The Good Posts: Chapter 3

Detail from Jan Van Eyck's portrayal of the Last Judgement, showing the Archangel Michael with peacock wings, as naked sinners run.

Before I start, I want to clear something up. My earlier posts in this series were linked on Metafilter, and some people there, who aren’t used to what I normally do with my writing, thought I was doing the Rick and Morty fan thing of saying “you’re all not understanding this very popular piece of entertainment — only I am clever enough to see its real subtleties”.

So just to be very clear, that’s not what I’m doing here. Most of my critical writing isn’t written to impress people at all — it’s not written for an audience at all in any real sense. I write because it helps me to understand what it is I’m getting out of art, not to tell anyone else what they should be getting out of it, and certainly not to make myself seem any cleverer than anyone else. The stuff I talk about is mostly surface-level, but stuff I’ve not seen anyone else talking about. Half that time, that’s because it’s too obvious for anyone else to bother mentioning, and the other half the time it’s just as likely that I’m reading too much into it.

Anyway, on to the meat of the essay…

Names have meanings in The Good Place, in ways that are sometimes not at all obvious. Eleanor, for example, goes under other names in her previous life, at one point even having a boyfriend get a tattoo of one of her pseudonyms, and she’s told that she was chosen for the Good Place by mistake because she was confused for someone else with the same name. Jason spends much of the first series living under the name Jianyu, while Tahani makes a point of explaining the meaning of her name to Eleanor during their first conversation of more than a couple of words — and Tahani’s parents can’t even get her name right in their will. Chidi, unlike the others, treats his name merely as a name, not as something to be hidden or that has a secret meaning, but of course Eleanor can’t get his name right and claims he’s changing it — a mercurial character like her can’t recognise the solidity of identity that Chidi represents.

Janet’s name is interesting given her position as an information delivery system. It was almost certainly unintentional, but one of the big networks that came together to form the Internet as we know it, and still one of the biggest networks in the UK, is the Joint Academic NETwork, or JANET for short. It’s vanishingly unlikely that anyone involved in the series had that in mind, but the coincidence is still striking for those of us who studied at UK universities during the time when having JANET access was a major advantage.

But the character whose name is most interesting in this respect is Michael. Michael seems, unlike the other demonic figures in the story (other than Sean and Adam), to be using his real name when dealing with the humans, and this is an absolutely fascinating choice.

People have pointed out of course that “Michael” is also the name of the series’ creator, Michael Schur, and that in many ways the character Michael is in a position similar to that of a showrunner. This is true, and certainly ties in nicely with a lot of the metatextual stuff that the series is doing, and so it is worth a little examination. After all, it’s not as if the principal creative figure behind the show giving one of the characters his own name is a coincidence, and Schur has acknowledged several times that Michael in some ways represents himself, with his responsibility for creating the whole environment in which the characters interact, and for coming up with scenarios to torture them, and directing the other demons (who explicitly think of themselves as actors).

But at the same time, i think that Schur is playing with a far more important set of associations. And those associations are ones that will affect a lot of the discussion in these essays.

That said, I have had two types of reactions to talking about this. The first kind of reaction — generally from those brought up Catholic, or with some level of religious education — is to say “of course, that’s totally obvious, and I just assumed that from the start”. The other, generally from atheists or people brought up with the typical levels of default background Christianishty that British people tend to be brought up with, has been to say “holy motherforking shirtballs” or words to that effect. So what I’m saying below will either be obviously how you’ve been reading the series more-or-less since the start or will be a total revelation (pun sort-of intended).

Michael is an angel name — you can tell this because it ends in “el”, like other angel names (Gabriel for the most obvious example). It means “he who is like God”. And this is something that we need to look at very closely, because what we have in Michael the demon is, quite simply, a Christ figure.

Yes, the demon who is torturing our characters is Christ. I know this makes little sense, but the logic is sound.

Christ, in orthodox [small o] Christian thought, is God himself, in existence since the beginning of time, who chooses to experience what it’s like to be a human, and who incarnates (literally gets made into flesh), in order to experience what his creations experience by living among them as one of them in the world he created, before sacrificing himself to expiate their sins by taking the punishment for all humanity.

Michael, in The Good Place, is a demon (or is he? He says he doesn’t like that word), in existence since the beginning of time, who chooses to experience what the humans experience by living among them as one of them in a world he created, and at the end of season two he attempts to sacrifice himself to expiate the sins of the people he’s been torturing by taking their punishment for them.

(Indeed, Michael incarnates multiple times within nested worlds — within the simulation world he and the Judge create at the end of season two, Michael appears not only as the figure who pushes Eleanor out of the way but also as the barman who points her in the right direction again).

And there’s a tradition among at least some Christian worldviews that identifies St Michael, the archangel, with Christ, Adam, or both. (For those of you who have no religious knowledge but some appreciation of old science fiction, you will now be thinking of Michael Valentine Smith from Stranger In A Strange Land, whose name was similarly chosen).

