Friday, January 31, 2020

The Good Place: Final Thoughts


At the conclusion of season three, I registered my prediction of how The Good Place would end:
The abolition of the afterlife in its entirety (no more good or bad places); a re-emphasis on doing as best you can when it matters (i.e., during one's actual life); the core quartet is sent back to Earth to live out the rest of their natural lives as friends.
I would say that, like most religions, I got about 5% right. The afterlife, as we knew it, is abolished. And the series does end with all of the human characters passing on. But in between, The Good Place takes a much more audacious swing: a genuine attempt to reform the afterlife. And -- and I think this is perhaps even more profound -- an essential acknowledgment that this attempt fell short. A perfect paradise was not created, and in fact the final conclusion of The Good Place seems to be that such a paradise is impossible even in concept.

After all, cut away the underbrush and the heroes' solution to the problem afflicting The Good Place was to offer the choice of suicide. And while the penultimate episode suggests that perhaps just having the option will suffice to stave off the ennui of eternal bliss, the finale refuses to accept that out. Every human character, eventually, kills themselves. Their happy ending is that they are content to die. The best possible paradise is one where people can and do eventually choose to erase themselves from existence. Skip over the beatific forest setting and the stipulation of emotional contentment, and that's a rather melancholic, if not outright grim, conclusion.

It's easy to draw a parallel between the last episode and the need for fans to accept the voluntarily-chosen end of a great show like The Good Place (it's even easier to draw it to the need to accept our own mortality). But another recurrent theme in The Good Place is the failure of systems. Over and over again, the systems the characters find themselves in are revealed to be either malfunctioning or outright designed to immiserate them.

From the very beginning, Eleanor and Chidi confront the brutal harshness of the points system, which results in nearly all people being horrifically tortured for eternity (incidentally, that Chidi isn't immediately repelled by -- and suspicious of -- this set-up is a rare miscue in terms of characterization, if not plotting). They resolve to try and improve Eleanor, only to find out that they're actually in a perpetual torture chamber which will literally reset every time they come close to escaping it.

At this point, the series becomes a repeated effort to find ever-higher levers in the celestial bureaucracy that can be appealed to. They find a judge, who is at best indifferent to their predicament and not particularly interested in helping them. Upon returning to earth, they discover first that they can't ever improve enough to enter The Good Place (because -- knowing the stakes -- their motivations are corrupt) and then that nobody can successfully enter The Good Place because existence has become too interwoven and morally interdependent for anyone to satisfy the standard of admission. They meet the actual Good Place committee, who are worse than useless and content to let everyone suffer forever because taking any concrete action risks violating some procedural norm. And when they finally enter The Good Place, they discover it's as dysfunctional as everywhere else -- gradually sucking the life out of its residents who, given eternity, eventually tire of everything. All the systems fail. All of them are doomed to fail. They can't not.

Hence, the suicide gate (and sidenote: If The Good Place ever has a spin-off series -- and lord knows it shouldn't -- it should definitely involve exploring the first murder in the Good Place when someone gets involuntarily shoved through that archway).

By the time it reaches its conclusion, The Good Place is one of the few depictions of the afterlife to take the concept of eternity seriously. Some other venues glance in this direction. Agent Smith in The Matrix tells Neo that humans reject a simulation of paradise -- the implication is because we're diseased, but perhaps also indicating that perfect, eternal happiness ... isn't. Maya Rudolph's other afterlife vehicle, Forever, certainly touches on this theme. The Order of the Stick has an afterlife where people can eat all the food and have all the sex and otherwise satisfy all the "messed-up urges you people have leftover after having your soul stuck in a glorified sausage all your life". But this is only the "first tier" of heaven: once you're bored, you can "climb the mountain" to search for a higher level of spiritual satisfaction. And while what this entails is left vague, it is not death -- those who ascend can, if they wish, descend back down to the lowlier pleasures (OOTS also introduces the very neat concept of "Postmortum Time Disassociation Disorder").

But the story which provides perhaps the most powerful foil to The Good Place's view of eternity and immortality is (and of the approximately 143,000 Good Place retrospectives being written right now, I bet I'm the only one to make this comparison) Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The ultimate adversary in HPMOR is not Snape, or Malfoy, or Voldemort. It is death, and Harry is committed to the "absolute rejection of death as the natural order." The message on the Potters' gravestone is, after all, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (and it's a sign of my cloistered Jewish upbringing that I thought this was a Rowling original -- it is in fact a quote from I Corinthians). Harry Potter wants people to live forever. And the story anticipates the objection, placed in the mouth of Dumbledore, "What would you do with eternity, Harry?"
Harry took a deep breath. "Meet all the interesting people in the world, read all the good books and then write something even better, celebrate my first grandchild's tenth birthday party on the Moon, celebrate my first great-great-great grandchild's hundredth birthday party around the Rings of Saturn, learn the deepest and final rules of Nature, understand the nature of consciousness, find out why anything exists in the first place, visit other stars, discover aliens, create aliens, rendezvous with everyone for a party on the other side of the Milky Way once we've explored the whole thing, meet up with everyone else who was born on Old Earth to watch the Sun finally go out, and I used to worry about finding a way to escape this universe before it ran out of negentropy but I'm a lot more hopeful now that I've discovered the so-called laws of physics are just optional guidelines."
The last few episodes of The Good Place are, in a sense, a calling of this bluff. Even if you play out the string all the way to extinguishment of the sun or the heat death of the universe -- well, forever is a long time. It can wait. Harry argues that the only reason we accept death is because we're used to it, and if you took someone who lived in a world where there was no death and asked them if they'd prefer to live in a universe where eventually people ceased to exist, they'd look at you like you're crazy. The Good Place provocatively argues the precise opposite -- that if death didn't exist, people would have to invent it. Or they would go crazy, with infinite time on their hands.

