The Strangely Melancholy Ending to The Good Place
I’m a little behind everyone else when it comes to this show, as my wife and I tend to give television programs a good rest between seasons, rather than binging the entire thing as once. So I only just watched the ending to The Good Place, and found that I wanted to talk about it. So, fair warning, there will be massive spoilers in this piece. But, I mean, I’m kind of a year late on this anyway.
My YouTube channel’s primary purpose is to offer a professional novelist’s perspective on storytelling, with an eye toward helping aspiring writers hone their craft. I’ll therefore be looking at the finale of The Good Place through that lens—trying to pick apart what writers can learn from it. However, I’ll try to offer insight to those of you who are interested in stories in general. So I hope you’ll stick around, even if you aren’t yourself a writer.
Intro: An Excellent Goodbye
Let me begin by saying that I thought the finale of The Good Place was excellent. Most of this essay, then, will focus on talking about what I think it did right—and how we can apply those lessons to our own stories. At the same time, however, I do find the ending strangely melancholy. It made choices I wouldn’t have made, and even choices I don’t particularly like.
This is a dichotomy I think should be more present in criticism. If asked to give feedback on this ending, I would not have told the writers to change anything. I think it is the perfect ending to the story they wanted to tell, and I wouldn’t have wanted them to alter it, even if I personally might have preferred the changes. I wouldn’t want them to change the story from the one they wanted to tell into one I wanted to tell. I have my own stories to tell my way. This story should be told their way.
I wish we all were a little more willing to acknowledge when a piece of art is well executed, even if it’s not our favorite style. Indeed, I think it’s important in criticism to acknowledge what a piece is trying to do, and judge it based on how well it achieved that goal. Art SHOULD be individual, and never perfectly the way someone else would do it—because otherwise, where is its individuality?
In a more macroscopic way, there SHOULD be great art that we just don’t like. We all have different tastes. You could make the best salmon dinner in the world, by way of example, and I still wouldn’t like it—because I just don’t like fish.
But we’ll get into my complaints more at the end. First, let’s talk about WHY this is such an excellent finale.
1: An actual ending
First off, this is actually an ending. Too often, storytellers are hesitant to let something end. (Either that, or on Network Television, a show gets canceled before a proper ending can be devised and executed.)
The Good Place has a true ending. Satisfying resolutions to all of the characters, without stingers promising more. They indicate how characters might proceed without implying the story itself will proceed. It takes surprising restraint to do an ending this way. I have a little side project (have a cutout of the Rithmatist peek out from the corner here and wiggle) that I wrote some years ago where I would have been better off with a more definitive ending, rather than adding a stinger in the epilogue
promising another book.
I’ve been unable to get back to this story, despite wanting to, for various reasons. Everyone would have been better off if I’d been a little more definitive at the end. Then, if I ever did write a sequel, it would be a pleasant surprise—as opposed to what we have, which is a long, drawn out wait by fans for something teased and promised.
The Good Place takes the time to look at each of the characters in turn, letting us linger with them and remember how much we enjoyed their stories. For a few characters, we’re shown what they’re going to do with their lives moving forward—without mystery or teases. For the rest, the story moves them from mostly dead into DEAD dead. This is an ending, and I’m impressed with how good a job the writers did.
2: Promise, Progress, Payoff.
The true brilliance of this ending, however, isn’t in simply ending—but in making good on the show’s promises. Each character gets what they need, fulfilling long-standing character promises and development through the show.
Jason is Zen. Chidi makes a decision, and is one hundred percent satisfied with it. Tahani learns to focus on others, instead of herself. Michael gets his one true wish, that of becoming real. Janet remains Janet.
Each of these endings is extremely satisfying, and excellently handled. There’s JUST enough time for each one—and the structure of the ending helps lend it momentum. From the moment we realize what is going to happen to Jason, we can anticipate what the plot of the rest of the series is going to be. We’re going to watch the characters end, one by one. It’s honestly a little morbid, as it dawns on us what is going to happen. But it’s also very appropriate.
Now, you’ll probably notice I didn’t mention Elanor in the list above. As the main character, her story is a little different from the others. This IS an ensemble cast, but Elanor is our first character, and is our viewpoint for the majority of the series. So let’s talk about her ending. What has she needed to do? What is the promise of her plot?
