In a great cosmic coincidence, The Good Place and BoJack Horseman ended their runs within the same 24-hour period last week. The NBC sitcom about a squad of faulty misfits attempting to reinvent the afterlife aired its series finale Thursday night. A few hours later, the Netflix dramedy about an equine former sitcom actor trying and failing, repeatedly, to defeat his demons aired its eight final episodes. The synchronicity of the moment has not gone unnoticed.
Before both shows bowed out, New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote about the way they argued that becoming a better person is not a solitary process but a group effort. Variety’s Caroline Framke published a piece about how the shows each embraced the process of striving for decency. It’s absolutely true that the Venn diagrams of these terrific series, perhaps the most notable ones in the wave of existential dramedies, overlapped on these fronts. But there was another common denominator that stood out in the last two episodes of both The Good Place and BoJack: their acknowledgment that, eventually, existence ends for good.
The Good Place, in keeping with its warmer sensibility, took a more sentimental and uplifting approach to that idea, but one that was nevertheless fascinating considering that the notion of an afterlife is baked directly into its premise. After finally developing a workable new afterlife system — short version: Eleanor, Chidi, & Co. design a more just methodology in which the the Good Place and Bad Place architects work in a bipartisan manner to assess how decently people behaved on Earth, proving that, without a doubt, this show is fiction — everyone gets to go to the Good Place for real in the penultimate episode. Once there, it becomes apparent that even the most enjoyable setting imaginable, one where you can drink unlimited milkshakes with no consequences, has its limits. With no challenges, problems, or end in sight, everyone in the Good Place becomes listless and stupid.
To solve that problem, Michael creates a door that functions as a final exit. Once someone passes through it, for them, there is no longer any Good Place or Bad Place or any place. They expire permanently. As Chidi puts it, “When you feel happy and satisfied and complete, and you want to leave the Good Place for good, you can just walk through it and your time in the universe will end.”
But as is clarified by the finale, “Whenever You’re Ready,” no one has to cross that threshold until they decide it’s their time. In a fashion that’s reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, a movie The Good Place has evoked in the past, each of our heroes gets something they’ve always wished for before deciding their run in the Good Place is complete, though not everyone opts to step through the woodsy archway that represents the absolute end. Tahani decides to stick around and train to become a Good Place architect. Michael does what he’s always wanted and gets to become a regular person, burning his hands on overheated microwave meals on silly ol’ Earth. But Jason, Chidi, and Eleanor all eventually pass through, turning into glowing flecks of dust in the wind whose legacies are still felt in the world, albeit in the form of Coyote Joe’s gift cards.
It’s an appropriately sweet and uplifting ending to a show that was optimistic at its core. But it’s also one that takes the edge off of death. The show tells us there is an afterlife, but that there’s also a potential finite end to existence, which is a combo platter of faith-based and scientific ideas. Eleanor also makes it clear that the whole system could be disrupted at any point and change completely, affirming that no one really ever knows for sure what death will bring. Despite that, The Good Place leaves the audience with a comforting view of death: When Chidi asks Jason how he knew it was his time to go through the door, he replies, “I just suddenly had this calm feeling, like the air inside my lungs was like the air outside my body. It was peaceful.”
The fact that the key characters get to choose when to depart also gives them agency and free will, which mirrors the way The Good Place itself died. Its creator and showrunner Mike Schur made the call to end the show so he could do so on his terms. Schur and his writers showed their characters the same generosity with regard to their own endings. It’s a generosity that all of us could only hope to receive when our makers decide it’s time to meet us.
But the truth is, a lot of people — or personified animals — don’t get to leave this mortal coil under such controlled and calm circumstances. Which brings me to the ending of BoJack Horseman, a series whose plug was pulled by Netflix but still managed to end on the narrative note that creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg wanted to strike, bringing its main character to the precipice of death. As cynical as the Hollywood satire has been during its six seasons, it also has had its share of optimism and grace. Still, it’s not as light or sentimental as The Good Place, and it’s much more unflinching in its depiction of life, an admittedly weird thing to say about a show in which people and animals coexist within the same social strata.
