[Ed. note: This article contains major spoilers for The Good Place season 4, Altered Carbon season 1, and the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.”]
Fiction is filled with depictions of hell. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Event Horizon, writers and directors have imagined the horrors of endless torture, and graphically demonstrated the way that experience could break victims’ body and mind.
Visions of heaven are far rarer. That’s understandable, since fiction is typically built on conflict, and there’s a lot less of that in places traditionally defined by peace and goodness. The Buffy spinoff Angel and Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Good Omens imagine heaven as boring compared to life on Earth, but other works take a much darker view of eternal bliss. The Matrix posited that human minds would reject any paradise that didn’t have some form of suffering. And several recent TV shows have delved deeper into the idea, exploring the philosophical and cosmic ramifications of immortality, and how living forever would affect our sense of pleasure.
Pleasure in eternal life was one of the dominant themes of season 1 of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk show set in a future where the ultra-rich use a mix of cloning and alien technology to avoid death. The conceit is primarily used to explore the illusion of upward mobility, as power and wealth stay permanently consolidated in a few people’s hands, while everyone else is condemned to age and die as humanity always has. Yet the writers also posit that even having everything can’t save people from their own natures.
After living for hundreds of years, the Meths (named for the long-lived biblical figure Methuselah) have become jaded with typical pleasures. As with Frank Cotton in Hellraiser, their boredom leads them to dark places. Season 1 depicts a party hosted by Laurens Bancroft, one of the oldest and most influential Meths. It’s a display of decadence and cruelty, including guests eating a white tiger, and cheering as a married couple fights until one of their bodies is destroyed. During a party game where each guest shows off something unique they brought to the event, one attendee reveals that she put the mind of a death-row inmate in the body of her pet snake, just to see what would happen. She laughs as she explains it broke his mind.
The Meths push the boundaries of morality even further when it comes to finding sexual pleasure. Laurens’ daughter apparently gets a thrill from having sex in the body of one of her mother’s clones. Miriam Bancroft offers a man she’s trying to seduce the chance to have sex with several of her clones at once. Laurens himself enjoys sexual sadism, beating and sometimes killing prostitutes, then making it up to them by replacing their bodies with enhanced versions. It’s another way the writers get across the show’s main theme of the terrible power imbalances caused by wealth. The women consider this a fair transaction, even though being killed is deeply traumatic..
Psychologists have observed a phenomenon called the hedonic treadmill, where something new and exciting might make someone happier for a short period of time, but eventually, they’ll revert back to their baseline. The Meths experience the same phenomenon, seeking more dramatic and illicit thrills as they age. Season 1’s biggest twist reveals that a high-end brothel is giving the Meths a chance to permanently kill people, and that Laurens was drugged and persuaded to partake of this forbidden pleasure. Confronted by what he’s done, he realizes he’s lived too long, and that any future pleasure he would achieve would come at too high a cost for others. The only solution was to kill himself.
Altered Carbon’s writers posit that physical pleasure can’t be reasonably sustained over eternity. But what if the pleasure response was removed from the body? Season 2 briefly reveals that some people have renounced physical form to upload their minds into a virtual paradise. This concept is only explored as a subplot of a single episode, so it’s unclear whether it really is a better solution within the show’s world. But another show has explored the concept in more detail: Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, in the episode “San Junipero.”
In the episode, terminally ill, totally disabled, and physically dead people have uploaded their minds into a virtual realm. San Junipero is a party town where people can live in young, beautiful bodies, have casual sex, drink, dance, play games, and go to the beach. As the episode’s ending song makes clear, it’s meant to be heaven created on Earth.
And yet, as is always the case in episodes of Black Mirror, the technology has darker aspects. Doctors ration how long living patients can spend in the simulation, saying they would go crazy if they spent too much time there. While Altered Carbon just gets into sadism, “San Junipero” explores the search for pleasure in sadomasochism through the Quagmire, a club that features bondage and people suffocating or assaulting each other.
The episode centers on two women, Yorkie and Kelly, who meet and fall in love in San Junipero and debate whether they should stay together there after they die. Neither believe in a real afterlife, but Yorkie thinks the simulation’s pleasures are real and worth enjoying. Kelly disagrees, and she has some evidence on her side. She points out that smoking there doesn’t taste like anything, and people who have been in San Junipero for a particularly long time tend to pursue more extreme sensations. She tells Yorkie, “You want to spend eternity somewhere nothing matters? You want to wind up like all those lost fucks at the Quagmire trying anything just to feel something? Go ahead.”
One of the ways Yorkie persuades Kelly to change her mind is by pointing out that she can disconnect whenever she gets bored of their heavenly life together. That solution is also at the core of the representation of a functioning heaven in The Good Place. That show launched by focusing on Eleanor Shellstrop, a selfish woman who winds up in the titular heavenly realm by mistake, then tries to become a better person to avoid being kicked out. But by the end of season 1, viewers learn that she and the other main characters are actually in the Bad Place, being subjected to a new form of psychological torture.
The hedonic treadmill works both ways: people will also become miserable when something bad happens to them, but will eventually adapt to most downturns, and return to their previous state of happiness. The demons in The Good Place have an arsenal of bizarre and terrible tortures, like butthole-spiders and penis-flattening, but those tools have become less effective over time, leaving even the torturers feeling bored and unsatisfied with their jobs. In an inversion of the idea that heaven is dull compared to Earth, they decide that their methods can’t compare to the hell that is other people, so they devise a way to let humans eternally torture each other.
Michael Schur gave his series a decidedly humanist and uplifting tone, so his characters actually wind up banding together and becoming better people. Eventually, they earn their spots in the actual Good Place, which turns out to have just as many problems at the Bad Place. After spending centuries or millennia being given everything they could want, the humans there have become “pleasure zombies” who have lost all the intelligence, curiosity, and desires they had in life. They barely react to the new arrivals. The architects of the Good Place try to fix things by offering up even more impossible pleasures, but their charges don’t even know what to ask for.
That’s a more wholesome version of the problem depicted in Altered Carbon and “San Junipero,” and the solution also remains the same. The Good Place denizens are offered the chance to leave whenever they’re ready. They have eternity to enjoy time with their loved ones, learn new skills, or just read trashy novels. When all those joys lose their luster, they can simply move on to something else — a peaceful state fundamentally detached from human consciousness. In the tear-jerking series finale, the show’s main characters find all the pleasure they could want, and then seek the ultimate fulfillment by taking one last step into the unknown.
There’s a traditional Jewish folk tale about a king who asks for a ring that will make him happy when he is sad, and sad when he is happy. His trusted advisor realizes that no magic can accomplish this, but he solves the problem by bringing the king an ordinary ring inscribed with the message, “This too shall pass.” It is a reminder that all pain and pleasure is finite, as is human life itself. That truth can be comforting and terrifying, and it’s what makes imagining the possibility of eternity so appealing and challenging. The shows currently pondering immortal, eternal joys all conclude that the human mind can’t really handle endless pain or endless pleasure, so we should just try to make the most of the time we actually have.