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Credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC

Relationships, the divine, and what we owe each other in The Good Place

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Apr 26, 2019

You open your eyes and blink once. You’re sitting on a couch and look up to see a sign that says, “Welcome! Everything is fine.”

Your name is called and you enter an office where it is explained to you that you are dead and that you are now “in your next phase of your existence in the universe.” The person sitting before you explains that you were killed in an embarrassing manner and after making you cringe, you find that you’re in the Good Place. You breathe a sigh of relief.

That is how everything starts for Eleanor Shellstrop in NBC’s The Good Place, a series about the afterlife, human nature, and ethical decision-making. All three seasons (and at least one more to come, thank Janet!) have tackled challenging topics in philosophy and religion with hilarity and a fair bit of irreverence.

You see, Eleanor was not a good person while alive. No, no, no. In her own words, she was an “Arizona dirt bag” and there’s no way she belongs in the Good Place, which works out because it turns out she’s not in the Good Place at all. Instead, she and her friends, three other hapless humans, are stuck in an experiment created by the Bad Place and the nice architect Michael who has been helping them is a demon who is Bad Place-bent on torturing them.

As she progresses through the Good Place and beyond, Eleanor becomes friends with and a romantic partner of Chidi Anagonye. Chidi is an indecisive moral philosopher who tries to teach Eleanor and company, including Michael, about what it means to be in a community.

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Credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC


The subject of interpersonal obligation plays a prevalent role in The Good Place and the series itself seems to grapple with what it means to be in relationship with others. One of the fundamental questions theologians and ethicists grapple with is how do we relate to one another? Because if god(s) created humans and guidelines for how we interact, shouldn’t we be able to agree about what those guidelines are? As Chidi asks, what do we owe one another?

If you’re a philosophy nerd (ILU), then you know that this is fundamentally a contractualist consideration and that it draws upon T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other. I’m not going to get too deep into Scanlon and Contractualism because hi, I didn’t get a PhD for a damn reason, but essentially, the argument is: We make the rules for how we live together and anything that violates those rules is wrong.

Now, here’s where Scanlon and I are going to diverge (I mean, besides the whole PhD thing): While he is talking about both micro and macro societal obligations, I’m going to focus on what this all means in regards to romantic relationships.

Upon entering the Good Place (or at least, the Bad Place’s version of the Good Place), every person is assigned a Soulmate, a person they will spend eternity with. Eleanor is introduced to Chidi as her Soulmate. The concept of soulmates is inherently a matter of religious belief relating to the nature of humanity and the divine. If one can be fated to be in a romantic relationship with another, then the rules have been made by someone else and violating them could be not-wrong.

Of course, because this is actually the Bad Place, Eleanor and Chidi are coupled to torture each other, not because they are Soulmates. Where Eleanor is laid back, albeit kind of a jerk, Chidi is high strung and considers himself deeply moral. It doesn’t help that Eleanor knows she doesn’t belong in the Good Place, while Chidi is still under the impression that he does. Their pairing backfires. Instead of making her life hell, Chidi helps Eleanor become a more ethical person and while making Chidi’s life the Bad Place, Eleanor helps Chidi learn how to make decisions. If Chidi and Eleanor are not fated, yet they change each other’s fate, what are the rules and how do we (and they) know how not to break them?

Credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC

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Credit: Colleen Hayes/NBC

 

With the concept of Soulmates anything but settled, The Good Place tackles another sticky moral area in regards to relationships: breakups. There is an incredible exploration of ending a relationship in Season 3, Episode 6 “A Fractured Inheritance” that is well worth watching, but for the sake of this essay, let’s consider Eleanor and Chidi’s breakup.

In the Season 3 finale, Team Cockroach is preparing for a sort of do-over, a chance to prove that the system that determines whether or not someone gets to go to the Good Place is flawed. It turns out that not a single person has gotten into the Good Place in 500 years because the antiquated algorithm that determines who gets entry is based on a much simpler version of the world. It’s a beautiful exploration of how hard it is to be a good person IRL.

As they prepare for the new fake Good Place experiment, Eleanor and co. greet the first unwitting participant who turns out to be Chidi’s ex-girlfriend Simone from the aforementioned breakup episode. Out of fear of spoiling the experiment and consequently condemning his friends to eternal torture in the Bad Place, Chidi decides he must have his memory reset.

When Chidi first presents his desire to have his memory wiped, Eleanor tries to think of any way for that not to be the only option, but eventually she agrees with him. It’s a painful thing for viewers who are Team Cheleanor because she and Chidi had only just decided to be together for real. And, even if you’re not a fan of the couple, you will be gripped by Eleanor’s grief when she realizes that though Chidi will not remember her, she will remember him.

Waiting for Chidi’s memory to be wiped, the two sit together. He apologizes and tells her he hates this, but she tells him not to apologize for saving everyone. Michael plays a highlight reel for them of all the times they met, all the things they taught each other, how they would fight, and how they fell in love. Here, it seems, The Good Place posits that what we owe one another is honesty, the ability to let someone go, and a renegotiation of the rules that bind us.

So, there’s no such thing as soulmates and anyone can break up for any reason at any time.

At the same time, Eleanor and Chidi have found each other hundreds of times when the timeline has been reset. Over and over, no matter what the Bad Place throws in their paths, they come together, become better people, and figure out what they own one another in their relationship.

And, ultimately, because this takes place in the afterlife, all relationships reflect the relationship between god, gods, or the divine and humanity. Thus, how Eleanor and Chidi interact and how they attribute value to their decisions, particularly during their breakup, is an exploration of how relationships help us change our fate and grow closer to the divine (or at least Goodness).

What is it then that we owe each other? The entirety of The Good Place answers that question by saying: everything. We owe each other honesty even when it’s difficult. We owe each other the freedom to leave. We owe each other authenticity when we are together. We owe each other everything.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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