The Good Place, San Junipero, and the Ethics of Love

Charlie Brooker’s dystopian love story takes on new significance following The Good Place’s series finale.

The following contains spoilers for The Good Place series finale and Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero.”

After four years (plus over 800 reboots and close to 3,000 Jeremy Bearimys) of fine-tuning the cosmic system to save humanity’s souls, The Good Place’s series finale “Whenever You’re Ready” confronted the unavoidable truth that even eternity needs an ending.

The devastating, occasionally hilarious, ultimately hopeful hour-plus finale closes the loop on a conversation begun almost four years earlier—not by its own series premiere, but by San Junipero. Black Mirror’s digital afterlife episode was a tone departure for the dystopian series, trading in bleak humor for an actually uplifting tale of two elderly queer women who find each other, and a second chance at their earthly lives, in the cloud. Striking on its own, the one-hour mini-film resonates even more when considered in the context of Eleanor Shellstrop and the Soul Squad’s ethical journeys.

Because in order to get to The Good Place’s incredible final question of whether to go, first we had to ponder whether to stay.

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Fascinatingly, both series premiered in fall 2016, shortly before the election that would lead a large part of the population to conclude that we were living in the Bad Place. That’s not counting the people who, pre-election, already regarded our present as akin to the Sunken Place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Clearly in the middle of the decade there was enough disquiet to inspire stories considering what, if anything, was waiting for us after our time on Earth is over.

While San Junipero technically dropped on Netflix (October 21) after The Good Place’s series premiere (September 19), for the purposes of this nature it serves as the beginning of the conversation due to its standalone nature. While Schur’s series had four years to reinvent itself over and over (with an endpoint deliberately chosen after the twisty second season), Charlie Brooker’s episode must make its point in just one hour.

San Junipero is a story of selfishness—but the kind that’s deserved, that’s earned. The beach party town that the artificial reality manifests as is endless revelry, whose citizens and tourists can return to their favorite decades and idealized ages for a double dose of nostalgia. There are no consequences in San Junipero, so strangers can hook up or go for deadly joyrides that won’t leave a scratch on them, between keeping pain-sliders at zero and the inability to die. Most of them already have shuffled off the mortal coil—and most of the visitors on the trial run are considering doing the same, outside of the cloud. This alternate reality—not parallel, but a continuation—is the quintessential reward for making it through a mortal lifespan. Every inhabitant thinks, I deserve this.

None moreso than Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis), who meet on a random night in 1987, and then for several weeks after, dancing through movie-set versions of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. While they go to bed—a first for the sheltered Yorkie—and reveal pieces of themselves in those intimate moments in Kelly’s beach house, it’s not until they meet outside of San Junipero that each of their motivations for visiting becomes clearer.

read more: Ranking Every Black Mirror Episode

Yorkie is quadriplegic following a car accident that occurred the night she came out to her unsupportive parents. Not only her affair with Kelly, but her entire exposure to San Junipero, is moving through the world in a way that seemingly had been stolen from her. But tied as her accident was to the trauma of her parents turning on her for who she is, the fact that she has connected with this vibrant, assertive, giving woman is more than Yorkie could ever have dreamed of. She sees nothing but opportunity in their future together, finally getting a chance at the life she always deserved after decades of suffering.

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But where Yorkie sees nothing but newness through glasses she no longer needs, Kelly is reminded of the long and beautiful, if so bittersweet, lifetime that she has already experienced. Falling in love again is exhausting, because she knows what kinds of misfortune strains a partnership. Yorkie wants to shrug off their past selves, but for Kelly to do so would be offensive to the memory of her husband—a man she married not as a means to an end, like Yorkie with her nurse Greg or like so many closeted queer women, but because she genuinely loved him. She was just one version of herself with him, and now, in San Junipero, she can be another version of herself.

Working through this newfound access requires both women to turn inward, which is where their early conflict arises when Kelly tries to, well, ghost Yorkie. “You hid from me,” the latter accuses when she tracks her down in 2002. Kelly shoots back: “One: I did not. Two: I owe you zero, and three… See point two!”

“It’s not about who owes who, it’s about manners,” Yorkie insists, going on to say, “You don’t know who I am. You don’t know what this means.”

“This means fun,” Kelly retorts. “Or it should do. And this. This is not fun.”

