'The Good Place' Recap: The Beginning of the End

A review of the penultimate episode of The Good Place, “Patty,” coming up just as soon as I sign like a middle-school girl with a crush on Zac Efron…

What happens when you die?

Of all the Big Questions humanity has been asking going back to the caveman days, that one’s probably the biggest, because there is no way of definitively answering it. You can believe, you can guess, you can wonder, but you can’t know. It is a key subject for most organized religions — even the ones that answer, “We don’t really know, so just try to be good while you’re alive” — and for an awful lot of popular culture.

It has not, weirdly, been one of the dominant concerns of The Good Place. The series largely takes place in the afterlife, but it uses that setting more as an examination of how to be the best person you can possibly be during the short time we have here on Earth. When I interviewed the cast and Mike Schur last summer, I asked if any of them thought differently about life after death as a result of working on this show; nearly all responded the way Kristen Bell did, saying they’d spent a lot more time thinking about morality than heaven or hell.

Still, it’s hard for a show covering this metaphysical territory not to offer some opinions on the subject. As early as the show’s second episode, for instance, Eleanor was arguing that the whole Good/Bad binary was unfair to people like her, and that there should be a Medium Place. (“Like Cincinnati!”) And in this closing arc about rewriting the laws of the cosmos to make them more fair, the series is explicitly saying that eternal damnation is a bad idea for all but the worst of the worst monsters, and maybe not even all of them.

As The Good Place finally arrives in the actual Good Place, it has a surprising parallel argument: that eternal paradise is no picnic, either.

The series has put off our arrival in its version of heaven for so long that it can’t possibly live up to our imaginations. And it really doesn’t. It’s… the Getty Center in L.A.! Things magically appear when people think about them, like Eleanor’s dream sunglasses or Michael’s bag of weed, but that’s no more magical than anything Janet did back in the fake Good Place we spent so much time in. (If anything, it left me wondering what purpose Janets serve in such a place.) And the party the four friends conjure by walking through the portal arm-in-arm seems to owe much more to Jason’s Jacksonville days than anything else.

But “Patty” also covers for this in a few ways. First, Janet explains to the others that while the Good Place slaps, it’s also too much for newbies to experience all at once. So what we’re seeing isn’t the full version of the place, but a relatively toned-down one that just has some nice flourishes, like the candies that make you fully understand the meaning of Twin Peaks.

More importantly, though, “Patty” reveals the Good Place to be as fundamentally broken as every other corner of life and the afterlife we’ve glimpsed so far across the series. It doesn’t seem awesome because it isn‘t awesome.

We learn this in the form of our title character, better known as Hypatia of Alexandria, and played here with the necessary mix of whimsy and realism by Lisa Kudrow. Hypatia has been dead for 16 centuries, and even if you convert that into Jeremy Bearimys, it’s an awfully long time to spend anywhere, even a place where your every wish is fulfilled. The Good Place is, as Eleanor succinctly puts it, the vacation that never ends, and the only way to fix the problem is to give everyone a chance to end it.

On the one hand, this is a sad statement from one of the more hopeful creative teams in TV history (here with Megan Amram writing the script). On the other, this is something I have thought about a disturbing amount over my cosmically brief lifetime. If there is a heaven, then I imagine time would have to work very differently there than it does for us, but forever is ultimately still forever. And when you talk about something lasting an eternity, that isn’t usually meant to be a positive description.

“Patty” nimbly managed to bring the story of the afterlife itself to a close even as it offered some more surreal hijinks involving our favorite dum-dums. Jason’s desire to race go-karts against monkeys proved both a durable running gag and an effective symbol (albeit an off-camera one) of how quickly the Good Place can get old, while Eleanor’s pleasure at realizing Michael smoked the weed made me smile broadly, right before I began giggling again at Ted Danson playing stoned.

But solving the latest crisis this way suggests a finale we are all going to have to brace ourselves for. With every universal problem handled for the moment, and our heroes all getting to enjoy their reward, the only thing that seems left to happen is the moment when each of them chooses to go through that final portal and bring their time to a definitive end. And seeing the eternal deaths of Jason and Tahani and Chidi and Eleanor is… not something I am quite ready for yet, nor maybe will be in a week. Stock up on tissues.

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