The Archangel Michael is a figure in all the Abrahamic religions, but in the context of viewing Michael as a Christ figure it’s worth looking more closely at how he is viewed by those religions which actually have the concept of a “Christ”.

In some Protestant denominations, Michael is another term for the Logos, for Christ itself, before the Word is made flesh and becomes Jesus. The name “Michael” literally means “he who is like God”, and many Protestant denominations identified Michael with Jesus, although only more extreme groups like the Adventists or the Jehovah’s Witnesses do so today. The Mormon Church believes that the Archangel Michael merely helped Jesus create the world, rather than that he is identical to Jesus — but they also believe that Michael was himself incarnated as Adam, and that the Fall was not a bad event, but was part of God’s plan to create an army to rise against Satan. (And several Mormon leaders in the past, notably Brigham Young, have claimed that Adam was actually God incarnate — this is no longer official Mormon doctrine, but is believed by some of the small splinter groups from Mormonism).

So… this all seems to tie in rather nicely with Michael in The Good Place, whose entire plan is based around his desire to discover what it is like to be a human — his fascination for them leads him to take on the form of one of them, and everything about his story so far is about a supernatural being becoming human and eventually sacrificing himself in order to save the humans who his incarnation has allowed him to understand.

But there’s also the way in which Michael is viewed in Catholicism — in the Catholic Church, Michael is associated with the dead. Specifically, his role is to come down at the hour of each person’s death, and give them a final chance to repent and redeem themselves, to prevent them from going to Hell, and then once they have died to act as their advocate during their judgment.

And what does Michael do in the season two finale? He gives the four humans another chance on Earth to repent and redeem themselves in order that they won’t have to go to Hell, at the hour of their death, after advocating for them in front of the Judge.

It’s also interesting, in this, to look at Michael’s job description — he is an architect who has created a universe of his own. “The great architect of the universe” is a phrase derived from Aquinas (the Christian theologian who is perhaps most connected to the philosophical traditions that The Good Place is dealing with) to describe the Christian God, which is also used by the Freemasons. But this phrase (or equivalents) was also one that was used by the Gnostics, to describe the demiurge who created the fallen physical world, as opposed to the true God of pure ideas. In most Gnostic conceptions, that true God is equivalent to Christ and the demiurge is the Devil, but in some, Christ was the demiurge/Devil.

And St Michael the archangel is also a figure who’s very like the conception of Satan, as can be seen from another figure, this time from the Yazidi religion, which features a figure named Melek Taus, also known as the Peacock Angel. This figure is the leader of the archangels, as Michael is, but he’s also created from God’s own light and is God’s first creation (as both Michael and Satan are in different traditions), but refuses to bow to Adam, as Iblis/Satan does in Muslim tradition. This character is very clearly a link between the conceptions of the Archangel Michael and Satan — and this can also be seen in the fact that while the Peacock Angel is a Luciferian figure, Michael is often traditionally portrayed with a peacock’s feathers for his wings (as in the image at the top of this post).

And, indeed, Richard Flowers pointed out to me, as he’s rewatching the show, that the bow tie Michael is wearing in the first episode shows a peacock. And, happily, the logo of NBC, the US TV network that shows The Good Place, is a peacock. So this simultaneously ties in to the parallels between Michael and Michael Schur.

They’re clearly playing with this imagery in a very deliberate fashion. With a few well-placed decisions about the imagery they’re using, the character’s name, and some of the plot twists (and with a certain amount of luck due to the happy coincidences of Schur’s forename and the network’s logo — but as Schur himself said in the first episode of the Good Place podcast, this was one of those projects for him where the universe seemed to line up right and provide him with coincidences), they’ve managed to evoke a whole set of religious imagery that ties in with the programme’s themes of creation, redemption, and the afterlife.

The end result is that we have a character who in his name, behaviour, and occupation, is designed to evoke a whole set of conflicting-but-compatible characters — Christ, Satan, St Michael the archangel, and Adam. But of those, St Michael is the one who seems to apply most strongly, with his importance to the concept of redemption.

And so it’s interesting to note that the role of Michael in Christian conceptions of the end times is that he leads the army of God against the forces of Hell. It is, then, very clear that if The Good Place follows the natural arcs that it appears to have been setting up since the very first episode, it will end with Michael actually going to war with Hell, not merely trying to find a loophole for himself and his friends.

