The Good Place Wave and the Restless Heart


Months after the airing of the finale, opinions on the ending of The Good Place remain divided and charged. Religious commentators have generally been disappointed with the show’s finale, although this reaction is certainly not limited to those with explicitly theological interests. It is hardly a surprise that the conclusion of a show dealing directly with the afterlife would generate thoughtful discussion among Christian cultural critics, especially considering the various Christian ideas woven into the fabric of the series. Though various philosophies and religious visions feature prominently in the show (e.g., existentialism—Sartre’s play No Exit inspires the show’s first arc), Christian theological concepts occupy a central place in the world of The Good Place. It will prove beneficial to my later theological evaluation of the finale to remind the reader of the show’s broader Christian themes.

Take, for example, the idea of the afterlife as a domain for growth in moral progress. The demon Michael intends for his neighborhood to function as a psychological torture chamber, but the friendship and sacrifice of the four main protagonists transforms this hell into an unwitting purgatory instead. The medieval development of the early Christian concept of postmortem purgation certainly deserves some credit here, and it is natural to understand the show’s thrust towards a vision of universal salvation (not explicitly stated but implied) as a secular homage to Origen of Alexandria and the eschatological tradition he represents.

Furthermore, the demon Michael thinks the worse form of torment humans could endure is not physical punishment (i.e., spiders infesting the buttholes of the wicked for eternity) but rather the moral and mental anguish occasioned by facing our failures in life. Here too we find an echo of some early Christian conceptions of the fires of Gehenna as the scourge of conscience in the face of the truth of our lack of love revealed to us fully and at last.

Additionally, the show demonstrates a strong interest in discerning the causes of human moral failure. The label “original sin” is never used, but it is clear that in the universe of The Good Place, every person is caught in a cycle of sin that is inescapable. Eleanor suffered neglect and psychological abuse from her parents, resulting in a total aversion to intimacy, profound cynicism, and the infliction of casual cruelty on every unfortunate sap who happens to cross her path. Tahani grew up under the tyranny of her parents’ preposterous expectations, and she accordingly developed a hyper-inflated sense of self to compensate for a crippling and constant sense of inferiority.

Jason, on the other hand, lost his mother to cancer when he was just a child and is afterwards raised by a father who puts practically no expectations on him. As Jason’s dad, “Donkey Doug,” puts it at Jason’s farewell party in the series finale, “I had Jason when I was eighteen years old. In many ways, he raised me just as much as I raised him. So thanks for being a great dad, son!” Finally, there’s Chidi. Exposed as a small boy to the imminent threat of his parents’ divorce, Chidi turned to books as the answer, giving his parents a lecture on the negative repercussion of divorce. His childhood delusion that he thereby single-handedly saved his parents’ marriage leads him to place all trust in the world of the mind and ideas, but this only exacerbates his crippling self-doubt and indecision that make him a truly insufferable human being.

The Good Place certainly stands in the tradition of interpreting original sin as original trauma. Sin is passed down as we introject the failed ways of loving we see modeled in our homes and then in the broader community; in this the series is thoroughly Freudian. Still, there is no escape from our entrapment in sin: when the rails are laid down for us, we travel them to the end. That is, unless grace should break in and switch the tracks.

This is the central point of season 3, when our protagonists are returned to their earthly lives and given a second chance to redeem themselves under the influence of Michael—at this point no longer a vanguard of the demonic hosts but instead a “guide and consoler,” in the words of the Litany of St. Michael. Each of the protagonists in turn decides to impart grace to those in their immediate circles. If the human family is doomed together to sin and dysfunction, then it can be saved only through the introduction of grace in the concrete form of converted sinners bearing with one another, helping each other find healing, too.

And at times that extension of grace costs us greatly: recall Chidi’s kenotic self-sacrifice, when he gives up the bliss of love with Eleanor, agrees to erase his memories, and descends into the final iteration of the neighborhood as a test subject—all in order to facilitate the success of the Judge’s experiment, thereby allowing the human race in toto to achieve salvation.

These motifs constitute the Christian architecture of the show. Christian theology may not be the exclusive or even explicit source from which the writers drew inspiration, but the long reach of Christian thought is easily felt in these key aspects of the series. It is likely for this reason, I propose, that the ending of The Good Place felt jarring to so many.