And so we are, perhaps, back to where we started. The paradise the heroes create is certainly better than that which they replaced. But it still is deeply, tragically flawed -- and The Good Place seems to believe that these flaws are fundamentally inescapable.

The suicide option is the clearest manifestation of how cracked paradise must be, but there is another issue that the show alludes to: paradise depends on other people, and on their choices. Way back in the first season, "Real Eleanor" raises this precise point: if her soulmate doesn't love her, "this will never truly be my Good Place." Sure it's actually a contrivance to torture Chidi, but it's easy to imagine it as real. What if your paradise is to live blissfully with a certain special someone and ... that person doesn't love you back? Both Simone and Tahani seem okay with Chidi and Jason respectively choosing someone other than them (Eleanor and Janet). But that's in harmony with the audience's happy ending. It's not hard to imagine a different world where they were less sanguine about it.

Or take a far more direct problem: If paradise comes with a suicide option, what happens if your loved one takes it? Harry's excited declaration of all the things he'd do with infinite time is not fundamentally, the reason why he desires immortality. When push comes to shove, he's motivated by a far more basic yearning: to make it so "people won't have to say goodbye any more."

Eleanor's utter panic at the thought of losing Chidi forever was, for me at least, the most visceral emotional gut-punch of the entire series -- even more than the finale of season three (at least there, we could be reasonably assured their separation was temporary). She eventually comes to terms with it. But sit on it a little more: imagine a "paradise" where your soulmate has left you forever. People fantasize about heaven to be reunited with their loved ones, yet we end up looping right back into eternal separation. What kind of paradise is this, where people still have to say goodbye?

So we have two problems that seem to threaten even the conceptual coherency of a paradise:

  • First, if paradise is forever, eventually everything will become tired. That suicide is presented as a good solution to this problem shows just how serious it is (and, for what it's worth, I'm not sure the suicide "option" would necessarily bring relief. It could easily generate crippling anxiety -- a sense of trappedness between the irrevocable permanence of death and the unbearable ennui of existence). 
  • Second, if paradise depends on the choices other people make, how can we be sure they'll make choices compatible with your happy ending?

The Good Place presents the first problem as unavoidable and skates past the second entirely. But could they be overcome?

Maybe. In the penultimate episode of The Good Place, one solution proposed to the problem of eternal ennui is to reset people's memories, so the things that bored them become fresh again. This is swiftly rejected as a repetition of how the quartet was tortured in The Bad Place. Too swiftly, in my view. Neighborhoods were also used to torture -- should those be jettisoned too?

The problem with eternity is that eventually, everything gets repetitive. Go-Kart Racing against monkeys may be a blast the first time, but it loses its luster after a million reiterations. The wistfulness comes from wishing one could go back to that initial burst of discovery and experience -- before one had the memory of doing it all over again. This was my immediate solution to the ennui problem -- not that some demon should periodically reset you, but that you should be able to choose when, where, and how to reset yourself. It's not just about going back in time. It's reoccupying any memory state you've ever possessed. Go back to before you ever raced against monkeys -- then zoom forward to when you've already experienced all the monkey-races you could handle.

It's like a load/save system for your mind. Hell, you can even adjust the "difficulty" level. It's true that, for many, a "paradise" where one simply automatically gets whatever one wants will feel unsatisfying. But one needn't set the parameters of paradise to guarantee success. It can be as hard or easy as one wants; people can be as pliant or obstinate as one likes (not for nothing is one of the afterlife attractions in OOTS -- a fantasy roleplaying-based setting -- "The Dungeon of Monsters That Are Just Strong Enough to Really Challenge You").

Or dream bigger. If one has infinite ability to reverse and remake memory as one wishes, then one could at any point adapt any set of memories one ever could have had. Don't just live a different life, remember a different life. Then jump forward and remember all the different lives you lived -- each of which (when you lived them) you had erased the memories of all the others. Every single possible timeline is lived -- and can be relived in all its glory, as many times as one wants.

For me, at least, this dissolves the problem of others' choices as well. If anyone can make not just any possible choice, but live through any possible timeline, what does it mean to ask which one is "real"? If your paradise involves loving and being loved by a particular someone, will in your paradise, the person you need to love you, loves you, and stays with you as long as you need. In their paradise, they might love someone else. You enjoy a timeline where people choose exactly the choices that would make you most happy; they live in a timeline which is the same for them. Of course, the sorts of philosophical questions that would raise (among others: What does it mean for the "same" person to simultaneously exist across multiple timelines? Who, exactly, is "choosing" which version they occupy? And if the one that does choose doesn't choose a timeline that involves them loving you back, is the version that does love you really "them"?) are even more esoteric and less accessible to a network audience than the moral philosophy questions The Good Place did try to introduce. So I don't blame them for skipping by it.

* * *

The last enemy to be defeated may not, after all, be death. It may be time.  Time ruins all things. Eventually you run out of it. And even if you never ran out of it -- you had infinite time -- it would defeat you in a different way: via boredom, repetition, and ennui. We can, perhaps, imagine a world where we vanquish death. But can we imagine one where (forgot about possibility, and just think conceptually) we defeat time?

I can. Barely, but I can. Of course, it's in many ways a moot point, since I'm profoundly skeptical that humanity ever will master time in this way -- or even if it's practically possible (that it won't happen in my lifetime is actually less material, given that if it ever did happen we'd probably be at Omega Point anyway). But at least it holds out the possibility of an actual happy ending -- where the last enemy is truly vanquished, and nobody has to say goodbye.

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