This review contains spoilers.
4.13 Whenever You’re Ready
The Good Place didn’t have to do any of this.
It didn’t have to request 53 minutes, including a Seth Meyers interview, from NBC for its final episode. But it did. It didn’t have to build sets for Athens, Paris, and a mystical eternal woods. But it did. Most importantly, it didn’t have to follow the stories of its characters all the way to the bitter end… like the end end. But it did. And that last bit, above all else, is what makes this finale truly special, despite some overindulgences.
If there’s just one thing I’ve learned from this whole TV-watching racket, it’s that an end is rarely an end. And I’m not just referring to the fact that most good things (and some bad ones) often find second life as sequels or reboots in our modern entertainment landscape. It’s just that, as a certain Janet-like being said in another recent television classic, “nothing ever ends.”
Stories are merely frames that we place over the events of our lives or the lives of the characters we create. No frame can contain the enormity of a human life, so artists just make them big or small enough to contain whatever they want people to see. Some artists want that frame to contain the triumph of good over evil. Others want the frame to merely cover one day of someone’s long life. And other, even troll-ier folks want that frame to end just as “Don’t Stop Believing” crescendos. Some of these endings may seem less abrupt than others. But in reality, they’re all equally incomplete. As long as life exists, story persists.
This is the case for The Good Place’s end in some respects. This final hour finds Michael on Earth experiencing life as a human and having an absolute ball getting a savings rewards card from a local grocer in the mail. There is still more story yet to come for Michael, beyond where the frame ends for him in the final episode of the show. And that’s what makes him so excited. He’s finally experiencing the mortal fear of the future and it’s absolute bliss.
But elsewhere in The Good Place finale, the story goes a route that very, very few other shows go by embracing a more permanent end. “Whenever You’re Ready” finds a frame big enough to include all of it… right up to death and the mystery beyond.
“Everyone’s Waiting”, the final episode of Six Feet Under, is one of the best TV finales of the last 20 years, if not ever. Simply put: everyone dies. But not all at once. The show flashes forward to the eventual death of each of its main characters. One dies shortly after the events of the series in a violent robbery. Another dies of a heart attack on the deck of a cruise ship decades later. Others make it deeper into their latter years, watching their children grow and feeling their bodies fade. The time and cause of death varies each time but death comes for them all the same, as it must come to us all. Death isn’t just a frame you put over a story. It’s an ending… the only real one we know.
Believe it or not, few television shows choose to end with summarily executing all of their characters. Six Feet Under had a rare opportunity to end in death because that’s what the show was all about. In some ways, The Good Place is about the exact opposite. Despite beginning with the death of Eleanor Shellstrop, this has always been a show about the weird lives of humans and how we’re capable of improving when given the chance.
The end reward for all this improvement could have just as easily been a heavenly paradise where all our characters find a nice neighbourhood to stay together forever. If there were a show that was least likely to borrow from the Six Feet Under model, it would have to be the sitcom where an eternal heaven was a viable option, no? And yet, The Good Place introduced a door to the infinite in its penultimate episode and then in this final episode some characters walk through.
The Good Place didn’t have to follow this through to the very end. But it did. Because it knows that an end is what we need… a real end, not simply the end of a frame.
As if the title weren’t enough of an indication, “Whenever You’re Ready” makes its intentions clear early on with the help of an unlikely source: Jason Mendoza. Of all The Good Place characters, Jason seems like he would be the least equipped to make a decision as to when to end his own life. But it’s always been an intellectual intelligence that Jason lacks, not an emotional one.
Jason lives out 2,242 lovely Bearimys spent eating wings with Janet, Then one day he simply realises that it’s time for him to go after he and his father, Donkey Doug, finally finish a perfect game of Madden (playing as the Jaguars of course). The serene look on Jason’s face as he does so is tremendously touching, and the skill of Manny Jacinto’s acting is strong enough to make plain what’s going on. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Jason’s decision to commit cosmic suicide is because of a video game.
When Chidi asks Jason how he knew it was time, Jason responds sagely.
“It felt like the air inside my lungs was the same outside my body.”
The real marvel of this finale is that we are then able to watch in turn as each character feels like the air inside their lungs is the same outside their body.
At least we think we see that moment with Tahani, who has well and truly accomplished everything she can conceive of. She’s learned woodworking from Nick Offerman (who is clearly playing Nick Offerman). She’s reconnected with her sister and her parents. She’s even problematically objectified Eleanor, something Janet helpfully adds to the end of her goal list.
Yet she still feels that human yearning for more, despite not having been a human for a long time. That yearning has always been a part of Tahani. That, and her obscene wealth, is what helped her create her lavish, opulent life on Earth. Now she’s turning that impulse isn’t something more selfless by asking Michael to help her become an architect. She’s not doing so for more self aggrandizement, but rather to actually contribute to a creating a better afterlife for others. And so she becomes an architect, owl bow-tie and all.
