After all its twists and turns, The Good Place ends by returning to its original question: what happens after we die? In this video, we figure out where Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) all end up, and how a show about the afterlife is in fact about what we do here on earth.
The Good Place ends by returning to the question of its very premise: what happens after we die? When the Michael Schur series opens, the characters are already dead. But throughout the series,
the four humans who make up Team Cockroach keep getting the rug pulled out from under them.
Neil: “The last time someone got enough points to get into The Good Place was… 521 years ago.”- The Good Place 3x9
Eventually, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael, and Janet essentially play God and rewrite the rules of the afterlife to offer humanity a more accessible and satisfying eternal existence. Yet after all those twists and turns, and all their newfound wisdom and growth, they still arrive back at that primal, original question: What happens once we cease to exist?
Here’s our take on how The Good Place, a TV show about the afterlife, ended up being about what we do here on Earth.
What Does Heaven Look Like
In just four seasons, The Good Place has dealt with some small, simple problems: how to be a good person, the nature of hell, if the intention of an action is more important than the consequences, whether people have soulmates —
Michael: “ If soul mates do exist, they’re not found. they’re made.”- The Good Place 4x9
— simple stuff. As it nears the end, the show’s final problem is the question of Heaven, or what the ideal afterlife would even look like. In the second to last episode, our central characters, at last, arrive in the actual Good Place…only to discover it’s not all that great.
Hypatia of Alexandria: “You get here and you realize that anything’s possible and you do everything. And then you’re done—but you still have infinity left.” - The Good Place 4x12
The “fake” Good Place of the first season (which was actually the Bad Place) pretended to be something close to most popular conceptions of Heaven — a place that gives you exactly what you want and like, all the time, forever. In the final season, we learn that the real Good Place is based on this same principle, too. What this unsuccessful heaven needs… is death.
Michael: “You said that every human is a little bit sad all the time because you know you’re gonna die. But that knowledge is what gives life meaning.” - The Good Place 4x12
Even though the idea of existing for eternity is a comforting escape from the uncertainty of not knowing what comes after death, in fact knowing that life must end is what makes it so valuable. Michael creates a door that allows the residents of The Good Place to (whenever they’re ready, after a lot of Bearimys) end their time as distinct beings in the universe. And this works to restore the Good Place’s residents’ mental clarity and drive, and to turn the Good Place into a true paradise.
So what, according to the show, constitutes Paradise? As Chidi voices, the ideal of heaven is really time: having all the time we wish we had in this world.
Chidi Anagonye: “I think that’s what The Good Place really is. It’s not even a place, really. It’s just having enough time with the people you love.” - The Good Place 4x12
All this glorious time turns The Good Place into the ultimate fantasy of life on Earth. Team Cockroach gets to achieve everything they’ve ever wanted to do and, more importantly, to develop and deepen their relationships with the people who are most important to them.
TV endings often tend toward the ambiguous. Did Don Draper create the Coke ad? Did Nora really go to the other world? Is Tony Soprano dead? By contrast, The Good Place creator Michael Schur goes out of his way to give us closure here, just as he did in his last series, Parks and Recreation, which was also about a group of people, led by a pushy blonde woman, working together to improve a bureaucracy that should help the common good.
Leslie Knope: “We fought, scratched, and clawed to make people’s lives a tiny bit better.” Parks and Rec 7x12
The show’s last episode followed the characters through literal decades of their lives, up to and including the death of one of their group. But the last episode of The Good Place covers, if not millions of years, a seriously long time in these characters’ post-mortem experience. We can’t tell exactly, since it’s measured in units of Bearimies —
Michael: “Because while time on Earth moves in a straight line… time in the afterlife moves in a Jeremy Bearimy.” - The Good Place 3x4
— but it’s probably far more time than we humans on earth could ever conceive of. And during that time, Team Cockroach and the many other humans who find their way to the Good Place, thanks to Chidi’s more inclusive system, become the best versions of themselves. Ironically, in the case of Team Cockroach, these best selves circle back to their original “fake” or shallow personas from before they realized their potential. Jason, waiting in nature, for around 1,000 Bearimies, to give Janet a parting gift —
Jason Mendoza: “It was actually pretty easy to wait. I sort of just sat quietly and let my mind drift away and thought about you, and the infinity of the universe.” The Good Place 4x13
— essentially becomes Jianyu, the Taiwanese monk character he had to play in Michael’s original neighborhood. And perhaps his love for Janet, a nearly all-knowing being, should have been a clue that Jason did possess a monk-like spirituality within.
