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).
What is the meaning of life? How do we respond to the reality of suffering around us? What are the ideas, theologies, and most importantly—people—that help us transcend our own small worldview to experience the euphoria of knowing and being known in love? These are just a few of the light, breezy questions I found myself mulling over as I finished the third season of The Good Place. And this is what I love about the show, which started as an intellectual romp through various ethical conundrums and has now landed squarely in the heart of human experience: love and grief, joy and lament as a key to understanding what it means to be a human.Happiness is not an absence of suffering. Happiness is found in both giving and receiving love.
For this season finale, Michael is in the throes of a panic attack, so Eleanor takes over and pretends to be the architect for the new batch of four humans to test out their hypothesis that humans can progress and become better people. This finale goes back to the themes introduced at the beginning of the season, when neuroscientist Simone talks about the importance of re-creating studies to test their validity. The stakes for Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, Michael, and Janet re-creating the experiment of the “fake” Good Place are sky-high: if they fail, all humans will continue to be sent to the Bad Place and be tortured for eternity. That is quite the dramatic tension point, especially for a 22-minute comedy on NBC to tackle.
Michael is a blubbering mess, triggered by the news from Shaun the demon that when they fail, he will have a demon dress up as Michael and torture the four humans he has grown to love. While Eleanor hopes that Michael will one day snap back into his old self, he bursts into tears at the sight of his friends. Michael, the demon, has become incapacitated by love.
John Wheaton is the first new human to show up, and it turns out he has a connection to Tahani—he was a gossip columnist that frequently wrote about her. “You were quite mean to me,” she tells him, and he responds, “I wouldn’t call it mean; my targets were rich and high status, and I was just doing the important work of telling truth to power.” Does John have the same moral conundrum as Eleanor? It seems as if he is similar to Tahani, believing himself to have earned the right to the Good Place, sipping on a drink as he strolls around the neighborhood. But before we can think too deeply about these things, Tahani quickly realizes that the Bad Place hasn’t picked four terrible humans for this experience—they strategically picked four humans that would mess with each of them, dragging them back into their unhealthy patterns and habits, and therefore ruining the experiment.
The big reveal partway through the episode is that the next human for the experiment is none other than Simone—Chidi’s ex from the beginning of Season 3. Chidi realizes this is the ultimate power play—there is no way he can pretend to be normal around Simone. He tells Michael and Eleanor they will have to erase Chidi’s memories, because of those stakes again: “If I am awkward around my ex everyone gets tortured for forever.” But the drama here is that when Michael erases Chidi’s memories, it will also erase Chidi and Eleanor’s budding relationship.
Until this episode (and indeed, even upon my first time watching it), I have been fairly neutral about the romantic relationships on this show. Similarly to Parks and Rec, another Mike Schur production, I find the most compelling relationships to be the unlikely friendships forged in wild circumstances. Eleanor and Chidi are no exception, so the anguish at the end of their romantic relationship took time to resonate with me. I was touched by the sappy and poignant scene where Michael shows Eleanor and Chidi a reel of memories they might not remember, but also I maintain the same optimism as Chidi: this couple keeps finding each other, so I rest assured thinking that the writers of The Good Place will find a way to get them together again by the end of season 4.
Eleanor tells Michael that the suffering being caused by Chidi needing to forget her in order to save humanity is normal. “This is a classic human situation. Your friends are going through something awful, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Which is interesting, as season 1 Eleanor would most likely not have had this view—all suffering is to be avoided, therefore relationships with humans are to be avoided. And then, in the last scene, Eleanor asks Janet (as a stand-in for an all-knowing deity): Can you tell me the answer, to everything? What’s the point of love? There has to be meaning to existence, right?
The end conversation with Janet also brings up this idea of pandemonium—which in Paradise Lost is hell, or the place of all demons. Returning to the original premise, in a fake Good Place, surrounded by demons, Eleanor found Chidi, and Tahani, and Jason, and Janet, and Michael, and everyone was changed for the better—they learned to be ethical people. At the end of the finale, Janet says something that at first glance could sound syrupy sweet, advising Eleanor to “find happiness in the unique insanity of being here, now.” But as the show has been showing us all along, happiness is not an absence of suffering. Happiness is found in both giving and receiving love, and recognizing our responsibilities to each other. It is found in loving our neighbors as ourselves, just as we have been loved.
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