Tahani is the only human on The Good Place who doesn’t choose to step into oblivion. To my own logical mind (the same logical mind trying to form this review into an elaborate metaphor about television, Six Feet Under, endings, and death) it’s frustrating. But it’s also right. Michael Schur and his writers just follow where the characters take them. Tahani’s momentary rejection of the door isn’t about a fear of death but about the reality that she still has more to offer. There’s still an endpoint for all of our lives lurking out there somewhere. Tahani just understands that hers isn’t here yet.
Chidi, however, does. The most emotionally striking moment of this finale comes when Chidi admits to Eleanor that he’s ready…and has been for a long time. Just as Jason’s realization was as simple as breaking Madden beyond all recognition, Chidi’s comes from witnessing something inocuous. One night, very many Bearimys into their afterlife, Chidi and Eleanor went out to dinner with their parents. After that dinner Chidi’s mom kissed Eleanor’s cheek then Eleanor’s mom gently scrubbed the planted lipstick off.
And that was it; that was the moment. Chidi has done so many incredible things in the afterlife. He helped develop and maintain the new rules with the The Joint Council of Afterlife Affairs. He met his heroes (it turns out Shakespeare used his second-life to write The Tempest 2: Here We Blow Again). He hosted a philosophy class with T.M. Scanlon in the audience (and yes, that was the real modern philosopher T.M. Scanlon participating in a scene with Kristen Bell and William Jackson Harper). He’s seen the god damn time knife!
But none of it was complete for him until that quiet moment at the restaurant. The Good Place is a big, ambitious endeavor and that endeavor only works if it knows not only what we owe to each other but what we need for ourselves. Acknowledging small, silly little moments like that are what made this show special. As are the moments that follow when Eleanor must confront the fact that her soul mate is ready to pass on.
After some standard sitcom hi jinx to keep Chidi in place, Eleanor accepts that it’s time for him to go. Eleanor spent her life alone on Earth and her misery is what landed her in The Bad Place to begin with (well that, and the fact that everyone ended up in the Bad Place for centuries). It took Eleanor hundreds of lifetimes and thousands of Bearimys to find the person to convince her that solitude is not the answer. And now he is about to commit her to more solitude.
Still, Eleanor lets Chidi go because he wants to and T.M. Scanlon has taught her about the contract of love. She asks only that Chidi leave before she wakes up. So he does. And leaves behind the most incredible gift anymore has ever given: HOT. CHIDI. CALENDAR. The Good Place may be gone but they can never take that away from us.
Eleanor and Chidi’s parting represents the emotional height of “Whenever You’re Ready” and in some ways the episode has trouble regaining that resonance for the end stretch. Chidi and Eleanor’s relationship has always been a bit of a controversial part of the show with some believing it all happened too fast or distracts from the other characters and the big, philosophical ideas at play. In this finale at least, Chidi and Eleanor are our emotional true north, particularly once Jason and Tahani are out of the picture (though Jason does sweetly return to deliver Janet her bracelet, having spent eons in the wilderness looking for it).
The problem that Eleanor, Michael, and to a lesser extent Janet, face in the final quarter of the show is a problem that many of us simply can’t empathize with: abundance. As witnessed on a small scale by Jess slowly losing his interest in all of his new frog items, Michael and Eleanor can’t deal with the fact that there is nothing left for them to do. It’s just that Michael can’t enter the final door, being a fire squid and all, and Eleanor is unwilling to, believing that there remains one last job out there for her.
Ultimately both of their problems are solved. Eleanor is able to convince a fellow lone wolf, Mindy St. Clair, to join their new afterlife system and one day join the rest of humanity in The Good Place. It’s nice to catch up with Mindy and Derek (who is basically Derek Manhattan now, having been rebooted over a million times and become omniscient). But it also feels fundamentally off for Mindy St. Clair to be the last character Eleanor spends her time with and not Chidi.
On the flip side, Michael’s inability to feel passion for anything is initially just as hard to empathize with. But the solution to his problem is far more dramatically and thematically satisfying. Throughout it all, Michael’s story has been that of a demon wanting to become a real boy. Eleanor calls attention to the Pinocchio comparison so we don’t have to. All this man was wanted to do was to have a set of car keys so that he can lose them and then pat down his coat and say “where are my car keys?”
This is a being who had access to anything and everything the universe had to offer. But at the end of the day all he really wanted was to learn how to play the guitar from a pretty lady on Earth – though the presence of real life Mrs. Danson and perfect, ethereal being Mary Steenburgen suggests that maybe ol’ Mikey is still in heaven after all. It’s not hard to empathize with that. It’s fitting that our final moments of the episode are spent on Earth with Michael as he urges his fellow man, from the bottom of his heart, to take it sleazy. Even among all the total and complete endings, “Whenever You’re Ready” is wise to make room for at least one beginning.
We never found out if there was a God in the Good Place…some perfect divine creature who created us in his image. In the end though, that never really mattered. Michael and the rest of our characters became something resembling God. Together they rebuilt the afterlife into something resembling their own image – a place where endings weren’t only possible but necessary.
Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi, Jason, Janet, and Michael knew that our lives are bound together by endings because endings are the only thing we can count on. May they all be as sweet as this one.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Patty, here.