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).
These two episodes deserve to be recapped together, because they create an important narrative shift. The gang ends up in the actual Good Place—well, at least, they end up in the mailroom of the Good Place (green carpet and all). Michael is still fixated on exposing the point system as being inherently flawed in an age of increasing ethical implications. The four humans want to plead for asylum (“What kind of place doesn’t take in refugees?”) but Michael points out how the Good Place abides by the rules system and won’t break them for anything.
The tension in episode 10 (“The Book of Dougs”) revolves around the humans (and Janet) trying to convince Gwendolyn, the Good Place Mail Person, that they belong there and Michael summing up the Good Place committee, which turns out to be a highly ineffectual group of conciliatory council members. Completely divorced from the reality of suffering and the complexity of human life, the committee is unable to hear Michael and his arguments, in effect perpetuating the same system that leaves everyone out of the Good Place.What if life has gotten incredibly ethically complicated due to technology, capitalism, and our awareness of our own possible complicity?
And what are those arguments? Michael realizes that in the last 500 years no one has made it to the Good Place. He seizes on the idea that the Bad Place must be tampering with the points system. And he realizes the committee will take too long to investigate the problem (thousands of years) and that millions and millions will needlessly suffer as a result. There is something extremely disturbing about the bland niceness of people promising to slowly look into a system that works fine for them but disadvantages the majority of people. Michael, thanks to a chance conversation about unexpected negative consequences to well-intentioned actions with Tahani, suddenly shifts his perspective. Perhaps it isn’t the Bad Place that is tampering with the points system—what if life has gotten incredibly ethically complicated due to technology, capitalism, and our awareness of our own possible complicity?
Take the flower (or a tomato), Michael says. Choosing which flower to buy or tomato to eat has now become an ethically compromised action (pesticides, supporting unethical companies and owners, etc.). At first blush, I was intrigued by this idea—that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism is an interesting idea, after all. But as others (including my friend Bradford) pointed out to me, it’s a neatly revisionist way of looking at history. And it’s almost the inverse of the supersessionism, triumphalism, and the exceptionalism that already undergirds the American experiment. If we aren’t the most advanced people in the world, then surely we must be the most ethically complicated—we must be living through the worst times. Does it really get harder every day to be a Good Person? Or does looking at history (including the Bible) give us another perspective? It has always been hard, and will always continue to be hard to love our neighbors as ourselves. This, like death and taxes, is something we can be sure of.
In episode 11 (“Chidi Sees a Time Knife”), these questions continue to unravel. The Judge meets Michael, Janet, and the humans in the IHOP (Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes). Michael tells the Judge his idea, and she quickly deflates it. “Life is complicated? That’s your big revelation? That’s a divorced woman’s throw pillow.” But there are elements to the hunch that prove correct. Jason, who often acts as the simpleton with the heart of gold, interrupts to tell the Judge a long rambly story about how he used to not understand his friend Big Noodle, until he knew how hard his life was. “You can’t judge humans, because you don’t know what we go through.”What if we resisted dehumanization as our first goal in life, as a way to reflect glory on the one who created us?
The Judge agrees, and comes back shaken with her experiences (“Earth is a mess, y’all.”). Life is complicated, chaotic, and there are too many unintended consequences. In fact, Chidi himself is the best walking example of Michael’s hunch—he is someone who did obsess about ethics and tried to make good decisions at every turn, and he still ended up in the Bad Place. The Judge agrees something is wrong and brings Shaun the demon to the IHOP to come up with a plan for how to understand this problem. They decide to re-create the experiment to see if humans really can change and learn to care for one another—so they find four humans and set about creating another fake Good Place over at Mindy St. Claire’s house.
Confusing? Slightly, yes. But all of this is really a set-up to continue to explore the premises of the last few episodes. And yet I am left with several questions: Are humans destined to ethically fail due to the increasingly complicated world? Will Michael be able to prove that humans have the capacity to change if they can transcend their circumstances on earth? Did something happen 500 years ago that changed the equation forever (like, say, the Protestant reformation or perhaps the birth of the transatlantic slave trade based off of anti-Black bias)? Each of these questions leads me to even more questions, the theories getting ever wilder and more complex.
But what if it really is simpler than this? What if this show is about resisting dehumanization in all of its forms, which includes globalized capitalism (which exploits people in favor of profit), bounded-set thinking (you are either in/out, Good or Bad), and the inability to empathize with another person due to the distance formed by rules, structures, and institutions?
These two episodes, hinging on the belief that the world is more complicated and so are people, made me think about another person who posited that we are connected to more than we can simply see. In 1967 Dr. King gave a talk that centered on what he called interconnectedness: “Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent upon most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed you by a Pacific Islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning and that is poured into your cup by a South American…. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
I wonder if the flip side of the world becoming more complicated is that we as humans made in the image of God have a chance to take interactions that are meant for exploitation and turn them into ways to learn to depend on one another. What if we resisted dehumanization as our first goal in life, as a way to reflect glory on the one who created us? I think this show is proposing that is exactly what we should do. When they aren’t asking these big questions, these two episodes revolve around the budding relationship of Jason and Janet, of Chidi and Eleanor falling in real love, and of Michael’s anguish at the thought that he could fail his human friends. And the drama of the next few episodes will no doubt revolve around the idea of whether other people will be able to change and learn to love and care and depend on one another as well.
There is something important for us all to consider in these episodes: The indifference to suffering that is produced by a flawed system. Our inability to sufficiently cope with the ethical complexities of a globalized consumer society. And the natural tendency all of us have to draw concrete lines saying who is in and who is out, without considering the complexities of the stories. I finished these two episodes wondering yet again what direction this show will take us. I’m not quite sure, but I think it will end up where it started: That it is all about how we love our neighbors and learning how interconnected our thriving and flourishing really is.