate depiction of the Good Place, and a somewhat puzzling final line of dialogue.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

Emily: “Whenever You’re Ready” takes aim not at the profound but the bittersweet, wrapping up the journey of a show that attempted to cram thousands of years of moral philosophy into a four-season sitcom by having its assorted characters decide to walk through a door that would dissolve their essences and return them to the universe. This idea, in and of itself, was a more thoughtful grappling on what death might mean than American television typically offers. In execution, however, The Good Place reduced that revelation to a series of scenes where the characters made schmoopy faces at each other.

The Good Place desperately hoped viewers were into its characters as they were its high-concept shenanigans, and personally, I never quite made it all the way there. I did love several of them — Eleanor remains one of my favorite TV protagonists from recent years and Kristen Bell one of my favorite TV performances — but when it came time for the show to insist that their existences were the most important in human history, I sorta tapped out. Normally, I’m all-in on the characters who inhabit my favorite shows, but here ... I think they just got to be too darn nice.

What did you two think of the series finale? And how did you feel about its choice to center character over ideas?

Is this finale sincere or overly sentimental?

Eleanor and Chidi have a sweet date.
Do you love Eleanor and Chidi together? Do you believe their love is enough to save the universe?
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Alissa: I think I might be in the minority here, but I ... really liked this finale.

I love a good discourse on moral philosophy (who doesn’t) and The Good Place has treated me to way more of that than network TV has any business doing. But I don’t want a finale dipping too deeply into philosophical ideas. And while I’ve always liked The Good Place’s characters, I consistently saw them as types, rather than fully fleshed-out humans — which was totally fine with me, especially in such a conceptual show.

I was reflecting after the finale on why I liked it so much, and I realized it was probably due to two things.

First, “Whenever You’re Ready” is just incredibly sincere, which I guess some people will read as sentimental or even twee. But for me it was ... comforting? I wouldn’t say I think a lot about death, necessarily, but I do think a lot about how life will eventually end, and how relationships will come to a close. No matter what we believe (or don’t believe) about what will happen next, none of us really know for sure. And that makes me sad, but the finale’s gentle, comforting vision was very peaceful, and the fact that it didn’t try to squeeze in a lot of moral lessons or character developments was pleasing to me.

And second, The Good Place is a show about how to be human, and it seemed like the biggest and most resounding theme of the finale was that love is what makes us human, in the end. Eleanor asking Chidi to wait to leave until she was asleep — that got me right in the gut.

Emily: Yes, if there’s something I love about this finale, it’s the gentle acceptance of death. Really, The Good Place’s entire final season has been slowly easing the characters and the audience into the idea that sometimes, death is what gives us meaning. Knowing that we have finite time helps us make sense of all of the things we want to do and all of the things we never will. (Alas, I am probably not going to make it to the Olympics.)

But I do worry that this lovely message gets buried beneath the thinness of the characters, as you said. Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper are good enough actors to sell it, but the idea that the romance between Eleanor and Chidi was enough to save the universe — and enough to make everybody realize that what matters most in life is love — never hit me the way it was supposed to, because the characters felt so obviously constructed as opposites-attract puppets.

Weirdly, the most fully realized character by the end of the show (for me, at least) was Janet, which made me a little sad about her ending, even if The Good Place tried to assuage my fears by letting me know that she can remember the things that have happened to her in the past as if they’re happening right now. (For all her protesting that she’s not a robot, this is exactly how the robots on Westworld experience time.) So, sure, I think we’re meant to believe that she will be more than fulfilled waiting as a steward on the edge of the cosmos, guiding people toward some great unknown. And technically both Tahani and Michael are there (or, in the case of Michael, will be there someday) for her to talk to. And we don’t know how many other friends she’s made. And... And... And...

But when I saw her leading Eleanor toward the door, I felt a little sad at how lonely an ending this was for Janet. In a finale that extended a considerable amount of grace toward every character (even if they maybe didn’t precisely deserve it), it felt almost as if The Good Place was treating one of its most fascinating figures as an afterthought. And that made me realize how thin much of the other treatment of these characters preparing themselves for death had been.

What do you think about this, Dylan? Were there any endings you felt were particularly well-matched to their characters? And how do you feel about the series’ ultimate redesign of the afterlife?

Why an eternal afterlife is always doomed to become a kind of hell

Michael tries to learn a new guitar chord.
At least — it’s hell if you can’t figure out how to play the guitar.
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Dylan: The Good Place is definitely the only sitcom I’ve seen that ends with almost all of its characters deciding, one by one, to end their (after)lives — and where that’s treated as a joyous choice.

I guess I land halfway between you two. I was pleased by the callbacks to Tim Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, and by the little cameos that Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi, the show’s two main philosophical advisors, made in the beginning of the episode (you can read more about them in this piece I wrote about The Good Place and moral philosophy).

But more than that, I was pleased by the show’s ultimate approach to the afterlife, namely its conviction that the afterlife cannot be permanent without inevitably becoming a kind of hell. The penultimate episode “Patty” gets into this in more detail, with Hypatia “Patty” of Alexandria explaining that an endless afterlife ultimately just leads to boredom, intellectual decline, and a loss of meaning.

