Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers to the final season of The Good Place.
With its series finale, The Good Place took its human characters to heaven, and then beyond. It would not have been enough for Eleanor, Chidi, and the others to simply walk through pearly gates at the end of the show. Instead, The Good Place offered a more complex goodbye, one that demonstrates the role that grace can play when confronting the idea of the afterlife.
The Good Place was never going to end predictably. Throughout its four seasons, the plot has been peppered with twists and turns. Yet the one constant has been the points system used to grade humans on the choices they make in life. Designed to determine whether human beings would go to heaven or to hell, the system has been revealed by the show to be deeply flawed. Some humans become aware of the points system and work to take advantage of it, but even they end up with negative points; their worry and work do nothing to fix their predicaments. In Season 4, this revelation leads the humans to try to convince the Judge who runs the afterlife (Maya Rudolph) to rewrite the system. All of this might sound heavy—the show tangles with dense and complex questions about moral philosophy alongside its complicated plot—but The Good Place is also candy-colored and bright, filled with rapid-fire jokes and underlined with a deeply optimistic view of the human condition.
It’s fitting that the show would end on an optimistic note, then. The humans’ attempt to rework the points system pays off, with the Judge agreeing to a new afterlife that allows for human development and growth, even after people die. Instead of having their points totaled up at the end of their lives, people get to keep going through the afterlife, cycling through lessons until they get them right. They get to work out the flaws they had from their time on earth, until they finally make their way to the Good Place.
The new system sounds like a form of purgatory, except that the heaven of The Good Place is in need of an overhaul as well. When Eleanor (Kristin Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) finally make their own way to the Good Place, they find the residents to be lifeless, zombified versions of their former selves. Hypatia (Lisa Kudrow), a Greek philosopher who greets the four newcomers upon arrival, begs for their help. She tells them that the Good Place residents have had their brains numbed by the experience of having everything they could have ever wanted for eternity. Even her intellect has been dulled by living in the Good Place; her attention span and memory are gone, replaced by an obsession with milkshakes, which are in endless supply. Heaven becomes a place where everyone’s greatest wishes can come true with no end in sight, and the result is sickly sweet, like the milkshakes Hypatia drinks. Too much of a good thing turns out to be worse than the hell from which the humans escaped.
Horrified by the idea of a good eternity turned garish, the humans propose another revision to the system. This time, their change is a simple one: they add a door at the end of the afterlife. Good Place residents may stay as long as they like—nothing else about the Good Place has changed—but they are given the ability to leave at any time via an archway in the forest. They do not know what lies on the other side of the arch. And so the possibility of mortality is returned to the afterlife.
The Good Place was never going to end predictably.
The final door is a final lesson in moral philosophy for the characters of The Good Place. Each one, having achieved their goal of becoming a better person and having helped save humanity from eternal torture in the Bad Place, has the ability to enjoy the afterlife, with the knowledge that this goodness, too, will someday come to an end. Leaning on Buddhist philosophy, Chidi likens the humans’ afterlives to being like waves in the ocean. Once the wave has broken, it returns to the sea, no longer an individual wave. Once the humans walk through the door, he surmises, they return to whatever state they were in before they came to exist.
Some critics have referred to the door as a metaphor for suicide, but this reading feels simplified. The archway at the end of the afterlife is not a trapdoor nor an escape. It is the gift of relinquishing control. Throughout the show’s run, the humans have been at the mercy of forces beyond their control: experiments designed by a friendly demon (Ted Danson); the points system that dictated that they all be sent to the Bad Place at the end of their lives; and the Judge’s decisions. Once they have reached the Good Place, the humans gain control for the first time in their (after)lives, and they find that this control is not what they had been looking for.
The door, then, is a form of grace—the ability for humans to relinquish the control they have (or thought they had) over their lives. The characters who realize that they are ready to move on through the door do so not with fear or apprehension, but with contentment and acceptance. In Reflecting the Glory, N.T. Wright refers to a “rhythm of grace” in which God extends grace, and God’s people who accept it do so with thankfulness. This thankfulness is a recognition of grace that comes unexpectedly and undeservedly. When Jason realizes that he’s ready to move on through the arch, he likens it to biting into a jalapeño popper that could be too hot, but turns out to be the exact right temperature—an unanticipated grace that he cannot control, only receive with gratitude.
The others know that someday they will be ready to walk through the door, although they have no idea when that day might arrive. And although Chidi’s vision of what might be waiting beyond nods to Buddhist philosophy, it is not entirely antithetical to Christianity. Grace is something freely given, to be freely received, with gladness and gratitude—an unending cycle that will be continued in that Good Place we have been promised, “kingdom come.”