When Changing Nothing Changes Everything by Laurie Polich Short, Free for CAPC Members
In her book When Changing Nothing Changes Everything, Laurie Polich Short gives us insight into living life fully, whatever our circumstances.
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).
It’s BACK, baby. Episode 5 of season 3 has all the hallmarks of The Good Place that fans have come to know and love: goofy jokes that underlie complex theories (Jeremy Bearimy might have to become what we call this particular brand of humor), ethical theories and situations relayed in real-life ways, and an underlying element of pathos–or the sense that what happens onscreen matters, or means something, because the stakes are so (eternally) high.The Good Place has not shied away from the inherently self-sacrificial element of truly loving other people.
“Jeremy Bearimy” opens with the humans having discovered an otherworldly portal, as well as hearing Michael and Janet discuss the afterlife. Although Michael tries to cover it up with elaborate lies, he and Janet are finally forced to tell the truth about the Good place/Bad place, thus sealing the fate of the four humans. Because they now know about the Bad Place, their motivations will be hopelessly tarnished. Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason all have to grapple with the fact that they died, lived 300 years in an alternate timeline, and are now back on earth and doomed forever.
The fun (which is strange, but accurate) of the episode revolves around how different people respond to the idea of being condemned to hell for all of eternity. And the poignancy comes from us, the viewers, getting sucked right along with the characters into this literal life-or-death stakes, while also learning a bit about ourselves and our world.
Tahani embarks on a quest to try and do good things with her wealth without craving notoriety–”I have always been held captive by the need for attention. Now I just want virtue for virtue’s sake,” she tells Jason, donating 2 million dollars to the Sydney opera house anonymously. Her encounter with reality shakes her out of her slumber, and makes her long for something more than positive feedback. But what is virtue for virtue’s sake? Jason doesn’t know, but he comes up with multiple ways for Tahani to give away her money–mostly by handing stacks of random cash to people.
Jason’s mentality is more urgent, and based in the relentless present. He doesn’t think about preserving his legacy, what he can get out of being identified as a good person, or even if the people he is giving the money to are good or deserving. In one of the most poignant moments of the episode, he tells Tahani how a wad of cash like the ones they are giving away might have changed his entire life and kept him out of trouble. Money, for all of our fear of talking about it, has a lot to do with ethics in our world. And Jason, as a person who grew up in poverty, understands the morality it can afford certain people. It reminded me of Dorothy Day who, along with her co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin, advocated for voluntary poverty and a redistribution of wealth as one way of creating a world “where it was easier to be good.”
While Tahani and Jason’s reactions revolve around money (including them getting married so Tahani can legally transfer her wealth to Jason), Chidi becomes the most hilarious nihilistic ethics professor to ever have graced Prime Time. From quoting Nietzsche to a stoner in the park to eating vats of chili with marshmallow peeps in them because nothing matters anymore, Chidi both educates the viewers about the various streams of Western philosophical approaches to the world, while pinpointing the specific dangers of Nihilism: the lack of care for fellow humans. If the world is empty, and there is no point to anything, you can just do whatever.
Eleanor embarks on her usual journey: going to a bar and alienating herself from everyone. As she tells the bartender, she does what she wants and she looks out for herself–just like America as a whole, she says. But the implication remains that a society built on extreme individualism cannot survive, without enough people looking out for the common good. Eleanor, however, doesn’t seem to care until suddenly she does. What she describes as a stupid small voice tells her to return a wallet to its rightful owner, and she is overcome with emotion with his gratitude, and the ripple effect of it.
Underneath these four characters trying to reconcile with their own impending doom and their powerlessness in the face of it, something like true religion begins to bloom: a faith that being good–by opening ourselves up to loving one another in actions and deeds–actually means something. And the opposite is true: living selfishly, only caring about ourselves, and believing that being good is pointless, is not only a miserable way to live but actually dangerous to our world. I don’t think this can be stressed enough: Mike Schur, creator and showrunner of some of the most successful and beloved TV sitcoms in the US, is in a fight to save America from ethical and moral nihilism. In his estimation, when people go through life like Eleanor–believing they don’t owe anything to anyone–society does and did break down, causing the most vulnerable to suffer.
Schur’s solution is by strengthening our ties and connections to each other, so that we live as if it meant something–both to us, but also to our neighbors. And so far The Good Place has not shied away from the inherently self-sacrificial element of truly loving other people–the importance of laying down your life for another. Of course, the four humans in this show didn’t really have a choice–their chance of getting to the Good Place was taken from them. But by the end of this episode, which I suspect is the hinge for what the rest of the season will be, they are a group of six again, fighting the forces of the system that sorts people into good/bad categories, fighting to save not themselves but other people. It brings the pathos back, in the best way possible. From here on out, the gang will be focused on saving others. I can’t wait to see how this will be yet another lesson in failure, but how our favorite characters will be transformed into true believers of love and goodness in the process.
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