This review contains significant spoilers for The Good Place, up to and including the finale.
For a show about the afterlife and what happens after we die, The Good Place, which aired its final episode earlier this year, was surprisingly light on religious themes.
In fact, when Eleanor Shellstrop — a self-described ”Arizona dirtbag” who initially believed that she was sent to the Good Place, AKA heaven, by mistake before realizing that she and her afterlife-neighbors were actually very much in the Bad Place, AKA hell — asked which religion was the most correct, she was told “every religion got it about five percent right.”
However, just because the show doesn’t lean hard into religious content, instead choosing to focus on ethical behavior as it applies to all people, doesn’t mean that Jewish themes don’t figure prominently in some of the show’s most pivotal episodes.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Jewish show creator Michael Schur described how religious influences played into the fabric of the show even though they were rarely a prominent part of the script.
“Jews have a lot of rules for behavior, but you don’t start out in a hole,” he said. “In Hinduism, with karma, you’re slowly working your way up a chain. That’s all in the background.”
The final season of The Good Place addressed two questions in ways steeped in Jewish thought and practice: How can the souls of the dead improve, and what does it take to repair a relationship where significant damage has been done?
But let’s rewind. At the start of The Good Place, a group of humans — Eleanor, Tahani, Jason, and Chidi — are told that they have died and made it to the Good Place. However, they all run into awful and unpleasant scenarios even as they bond (and fight) with one another, until they eventually realize that they are being tricked and tortured. However, during this period of figuring out the trick, something remarkable happens. They all start to become better people.
Over the course of the show, the humans, along with demon-turned-friend Michael and immortal walking database (and not a robot, or a girl) Janet discover that the system for deciding which humans get sent to the Good Place and which go to the Bad Place has become irreparably flawed. Because our modern world is so complex, every decision we make has repercussions we can’t possibly foresee or account for, and it has become much more difficult to live a life that does no harm. However, when placed in a situation where all their needs are met and they are able to interact with others who push and challenge them, people improve.
When the group manages to convince the Judge — another afterlife being played flawlessly by Jewish actress Maya Rudolph — that this system has serious problems, her first instinct is to shut the whole thing down and reboot humanity from scratch. Naturally, the humans and their friends have some strong opinions about that and manage to get the judge to reconsider. Rather than starting humanity over again, why not create a new afterlife system, where everyone gets to be put into difficult situations that will allow them to improve?
This new system, which is put into place in episode 10, season 4, mirrors the Jewish concept of Gehinnom, or “a temporary — yet terrible — place for the soul to be cleansed.” Just like Gehinnom, this new afterlife system is not supposed to last forever, only as long as it takes for people to learn from the mistakes they made on Earth and become better people.
Rabbi Aron Moss likens Gehinnom to a “supernatural washing machine,“ writing, “Put yourself in your socks’ shoes, so to speak. If you were to be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn’t like you. However, the fact is that it is only after going through a wash cycle that the socks can be worn again. We don’t put our socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again.”
In allowing afterlife demons to design and enact situations to challenge and “torture” recently-dead souls in ways that will allow them to learn and grow, The Good Place has essentially proposed a technicolor Gehinnom as the best solution to how our lives and selves should be judged in the afterlife.
The series finale also delves into the idea of teshuvah (sometimes translated as ”repentance” or ”return,“ the Jewish process of atoning for sin), specifically in terms of what it takes to repair a relationship where significant harm has been done. Throughout the show, it became apparent that Tahani, who at first is very self-involved and bitterly jealous, has always wanted the attention and approval from her parents that they withheld from her and lavished on her sister Kamilah instead. In season three, the sisters reconcile, recognizing how this unhealthy and competitive dynamic has harmed them both.
In the final episode, Tahani and Kamilah’s parents go through the afterlife cleansing process and eventually improve enough to be admitted to the Good Place. When the parents reunite with their daughters, the first thing they do is make a sincere, unprompted apology for all the ways they have hurt them, and promise to do everything they can to make it right. Most importantly, this apology seemed to come without any expectation that all will be forgiven — or that it will even be accepted — because they understood that the most important thing was to make it and mean it, whatever happens next.
It’s a moving and insightful exploration of what teshuvah can look like in practice. Critically, the sisters’ parents could not have done real teshuvah until they understood exactly how they had harmed both their daughters — only knowing what they did wrong, and fully understanding how and why it was wrong, allowed them to permanently change their behavior and start to make genuine restitution. And once they did understand, they never stopped trying to make it right.
Though The Good Place is no longer on our screens, it is so thematically rich that we will be able to spend years unpacking all of its layers of meanings and references. And it is has been a truly joyful experience to watch this show and see glimpses of Jewish themes woven throughout this thoughtful, imaginative, and above all compassionate plot.
Header image via NBC.