This brings us to the show’s finale. Having made it, at last, to the real forking Good Place, our protagonists immediately discover a problem: despite access to pleasures without end, no one seems to be having a good time. The architects of The Good Place are desperate to relinquish their duties and abdicate; they have hit a wall, and no amount of ingenuity or inventiveness can adequately spice up the afterlife for its bored denizens (not even giving the unicorns in The Good Place “more horns” will do). Jason, the most childlike and thus most distractible occupant of The Good Place, finds that his life-long dream of “go-carting with monkeys [gets] boring really fast.”

The ancient philosopher Hypatia—numbed by aeons of boredom and so now a bit loopy—sums up the problem: “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. This place kills fun, and passion, and excitement, and love, until all you have left are milkshakes.” Not being humans themselves, the Good Place architects find the task of constructing an endlessly entertaining afterlife an insoluble problem. Only our four human protagonists can offer the winning answer. 

Enter . . .  suicide. Ending one’s existence appears to be the only way out of the tedium of being. This is a shocking solution. To decry it for theological (and psychological reasons) is understandable, yet philosophically it warrants further attention. For it is rather surprising to find a question of such fundamental depth—indeed, the philosophical question, according to Camus—being asked so expressly on a popular television show.

This is a testament to the importance of The Good Place as a cultural phenomenon: it not only made Aristotle and Kant household names—in addition to burning into viewers’ minds the image of Chidi covered in the blood of his “trolley problem” victims—but it openly raised, even if only thematically, the issue of the very meaning of finite existence. That such an exploration in popular television was possible in 2019 is itself remarkable, when philosophy and theology enjoy little cultural cachet.

We will discuss the issue of eschatological boredom momentarily, but for now we pause at the problem of finite existence. This is the crux of the matter, for transcendence never openly breaks into this show’s horizon. There is no God—being just is, a brute fact, as is the moral order of the universe which The Good Place is so intent on preaching. And being, as a pure matter of fact, appears at one moment in one way and then differently in another. Today I am a being of moral dignity and agency, whose choices have ramifications for the lives of others and for my own postmortem destiny. Tomorrow I am dust—gone, perhaps remembered for a while, but nonetheless dissolved, like the wave that crests and then becomes the water again. Our failure to understand this truth leads to sorrow, as Chidi remarks in his final, Buddhist-inspired contemplation meant to assuage Eleanor’s grief at his impending departure:

Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there, you can see it, you know what it is, it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just, well, a different way for the water to be, for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean—where it came from, and where it’s supposed to be.”[1]           

In this light, Eleanor’s response of sadness towards Chidi’s decision to remove himself from existence can only be diagnosed as a problem of misunderstanding, the craving for stability gnawing away at a deluded self that does not yet recognize the truth that there is no “self.” Understandable, perhaps, but ultimately a mistake to be remedied so that Eleanor might free herself from inordinate suffering over Chidi’s “death.”

It was this part of the finale that provoked consternation from Christian critics. (One friend of mine described it as placing a Buddhist head on Тhe Good Place’s Christian body). Lovely maritime metaphors aside, the message is—from a Christian viewpoint—thoroughly nihilistic. Finite being as we know it is a temporary phenomenon, and to refuse to cooperate with the inevitable return of all things to non-being is to go against the grain of the universe.

Confronted with this world’s interminable dialectic of life and death, the human mind seeks an ordering of the two, some integrating principle by which to understand which is more fundamental and which is appearance or reality; reason abhors a dualism, after all. To risk a violent overgeneralization, we might say that this piece of religious “wisdom of the East” to which Chidi alludes is characterized by its embrace of one pole of this dialectic. By contrast, the Western Platonist-Christian religious synthesis came to the opposite conclusion: life is more primordial, with death representing the privation of the goodness of being.

It cannot be doubted that the Church’s proclamation of the resurrection of Christ and the ultimate, eschatological restoration of all things profoundly shaped the West’s philosophical predilections towards life as more primordial than death. Yet there exist philosophical grounds, beyond these explicitly theological motivations, for resolving the dialectic in life’s favor.

If we attend carefully to Chidi’s image of the wave, we find an essential ambiguity in the analogy. What exactly is the is of the wave? Is it merely an illusion concealing the more fundamental reality of the water? But then we might go even further and ask whether water itself is a mask that more basic particles of matter wear. And so on.