Tahani, who once made shows of charity on Earth to feed her vanity and status, decides to become an architect so she can truly, selflessly, help people. Chidi, the philosophy professor, and morality expert really does become the person responsible for crafting a fair system to decide the fates of all humankind. This once hopelessly indecisive waffler also concludes as the most calmly decisive person in the group, eventually reaching a conclusion Eleanor knows she shouldn’t try to talk him out of.
Chidi Anagonye: “I love you completely and utterly—”
Eleanor Shellstrop: “Oh crap.”
Chidi Anagonye: “— but I have to go.” - The Good Place 4x13
In the first season, the fake persona Michael pretended Eleanor got switched with was someone who helped people the world had given up on. And this is exactly what she becomes. Before Eleanor can feel complete enough to walk through the door, she has to guide those last people who haven’t been covered by the new, functional system. She convinces selfish, detached Mindy St. Clair — whom she sees as an earlier version of herself — to go through the system, to stop being a completely separate individual, and put her soul in the hands of others. That leap of faith is, ultimately, what The Good Place thinks leads to being a better and more fulfilled person.
Eleanor Shellstrop: “There is greater happiness waiting for you if you form bonds with other people.” - The Good Place 4x13
And finally, Eleanor realizes the last piece of business she must complete before she goes: helping Michael get the one thing he really wants — a human life on earth.
True Joy is in The Mystery
By the end of the finale, there’s only one mystery left:
Janet: “What do you think happens when people walk through the door? It’s the only thing in the universe I don’t know.” - The Good Place 4x13
Notably, we don’t see what happens when Chidi and Jason walk through the door; instead, we cut back to Janet, watching. Michael Schur’s other shows—The Office, Parks and Rec, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—are workplace sitcoms. But The Good Place was inspired by a different sort of TV show: Lost.
Lost was built on a series of mysteries, and invited the viewer to play detective, formulating theories and trying to figure out what was “really” happening. Lost has been enormously influential for a generation of TV series trying to emulate its narrative shell game. And for most of The Good Place, there were plenty of surprise reveals and cliffhangers that kept fans hooked. The show eventually trained viewers to expect there was more going on than meets the eye.
Eleanor Shellstrop: “Oh, it looks like paradise. But it’s actually a filthy dumpster full of our worst anxieties.” - The Good Place 1x13
The ultimate solution to Lost’s mysteries was about connections with other people. Likewise, in the end, we don’t learn much more about the committee that ran The Good Place, or about Gen the Judge,
or about who was “really” pulling the strings. Instead, everything in The Good Place comes down to the value of forming loving connections with others.
Lost also ended by gesturing toward the ultimate mystery: what happens when we die. And even though The Good Place starts by telling us that there is an afterlife, it ends by revealing that it’s really just postponed that question—where do we go next?
Michael: “I won’t exactly know what’s going to happen after I die. Nothing more human than that. Besides texting people that you’re five minutes away when you haven’t even left the house.” - The Good Place 4x13
But remember—Schur loves giving closure to his characters. When all is said and done, Eleanor walks through the door and, unlike in Lost, we do get a final answer. Eleanor dissolves into pieces of light, spread throughout the fabric of the universe. One of those pieces that was once Eleanor finds its way to Earth, where it turns out to be a conscience. The piece helps a man decide to go out of his way to give Michael a mistakenly delivered piece of junk mail from Coyote Joe’s, allowing Michael to live out a couple of his fantasies of being human.
Michael Realman: “With all the love in my heart, and all the wisdom in the universe, take it sleazy.” - The Good Place 4x13
This one last small good deed rounds out the show, referencing one of Eleanor’s earlier good deeds on Earth—returning a lost wallet. Faced with a big and unknowable question, Schur can’t help falling back on the central idea of The Good Place: that we are here, in large part, to help make each other better.
