Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
This series is a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching Season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
“A Fractured Inheritance” begins with last week’s cliffhanger: after learning that her mother is actually alive, Eleanor decides to go confront her. Michael goes with her, trying to convince Eleanor to help her mother so that she might have a chance at the good place. “Remember, it’s not about you,” Michael tells Eleanor. But the first thing Eleanor does when she sees her mom is ask her, in the voice and cadence of a teenager, “How could you do this to me?”Is this a show about heaven or hell? Or is it a show that is carefully trying to point out how arbitrary our definitions of what “good” and “bad” are?
Thus begins one of the more poignant episodes of The Good Place. For many fans, the main issue of Season 3 is that it is so different from the two previous seasons—less stakes, less ethics, fewer demons trying to muddle everything up, and less relational drama. Everything is more muted here on earth: the colors, the sets, the lack of fantastical elements. Season three—as several people have noted to me—is simply less fun to watch.
But what this episode does—both by focusing on Eleanor’s relationship with her mom and Tahani’s relationship with her sister Kamilah—is get to a fundamental reality of the human condition that one does not often see on a prime time network comedy. It points to how our fundamental attachments shape and form us and how hard life can be for those who grew up with parents that were unable or unwilling to care for them.
Eleanor is shocked and suspicious of her mother’s transformation to a PTA-loving suburban housewife. Most of her plot line revolves around Eleanor trying to expose whatever scam her mother is running with her new family—including her new boyfriend, Dave, and his nine-year-old daughter (whom Eleanor sees as something of a rival). Tahani, meanwhile, is in Budapest to reconcile with her sister Kamilah, who is an international superstar artist/model/singer (and voted most likely to be Banksy). While Jason and Janet roam around looking at art, Tahani tries to apologize for her years of competition with her sister, only to have Kamilah reject her apology.
Packed into this 22-minute episode is a rumination on the varieties of toxic families, attachment styles, and the costs of both forgiveness and redemption. We have learned a bit about Eleanor’s family in past episodes, but here we see how her relationship with her primary caregiver (her mother) shaped Eleanor’s entire life. Because of her mother being such an unstable presence, Eleanor grew up to become someone with dismissive-avoidant attachment style (estimates are that 30% of the population operates in this way). This means it was important for her to be self-sufficient, to feel like she doesn’t need to rely on anyone, and to never get too close.
Tahani, on the other hand, comes face to face with her own upbringing. After fighting with Kamilah again, Tahani realizes that their parents set them up as foils from the beginning, encouraging competition as a way for the sisters to push themselves and succeed. All of Kamilah’s art revolves around this reality: their parents, working as a team, pushing the two girls apart. Tahani and Kamilah both represent the anxious-preoccupied attachment style, seeking high levels of approval and responsiveness due to them never receiving it from their primary caregivers.
I cried twice while watching this short episode. First, when Tahani embraces her sister and articulates what could not be spoken previously: their parents were not good parents and had damaged their relationship with each other. Second, I cried when Eleanor finally admits to Michael why she can’t accept that her mother might have changed, might have become a stable and good person. Michael says to her, “I changed, you changed, so why is it so hard to believe that your mom could change too?” And Eleanor, with tears in her eyes, tells Michael that she needed that change when she was a little girl. That if her mom was always capable of change, then that means that Eleanor simply wasn’t worth that effort.
This points to a fundamental unfairness that I don’t want to gloss over too quickly. The hard part of redemption stories involves all of those who were hurt before the transformation. And when it comes to primary attachment relationships like those of a parent and child, the results of bad parenting linger on. This is a reality for so many who grew up in homes with parents that could not be trusted in a variety of ways. While we laugh at Eleanor’s Arizona Trash Bag/Lonely Gal Margarita Mix for One running gag, or Tahani’s ridiculous name-dropping and limelight seeking, this episode in particular homes in on why people are the way they are. Why is Eleanor, a “bad” person, deserving of the bad place? Here, the writers tell us: it’s because she had a really bad start in life; she had a really bad mom.
In a culture that values individuality, the themes piling up here start to get tricky. What do we owe each other, especially when we have been hurt by each other? Eleanor, at the very end of the episode, tells Michael that it is because of her mother that she was never able to get close to anyone, to even say “I love you” to a boyfriend. But as Michael alludes to, and as the viewers already know, Eleanor did eventually engage in a securely attached relationship, albeit in the afterlife—with Chidi, the one character who we have yet to learn much in terms of personal family background.
Is this a show about heaven or hell? Or is it a show that is carefully trying to point out how arbitrary our definitions of what “good” and “bad” are, especially when looked at in light of how our culture, background, and primary attachment figures shape so much of how people go through the world? Does our goodness depend on our circumstances? How do we forgive people who have shaped our lives in such profound ways?
The show doesn’t answer any of those questions. But it is turning into both a celebration and meditation on the miracle of cycle-breakers, those people who overcame real barriers in relationships to eventually start to trust and put faith in each other, to live like they were meant to be in community. We all have a somewhat fractured inheritance—but we all have the same basic longing, to be known and worthy of unconditional love.
Linguistic facts of the episode: Chidi is Igbo (Nigerian) for “God exists”; Kamilah is Arabic for “perfect” and Tahani means “congratulations”; Eleanor means “God is my light”; Michael comes from the Hebrew word for “who is like God.”
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