In its penultimate episode, “The View From Halfway Down,” BoJack Horseman stays true to that sensibility by going to a darker place than it’s ever gone before. After watching BoJack relapse in the previous episode, we enter his drunken, drug-addled mind as he’s close to death and imagining a dinner party with several relatives and friends who have already passed away. You could say this is BoJack’s version of a “good place” or a “bad place.” Or you could say, as his late Horsin’ Around boss Herb Kazzaz tells him in this dreamscape, “There is no place. It’s just your brain going through what it feels like it has to go through.” Whatever it is, BoJack’s “afterlife” doesn’t look anything like the one on The Good Place. It’s dark, and a leaking black ooze keeps dripping on him, and he eventually sees an image of himself from the real world, drowning in a pool. There’s no frozen-yogurt shop, no soul mate, and no Ted Danson to reassure him that everything is fine.
But like The Good Place’s next-to-last episode, this one also introduces the door-to-death concept. Eventually, everyone BoJack knows at this purgatorial dinner party has to pass through a door into some dark unknown from which they will never return. On BoJack Horseman, or at least from BoJack Horseman’s point of view, it seems there is no eternal life. You fall through a final portal and you disappear forever. But unlike on The Good Place, you don’t get to decide when you’re ready to go: When it’s BoJack’s turn to go through the door and he realizes there is no other side, he admits he’s not ready and runs away, panic-stricken.
The prospect of death is not peaceful for BoJack. It’s scary and unexpected, not the nice transition that it becomes for Jason or Eleanor on The Good Place. Which version is more accurate? Obviously none of us can say, unless some of you have actually died and are spending your eternities reading Vulture content, which is how I personally imagine the afterlife. For some people, death might be a tranquil passage. For others, it can be as jarring and wrenching as it is for BoJack. It’s fair to say what Eleanor famously said on The Good Place: “All humans are aware of death. So we’re all a little bit sad.” It’s also fair to say what BoJack Horseman is essentially saying: All humans — and anthropomorphized animals — are aware of death. So we’re all a little bit terrified.
Death never seems scary on The Good Place because, from the jump, everyone on the show is already dead. That show wasn’t built to convey how scary death is, and that’s okay. That wasn’t its job. But BoJack Horseman, which has reckoned directly with depression, grief, alcoholism, and a host of other uneasy topics, has always done so without turning away from the uglier elements of life. If it’s going to (almost) kill off its titular character, it would seem contrary to the spirit of the series if it didn’t address the fact that death is frightening.
In their final episodes, though, both shows overlap again by using death to emphasize how precious life is. On The Good Place, when Michael is granted the opportunity to go to Earth and live like a human, Eleanor explains that he, too, will eventually die and have to take an afterlife test, but there’s no guarantee the afterlife will operate exactly as it’s currently operating. “You won’t really know what’s going to happen to you,” she warns him.
“That’s what makes it special,” Michael says. “I won’t exactly know what’s going to happen after I die. There’s nothing more human than that.” Implicit in Michael’s appreciation of life is the fact that he learned how to appreciate it from his relationships with Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, Jason, and Janet (even though, technically, she’s not a human).
BoJack Horseman reaches a thematically similar conclusion, though the tone of its final moments is much more melancholy. After surviving his bender and near drowning, BoJack, who’s serving jail time, gets out of prison for one night to attend Princess Carolyn’s wedding. There he sees Diane, his closest friend and the one who always inspired him to be better, and talks with her for what seems likely to be the last time. She tells him she’s a different person now that she’s married and living in Houston, but she’s still glad she knew BoJack. Like Michael, she couldn’t appreciate the life she has now if she hadn’t spent the time she spent with her friend.
One of the final scenes of The Good Place is a montage of Michael doing the basic stuff a lot of people do every day — hanging out with his dog, playing guitar, trying to blow off a friend via text — but clearly enjoying every little minute of it. In its more low-key way, the last moments of BoJack Horseman also place an emphasis on the banal. “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” BoJack says to Diane, who disagrees. “Sometimes,” she says, “life’s a bitch and then you keep on living.”
From different ends of the tonal spectrum, one sweet and a tad hopeful, the other much more melancholy, The Good Place and BoJack Horseman reach the same conclusion from their tangos with death: The prospect of dying should act as our constant, internal reminder that life is fleeting and we only get one chance to run with it.
After watching the finales of these two brave shows that dare to wrestle with mortality, I felt like they were saying the same thing as the last few lines from a poem by Mary Oliver, who walked through her own door and passed away a year ago this month: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”