‘The Good Place’: Why It Matters That None of the Characters Had Children

     September 28, 2020

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[Editor’s note: Spoilers for The Good Place series finale follow below.]

The Good Place, as a show, never lacked for ambition, as Michael Schur‘s comedy about what happens after you die ended up becoming a four-season-long exploration of what it means to be alive. But while the show explored the meaning of existence through philosophical lenses, tackling subjects like love, society, family, ethics and purpose, there’s one massive aspect of life that was essentially ignored.

When we’re first introduced to Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), we don’t know everything about them, but one element that unites them is that in their Earthly existences, none of them had children. There are immediate reasons for that — on a logical level, they’re all around the age of 30 or younger, after dying in freak accidents as opposed to natural causes. Also, on a plot level, not only would their deaths be immediately sadder if they were leaving behind kids, but their selection for Michael’s original gambit was in part because they had led lives which led to them isolating themselves from others to some degree, meaning that they entered the afterlife with no substantial connections to anyone they had known before.

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Image via NBC

It’s not that being dead makes you asexual, as all four of the core humans — not to mention Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) and even Janet (D’Arcy Carden), after a fashion — have sex in all the places: Good, Bad and Medium. But even while living in the Good Place for real, an environment that could create anything they could possibly want or desire, core couple Eleanor and Chidi never even discuss the possibility of one day having children.

For many people in this mortal life, having children offers reassurance of a legacy that will last beyond their deaths. It’s a topic that pushes dangerously into uncomfortable territory — on a cellular level, our genes are driven to perpetuate themselves, but there’s no one scientific answer to the question of whether the biological purpose of being alive is to create more life. Plus, personal beliefs when it comes to the choice to have children vary wildly, and that’s without bringing in the accompanying cultural pressures and political elements.

The Good Place chooses to sidestep the issue entirely, probably because there are plenty of other issues to discuss, of course. This is especially true in Season 4, which finds its happy ending in creating a whole new paradigm for the afterlife, one which evaluates people fairly for their actions on Earth and rewards them for evolving beyond their past mistakes.

Focusing on childless characters, specifically characters who have no committed relationships with anyone prior to their deaths, allowed the show to focus more directly on the bigger philosophical issues. (It’s also worth noting that if, prior to their original deaths, any of these characters had been parents, they wouldn’t have been great parents — it’s all too easy to imagine Jason as a negligent baby daddy or Tahani passing down her parents’ legacy of passive-aggression to her own child — and it would have been harder to emphasize with them over the years.) Also, by virtue of the characters being changed by their connections with each other, these new bonds also emphasize the show’s major thesis of our individual relationships being a cornerstone of human existence.

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Image via NBC

The fact that no one from Team Cockroach ever became a parent does stand out in the series finale, though, as one ongoing thread in the episode is all of the characters, either onscreen or off, coming to terms with their respective mothers and fathers: Tahani’s parents are completely changed by the tests that eventually bring them to the Good Place, Chidi and Eleanor’s mothers become acquaintances, and Donkey Doug (Mitch Narito) is there to celebrate Jason’s major Madden victory and say goodbye.

Making peace with their parents means there are no other loose ends for them, and so for all of the core humans, the series finale is about them achieving everything they’ve ever wanted to achieve, at which point they realize that they’re ready to move on.  Tahani — having completed every single possible skill she had ever hoped to learn — decides to pursue an entirely new type of existence as an architect of afterlife tests, while Jason and Chidi go through the door.

In the final beats of the series, though, something interesting happens. It’s not enough that she and her friends revolutionized the afterlife — Eleanor isn’t ready to follow them into the edge of existence, and her final acts cast her in a more maternal light than we’ve ever seen before. First, she convinces Mindy St. Claire to leave her custom Medium Place and go through the testing necessary to eventually reach the Good Place, because she sees Mindy as “a version of me if I’d never met my friends,” and wants to help her reach a better level of being.

Then, there’s Eleanor’s last act before exiting existence is perhaps the show’s closest analog to giving birth: She convinces the Judge (Maya Rudolph) to let Michael (Ted Danson) return to Earth as a human — literally giving him life. And with him essentially surviving her, she’s ready to discover whatever happens next.

The characters of The Good Place may not have been parents, but the show still acknowledged the importance of leaving behind a legacy. Maybe it didn’t happen in the most obvious fashion. But one of the beauties of the show is that it was rarely interested in being obvious.

The Good Place Seasons 1-4 are streaming now on Netflix.

Television