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After a Season From Hell, ‘The Good Place’ Rediscovers Optimism

And we’re off to Australia

NBC/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The Good Place is the only half-hour comedy that makes you overanalyze promotional photos like a Westworld fan on Reddit—that’s what happens when a show ends its first season by completely flipping the script and revealing that the beloved protagonists who had been chosen to live in a froyo-filled utopia are actually trapped in a specially concocted place of eternal damnation. Even more than a year after the fact, the Season 1 finale reveal that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place—underscored by Ted Danson’s maniacal laugh, as his previously affable Michael morphs into a literal demon—is bewildering, and leaves you a puddle of discomfort and twisted joy. The Good Place really went there, and Season 2 was a hard reset in every sense of the word—all four main characters’ minds having been wiped of the shocking revelation.

Somehow, the second season has followed that twist with even more twists, surprising less in the conceit than the manner in which they were presented. That Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Jason (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) figure out they were still in the Bad Place was to be expected. What wasn’t expected was that they discovered this in the season’s premiere, and that through the next three episodes they became allies with Michael. Turns out even an omniscient demon might be capable of becoming a better “person,” one willing to help humans venture through Bad Place and beyond to save their souls.

So before Thursday night’s finale, “Somewhere Else,” I saw a photo of Eleanor pointing in astonishment at something out of frame, and my mind raced from the possibilities. Was the Good Place never real to begin with? Were they going back to the Bad Place? Will they get their own Medium Place? Are they watching the Jacksonville Jaguars fall apart in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots? (Honestly, an infinite loop of that game could be Jason’s Bad Place.)

The Good Place’s premise has always felt exceptionally bleak. There are jokes about torturing people with “butthole spiders,” but off-screen there are millions of dead humans being subjected to this stuff, for eternity. If you watch the show, you’ve probably thought about whether you deserve to be in the Good Place; and the scary thing is, a lot of us would concede that we don’t, considering how few characters in the show have earned it based on the established points system. Despite what the wallpaper says, everything is not fine. The Season 1 finale’s twist, transparently cynical in nature, only reinforced that by rendering the moral strides made by Eleanor and the other humans feel like a complete waste of time. Heading into the Season 2 finale, it was impossible not to brace for the worst again.

What a relief, then, that “Somewhere Else” ended with the show expressing optimism about humanity’s ability to better itself—even if it means that our four main characters must literally crash back down to Earth.

As it turns out, the tests given to Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani by eternal Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph, in a lovely bit of casting) in the penultimate episode weren’t as high-stakes as they seemed—rather, they were just a form of personal amusement for a bored omniscient being who loves burritos. After a few more attempts to find a solution that makes everyone happy, Michael comes up with a revolutionary idea—by afterlife standards—for how the humans could prove their worth: What if they were sent back, to continue living their lives after a near-death experience?

It’s probably not an actual return to Earth proper, but a kind of simulation, one where the characters’ ability to be good for the sake of being good can truly be tested. This is essentially a litmus test for their humanity; if the lessons from Chidi’s philosophy classes will be applied without the prospect of a heavenly reward. For Eleanor, the only human we follow in “Something Else,” that means a process of personal betterment, starting with cleaning her filthy room, quitting her crappy job, going vegetarian, and telling the truth to her shitty roommates, even at the risk of losing them.

That the process eventually weighs Eleanor down and she begins to slip isn’t meant as an indictment of her character, but the taxing nature of trying to make every right decision every time, and how that can backfire—you’re lying to yourself if you say you’ve done every possible good deed for every scenario for an entire year. In Eleanor’s odyssey we see the inherent flaws of the Good Place–Bad Place system, which asks for near-perfection when being human rarely is so cut and dry. The entire ethos of The Good Place’s afterlife is in need of a reboot—not just Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani.

As Eleanor slides back into her old ways, it takes a nudge from Michael, cheating the simulation by going inside of it as a bartender—a cheeky Cheers reference for Ted Danson—to set her on the right track. “What do we owe to each other?” he asks her. The philosophical treatise from Thomas Scanlon was one of many moral lessons from The Good Place’s resident philosopher, Chidi. Eleanor actually finds a seminar on YouTube of Chidi explaining the concept at a university in Australia, and watches the whole thing. (It’s like three hours long, so she definitely deserves arbitrary Good Place points.) As Season 2 comes to a close, Eleanor has boarded a plane and flown all the way to Australia to seek Chidi out; Michael, observing from afar, lets out a triumphant, “Here we go.”

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Eleanor’s cosmic journey of enlightenment is taking her to Australia, which was also the setting for the final episodes of The Leftovers. It’s a primal, earthy expanse that evokes apocalyptic symbolism, but it is also a place of self-discovery. Where else can you find yourself, if not at the very edge of the world?

When The Leftovers ended, there was a bittersweetness, but also a sense of optimism; that two people who were irreparably broken by a Rapture-like event could learn to live and love again, even if it took actual decades and might be predicated on an elaborate lie. The Good Place’s own spiritual journey may not deliver quite the same emotional heft—or as many gorgeous shots of the Outback—but as the show goes on, one can expect Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani to test their moral compasses. And though they’ll probably struggle, Season 2 ends with the hope that they will leave this other-Earth as the better people they’ve been striving to be.

It is a far more optimistic bend than Evil Ted Danson wiping their minds for a hard reset of their personal hell. The Good Place is hoping for the best out of people, despite a few stumbles along the way. What’s more human than that?