In Mur Lafferty’s Heaven, protagonist Kate dies and finds herself in heaven along with her best friend Daniel. Daniel, who she always had an unrequited crush on in life, tells her he loves her and they set about spending their after afterlife together. However, Kate gradually realizes that this is not the person she knew on Earth, but a simulacrum created to match her desires, and finds this profoundly unsatisfying. I haven’t thought about this story in over a decade (this was from back when something called “podiobooks” roamed the Earth), but it came to mind when watching the finale of The Good Place.
It’s been a little over a year (or a season and a half, in TV-land) since I last wrote about The Good Place and why, despite how enjoyable it was as a TV show, I had a lot of misgivings about its concept of morality. Since then, the series has addressed some of the problems I highlighted, establishing that the existing sorting system is immoral (although it doesn’t seem like something that should take all those bearemies to realize) and having the characters set out to change it.
Spoilers follow for the last two episodes of The Good Place, obviously.
Instead of a system where the souls of the dead are physically tortured in hell for eternity, the protagonists create a system in which they are placed in a number of simulations designed to teach them the lessons they didn’t learn in life and turn them into good people. (That there’s an uncontroversial, objective concept of a “good person” is still something the series takes for granted.)
Having corrected the afterlife, the quartet of humans we’ve been following for the whole season and their demon mentor Michael are finally granted passage into the for-real good place. There they find the greatest people from throughout history — but they’ve all become braindead party animals. This is solved in relatively quick order by adding a “door” through which their long existence can come to a voluntary end. The theory is that having an end gives life meaning, and this works.
Right away, I have objections here. For one thing, it makes the whole show into an example of begging the question: the answer to “what comes after death” is, it turns out, death, just with a few additional stages in between. Also, “death is what gives life meaning” has always struck me as just-so bullshit, a way of justifying the fundamentally unjust nature of life ending in an eternal void. What gives life meaning, to me, is not the imminence of death but all of the things that bring us joy: friendship, art, good food and good music and maybe making the world a better place while we’re at it. If death adds so much meaning, then why have almost all societies been drawn to a version of death being averted through an afterlife in which our consciousness can continue eternally? Should we congratulate terminally ill people for having their remaining moments become much more meaningful?
(One interesting feature of The Good Place is that, while great lengths of time are passing, there’s never any suggestion that time is passing on Earth aside from the deaths of a few people presently living there. While ancient philosophers are there and have updated to the modern day, everyone seems stuck in an eternal 2010s. I understand that the show has mostly handwaved the question of how much time has passed, and doesn’t want all the characters dressed in weird future fashion for its emotional finale, but it does make a sense of completion seem more possible than it ever is in reality. It also seems strange that, for all these characters, the meaning of their eternity in paradise is largely based on the limited amount of time they spent on Earth.)
The series finale is a much better episode, using its extended runtime to give all of its characters a moving send-off. It has a remarkable structure for a network sitcom finale: all of the characters we’ve become attached to commit suicide one by one. (Except for Tahani, who remains the most sensible one of these idiots.) This is, it turns out, the endgame of the afterlife: not a better life, but a better death than, say, being run over by a truck.
And yet, despite how moving the writing was, I found myself wondering why the Good Place seemed so sad, continually haunted by death. Is watching your friends walk into a suicide booth, no matter how tranquil and fulfilled they seem to be, anyone’s idea of paradise? When Chidi is contemplating going through the door, Eleanor begs him to stay, telling him that she’ll be alone without him. In other words, his decision means that she’s no longer living in her perfect world — and, if he had stayed, he would no longer be living in his.
This is, in the end, the flaw in all ideas of heaven. The problems and anguish that we go through on Earth are not, for the most part, generated by the world itself but by the people around us. Even in a paradise of endless abundance, with only good people, we won’t get everything that we want: people we love won’t love us back, people will want to move on quicker than we like, everyone will love some song or movie that we hate. Even with all its Schurian optimism, The Good Place can’t quite avoid the reality that the Bad Place is other people.
Thus we run into the problem posed by Lafferty: for us to truly get everything we want, we would have to be in a world where other people are simulacra, existing only to serve our needs and desires. (This is, perhaps, the world that the rich do their best to create for themselves with servants and yes-men.) And to live in such a world would, as Kate discovers, has its own problems: we would never discover anything new, never be pleasantly surprised, never have the joy of genuine accomplishment. I don’t believe in the life/death dialectic that The Good Place puts forward, but I do accept that we can’t experience the joys of relating to other people without allowing them the capacity to hurt us.
In its final moments, The Good Place suggests that souls who pass through the door become some kind of energy on earth, encouraging people to act morally. For the first time in the series, morality is not transactional but done for its own sake — you behave morally so that, ultimately, you can create a more moral world. It seems like a good enough message, if one that is poorly served by the stick-and-carrot afterlife that the series devises. But then again, when us limited mortal try to imagine the unlimited and immortal, is it any wonder that we come up short?