Getting to the Good Place
[Editor’s note: Here be spoilers! If you have yet to watch the first three seasons of The Good Place and would like to remain spoiler-free, proceed with extreme caution.]
Humanity’s fate, as fans of NBC’s The Good Place well know, is a subject for moral philosophy, whether through stacks of frayed library books, constant references to philosophers, or tension-filled replications of famous thought experiments. Yet The Good Place relies just as strongly on another discipline, soteriology, or the study of salvation, which comes strongly into play as the four main characters, Eleanor Shellstrop, Chidi Anagonye, Jason Mendoza, and Tahani Al-Jamil, navigate the complexities of what happens to us after we die.
Take, for example, the show’s core premise. Within moments of the very first episode—spoiler alert!—we learn that Eleanor’s fate has been controlled by a point system that measures the positive or negative worth of each of our actions until the day we die, at which point the powers that be tally up our total to determine if our eternal fate is “up there,” in the Good Place, or, you know, “down there,” in the Bad Place. No matter the strength of the show’s inquiry into morality and ethics, soteriology—the study of salvation—means destiny for the four humans.
Initially, the show’s creator Michael Schur set out to explore the question of how to become a better person, as aided by the discipline of moral philosophy. The Good Place is well-known and well-regarded for relying the insights of professional philosophers, and the first two seasons drew heavily on the question of whether explicit moral instruction could help a rather amoral and self-centered individual, Eleanor, become a better person. In season 1, Chidi, the comically indecisive philosophy professor, gave Eleanor lessons in philosophy complete with chalk-dusted blackboard lectures listing headings such as “Ethics 101” and “Utilitarianism.” Season 2 continued the exploration of the utility of explicit moral instruction, hinging its climactic events on a “real” Good Place example of the classic philosophical “trolley problem.”
Season 3 shifted the focus back to Earth and to the question of how to get humans to the Good Place. In other words, how will they achieve salvation? No matter what Schur and the writers themselves believe about the afterlife, the narrative they’ve set in motion relies on claims about what happens to us after we die, and season 3’s dramatic shifts emphasized not so much the twists and turns of ethics, but the secret details of the Good and Bad Places themselves: specifically, that the points system is “all forked up” (to use the special anti-swearing lingo of the Good Place); no humans have gotten into the Good Place for centuries, and no one in the Good Place is doing anything about it.
Both the Good and Bad Places have their own heavenly and hellish bureaucracies. We’ve seen Bad Place admin before, a place of dark cubicles that feels like a grungy, run-down club, and we’ve seen the Judge’s chambers, whose sterility perhaps reveals the Judge’s potential ineffectiveness. The Judge spends more time obsessing over Mexican food and crime drama than worrying about immortal justice, and the doorkeeper between the Judge’s chambers and Earth wants nothing more than frog memorabilia from the real Earth. 1980s-style computers tally up the points, while futuristic floating screens spring forth from dusty ancient books inscribed with all our names. It’s a bit like stepping into a technological “Jeremy Bearimy,” the Good Place description of why time and space function differently there than they do on earth. Here, the technology of both the past and the future has an improbable grip on the fates of us all.
The Good Place isn’t the only fictional take on the idea of heavenly and hellish bureaucracy; after all, our modern word “hierarchy” originates with an ancient Greek term referring to the “rule of a high priest.” The Jewish and Christian bibles include a ranked order of both angels and demons, and it’s no wonder that in these modern times of cubicles, skyscrapers, assistant VPs, and CEOs, interpretations of religious stories have turned more and more to bureaucratic representations of Heaven and Hell. I’m thinking, first, of C.S. Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century The Screwtape Letters, in which a young demon, Wormwood, receives letters from his better-ranked demon uncle, Screwtape, about how to tempt a particular human. While the made-for-TV version of The Screwtape Letters has yet to appear, heavenly and hellish bureaucracy received television attention recently with Amazon’s rendition of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In this miniseries, Heaven’s long corridors reflected ethereal glowing light and angels have retractable wings, while down in Hell, demons with pockmarked faces and worse tried, zombie-like, to escape their own darkened hallways.
In the case of The Good Place, the heavenly bureaucracy raises a host of questions. First of all, we know that the points system has become, to use one of Eleanor’s favorite phrases, a whole lot of “holy forking shirt balls.” As Michael has figured out, no one’s points measure up to Good Place standards anymore. Even the very “best” human they can find, one Doug Forcett who lives off the land in rural Canada, isn’t good enough, because each “good” choice has so many unfortunate repercussions. Life on earth has become too complicated and fraught with moral peril to permit entry to the Good Place. No matter what we do, we’re causing inadvertent harm, and the harm appears to far outweigh the good.
This conclusion is the rare place where the show veers from its usual story-based approach to moral reasoning to something that more closely resembles a didactic lecture. If only we could get our collective “ashes” together well enough to avoid, say, pesticide contamination, mass species extinction, or extreme poverty, the point system might very well right itself again and we’d receive proper afterlife credit for our good works.
Worse, as Michael realizes, no one in the Good Place’s “Accounting” department cares. The Head Good Place Accountant, Neil, is more concerned about birthday cake in the staffroom than the fact that no human has made it to the Good Place in roughly 500 years—roughly since the time of Copernicus or Galileo, or the dawn of the modern era, which is arguably when life started to become a lot more complicated.