This kind of metaphysical reductionism rests on a theory of knowledge that takes knowing reality to be like taking a look: “Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there, you can see it, you know what it is, it’s a wave.” If “things” are reducible to their constituent parts (organic or otherwise), then it is only natural that the ever-shifting reorganizations of matter will induce confusion as to the substantiality of any emergent reality. And since in a universe determined by entropy, matter’s ultimate reorganization proves to be decomposition, it is eminently reasonable to conclude that we only ride the wave of apparent substantiality for so long before we return to the ocean—where we come from, and where we are supposed to be.

Yet this is wrong. “Things” are apprehended as unities, as wholes, by reason through its insights into the structure of a particular being. When the question arises whether that apprehension is correct, we are driven by our innate (and unavoidable) questioning to the point of issuing a judgment: do the conditions hold for affirming our insight to be true? In this dynamism of experience, understanding, and judgment, we go beyond the powers of perception, with our connatural desire to know employing the givens of sensation as the springboard for our minds to grasp intelligible unities in the real world.[2]

A rather recondite point, but its implications are vast: how we philosophically conceive of “things” or “forms” makes a tremendous difference in our evaluation of the phenomenon of death. For if there are no things and if the diverse forms populating our earth—trees, whales, children—constitute, in the final metaphysical analysis, only deceptive organizations of a primordial nothingness, then it is truly irrational to mourn the loss of anything. Let Jesus stop his tears at Lazarus’s tomb.

“Lazarus” is not there. “Chidi” too thus becomes only a holding place for Eleanor’s craving for permanence, with her sorrow at losing him, and their love, reducible to one final act of selfishness of which she must purify herself before her journey of moral transformation is complete. For Chidi to be free, she must let him go; for “Eleanor” to be free, she must let the idea of him go, as well as the idea of herself and of their love.

There is a protest at the heart of Christianity against the power of death that rules this world, and it locks arms with a broadly Western philosophical affirmation of the reality of things, especially as articulated by Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics. The Christian can therefore look on Eleanor’s sadness only as something divine; we may not mourn as those without hope, but we mourn nonetheless, and sorrow at death is not a problem to resolve by tearing out our loves from our hearts by their metaphysical roots. Eleanor need not be able to philosophically articulate the actuality of substantial forms to recognize her broken heart’s testimony concerning the substance and value of this world: through her love she touches the reality of Chidi and thereby knows more than she can say.[3]

That is one half of a possible Christian response to The Good Place finale. But what of Chidi’s choice to leave The Good Place and thereby to cease existing? Or the similar decisions of Jason and Eleanor and Michael? The question centers on properly identifying the source of Chidi’s dissatisfaction. Michael Schur, the series creator, spoke of the problem as one of boredom: “It's sort of an inescapable conclusion. It doesn't matter how great things are, if they go on forever they will get boring.” Perhaps Schur’s comment indicates nothing more than a cramped imagination, shaped by the capitalist consumerism that impacts us at levels more basic than we might imagine, to the point of generating even its own visions of the afterlife.

This is Jessica Hooten Wilson’s reading, and there is certainly something to it. She is correct too in linking the show’s atheological afterlife with its ultimately nihilistic conclusion. For in a show about the afterlife, God is surprisingly scarce. He is not just dead; his absence is taken for granted and—remarkably—never mentioned by a single character in the show. Without God, it seems, boredom must become our inevitable, eschatological lot.

However, this is not the only way to make theological sense of the series finale. To completely identify the show’s conclusion with a worldview limited by consumerism would be hasty, I think, not only because the finale gives us other, explicitly religious reasons for its nihilism about finite existence but also because the series has spent seasons hammering home the emptiness of consumerism, especially in the lives of Eleanor and Tahani. While Eleanor claims she could keep living happily with Chidi forever in The Good Place, the show gives enough indication that such a fantasy is shortsighted.

