We don’t wanna end up in the Bad Place, so consider this your spoiler warning for The Good Place season finale.
In a last-ditch effort to gauge whether bad humans can actually become good, especially if they don’t think there’s any reward in it, Michael (Ted Danson) sends Eleanor (Kristen Bell) back to Earth. Then, rather than letting her perish in a tragic shopping-cart-related incident, he enables her to live so he can see if the near-death experience might unlock her inner moral self. Michael does this with an assist from Judge Gen (Maya Rudolph), whose full name, by the way, is Hydrogen. It was the snap of Hydrogen’s fingers that turned the whole screen white, then flashed back to Eleanor’s past and gave her yet another cosmic do-over.
If this sounds familiar — specifically, if it reminds you of something that happened at the end of season five of Lost — well, it should. In that season finale, “The Incident,” Elizabeth Mitchell’s Juliet detonates a hydrogen bomb that ultimately leads to the existence of an alternate timeline — a.k.a. the flash sideways — that Lost used in season six to reveal what would have happened to the passengers on Oceanic Flight 815 if there had been no crash at all.
Eventually — and apologies if I’m spoiling the Lost finale for you, but you’ve had eight years to catch up — the flash sideways is revealed to be a path toward an afterlife where the characters we had watched for six seasons could be together forever, in a lovely, but definitely nondenominational, eternity.
In effect, The Good Place just pulled a reverse Lost, by yanking Eleanor and Chidi (and presumably, Tahani and Jason too, though we haven’t seen them on Earth yet) out of the afterlife and placing them back on terra firma. Just as it did on Lost, that “hydrogen bomb” moment has seemingly allowed our Good Place characters to avert death. Even the pivotal moment when Eleanor dodges those shopping carts feels like a nod: An unseen figure, à la Jacob on Lost, pulls her out of harm’s way. But by connecting Eleanor with Chidi at the finale’s end by sending her to Australia — the same continent from which Oceanic Flight 815 departed — the show is explicitly going back to the beginning. Or, to be more accurate, a new beginning: It’s essentially rewriting the flashbacks that explained who these people are. That’s something that Lost never quite did, at least not to the same extent that The Good Place has set itself up to do in season three.
There are so many things that make The Good Place a rich and delightful experience: the performances delivered by its talented cast, its constant use of inspired puns, the fact that it has created an entire new genre of comedy known as Jacksonville Jaguars Humor. But from the very beginning, ever since creator Mike Schur said that he was partly inspired by Lost when he set out to make this series, it has been fascinating to watch the ways in which The Good Place uses that ABC series as a touchstone.
Some of the parallels between the two shows are obvious. When The Good Place began, it was about a group of people who landed in an unknown place and had to learn the rules that governed it while also making their own rules in order to survive, if “survive” is a word that can be used within the context of the afterlife. That’s exactly what happened to the survivors who crashed on the island in Lost.
Other structural and visual elements — such as the use of flashbacks, the recurring visual motif of eyes opening in close-up, the notion of obliterating the audience’s understanding of the show’s world and repeatedly reinventing it — are all very much in keeping with the Lost sensibility, too. There have even been tiny Easter eggs that pay homage to that smoke-monster show: If you were paying close attention during Thursday night’s finale, you may have noticed that during one of Eleanor’s meetings at the Clean Energy Crusaders office, the first two names listed on the whiteboard under William’s Team were Damon and Drew. Surely those are references to Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, who offered Schur guidance as he was building The Good Place, and Drew Goddard, a Lost alum who’s also an executive producer on The Good Place.
All that said, I had drawn a line between the two shows, not only because they work in different genres — one-hour drama vs. half-hour comedy — but also because their primary themes diverged in my mind. Lost was, to simplify quite a bit, a story about whether destiny or free will guides human existence, which is why Jack Shephard and John Locke were always arguing about science and faith. The Good Place, on the other hand, is about whether a fundamentally flawed person has the capacity to change and become decent.
It wasn’t until “Somewhere Else” that it finally dawned on me those two themes are basically the same. By repeatedly depriving The Good Place foursome of getting into the real Good Place, Schur and the show’s writers have conveyed the message that it’s not possible to fully transform into a more positive person, because even if you start becoming the change you wish to see in the afterlife, the system is rigged against you. In other words, you’re either destined to get into heaven, or you’re not.
But Michael — a demon who, against all hellish odds, actually started to become human this season — seems determined to prove that that isn’t so. So he’s launched yet another experiment to see if Eleanor and the others (sorry, that Lost reference was inadvertent) will prove that human beings can exercise free will and change themselves for the better. Michael believes the best laboratory for that experiment isn’t the afterlife, or an island, but this humbling place called Earth. And if that experiment goes well, it, much like the flash sideways, could lead our heroes back to each other for eternity.
I hesitate to speculate about what will happen in a series finale of The Good Place, mainly because I have no interest in seeing this show end anytime soon, but also because I’m enjoying the ride too much to speculate about where it’s headed. Still, whether it happens at the very end or not, I like the idea that we may see Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason co-existing together in a place of peace, sort of like the Lost characters did in that church in the series finale. But instead of becoming their best selves and happily living together in a purgatory with church pews, or in the Good Place, or even in the Medium Place, they will have worked as hard as possible to build that type of shared space in the real world, while they’re still living.