One of the best things about NBC series
The Good Place is that it doesn’t drag things out. So far, within the space of half of its second season, it’s completely undone everything we knew about its premise from the first season, and built that premise up in a hundred different ways in the space of a couple of episodes. With the season’s second half scheduled to begin on January 4, it’s likely the only predictable thing about the show is that it will continue to be unpredictable.
There are, though, some key questions the show has set up that are ripe for further exploration. While its first season explained the nature of the afterlife in brief, simple infomercials, in the second season, things won’t be nearly so easy. Nonetheless, the show is clearly inching closer to exploring the nature of the entire afterlife—for real this time.
The Good Place has always had at its heart an exploration of the philosophical nature of good and evil, name-checking thinkers from Plato to Camus and using its episodes as testing grounds for moral dilemmas. This is a large part of why the show feels so well thought out and structured despite its wild plot swings—it builds a base for its eccentric characters around a series of age-old, time-tested philosophical questions. This has become especially clear in the second season, in which we get to see a literal demonstration of the classic “trolley problem” thought experiment. The show allows us to view and make sense of its characters through the lens of a series of great philosophical thinkers.
But so far
The Good Place has, in large part, steered clear of critiquing the framework it has set up for its characters. While we get to judge Eleanor and friends, afterlife mainframe Janet, and even Bad Place architect Michael for their human (and/or demonic or robotic) foibles, there hasn’t been as much room to zoom out, and wonder whether the afterlife itself is morally suspect.
Take the situation of main character Eleanor, who by her own admission wasn’t a great person while she was alive, but also wasn’t outright evil. Eleanor immediately realized that she didn’t belong in the Good Place, but also questioned whether she belonged in the Bad Place—at one point, taking a detour into the Medium Place, which only has one inhabitant. Eleanor and Chidi occasionally broached the subject of whether the ranking system in the afterlife was unfair, but generally focused on whether Eleanor still belonged in the Bad Place now that she was working to be a better person, rather than whether the entire system made sense. Eleanor was framed as one of only three people in the afterlife whose situation contained ambiguity and required determination by ultimate afterlife judge Shawn.
In the show’s second season, it’s become clear that much of what we previously knew about the Good Place wasn’t true. Though it seems the general existence of the ranking system and the Good, Bad, and Medium places was basically accurate, everything else is a bit up in the air. Not only Eleanor, but also Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are the first of their kind in the afterlife. And while Michael is an innovative architect who answers to his boss Shawn, it’s no longer clear exactly what Shawn is the boss of. Where he was previously presented as a neutral judge, perhaps godlike in his wisdom, he now seems to be just one of many mid-level managers in the Bad Place. In fact, all of the parameters of judgment and travel between the Good Place and Bad Place that were set up in the first season were later revealed to be part of Michael’s fake afterlife.
Now that, at the end of the second season’s first half, Shawn seems to have become aware that the fake Good Place situation is going off the rails, the show might be ready to show us exactly how far off the rails things can go. The entire Good Place we know was the result of Michael pushing back against Shawn’s control over the Bad Place. Now that Michael is facing Vicki fighting him from one side, and his human torture victims trying to convert him to humanity on the other, it seems dominion over the Bad Place is becoming increasingly democratic. If Shawn tries to reassert control, there’s a fairly large number of people (and/or robots or demons) who could react badly.
There are any number of directions this could lead. We’ve seen that Michael can create entire new areas of the neighborhood when he wants to; as he gets better at creating “opposite tortures” for his human companions, what’s to stop him from creating a real good place—or something like one? So far, it hasn’t been clear what would happen if Shawn completely loses control; there may be a more senior demon, or perhaps an actually neutral judge, he can call upon. We also know that Janet can travel between areas of the afterlife by summoning trains, which could mean that an escape to another neighborhood is in the works.
So far, in
The Good Place, the Bad Place has been presented as the low point of a stratified and deeply unfair hierarchy. As that hierarchy begins to crumble, one can’t help but wonder how all of this is affecting the real Good Place, and whether Michael’s act of rebellion in creating a fake Good Place may have afterlife-wide repercussions.
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