Selfishness means different things for each of them. Kelly thinks that San Junipero is a last hurrah before her body gives up the ghost, the chance to act on her unresolved attraction to women in a safe, consequence-free space. She doesn’t account for finding someone so “fucking inconvenient” as Yorkie, someone who would tap into a store of feelings that she was certain she had exhausted through her marriage to Richard. Richard, who didn’t even trial-run San Junipero because their daughter Allison didn’t have the chance to pass over, so why would he want to live even longer without her presence?

read more – Black Mirror: Celebrating the Most Uplifting Episodes

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The greatest dilemma of San Junipero is saying yes to this extension. After Kelly marries Yorkie so she can be euthanized, but still maintains that she doesn’t plan to become a full-timer after her own eventual death, Yorkie pushes her about not even trying: “Then you’ll be gone, just gone. You could have forever.”

“Forever,” Kelly scoffs, “who can even make sense of forever—”

“However long you want, then,” Yorkie says, “you can remove yourself like that—” and snaps her fingers. Despite it being an emotional exchange, it’s a throwaway bit of worldbuilding: Even the full-timers in San Junipero have an out. The actual hurdle to get over is whether to accept that second chance.

Yorkie unequivocally is ready to reclaim her old body and all of the rites of passage she missed out on; it’s selfish only insofar as she is prioritizing her own hopes and dreams after a lifetime of not doing so. But Kelly is allowed to be selfish, too. Choosing San Junipero doesn’t erase her mortal life, as it does for Yorkie. It’s excavating the part of her that she pushed down in favor of one life, to try again, but differently this time. To ready herself for, as Kelly says with a mix of tremulous eagerness and bone-deep exhaustion, “the rest of it.” San Junipero is about what we owe to ourselves.

But, as The Good Place has taught us, that’s not the whole story. From the moment that architect Michael (Ted Danson) informs Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) that she is “in your next phase of existence in the universe” and that that next phase is in celebration of a moral life she emphatically did not lead, she could have kept her mouth shut. Eleanor, bi icon and patron saint of selfishness, could have sauntered through eternity enjoying someone else’s just rewards.

But instead she confides in her supposed soulmate, Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), and begs his help in molding her into a better person. Initially, their guiding force is ethicist T.M. Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other and its notion of contractualism: to act morally is to follow rules that no one could reasonably reject. Or, to put it into “Arizona trashbag” terms, for Eleanor to actually keep her promises. Whereas her time on Earth saw Eleanor regularly pledging to be reliable to people and then letting them down in favor of her own self-interests—establishing rules that would easily be rejected because of how they benefit her alone—her goal in the afterlife is to become the type of person who honors what she owes to others.

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To be fair, Eleanor and co. get a lot of chances to fine-tune their increasingly moral selves. This obsession with self-improvement is not surprising, considering that Eleanor, Chidi, Jason (Manny Jacinto), and Tahani (Jameela Jamil) all see their mortal lives cut short. Even if they weren’t objectively good people who were making the most of their time on Earth, they had a lot of time left before their respective freak accidents. They aren’t Yorkie and Kelly, who made it into their sixties and seventies and got to choose when they were ready to stop living.

Yes, there are larger external stakes, from the fate of Michael’s neighborhood to the threat of the Bad Place taking over to the exasperated Judge (Maya Rudolph) eventually deciding to just scrap this whole humankind experiment and start over. But underlying all of that is the existential anxiety and panic of a foursome of young people who had absolutely no say in how this phase of their lives ended. Of course they would be eager to shape their fates in the afterlife. And they’re not alone: both the Good Place and San Junipero are manmade constructions, in whole or in part, reflecting a unanimous anxiety over what awaits us in the unknown and a need for as much control as possible regarding that next phase.

While this takes hundreds of reboots, an equal number of manic chalkboard scrawlings from the philosopher-turned-teacher, and nigh-infinite piles of books that it takes Eleanor literally eternity to finish reading, The Good Place’s moral thesis ultimately boils down to something pretty clear and straightforward, as Schur summed up for Vox in 2019: “[do] something a little more, a little better, a little differently.”

That’s Kelly marrying Yorkie so that she can sign off on Yorkie’s right to end her life. That’s Yorkie seeing eternity through someone else’s eyes. It’s also Michael realizing that he has come to care for the “cockroaches” and that he wants happiness for them. It’s Chidi accepting eight hundred different versions of himself and, rather than being torn apart by so much contradiction, finding a sense of peace at having lived every possible scenario he used to agonize over. It’s Eleanor actually working on a healthy, functional relationship, and then being willing to give it up when it benefits the greater good.

