“The Good Place” Makes Peace with Death

SPOILERS! SO MANY SPOILERS!

Over the last four years, The Good Place fans knew writers were going to have to deal with the “real” good place eventually. It was the inevitable end. Each character, including our favorite demon, was invited into a deeper knowledge of their shortcomings. Which meant growth. As each character got better and better, we knew that sooner or later we were going to see what heaven really looked like for these writers.

I expected something fairly standard: pleasant, comfortable, picturesque. Lots of sunshine. Candy that didn’t give you diabetes. Oh, and eternity. Michael’s neighborhood—but better. Sure, there’d be problems. But hey, our heroes would figure it out, just like they had everything else. Tahani would smooth things over with the troublemakers. Chidi would figure out a possible solution. Eleanor and Michael would implement it. And Jason… Well, Jason would bring his stories of Dance, Dance Revolution and Florida alligators and his many, many near-death experiences. Once they righted that ship, our heroes would party at long last. With the universe corrected, they’d drift into a warm, fuzzy eternity of endless happiness. Maybe our last glimpse of them would be in a hot air balloon—a real one, headed to the real good place—while the sun sets behind them. Their just reward.

Wrong.

Imagine my surprise when that hot air balloon showed up much, much earlier than I’d expected. And when Michael Schur and his team of writers identified eternal happiness as the problem with heaven, I perked up. This was going to be way more interesting than I’d anticipated.

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My husband is an Episcopalian Christian, and I’m a Zen Buddhist. Our faiths have a surprising amount of overlap. Beyond the liturgy and candles and incense, there are deeper parallels. Both welcome variations on practice or worship while at the same time valuing order and tradition. Both emphasize reason and study, both ordain priests more as teachers and guides than as sources of absolute truth (unlike, say, the Pope or the Mormon Prophet), both are wrestling to change a long history of excluding women from leadership, both adore paradoxes, and both are skeptical of mysticism, preferring the simplicity of everyday routine and practice.

But one area where my husband and I differ is the question of God and the afterlife. He believes in God and is fairly certain there’s something after all this. But ask me if there’s a God and I’ll say with a shrug, “Who knows? No one in this room.” As for an afterlife? I believe there’s nowhere to go, because there’s only this.

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One of the central questions in The Good Place is what the point of human life is. What is its value? And what gives it value? In the show’s reality where lives are assigned points for good deeds, it would seem our worth is entirely based on what we do. Were we kind to that homeless person who asked for a dollar? Did we help the 80-year-old who dropped her groceries outside our apartment? Did we lie to a friend to avoid helping her through a tough time? In the language of modern Christianity and Eleanor, screw faith. It’s good deeds all the way, babe.

But the writers say, hey. That’s not enough. And it’s not enough because A) our contribution lies in how we relate to others, not just whether we do objectively good deeds, and B) we are always changing. To judge a person at any particular point in life is to deny the fact that we are never static. We’re getting worse, or we’re getting better. But nothing stays the same.

And once Eleanor made that argument to the Judge, I should’ve known Abrahamic ideas of heaven and eternal life were in trouble.

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Most conceptions of heaven, like the conception of “good” people and “bad” people, are static. Heaven is like a paycheck. Do a good job on earth, and you earn mansions and the presence of god and, if you’re Mormon, godhood itself.

But Michael Schur and his writers’ room point out the inherent problem with this when Chidi meets Hypatia in heaven. One of ancient Greece’s greatest mathematicians—and one of the world’s first women mathematicians—should be one of the smartest characters we meet. Instead we find her incoherent and dressed in a sports jersey, barely able to recognize numbers and sated with milkshakes. Her formidable mind has allowed her to last a little bit longer than the average person, and she’s able to stumble her way into a summary of the problem: Heaven is boring.

And Heaven is boring because it’s eternal.

True, the final episodes feel a bit rushed. Our heroes have spent three years working out a solution to the problem of hell and now get a couple hours of TV to solve heaven. But I think it was the right choice. Much as we love these characters, it would’ve meant watching them do what they had already done. Unlike a lot of storytellers these days, The Good Place writers know that each repetition dulls the effect. So they move us through it swiftly.

And ultimately, the solution to heaven was planted early in the show. The solution to eternity is the same solution to meaninglessness, and to selfishness.

Death.

This flies in the face of a lot of Abrahamic beliefs, but as a Buddhist, I feel the show nailed it. Shunryu Suzuki, in his oft-cited book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, says that “the eternal exists because of non-eternal existence.” The eternal is the life that Eleanor’s particles drift down to join in the end. It’s paying it forward. It’s making space for new life, new growth. It’s what very old trees do when resources are scarce for the young ones. They give of themselves, even if it means their own individual life ends.

And Chidi’s beautiful speech about joining the water is straight out of Buddhist beliefs about life and death, as he says himself.

We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life … The energy of the river of life forms living things—a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants—then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the whirlpool is swept away, reentering the larger flow.

Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen

In Zen Buddhism, we learn that fear exists only because we do not see life as it is. We refuse to see ourselves for what we are: a temporary manifestation of a permanent, universal life. The peace that Chidi and Jason and Eleanor articulate, when they just know it’s time to let go and rejoin the river, is the peace of enlightenment. Of nirvana. Watching Eleanor walk through the archway and dissolve into stardust, which scattered about and joined other lives, I wept. Not because I was sad this was the end, but because of the joy. In my faith, that was the moment at which she became free and whole, the moment at which she knew love completely. And gave it to us.

As a Buddhist, I don’t often get to watch shows or films that reflect my faith. The Good Place for me was a beautiful experience of affirmation, of engaging more deeply with my understanding of the universe and my place in it. Of grieving more fully for those I love, who’ve scattered their love to the universe already: my grandma and grandpa and Frank. We are their inheritors. The show has given us all a little piece of Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor.

Let’s see if we can keep their river flowing.

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If you’re curious how a very white woman like me ended up Buddhist, here’s how that started. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki are excellent places to start. Further resources and services are available at Treeleaf Zendo, an all-online zendo based in Japan and open 24 hours a day.

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