Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
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).
After a short hiatus, The Good Place is back with a mid-season finale that shakes the afterlife up in all the ways we’ve come to expect. However, I did not expect this episode to bring out the fundamentalist in me, in ways I am still parsing out. In a nutshell, it’s a half-hour exploration of identity, the perception of self, and the overarching investigation behind the very rules and results of the point system that sorts people into the good or bad place when they die. It left me with a question still lingering in my brain: What makes a person who they are?We are defined not just by who we are, but by who we are in relationship to one another.
In this episode Janet has brought the humans into her void in order to save them from the demons on earth—making them the first humans ever to die and not immediately end up in the good or bad place. Due to reasons explained yet beyond comprehension, all four humans retain their consciousness while taking on Janet’s form. Watching D’arcy Carden transform her face and body and voice and mannerisms into Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani even as she remains in character for Janet made me smile so hard that my face ended up hurting—if she doesn’t win an Emmy, I think we should riot. Janet and Michael leave the four humans (in Janet form) and go to the neutral place to meet the Accountant (played by Stephen Merchant). Michael asks to be shown how it all works because he believes the bad place has been tampering with the system. In the end, Michael discovers that no one in the past 521 years has made it into the good place. He grabs the humans and sends them via a direct mail chute to the good place (or is it?). Another cliffhanger ending for the show that keeps changing the game.
One of the two themes that stood out to me in this wildly fun episode was the actual setting of the home of the Accountant. The set is a play on The Office, another Mike Schur production (with the Accountant even holding a mug that says “Existence’s Best Boss”). The bland office setting, coupled with the banality of birthday parties and corner pieces of cake and a routine explanation of how points are characterized and totaled, underscores the underlying horror of what the neutral space really is. It is a place responsible for all humans to be sent to the bad place—where all humans for the past 500 or so years have been sent to suffer and be tortured for all of eternity. And nobody in the neutral place seems particularly bothered by this.
It’s hard not to think about my own religious background, which does adhere to the belief of eternal conscious torment for those that have not accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts on this earth. It’s hard not to think of all the sermons, books, and radio plays I heard as a child that just accepted these rules as simple facts, with no room for questions or doubts or even grief. Even as a child I wondered: Didn’t people know anyone who wasn’t a Christian? If so, how were they not going through life anguished? Instead, there was a certain calmness to the way the rules were presented that chilled me. I heard an acceptance of a system that worked well for them, but not for the vast majority of people in the world.
The other theme—the sense of self/identity—in this episode left me rather puzzled at first. Eleanor tries to get Chidi to have an honest discussion about their relationship, while he chooses to hide in an intellectual lecture. Eleanor starts to lose her sense of self, causing Janet’s void to begin disintegrating. The crisis of the episode revolves around whether or not Eleanor is able to remember herself. She can’t, and it takes Chidi to save her and everyone else—by telling Eleanor all the things about herself that he has noticed and that he loves. It culminates in a kiss, which restores the humans to their original forms.
At first blush I didn’t love this ending. Eleanor’s shattered identity can only be fixed by a man telling her he loves her? I felt the fundamentalist inside me recoil. Only Jesus saves us, I said grumpily to myself. Only in a humanist philosophy could this ending have any real weight. And yet the more I thought about it, I realized I was both wrong and right. The more I have gone through the world, the more I have realized that Jesus doesn’t just save our isolated, lonely, shattered selves. He doesn’t just come to pick the very few that will get into the good place because they had the fortune of being born into a place where they heard about Jesus in a way that made sense to them. As a Christian who is settling into the third decade of her faith, I believe Jesus incarnated, lived, died, and resurrected to show us the love of a Father God who is available for all. And Jesus himself showed us how vital relationships with one another are. Second only to experiencing the transforming love of God, we are to love and be loved by our neighbors in order to know what it means to be fully human, fully alive.
Psychologists have said that there is no such thing as a baby; instead, there is always a baby and a mother. We are defined not just by who we are, but by who we are in relationship to one another. In this way, Chidi being a vital part of restoring Eleanor’s sense of identity (which we know has been fractured by her parents and other relationships in her life) makes sense. God uses other people to love us, and in this way we are changed. Even the entire quest of this episode and this season—Michael trying to prove his hunch about the good place correct—is born out of his relationship with the four humans. Without getting to know them, he would not have changed. He would remain a cartoonishly evil demon, or perhaps the Accountant who blandly condemns everyone to hell.
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