By the time that this new and different Eleanor demonstrates true moments of selfishness, these impulse are entirely relatable, affecting, and arguably owed to her after all she has done for the global redemption of billions of souls. Except that both cases involve her relationship with Chidi coming to some sort of end: first when he volunteers to have his memory reset for their big Good Place experiment; and then when he is ready to walk through the door.

read more: Russian Doll, The Good Place, And How Fun TV Got Dark and Insightful

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Not whether or not he wants to go to the Good Place, because unlike Kelly and Yorkie, Eleanor and her beloved friends never have to question that destination. It’s what their every experiment—outsmarting the Bad Place’s sabotage, getting reincarnated on Earth, repurposing Michael’s old neighborhood to run their own simulations, overhauling the entire impossible, outdated system—has been working toward. Their reward for saving humanity is sailing into the Good Place long overdue.

And then paradise lets them down.

The ultimate secret of the Good Place, the real one, is that at some point eternity becomes boring. Not just boring, but actually mind-numbing. It’s the extrapolation of spending hundreds of Bearimys in San Junipero. Those full-timers who feel like it’s getting old do have the option to crank up the ol’ pain-slider and get whipped in the Quagmire, but even that loses its appeal after a while. Eternity in the Good Place makes all of its inhabitants worse people—not morally, but lesser than the thoughtful, intelligent, courageous, good people who earned their way in.

And so Eleanor and Michael come up with the door—the final door.

What makes “Whenever You’re Ready” so gutting is that each person has their own timeline for being ready to step through the door. After years of doing everything mostly in sync, Team Cockroach gets broken up again into their individual components, each with a different relationship to nirvana. Who can even make sense of forever? Which means that when one of them, starting with Jason, approaches the calm and peace of giving up stability for the unknown beyond, there is still a loss. There are still those left behind.

It makes sense that Chidi would reach closure before Eleanor: an exceptional thing for a man who for most of his mortal life and afterlife was plagued with endless anxiety over what could be. At first her knee-jerk reaction, to drag him through his every treasured memory to show him what he’s willingly giving up, is cringing in how it resurrects the old Eleanor. In this case her intentions are good but still selfish. She is Yorkie, staring at the glittering expanse of San Junipero and demanding to understand how anyone could have had enough.

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Like Kelly scolds Yorkie for not considering the perspective of someone who lived a full life, Chidi gently lets Eleanor down with the further revelation that he has been ready for a long time. He stayed longer for her sake, knowing how difficult it would be for her once he stepped out of her (after)life. They had never made promises to not go through the door, but he put off his own ultimate contentment in favor of prolonging her happiness.

And so Eleanor has no choice but to recognize what he owes to her, and what she owes him in return. “I proposed a rule,” she says, “that Chidi shouldn’t be allowed to leave, because it would make Eleanor sad. And I could do this forever—zip you around the universe, show you cool stuff—and I’d still never find the justification for getting you to stay. Because it’s a selfish rule. I owe it to you to let you go.”

When they met, Yorkie and Kelly were still figuring out what they owed themselves after lives that were varyingly unfulfilled. Their selfishness in San Junipero is a celebration, a first step that The Good Place turns into an elaborate dance. And while Eleanor’s journey, as of that of her friends, concludes with accepting and even welcoming the not-knowing, the audience gets their own closure of finding out what happens when you step through the door: you return to the universe, as one small particle that in its own infinitesimal way influences good deeds. It’s a characteristically understated narrative choice that reiterates Schur’s point: do something a little more, a little better, a little differently.

Just like Eleanor and Chidi dissolving back into the universe, or Kelly and Yorkie eternally dancing at TCKR Industries, these types of stories are far from over and will continue to influence their successors. To wit, Schur’s Parks and Recreation co-creator Greg Daniels has his own afterlife web series premiering in 2020: Upload, described by The Hollywood Reporter as “a sci-fi romantic satire” set in a virtual afterlife.

The series sounds as if it will hew closer to romantic comedy, pulling the we-would-never-have-met-except-here romance from San Junipero and tapping into the kind of comedy that characterized the first season of The Good Place. It seems less likely that Upload will neither go deep into morality, nor that it will build up to a series finale that will leave audiences audibly sobbing on the couch with their best friends. But we already got those stories, exquisite on their own and even more resonant with one another; there’s plenty of room in eternity for another take.

Let Natalie Zutter tell you, the double whammy of Chidi leaving Eleanor and then those credits set to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” used up all of her tears for weeks. Ponder what’s next for afterlife-centric series with her on Twitter @nataliezutter.

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