The Good Place finale: Mike Schur said a unique goodbye to each character
[Ed. note: significant spoilers ahead for the series finale of The Good Place… and also of Lost.]
Throughout its four-season run, Michael Schur’s series The Good Place was consistently one of the smartest, most ambitious shows on television. NBC’s recently wrapped sitcom about four dead humans, a demon, and “a Janet” in the afterlife, trying to help each other (and eventually, the rest of humanity) become better people, regularly wrestles with some of philosophy’s toughest questions. The fact that The Good Place explored Aristotelian virtue ethics and Immanuel Kant’s deontology on a hit prime time comedy is a feat unto itself.
The recently aired series finale, “Whenever You’re Ready,” wrapped up the main characters’ stories by honoring their individual quests to be better. Anyone who’s seen the finale of Schur’s series Parks and Recreation, which fast-forwards through each character’s life to highlight their accomplishments and say a final goodbye, could have guessed that The Good Place would end similarly. In The Good Place’s penultimate episode, “Patty,” Janet (D’Arcy Carden) created a portal that would let humans who felt satisfied with their time in The Good Place “return [their] essence to the fabric of the universe” and venture into the unknown. It didn’t take a genius or a professor of ethics to figure out that the finale would focus on how and why each character stepped through that door.
But while the characters’ individual moments around the portal were surprising, they each came from a place of clear story logic, bringing everyone full circle. Simple, sweet Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), who pretends to be a silent monk for most of season 1, is the first to be ready to move on. However, when he misplaces the necklace he made for Janet to remember him by, he stays in the forest surrounding the portal for years (possibly billions of them) waiting for her to come back so he can give it to her. (The necklace was just in his other pocket.) He clears his mind and thinks about the meaning of the universe. “Kind of like a monk,” Janet observes. Jason’s arc from fake monk to real monk is the perfect end to his adventure, and when he responds, “What do you mean?”, it’s the perfect sitcom button.
Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) all have similarly neat arcs. Chidi, who went to The Bad Place because he was so indecisive, decides with perfect clarity when he’s ready to enter the portal. Tahani’s entire life — and much of her afterlife — was defined by her relationship to more powerful people. She ends up as a Good Place architect, arguably one of the most powerful beings in the universe. (It’s a testament to Schur’s affection for these characters that she wasn’t punished for her ambition, she simply learned how to channel it.) Eleanor lived her life on Earth selfishly, but she uses her final act as a sentient person to help someone else by encouraging the afterlife’s only Medium Place resident, Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe), to try and enter The Good Place.
The finale ends with Michael (Ted Danson), the demon-turned-Good-Place-architect, heading to Earth to live as a human — the greatest adventure an eternal being can take. He enthusiastically participates in distinctly human activities like burning his hands on a microwave dinner, and texting a friend that he’s five minutes away when he hasn’t left the house yet. He forms more meaningful bonds with people, including a cameo from Danson’s real-life wife, Mary Steenburgen. Michael’s ending on Earth clarifies what all that philosophy was about — the show was always more concerned with what it means to be human than what happens when we die.
Schur wrapped up his unconventional show by honoring the fact that it’s always been both a classic adventure story and a classic sitcom. Throughout its run, The Good Place’s surprises have paid off because the show plays by the rules of both comedy and drama. Schur combined the two genres in unexpected ways, but importantly, he and his creative team never sacrificed either format in service of the other.
On its surface, The Good Place is structured like a traditional NBC sitcom. Over the course of 51 half-hour episodes, beautiful, charming characters banter, solve problems, and sometimes kiss. The jokes are solid and come in predictable beats, thanks to a writers room staffed by some of the funniest people in Hollywood. It even stars the greatest sitcom actor of all time, Cheers’ Ted Danson.
Schur is a bona fide master of the genre, a collaborator on The Office who left to create Parks and Recreation, and then Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He has a specific sense of goofy, optimistic humor that’s apparent from his body of work. All three of the shows he developed are ensemble comedies filled with misfit characters who try hard and often fail in hilarious ways. He even keeps returning to certain character archetypes: there’s a clear line, for example, from Parks and Recreation’s lovable dummy Andy Dwyer to The Good Place’s even more lovable dummy, Jason. But when Schur described The Good Place’s inspiration back in 2016, he didn’t name Parks and Rec, Cheers, or any of the other NBC hang-out sitcoms that came before it. He cited Damon Lindelof’s ABC drama Lost.
Thematically, Lost and The Good Place do share a lot in common. Both take place in the afterlife, though The Good Place is much more upfront than Lost about whether its characters are dead or supernatural. Even more broadly, both shows name-check philosophers and grapple with what it means to be a person in a community.
On a technical level, The Good Place also borrowed Lost’s reliance on twists that keep the audience guessing. (Other prestige TV dramas, like The Walking Dead or Mr. Robot, might have been inspirations in that area as well.) Like those shows, The Good Place is laden with unexpected curveballs, most notably the reveal at the end of season 1 that the cast is actually in The Bad Place, and they’re meant to be torturing each other.
In addition to those huge revelations, though, Schur peppers tiny twists throughout the show, like the early season 1 reveal that the silent monk Jianyu is actually Florida DJ Jason, or that Janet has been replaced by an evil clone. The Good Place specializes in these kinds of twists, which reveal new facets of the story, rather than negating what fans have already learned about the characters. The show is like a kaleidoscope that keeps forming new patterns with the same pieces.
And the twists help propel The Good Place’s story forward. Unlike many sitcoms, which can stagnate once the writers run out of funny situations to put their characters into (Friends’ Ross and Rachel could only break up so many times), it always felt like Schur was building toward something. There’s an element of suspense within that predictable structure. The Good Place is an adventure story, then, as much as it is a sitcom; Schur is constantly putting his characters in danger and allowing them to cleverly escape, only to face new, larger threats.
Helming a well-crafted sitcom or a well-crafted adventure show is of course an accomplishment in itself. Cheers and Lost are both pinnacles of their respective forms. But what makes The Good Place so special is the way it seamlessly weaves Lost-style adventure narratives and Cheers-style joke-filled sitcom plots around each other.
Schur reveals his full plan near the end of The Good Place finale. While visiting Mindy St. Clair, Eleanor promises, “There’s greater happiness waiting for you if you form bonds with other people.” This is the heart of the show, which every joke and every plot twist is pointing toward, the unifying thesis that makes the show’s disparate elements come together and work as a seamless whole.
The final scene is of a neighbor receiving Michael’s mail, beginning to throw it away, and then deciding to go deliver it to him instead. It’s such a mundane moment, but it becomes heart-wrenching because we’ve spent four years with Michael, watching him become a better person thanks to his relationships with other people. All of Chidi’s philosophy lessons about what we owe each other were leading up to that one moral choice — a simple decision to do something nice for someone else. Michael’s final line, earnestly telling his neighbor “Take it sleazy!”, is an invitation for us to all do the same for each other.