I suspect that if this is done at all, it will again play up the Christ parallels, and will be portrayed as a harrowing of Hell. For those who don’t know that story, according to many Christian denominations, in the days between his death and resurrection Christ descended into Hell and freed some or all of those suffering there, sending them to Heaven and depriving both Satan and Death of their power. Most Christian denominations believe that Christ freed only those who had been righteous before he came to Earth, so the truly evil were still damned forever, but others (notably Mormonism) claim that he freed everyone, righteous and unrighteous alike. Some have claimed, in fact that Christ did not descend into Hell at all, but only into Purgatory, in which case we would expect to see Mindy St Clair, but no-one else, freed at the climax of the series.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. Assuming the series is allowed to come to a natural end, I think we’re going to see the end of the story involve Michael going to war against the forces of Hell, and defeating them. I don’t think we’re going to see an explicit playing out of the story of the Book of Revelation — that would *not* make great sitcom material, unless you have a very odd idea of what works as comedy — but I do think we’re going to see something that works with some of that symbolism, without ever going into explicit claims about what religion is or isn’t the true one.

More in a day or two.

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3 Responses to The Good Posts: Chapter 3

  1. prankster36 says:

    Jumping in to be first to say that the Medium Place is actually closer to the concept of Limbo than Purgatory…

    I definitely think you’re dead on about the general direction of the show as well as the fact that a literal biblical conflict would probably be beyond the scope (and aesthetic) of a fairly lighthearted sitcom. This show is definitely rubbing up against the moral and ethical problems implicit in the idea of hell (and heaven) as they’re usually portrayed, and something at least vaguely resembling the Harrowing of Hell seems likely to happen based simply on where the character’s arcs are headed as well as the show’s basic themes.

    However, I also have a sneaking suspicion that this is going to be complicated by revealing the afterlife to be more complicated than what we’ve seen it to be so far–we already had one twist in this regard, but I think they’ll end up taking it further. Michael’s speech about how no one religion ever got it right was, I think, more than just a gag, it was truer than maybe even he knew at the time. I also definitely think that the fact that the Good Place was essentially “an unimaginative dullard’s idea of heaven” and which was eventually undermined by the story was setting a deliberate tone, and on top of that, the fact that we haven’t actually seen the *real* Bad Place–just a series of antechambers and access tunnels, as it were–feels like it’s a deliberate bit of sleight of hand. (I mean, true, watching people suffer in agony doesn’t make for a fun sitcom, so that’s also a factor, but still..) There’s also Gen, who seems to be created as a stand-in for God but raises more questions than she answers (like…why IS there a stand-in for God instead of the “real thing”?)

    I admit part of this is that the show seems like it’s headed towards endgame but is almost certain to last several more seasons, so there have to be more curveballs on the way. But moving away from the straightforward Christian archetypes would also be a smart idea for a number of reasons.

  2. Something else I think is worth mentioning: when Michael appears as the barman in the second-season finale, he’s dressed exactly like Sam Malone, the barman Ted Danson portrayed for more than a decade in the sitcom Cheers. It’s a fun joke.

    But my brain… did not initially process it as a joke. When I saw Danson behind that bar, with that blue flannel shirt and that towel on his shoulder, for the space of a few seconds, I *genuinely* thought The Good Place was about to go meta. I thought they were suggesting that Sam Malone was literally the same character as Michael, and always had been – maybe that the bar in Cheers was part of some research mission that Michael was conducting in preparation for Neighbourhood 12358W, or something like that. Or maybe the connection wouldn’t be made explicit, and would instead be hinted at, in the same way that The Prisoner occasionally toyed with the idea that Number Six was actually John Drake from Danger Man.

    Now, obviously, that’s not what actually happened. Despite gigantic premise-shattering twists being the basic currency of The Good Place, the Cheers reference didn’t presage some grand metafictional revelation. But still, I can’t help wondering if it might tell us *something* about where the show is going.

    The Good Place is a show that’s fascinated with the form and logic of the sitcom – a genre that it seems to think is inherently about sin and punishment. After all, a central joke of the first season is that you can set a sitcom in literal hell without most viewers even noticing. It follows that, if Cheers is indeed some iteration of the Bad Place, then maybe other sitcoms are too. More than that: maybe *all* sitcoms are. Maybe the reason we haven’t been given a proper look at the Bad Place is that it’s actually shockingly mundane, with most of its inhabitants simply living unhappy lives, trapped with insufferable families or flatmates or co-workers, enduring stock misfortunes every week: they’ve asked two girls to the prom, the boss is coming over for dinner, etc. If this is the case, then Michael’s innovation with Neighbourhood 12358W (telling people in hell that they’re in heaven) was simply a variation on standard procedure (telling people in hell that they’re on Earth). If the show does indeed culminate with a Harrowing of Hell, perhaps it will take the form of a Crisis on Infinite Sitcoms, with Michael finally rescuing and absolving every character who’s ever had the misfortune to find themselves condemned to an endless 22-minute loop of episodic hell. The Good Place could do for sitcoms what The Cabin in the Woods did for horror films.

    Or not. But that peacock bow-tie has me wondering. Cheers did air on NBC…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yep, I think there’s something to what you say. I don’t think the show is going to go *that* metafictional, but I do think it’s toying with metafiction (and it’s interesting that Danson has apparently said to Michael Schur that he feels like he’s playing Michael as Ted Danson playing Sam Malone playing Michael…)

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