***SEASON 1 SPOILERS.***
Season 2 of The Good Place takes the series into a higher plane of thematic inquiry – no mean feat when following the footsteps of the first.
Season 1 saw Eleanor Shellstrop try oh-so-hard to be good in order to earn her spot in the Good Place. Helped by would-be paragons of virtue, Chidi and Tahani, she genuinely improved – but at the end of the season, it was all revealed to be a sham. The Good Place was the Bad Place, and its raison d’etre was to pilot a whole new form of eternal torment – Sartre’s conception of hell as other people.
For a long time, Season 1’s episodes had to contend with the fact that instrumental morality – i.e. acting good to get into heaven – was an incomplete kind of goodness; a conditional virtue that was only the means to a self-serving end. When Eleanor finally pierces the veil of that illusion, therefore, there was a kind of unsurprising note to it in the midst of the audience shock. The logic of redemption in this ostensibly perfect afterlife couldn’t fly, therefore the only conclusion was that the Good Place wasn’t really what it was cracked up to be.
The second season deepens the show’s inquiry about what it means to be good – and it’s not as simple as doing good deeds, because, as shown in the first season, good deeds may be motivated by corrupt intentions, which inherently cheapen the exercise of them. The show needs a higher reason for why be good – one that is independent of expectation of reward, or fear of punishment.
At first, the second season seems like a rinse and repeat of the first – as we see Michael resetting the Good Place hundreds of times, wiping the memories of our four human protagonists each time as he tries to make his psychological torture simulator work. Eleanor keeps trying to be good; she keeps figuring it out – and Michael keeps having to try again. Soon, Michael realises his failures will earn him retirement at the hands of his unimpressed demon boss, and he hatches a plan to cooperate with the four humans to somehow find a way to escape to the only place there is to go – the Real Good Place.
What starts at first as a kind of quid pro quo arrangement deepens across the length of the season as Michael learns how to be more human, and the humans themselves grow closer to each other and to Michael, united in singular purpose to escape to the Good Place. And that’s the key, really, to how they become the better people that they need to be to get there. They become motivated to do better because they have awakened an innate desire to treat those close to them with dignity, and become a team.
Eventually, through some means, they escape through the Bad Place into a limbo area where the humans appeal to a Judge (played fulsomely by Maya Rudolph) to be let into the real Good Place. The Judge gives them somewhat superficial trials to ascertain if they truly have risen above the traits that sent them to the Bad Place in the first place. Only Eleanor (surprise!) passes. Yet, she stands in solidarity with her friends and opts not to go to the Good Place without them. Before the Judge can send them on their way, though, Michael arrives and pleads for a final intercession – to allow the humans to be tested in a way that can prove they are capable of becoming better people without being motivated by expectation of reward. The Judge agrees, and the humans are returned to the real world, memories wiped, where the accidents that would have killed them were averted, to see if they will actually improve as people without the knowledge of the afterlife.
The way the series comes full circle again to focus on this notion of goodness without reward as being a function of our innate desire to treat each other with respect, and basing the entire premise of the show on the bonds that its characters form with each other to that end, is elegantly and beautifully constructed. Not only is it an uplifting moral message, it gives the show its sheer humanity – as the characters try to become better by deeds, for an end, they get better as people by awakening their innate capacity for empathy and friendship. And of all the characters, it is Eleanor who understands this the best – precisely because her great sin was her former selfishness and lack of regard for others, borne out of abandonment issues as a child. She gets what needs to be done by remembering who she once was, and getting away from that.
By contrast, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason don’t quite have as perfectly formed moral arcs – they are still, actually, the same people they were, just more cognisant of their situation. Chidi is still plagued by crippling, destructive indecisiveness, Tahani still conceited, and Jason still brainlessly, childishly amoral. One wonders how, or if, they will figure out how to be better in the simulated (?) confines of the real world in Season 3. If there ever was a better setup for a tremendously satisfying third season, I haven’t come across it.
I give this: 4.5 out of 5 burritos