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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Finale of THE GOOD PLACE



My wife and I watched the final episode of The Good Place Thursday night, less than 2 months after we started bingeing the series from scratch, on the recommendation of my son Henry and his girlfriend Kat, who was the first to start watching it. As you might’ve guessed, we’ve enjoyed it a lot, and so were happy to be among the 2.3 million folks watching the finale in more or less real time.

A few weeks ago, I imagined the finale would surely (ha ha) be the final “Gotcha!” that Michael Schur and his writers seemed to have in store for us – a final zag in four seasons of twists and turns. Each time they had pulled the rug out from under our viewerly certainty, as we struggled to understand, again and again, along with Eleanor, Chidi, and their pals, what the fork was really going on.

Based on various hints scattered throughout the series, including those summarized two years ago here,, I was confident that the ending was going to be some sort of send-up of The Wizard of Oz, in which we’d finally learn that Eleanor (her name is an anagram of “Real One”) was the one real person --- a dreamer, whose sleeping mind had created the Good Place, peopling it with real friends (and enemies) from her real life. And I expected there was also going to be woven into that Big Reveal some tip of the hat to Groundhog Day, with its brilliant enactment of the perfection of a soul over infinite daily reboots.

Well, I was wrong about The Wizard of Oz part, and I now believe Schur & Co. led me (and others like myself with a love of solving puzzles) down this particular garden path of speculation, as if to say, don’t overthink this thing. But I’m not disappointed, partly because the ending did indeed have some smack of Groundhog Day about it – but more because it was, as has been more or less universally acknowledged by critics and Tweeps alike, a pretty perfect ending -touching yet funny; unpretentious yet profound. And how particularly lovely that Ted Danson’s Michael, like Bruno Ganz’s angel Damiel in Wenders’ Wings of Desire, finally gets to shed his wings and be fully human.

And it turns out that, for subtext wonks like myself, there is yet another wonky and significant allusion hidden in the final two episodes after all. To explain, I begin by quoting from an excellent short piece about the finale:

The Good Place Went Out on Its Own Terms  by Sam Adams  01/31/2020
“…The penultimate episode, Patty, left us where most finales would, with its central couple frozen in a moment of romantic bliss. But the show’s actual finale asked the question that happily-ever-after endings try to finesse: What happens next?
Patty found the series’ formerly damned souls finally arriving in actual heaven, and also introduced the idea that, given an infinity of time, even perfect happiness would become intolerably dull. That meant that the only true paradise was one from which you could eventually opt out: Life is made meaningful by death, and the afterlife by … whatever comes after that. It seemed inevitable that the finale would find the Soul Squad making the choice, one by one, to step through the door that would end their existence for good. Even its title, “Whenever You’re Ready,” coached us to brace for a series of teary farewells.”  END QUOTE

I quote the above summary of the penultimate episode of The Good Place, because it perfectly sums up that final plot zag. Indeed, Eleanor is the Answer, because Eleanor provides the answer, as she transcends an apparent paradox and does Chidi proud. Here’s the way she explains it:

Hi, everyone, can I have your attention, please? Hi, my name's Eleanor Shellstrop.
Hope you're having fun at our Flor-izona British library extravaganza.
I guess you don't really have fun anywhere, which is the point.
It doesn't seem like this is paradise for you.
You've basically been on a never-ending vacation, and vacations are only special because they end.
So we have an idea. We're gonna set up a new kind of door.
Um, somewhere peaceful, so that when you feel happy and satisfied and complete, and you want to leave the Good Place for good, you can just walk through it, and your time in the universe will end.
You don't have to go through it if you don't want to, but you can, and hopefully, knowing that you don't have to be here forever will help you feel happier while you are.
What will happen when we go through it? Well, we don't really know, exactly.
All we know is, it will be peaceful, and your journey will be over.
You led great lives. You earned your place here. So stay here as long as you like.
Use the Green Doors to see and do every single thing you want to see and do.
And when you're ready walk through one last door, and be at peace.
Does that sound good? [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE.]

As I registered that message, I was immediately transported back in time to the work which (I’m far from the first to have noted, with giant clues like Episode 13 of Season 3, entitled "Pandaemonium") is another key allusive source for The Good Place – John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But first, a quick aside in that regard.

 I’m no Milton expert, but I do claim special insight into one aspect of his genius – his love of acrostics, which, I’ve argued in this blog for the past 6 years, he was inspired to create by his great mentor, Shakespeare. Most notably, Milton’s SATAN acrostic in Book 9 of Paradise Lost was first discovered by my friend Paul Klemp in 1977 (i.e., it went undetected for 3 clueless centuries!).  In turn, I then was the first to note, in 2014, that Milton’s SATAN acrostic points back to the SATAN acrostic in Friar Laurence’s speech to Juliet when he gives her the sleeping potion. Since that potion definitely does not lead to any sort of “good place”, for Juliet, Romeo, or anybody else in the play, Shakespeare’s marginal “whisper” of “SATAN” is a pretty big clue that the seemingly bumbling, well-intentioned Friar had some pretty satanic intentions all along. Talk about a “Gotcha!”

Anyway, back to Paradise Lost vis a vis the ending of The Good Place. I recalled from my dabblings into Milton’s acrostics that there’s a speech by God in Book 11, not long before the end, which pithily and poetically justifies God’s grand plans for the human race. Speaking to The Son (i.e., Jesus), he explains that he deliberately created a world in which humans, initially immortal, would be tempted by Satan (and knowledge), and thereby become mortal -- which, paradoxically, leads to their ultimate salvation.

It didn’t take me long to locate God’s specific speech which I believe Schur had very specifically in mind when he wrote Eleanor’s version of it:

                 I, at first, with two fair gifts
Created [Adam] endowed; with happiness,
And immortality: that fondly lost,
This other served but to eternize woe;
Till I provided death: so death becomes
His final remedy; and, after life,
Tried in sharp tribulation, and refined
By faith and faithful works, to second life,
Waked in the renovation of the just,
Resigns him up with Heaven and Earth renewed.

Now, I myself do not subscribe to the notion that belief in Jesus Christ is the exclusive path to that “second life”; nor,  based on his comments in interviews about The Good Place, does Michael Schur. The spiritual stance embodied in the show is clearly that there are many paths to perfection of the soul, and that the same universal truths underlie many different spiritual traditions and practices.

I like that Sam Adams ended his article with a pithy Zen koan, that, like The Good Place, does not tie everything in a neat bow, but leaves each reader/viewer room to figure out our own answer:

The Good Place went out on its own terms, with a finale that argued that choosing your own ending is both a reward you earn and a gift you give.”

So, take it sleazy, and maybe give the gift of The Good Place to someone who hasn’t watched it.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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