Even though almost all of the events of The Good Place happen in the afterlife, the show ends here on Earth. What happens to the deceased is, ultimately, less important than how they can impact us, as the better angels of our nature.
Living Over Thinking
The Good Place has always had ethics on the brain. In its purest form, the show has been about people figuring out if they could become better by working hard. Chidi’s work, and the series as a whole, were inspired by Schur’s interest in ethics as an academic concept.
Chidi references the work of many different philosophers over the course of the show and especially strives to live up to the rigid ideals of Immanuel Kant whose “categorical imperative” requires us to do what’s right, regardless of results, intentions, or extenuating circumstances.
Eleanor Shellstrop: “Let’s say you promised your friend you would go to the movies, but then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the E.R. Your boy Kant would say ‘never break a promise. Go see Chronicles of Riddick.’ ” - The Good Place 2x11
But the most influential by far is Tim Scanlon, a retired Professor of Philosophy at Harvard best-known for his 1998 book, What We Owe To Each Other. The first time Michael reboots the neighborhood, a brain-wiped Eleanor leaves a note for herself in her copy, allowing the humans to remember that they’re in The Bad Place. This text lays out an ethical theory of contractualism—that, broadly speaking, everyone should live by rules that every reasonable person can agree to. Throughout the series, that basic principle has undergirded the characters’ approach to ethics—rather than enforcing hard and fast bans like “no lying,” they try to use common sense to figure out the best working set of imperfect rules. As the last line of What We Owe To Each Other puts it:
Eleanor Shellstrop: “Working out the terms of moral justification is an unending task.” - The Good Place 4x13
The Good Place emphasizes that as valuable as the study of ethics is, the mere act of thinking is not enough. Chidi is initially sent to The Bad Place because trying to make the “right” decision traps him into making no decision at all. For The Good Place, the abstract argumentation is less important than living it and making real decisions.
When she’s rebooted Eleanor needs to find Chidi, because every time she does, their connection helps her not only learn but internalize the lessons of ethics. It’s only when the act of studying is combined with the process of relating to others that we become better.
Figuring out the right thing to do is also only meaningful when it’s done by mortals, with a finite sense of time. The stakes of ethics come from death—a concept elucidated by The Good Place philosophical consultant Todd May when he writes in his book Death, quote:
Chidi Anagonye: “Mortality offers meaning to our lives and morality helps navigate that meaning.” Todd May: “Wait, what I think it says is that mortality offers meaning to the events of our lives. Look, I’m pretty sure I’m right since it’s like my book?” - The Good Place 4x13
This isn’t the first time the end of a TV show has also focused on the ends of its characters’ lives. But The Good Place zooms in to focus on the finitude of death as meaningful. When each member of the team is ready to leave The Good Place, they describe a sense of calm, of knowing they’ve done enough to finish being part of the world.
Ultimately, like the rest of The Good Place, this view of death is deeply optimistic. And though Chidi has primarily drawn on the Western philosophical tradition, when confronted with the end he turns to Buddhism, and imagines his own existence as something that naturally ends, or changes:
Chidi Anagonye: “Picture a wave in the ocean…and then it crashes on the shore, and it’s gone. But the water is still there.” - The Good Place 4x13
Ultimately, The Good Place suggests, philosophy can only go so far. Its final insight is that image of the wave — not an analytical argument, but a way to contemplate what it’s like for each individual person to be. None of us can really know for sure what happens to us when we die. The Good Place took a risk by starting off with one potential answer and then undermining it at every turn. Whatever the truth might be, the show suggests that, no matter what, it’s more important to focus on being a good person while you’re alive.
Michael: “The real question, Eleanor…is what do we owe to each other?” - The Good Place 2x13
And according to The Good Place, being a good person might be about just continuing to do your best. As Schur put it in an interview post-finale with Entertainment Weekly, quote “We were arguing for trying.”
Is that a definitive answer to the questions of the universe? No. But it’s a start.