Chidi’s restlessness speaks to something intrinsic to our experience of finitude, or rather to our being as the mixture of the finite and infinite, in Kierkegaard’s terms. Simply put, the boredom that the citizens of The Good Place must inevitably undergo functions as a photo negative of the boundlessness of human desire. Ex negativo, The Good Place shows us the truth of the human spirit’s natural desire to see God. We, as Augustine has it, are pure and restless desire, and so, while it may be impossible to artistically imagine heaven as desire perfectly fulfilled, it is equally impossible to depict any world of desire without also intimating its transcendent telos and ground.

The Good Place portrays this precisely in showing Jason and Chidi’s desire to “move on,” as the recognition that one is sated with this life and yet yearns for something more. In the absence of an explicitly transcendental and theological horizon—remember, God is not a resident of The Good Place—this desire for more becomes a desire for non-being, as the goods of life eventually transform into painful reminders of the inability to find lasting peace. Even the ecstasies of romantic intimacy cannot produce eternal rest, The Good Place seems to say. In this rejection of the ultimacy of romance—which functions throughout the series as an engine propelling Eleanor towards moral transformation—the show makes a statement not often encountered in popular culture: romantic love is not enough for the human heart.

Despite itself, then, The Good Place witnesses to a foundational theological truth through its characterization of the endless hunger of the human spirit. In its anthropology it obliquely preaches the Unknown God, the horizon of any and all desire.

Desire, then, constitutes the question The Good Place finale poses to us. What is the meaning of our desire for each other? Does our weeping in the face of death disclose any truth to us about the goodness of beings, or is it rather an indication of our refusal to let go of the shadow of substance? Equally probing is its interrogation of the possibility of the human heart’s ultimate satisfaction within the limits of finitude. Its negative answer is, I suggest, a positive revelation: in depicting the afterlife as a continuation of our life here—albeit supersized and supercharged—The Good Place discloses the immensity of human desire.

That truth raises another question—the ultimate question, in fact. Is there satisfaction for the human heart? If it is not to be found here below, can it be found elsewhere?[4] As we have seen, the show’s quasi-Buddhist conclusion is a strong no. But there is another aspect of the series finale that suggests a way to read against the grain of this message.

Recall Eleanor’s trip to The Medium Place to visit Mindy St. Claire, before Eleanor departs from existence. She comes to Mindy in order to persuade her to leave the comfort of The Medium Place and to begin the purgatorial process. It is no surprise that Eleanor returns to The Medium Place, for it was there that she first confessed her love to Chidi. These heights of vulnerability revealed the transformation Eleanor had already undergone, from defensive despiser of intimacy to open and earnest seeker of truth and communion with others. Now, like a bodhisattva keeping her foot in samsara for just a while longer, Eleanor descends to save Mindy through this final act of compassion.

She questions Mindy’s protestations that she is “fine,” satisfied with life turned in on herself (“cocaine and self-pleasure”). The solution Eleanor proposes for Mindy’s incurvation is to form bonds with others, and we viewers delight to see the tentative softening of Mindy’s heart at the suggestion. Whatever gifts Eleanor offers Mindy here, the main grace communicated is the stoking of Mindy’s desire, in convincing her that her satisfaction is no satisfaction at all but rather disguised and muted suffering. The nihilistic and individualistic conclusion of The Good Place may betray this Eleanor’s gospel of self-transcending love in communion with others, but it is in the salvation of Mindy St. Claire that we best espy the Christian genius of the show.[5]

[1] The source of this image is Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. The show runner for The Good Place, Mike Schur, can be heard discussing the origins of this quote in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching here.

[2] For an example, imagine a pencil dropped into a glass of water: perception alone will present us with two contradictory sets of data (it is crooked and it is not). Only further questions can lead us to an insight into the phenomenon of refraction, and only a judgment that it holds true in this instance can resolve the disparity between the perceptual phenomena. For more on the difference between things and bodies, see Bernard Lonergan’s Insight, chapter eight, “Things.”

[3] See: Aquinas, ST, I-II, q. 27, a. 2, ad. 2.

[4] See: C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.

[5] My hearty thanks to Taylor Nutter and Matthew Vale for their helpful comments and suggestions on this essay.

Featured Image: After Hokusai, Colored version of the Great Wave without people, early 19th c; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Roberto J. De La Noval

Roberto De La Noval is assistant professor of theology at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD. A systematic theologian and scholar of Russian religious thought, his publications include a translation of Sergius Bulgakov: Spiritual Diary and other translations and essays in academic and popular journals.

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