The show makes it clear that her ultimate ending is to make sure all of her friends are happy. This is a nice little twist, and a fulfillment of her subtle character arc through the series. The trick of the Good Place is that Elanor fulfilled her first character arc (that of becoming a better person and proving she can change) very early into the first season. The rest of the series has focused on her sharing this understanding with others.
Unlike Tahni, who has a general “look outside myself to others” resolution—Elanor’s final character climax is more personal. She can’t leave until she has helped each and every one of the other characters find their place. This is why she needs to let Chidi make his decision and support him, and why she can’t leave until Michael has what HE wants.
It’s an excellent little mini-arc within the last sequence that I really appreciated for its subtly, and I love how it recontextualizes Elanor’s plot through the last three seasons.
3: Thematic Satisfaction
Theme is this strange thing that’s both harder and easier than new writers think it is. It’s easier because, for the most part, you shouldn’t worry too much about theme. I am a big proponent of letting them develop naturally out of the character stories you’re telling.
That said, it can take some work to wrap up your theme at the end of a story, and to highlight it during revision. Once your characters have gone through their arcs, I find it appropriate to ask yourself “What is my story REALLY about, and how can I make some choices in revisions that will highlight that theme.”
I’d say there are two major themes to The Good Place. The first is probably the most obvious: People CAN change and get better. Not only that, but humans are complex messes of emotion—some of which it is hard, even for ourselves to define. And so, reducing someone down to simply “Good” or “Evil” is far to reductionist.
The ending plays to this idea really well. It implies that not just SOME people can change, but EVERYONE can—indeed, everyone get to heaven if given the time, the love, and the opportunity. This is a wonderful theme, and is perfectly executed. It’s extremely optimistic and matches the mischievously philosophical tone of the series.
The second them of the series is a little more subtle. This theme is an idea I think Milton expressed best in Paradise Lost when he had Satan proclaim “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” The Good Place is, of course, playfully metaphoric with the ideas of Good, Evil, Heaven, and Hell.
This series absolutely isn’t the creators saying, “Hey, here’s what the afterlife is going to be like.” They are clear about that, and even very clear—through exaggerated personalities and storylines—that NONE of this is to be taken literally. However, they do work through the entire series to reinforce Milton’s concept.
Hell is not, ironically, a place. It is a state of mind. The four characters are in hell when they’re not working together, not growing better, and not showing love to each other. They’re in heaven, regardless of their physical location in the story, when they are helping one another.
To that end, the ending reinforces that the Good Place isn’t heaven. Heaven is being with family and friends, and serving them to improve. Finding that the Good Place is kind of awful makes perfect sense to us as viewers, because our characters have already been in a Good Place for quite a long time.
The series deftly, then, gives us what it promised from the first episode—our characters to get into heaven—without us realizing it has happened. It’s a trope by now to say, “The real treasure was the friendship we found along the way.” The Good Place proves that even the most time-worn and cliched idea, when executed well, can feel fresh, original, and satisfying.
That said, there is a little asterix to this idea in the series. A footnote, one might say, where the show decides to contradict it’s own philosophy.
Part Two: Paradise Abandoned
Let me preface this second half of the essay with two caveats. First, I’m by no means an expert in philosophy—and I certainly know less about formal philosophy than the writers of this show.
Second, it’s abundantly obvious that the Good Place as a whole is to be taken metaphorically. The creators are trying to say things about human nature, not about the actual afterlife. And digging to far into its lore risks completely missing the point. So some of the things I’m going to say here, I’ll admit, might be straying into this kind of territory.
However, I find it very interesting that the ending of the show takes time, and effort, to add a proverbial footnote to one of their themes. In fact, this footnote even contradicts their themes. This is admirable, and quite interesting. One of the things I like in stories is when they can look at what they’re saying, then offer acknowledgement to the problems and arguments one might have against them.
In the Good Place, the ending corollary to their themes is this: Everyone can become better, and heaven is a state of mind, but ultimately neither are enough.
Once the characters get what they want, a tension remains. A problem. There is a flaw in paradise. (Not just the fake paradise introduced mid-season four. Real paradise.) The characters what they’ve wanted.
And they’re still restless. Unfulfilled.
This is an interesting choice, and is the place where my philosophy and that of the show’s writers diverge. In the story, they postulate two things: First, existence isn’t satisfying unless it can end. Second, most people will run out of things to do, and eventually take this end.