Very early in the show’s run, I gave a talk about it for the series formerly known as Drunk TED Talks, and my concluding point was that, “All afterlives are necessarily autocratic: There’s no escape. Even heavens like the Good Place can prove less than paradise, and give their inhabitants no way to exit.” I don’t mean to say “I told you so” (okay, maybe I kinda mean to say that) but it was heartening to see Michael Schur agree.

Philip Pullman of His Dark Materials fame has an essay expressing this same thought, that we cannot allow ourselves to be “subservient creatures dependent on the whim of some celestial monarch,” and that we should strive not for a kingdom of heaven but a republic of heaven, where the citizens of the republic are empowered, not ruled.

The Good Place’s Soul Squad (remember that name? What happened to that?) ultimately wound up creating such a republic, by literally overthrowing the tyranny of the Judge in favor of a new, more flexible order, albeit one that like most republics allows a small oligarchy (led by the show’s heroes, naturally) to run things in practice.

But I share Emily’s dissatisfaction with the ending on a character level. I never bought the Eleanor-Chidi romance and nothing in the finale made it feel any more vital than it had before; if anything, the finale reminded us that Eleanor has always had stronger romantic chemistry with Tahani.

Also, and this feels rude to say, but it wasn’t that funny. The Parks and Rec finale was hysterical, and not just because it featured Jean-Ralphio asking Leslie to “pretend to be my wife for an insurance scam, but then we fall in love for real?” I’ve coincidentally been catching up on both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Superstore, and they’ve been startling to watch in an age where most comedies are actually ambitious dramedies that don’t try to pack in a joke every 10 seconds. Shows like Always Sunny and Superstore that actually prioritize being laugh-out-loud funny as their main task are really rare, and knowing just how funny the writing staff of The Good Place is, I was kind of disappointed that I never let out more than a half-hearted chuckle.

Am I being unreasonable, Alissa? What about the character work landed for you?

Alissa: I don’t think you’re being unreasonable at all. This isn’t a show I’ll keep rewatching to relax, the way I do with some other sitcoms — though I think that’s partly due to the plot-driven nature of it, which feels markedly different from most network comedies. With that said, I appreciated how truly situational the humor in this show was; so many of the best jokes were in the production design. Or you had to pause the frame to see what was so funny. I love that.

But The Good Place was a show at least partly about our fears of the afterlife, and I think what I admire most about this finale is how it returns to that theme by saying, you know what? Nobody really knows. All this fun speculation is our way of saying what we wish it would be, or could be, but nobody really knows.

I’m partial to shows that constantly do the opposite of what I think they’ll do. And so I think it’s the sheer audacity of The Good Place, the fact that it’s profoundly weird and yet still ran for four seasons on network TV, that I like so much. I kind of like when I’m dissatisfied, I guess. (Possibly this is the film critic in me talking.)

And I’m grateful that the show combined spiritual, religious, ethical, and moral curiosity in such a graceful way — no small feat in this world. It had its flaws, but I’ll think of it in the same category as a true masterpiece, HBO’s (Judge-approved!) The Leftovers.

Emily: Oh, I love being dissatisfied by television. I like to feel as if a show is giving me a thorny problem to chew on, and I think that’s ultimately why this finale left me slightly disappointed.

It wanted to wrap everything up in such a tight little bow that I couldn’t quite make the leap to be as heartwarmed as it seemed to want me to be, I guess. And even though The Good Place was once wildly, riotously funny, the finale made me laugh far too infrequently. That’s not an uncommon problem for a sitcom finale, but it still felt deflating.

Even so, there’s something touching about the show’s final decision regarding what happens to us after we die. We dissolve into the fabric of the universe, but what good we’ve done might reach out to touch others on Earth, like the guy who takes Michael that piece of mail he very nearly threw out. (I did laugh when I saw that Michael’s name was “Michael Realman.”) That split-second decision to do the right thing — we’re meant to believe some tiny piece of what used to be Eleanor made him make that choice.

And while the final line of the entire series — Michael wishing the man to “Take it sleazy” — can be interpreted any number of ways (he senses Eleanor’s presence; he’s been that changed by Eleanor; their relationship lives on; etc.), it, too, is a little deflating. That’s where we’re ending? Really?

Or maybe that final line of dialogue is the point. For all we wish that life might be full of grand adventures, of our friends saving the literal universe, most of it is just making tiny choices to do the right thing here and there, shifting the moral calculus of the universe in edge cases that don’t matter but also don’t not matter.

There’s a joy to a dirtbag like Eleanor Shellstrop finding a way to influence an immortal fire squid in such a way that he realizes the beauty of impermanence. We’re all open parentheticals, waiting for the close parenthesis to come. The best thing about The Good Place was its realization that nothing lasts forever and that nothing should.

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After creating and running Parks and Recreation and writing for The Office, Michael Schur decided he wanted to create a sitcom about one of the most fundamental questions of human existence: What does it mean to be a good person? That’s how The Good Place was born.

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