If Heaven, Hell (or both) has a “CEO,” we haven’t met him, her (or them) yet, and I’m left wondering if this absence has something to do with Good Place admins losing their sense of moral direction or corporate purpose. Neil is clearly a lower-level white-collar worker; surely he reports to someone in a business suit? Michael’s boss Shawn at least wears a coat-and-tie, which in managerial parlance means he’s a guy in charge, but is he In Charge? Do we need a Someone-In-Charge? Thus far, The Good Place suggests an existentialist world, one which, as so many philosophers have suspected, is indeed rather godless in general and Jesus-less in particular.
Usually, The Good Place falls back on an existentialist explanation, despite the existence of a Good and Bad Place as an essential part of the plot. Sartre’s No Exit remains the obvious referent point for four humans meant to torture each other in an eternal, inescapable afterlife situation, except that here, we add a side of corporate bureaucracy to the existentialist main course. If all we can rely on are godless committees, and these heavenly or hellish bureaucracies are equally intent on preserving their own status quo, our actions on earth have as little value as they did for Chidi during his Peeps-and-M&Ms chili-eating crisis.
Regardless of God’s existence, the fates of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason rest not so much with their moral actions anymore, but with a dense and impenetrable corporate afterlife system that may or may not know what it’s doing. Good Place admins care more about their internal affairs (such as birthday cake) than the presumed mission of their organization of overseeing the Good Place. The Bad Place, for its part, remains fiendishly devoted to its core mission of torturing humans once they arrive at a pretty hellish-sounding Bad Place.
For both Places, it’s unclear whether or not the mission of either Place involves getting more humans into each Place. Does the Good Place’s corporate mission encompass getting humans into the Good Place, or simply looking after the Place and the people once they’re there? Similarly, does the Bad Place’s core mission also include recruitment, or are both Good and Bad Place admins themselves cogs in the wheel of a system they didn’t set up?
Finally, it’s ironic that among Good and Bad Place admins, only Michael and Janet feel any passion about getting deserving folk into the Good Place. A rare visit to the mailroom of the actual Good Place introduced us to the depressingly sanctimonious Good Place Committee, which is so interested in cooperation and doing the right thing that it probably gets nothing done at all. The Committee promises to spend years creating various “elite investigative teams” to create more teams who will eventually form the Commission. Michael deadpans in response, “just so you know, the whole time you’re doing this, the bad guys are continuing to torture everyone who ends up in the Bad Place, which is everyone.”
To which the Committee responds sanctimoniously, “And that deeply concerns us. Have you seen the memoranda we’ve sent each other about how concerned we are?”
Leaving the Committee behind, Michael and his demon ex-boss Shawn agree on one final experiment, one final Place, with new ways to torture the humans, which will be the setting of season 4. As we viewers anticipate this final season, I find myself wondering how the show will resolve its many philosophical questions. Will moral philosophy save our collective “ashes,” or will the solution to our salvation come from somewhere else?
My money’s on the four humans finding their own way through this maze of moral philosophy and a moribund eternal bureaucracy. In countless books, movies, and television shows (particularly ones that pit humans against aliens, supernatural, or corrupt and corporate forces), what we do best is surprise our supposed superiors with unexpected ways out of the hells in which they put us. Time and time again, narrative has given us strength in the power of love, humor in the strangest and most inopportune times and places, and meaning in the face of deep existential crisis.
During the season 3 episode where each character confronts the futility of life after Michael and Janet reveal the truth about their recent deaths and various reboots, Tahani figures out a solution first: use her wealth to give others happiness. She travels the streets of Sydney blissfully handing out wads of cash and generous donations. Eleanor tries out selfishness again, but when she does one supposedly final good act, she realizes that she still can “try to do good.” Even if they can no longer get into the Good Place based on their actions, she realizes that “there are still people in this world that we care about, so I say we try and help them be good people.”
Chidi, meanwhile, is stuck with philosophy, and he’s miserable, and not only vestless, but shirtless as well, not to mention wandering the streets of Sydney scaring passersby with quotes from Nietzsche. Later, he tries to start a sentence about Sartre, leaving us once again in the realm of existentialism and No Exit, but Jason interrupts. Philosophy tries to have the final say, but all-too-human Jason, with his stupidity and his sweetness, gets the final word.
In the scene, Jason begins a presumably lame story about “a guy from my dance crew in Jacksonville called Big Noodle.” The others smirk, expecting the worst. (“It was nice knowing you,” they start to say.) Big Noodle always showed up late to dance rehearsal, until one day Jason crashes at Big Noodle’s place and learns that his friend has to juggle several jobs in order to take care of his aging grandparents. “The point is,” Jason tells the Judge, “you can’t judge humans ’cause you don’t know what we go through.”
What we go through is special, and it just may be what saves us. As season 3 ended, Janet comforts Eleanor by reminding her that even if they’re in the pandemonium, John Milton’s place of “all demons” in Paradise Lost, she and Chidi found each other. Eleanor replies, “I guess all I can do is embrace the pandemonium, find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.”
Eleanor’s heart, Jason’s stupidity, or Tahani’s surprising generosity: these human qualities save each of us time and time again. In The Good Place, moral philosophy may not be able to save us, but the qualities we bring to our lives may well determine our eternal fates in this world, or the next.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.