Now, the show is good at indicating this isn’t absolute. The immortal beings can exist without a defined ending, and they find happiness (and satisfaction) without it. Plus, Tahani (as a nod, perhaps, to people like myself) is shown finding fulfillment in paradise without needing to self-annihilate.
I really appreciate this willingness by the show to offer multiple possible outcomes, and this reinforces the dance and balancing act the writers did all through the show. The Good Place as a series isn’t meant to be taken as a representation of actual heaven or hell, or commentary on any specific religion—but more a look at human nature and the way people interface with the ideas of death and morality.
At the same time, I find their final notes melancholy. Love isn’t, in the end, enough to fulfill someone. Neither is friendship. And for most people, service to others isn’t enough either. The show says that these things are wonderful, and major parts of our existence. But in the end, these aren’t enough to sustain human beings.
This is, in some ways, very mature. Love ISN’T always enough. Sometimes, you can have all the friends in the world, but still be unsatisfied in life—or affected by things like depression. Yet, it also feels sad to highlight that here, in the resolution of the show.
Essentially, the show is saying that people can spend all their lives searching for fulfillment—but they can’t, ultimately, find it. Not permanently. The only ultimate fulfilment has to come in ceasing to exist. Much like, it might be said, a series simply can’t continue forever—and needs to have an ending in order to be complete.
As I said in the introduction, I can really appreciate this. Even if aesthetically, I don’t like the choice. It comes to a personal difference in philosophy. I think that human beings CAN be fulfilled without death or ending, and I believe that Tahani’s end—that of looking outside of yourself and finding a way to serve, create, and accomplish—IS the ultimate point of existence.
But this is just a philosophical difference between myself and the writers. Since one of the points of the show is, indeed, to start discussion of about different philosophical frameworks, I have no problem at all with them going a different direction from where I would go. Indeed, you might even argue I’m taking these ideas of theme too far. After all, I’ve already admitted that the story isn’t supposed to be that literal.
Still, I find it fascinating what this show did. It is one of the very few stories I can think of that initiates a quest, arc, and theme—then at the end, shows proves those very things ultimately (despite four seasons hunting them) hollow. It’s a shockingly melancholy ending.
Honestly, the story structure this reminds me of most is the revenge epic. The stories where, often, a protagonist slavishly hunts a goal that ultimately isn’t satisfying—but still needed to be done. I had some of the same feelings at the end of this story that I did watching the end of Kill Bill, which is NOT what I anticipated.
That thing you wanted? That thing you felt was an ultimate goal? That thing we said was the point? That thing isn’t enough. It’s never going to be enough. We’re sorry. We can’t change that, even though it makes everyone (including Chidi and Elanor) sad to admit it.
It simply is. Immutable, unchangeable.
In the end, the majority of the human characters take the self-annihilation option. Now, even this has some wiggle room to it. Nobody knows EXACTLY what happens after one goes through the arch, and the viewer is allowed to interpret the ending however they want. Characters theorize on what it might be in the series, and imply it’s a kind of pantheistic idea, or even panentheistic, where the universe is God—and we’re all just part of that entity.
This is a philosophy I find interesting, and which you see me talking about in the Stormlight Archive. It’s also a component to several major real world religions. It’s not a divisive choice. Still, the tones of the characters are clear. This is the end. We will not be together any longer. All things must pass.
Even in immortality, even in paradise, endings must exist. As I’ve said, perhaps I’m reading too much into this. (It is an occupational hazard.) Maybe the only metaphor in this is the one I’ve acknowledged: that this is the writers saying, essentially, “All good things must end, and this show has been a good thing. Now we end, and here is how we say farewell.”
But I can’t help being said. Sad that more of my friends in the show didn’t find their way to fulfillment. That the only answer the show could give about death, ultimately, was to say, “We don’t know. So we’re going to create death in death, and not say what is on the other side.”
This is an excellent ending to the show. And it’s also, in strange contrast to the rest of the show, one I see as deeply melancholy, bordering on pessimistic.
The fact that they pulled this off is, in itself, brilliant. It’s the sort of thing I wish more stories would attempt, and so my hat is off to these writers. We disagree, but in the way you ultimately wanted us to. Because the final brilliance of this ending is in the way it makes people want to talk about philosophy and mortality.