Together Forking Forever
The Good Place is wildly popular generally, but seems to be particularly attractive to the Mormons I know. Jana Riess has written about some of the good reasons Mormons might enjoy the show. As the series wrapped up this week, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Who in the writers’ room grew up Mormon??” Below, I highlight some of the strongest and most intriguing ties between our theology and this wacky show about the afterlife. Fair warning: spoilers abound.
Continual Progression: The entire series is based around the idea that people can move toward better versions of themselves. Even non-human characters like Janet, Michael, and Sean get better. The step by step, day by day language we hear every week in gospel doctrine, sounds a lot like being rebooted 150 million times.
In Season 3, the team reveals that the system of assigning points for what happens on earth isn’t nuanced enough. Individual circumstances and backgrounds create an uneven playing field. The answer, in Season 4, is to give everyone more time to learn. More practice, more learning, more growth. The develop a temporary afterlife, where people go after they die but before they are judged for eternity. There are teachers there to help them be better. That idea should sound familiar to Mormons.
Near the end of Season 4, it becomes clear that the great failure of Heaven is that there isn’t any further progression. When spiritual beings can just wander around having everything they want for eternity, their brains start to go soft. Tahani’s path looks the most like the Mormon concept of Heaven. She spends her Bearimies of eternity continually learning: how to make furniture, how to cook, how to do house repairs. Increasing in knowledge makes her a better version of herself. When she’s crossed everything off her list, she decides to become an architect, one of the divine beings who designs worlds. Happy to go to work, she finds meaning to eternal life by endless learning and effort.
The Gift of Mortality: Eternal progression closely ties into the reason for mortality, which for Mormons is not merely a testing time but also a learning time. Mormons believe that God designed Earth so that we could grow and learn. Michael’s series-long fascination with mortality culminates in the final episode, in which he decides to shed his immortality so that he can have the learning experiences that come from being human. Eleanor stresses to Michael that none of them know how his stint on earth will turn out–the system they’ve established may collapse in his absence–but for Michael, the threat of walking into the unknown is balanced by the potential for the growth that can only come from time as a mortal.
Heavenly Mother: In the beginning of the show, Janet appears to be more of a robotic servant than anything else. She fetches things and provides information, but isn’t really in charge of anything. But as time goes on and she’s rebooted again and again, Janet steps into her real power. We find out that she was the creative force behind the formation of the Bad Good Place and that she has capabilities that far outstrip Michael’s. She becomes the humans’ fiercest protector, journeying with them in an effort to guide them to real Good Place. But while she is all-knowing and extraordinarily powerful, she also communes with them. She is a true friend to them. This resonated with me, as my Mormon-self understands God as both powerful and approachable.
It’s the near the very end of the show that she most closely resembles the Mormon idea of a Heavenly Mother. As Michael prepares for his sojourn on earth, she stands on the edge of the door to earth, fretting over his safety. She tells him about the preparations she made for him and reminds him to see a doctor when he first arrives. Her concern for him as he journeys to Earth is clearly reminiscent of a parent sending off a child leaving home. Janet also serves as the person who guides Chidi, Eleanor, and Jason forward, through the door to whatever lies afterward. She is the one who moves people through the veil to the next stage of their development, which is one of the roles I have always imagined for the divine feminine.
Community: For Mormons, exaltation is not merely a relationship between an individual and God. We believe that we learn the most important lessons through our communities: that Zion cannot happen without people coming together and teaching and giving and serving and sacrificing and living together. We can become good people on our own, but we cannot reach the greatest heights of our potential. This is a running theme of The Good Place, which frequently stresses that while Hell may sometimes feel like other people, other people are actually how we become better. In the last episode, Eleanor takes this message to Mindy St. Claire, telling Mindy that while leaving her house in the Medium Place will be uncomfortable, it will also lead her to her greatest joy and highest potential.
Over four years of watching this show, I’ve sometimes laughed at myself for taking philosophical and theological lessons from a television series. But then I’m reminded of another Mormon teaching: embrace truth wherever you find it, for it will be circumscribed into one great whole.