[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the series finale of The Good Place. Read at your own risk!]
The Good Place was a show about death that was actually a show about life. Until the finale. Then it became a show about death that was actually about how to watch loved ones die. The NBC sitcom went out on Thursday night in what was, at times, a blaze of glory, but mostly it was intimate. It was sad and hopeful, riotous and sincere, a sweeping vision of a new world order that didn't take its eyes off the characters who matter. The Good Place's series finale should have been an impossible juggling act (then again, so should the whole show), but it worked because it was essentially cycling through all the contradictory emotions that (I assume) people feel when they know they're at the end: sad, hopeful, wry, earnest, looking at the big picture, thinking about the people they love.
It's fitting that the final episode of The Good Place, a show that chose to end when it could have easily dragged things out another Bearimy or two, was about being at peace with leaving even when not everyone around you is ready to let you go. The most interesting tension in this episode didn't come from watching Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) make peace with the door at the edge of the afterlife; it came from watching their friends figure out how to say goodbye. What I'm saying is that I knew the door was coming -- what I didn't know was that Chidi might be ready to walk through it before Eleanor was.
In "Whenever You're Ready," it's Jason who's ready to go first. "I just suddenly had this calm feeling," he says, "like the air inside my lungs was the same as the air outside my body." The Band-Aid comes off pretty cleanly for our Jacksonville airhead: He throws a party, complete with a performance from Dance Dance Resolution, and goes with Janet (D'Arcy Carden) to the door, where she comforts him with the reminder that she doesn't experience time like he does. Janet is Dr. Manhattan. "To me, remembering moments with you is the same as living in them," she explains. Unexpectedly, she does get to live in a few more moments with Jason thousands of Bearimies later when he reveals he never actually went through the door. He found the locket he thought he lost in the woods and waited around in nature to give it to her -- a monk-like experience that thankfully did not make him any less clueless.
Tahani, up next, gets one of the two twists of the hour. She's mastered every skill on her list -- including learning woodworking from Nick Offerman (as himself!) -- but just as she thinks she's ready to go, she decides she isn't. What she actually wants to do is become an architect. That's unheard of for a human, but so is redesigning the entire afterlife system, so who cares? Tahani, who spent so much of her life pretending to help, dedicates her afterlife to truly helping people and doing it silently. It's a generous grace note for a character whose growth would have been undercut by a congratulatory send-off, and it's also a sweet counterpoint to how much she used to worry, even in this last season, that she wasn't useful to her friends. Tahani finally gets the bigger purpose she deserves.
As much as everyone has matured, Eleanor draws the line at Chidi deciding he's ready to move on. When he starts to get the itch -- or whatever the exact opposite of an itch is -- Eleanor tries every trick in the book to get him to stay. She takes him (and the crew of The Good Place) to Athens and Paris, a sweet change of scenery for a show that spent most of its time in a cartoonish nowheresville. It's jarring to see Eleanor and Chidi on location in actual Europe after four seasons spent mostly on streets that look like Epcot's version of Europe. Walking through the door feels more final -- more like death -- when the world they're leaving behind looks like this one.
But Chidi is ready. Eleanor fights it at first, crying that she's not ready to go but doesn't want to be alone again, like she was for most of her life. She relents when she realizes she doesn't have the right to hold him back. Not to get too "Eleanor reading What We Owe to Each Other" about it all, but the emphasis in "Whenever You're Ready" is on the "You're." Saying goodbye is about selflessness, a virtue that hasn't always come easily to our Arizona dirtbag. Look at her now. Look at Chidi, too: confidently making the ultimate decision.
Chidi's last night with Eleanor is the most emotional scene of the finale, and the one that gives the clearest voice to this episode's attitude toward death. "Picture a wave in the ocean," Chidi says. "You can see it, measure its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through... You know what it is. It's a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it's gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be for a little while. That's one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean, where it came from, and where it's supposed to be."
It takes Eleanor a little longer to be ready to return to the ocean. She starts by convincing lone wolf Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) to enter the system ("cocaine and self-pleasure" only get you so far), but the real connection holding her back is Michael (Ted Danson). Which brings us to this finale's second twist. The episode seemed like it would be all about saying goodbye to the humans, but its sweetest surprise is reserved for everyone's favorite reformed demon: Eleanor gets the Judge (Maya Rudolph) to let Michael do the one thing he's always wanted to do -- become human. With Janet's help, she sends him back to Earth, memories intact, to live "like, some amount of time" before dying and entering the system, test and all. And because he technically has no way to be sure the afterlife won't change in his absence, he'll be living like all humans do: unsure of what happens when he dies.
In the midst of all of these farewells, "Whenever You're Ready" is also a portrait of a redesigned afterlife system that's firing on all cylinders. New people are accepted into the Good Place every day (some of the latest include Zora Neale Hurston, the "Where's the beef?" lady, and St. Thomas Aquinas, who gets a big cheer from Chidi), and they really do arrive as better people. Tahani's family is loving now. But for the most part, even the most superficial people, like John (Brandon Scott Jones) or Eleanor's old roommates, still have roughly the same personalities. This might get dinged as lazy writing, but I like it: It fits nicely with The Good Place's love for people who don't seem saintly on the surface. Everyone is redeemable, yes, but every normal person (total monsters excluded) already has traits that are worth holding on to.
It's that love of everyday humanity that sends Michael to Earth, where he's excited to burn his hands on microwave dinners and learn to play the guitar (from Ted Danson's wife, Mary Steenburgen). That totally normal life is also what a part of Eleanor finds its way back to after she walks through the door. We follow a piece of her essence as it taps one of Michael's neighbors on the shoulder right as he's throwing out Michael's mail, which the guy got by mistake. The neighbor changes his mind, fishes the envelope out of the trash, and gives it to Michael, who's thrilled by what it contains: a rewards card. Michael thanks the man: "I'll say this to you, my friend, with all the love in my heart and all the wisdom of the universe: Take it sleazy."
I love this ending for how simple it is. This fragment of Eleanor's spirit, returned to the universe, doesn't save Michael from a falling air conditioner. It just gets his mail where it needs to go. That mail makes Michael happy. Michael's happiness connects him with another person. And that's where The Good Place leaves us -- not with a death, but with one last look at how to live: joyfully and gratefully, doing the right thing just because it's right. It's a very small story and the biggest story in the universe.
Lines of the night:
Jason: "You're sad. I can tell because you have the same looks on your faces that my teachers did whenever I raised my hand in class."
Eleanor: "Can you make me a bed shaped like a giant highlighter and, like, a sexy edible valedictorian robe?"
Chidi in Paris: "You even picked the ideal weather. Overcast and chilly. Perfect for staying inside and reading."
Derek (Jason Mantzoukas): "Derek is now both a singular point in space and yet Derek also contains space itself. The nexus of Derek is without dimension. The moment of Derek's creation and the inevitable heat death of the universe are now inexorably the same."
Judge: "I mean, you did save the universe and all, but your tone. It's your tone."
Michael: "I am returning my damn essence to the damn fabric of the damn universe."
Janet: "I hate to see you walk through the final door at the edge of existence, but I love to watch you leave."
Michael: "Oh man it's hot. But it's a -- it's a dry heat."