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The Good Place‘s Shawn Proves Anyone Can Do Something Good

THE GOOD PLACE -- "You've Changed, Man" Episode 410 -- Pictured: Mark Evan Jackson as Shawn -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Let’s not think about how we only have three episodes left of The Good Place. That’s worse torture than butthole spiders. Instead, we can think of all the ways one of the funniest, weirdest and most philosophical shows on television continues to surprise and challenge us.

The shocks and laughs came, this week, in the form of an amazing cameo from Timothy Olyphant (which had me screaming in glee), but the beautiful moral center of the episode (or at least the character that had the biggest moral journey) was Shawn, the boss of the Bad Place (played by the ever-brilliant Marc Evan Jackson. Jackson is also the host of the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast which you must listen to if you’re a fan of the show). Shawn showed that even a demon can care about something and that caring can lead to change.

Last night’s episode, entitled “You’ve Changed, Man”, was about just that: the capacity of people, even demons, to change. As well as how cruelty and the moral implications of basing your life and decisions on how much you want to hurt (or not hurt) others effects you later on.

Shawn is, and always has been, the worst demon in the Bad Place because his sole purpose is cruelty. All he does is punish and that’s the way he sees existence. Everyone is worthy of punishment. He’s the polar opposite of the committee of “dweebs” from the Good Place that see every action as worthy of praise and acquiescence.

This makes the Good Place and Bad Place leaders perfect opposites. But it also places “Team Cockroach” in an impossible situation in terms of trying to convince the big bad boss to institute a new system for the afterlife. The Good Place goes with it immediately, but Shawn says no to everything because he wants to be cruel. At one point, the team thinks they can defeat him by offering him more cruelty – themselves in the Bad Place – but that doesn’t work. It turns out the only way out of cruelty and suffering is to opt-out of it entirely.

Michael, surprisingly, is the one to get to Shawn. He goes beyond letting Shawn be cruel to instead accepting it (or pretending to). It reminded me of the saying that “life is painful but suffering is optional.” In the scene where he convinces Shawn, he takes away Shawn’s power to hurt him and in doing so gets to the core of why Shawn was so cruel. The reason? It was interesting and fun to him but it was also all he knew.

Shawn wanted (like everyone it seems) happiness. He wanted to do something that felt good and when he found he couldn’t achieve that through cruelty…he had to change.

And that’s pretty much the entire point of the new afterlife and of The Good Place. The points system is bad. It’s foolish to assign an absolute moral value to an action in a complex world. It would have been better to get rid of points entirely but then how would the afterlife judge actions? That’s still too hard. So the new system isn’t about the points and neither is the show.

Getting into The Good Place is now based on a person’s capacity to change and grow and The Good Place is, as it’s shown all season, about how humanity is bad a lot of the time…but we can all get better.

Even the worst demon can get out there and do something good, even if it’s for a selfish reason. It may not make Shawn good, but it makes him better and that’s the first step towards actually being good. Because in this show (and in life, possibly) good isn’t what you are, or even the sum total of all you’ve done, it’s what you chose to do next.

(image: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.