The Good Place and the Ten of Swords

Drama! Betrayal! Ted Danson!

(spoilers for season one and early season two of The Good Place)

I’m not sure I can think of a show with higher stakes than The Good Place. It’s hard to beat eternal damnation. Sure, it has bright colors and puns for miles*, but it’s also about people being tortured, gaslit, and afraid. Just, y’know, funny. We’re three seasons in and while I have many favorite moments†, I’m not sure anything can beat Michael’s laugh at the end of season one. It’s a perfect twist, an obvious one, and yet I don’t know a single person who called it. It’s most straightforward to say that the twist is about our team finding out that they are in the Bad Place instead of the Good Place. But it’s equally true that the twist is that Michael, their trusted friend and mentor, has been torturing them. Eleanor has her lightbulb moment, but out of all the ways to confirm her guess, the show chooses Michael’s laugh, a direct, immediate embodiment of his betrayal.

The Ten of Swords is a card of betrayal, of deep harm, of loss. It’s a stark reminder that happy endings are sometimes so far outside the realm of possibility that they’re barely imaginable. The image is often someone being stabbed in the back, and it’s one of the most fitting in the deck. It’s not hugely complicated— when you can’t see the sword, you can’t protect yourself, and you’re intensely vulnerable. And when the harm comes, you can’t even see the wound, you can just feel it in all of it’s warm thick horror.

The Ten of Swords is also a joke. Really? Ten? You needed ten swords to stab someone in the back? One would have done just fine, maybe two. Ten is overkill. It’s a performance, a demonstration, if only to the person stabbed. Not only did they want to hurt you, they wanted to make you a joke. It’s cruel not just in the violence of the action but the violence of the humiliation. But it’s also so dramatic as to be a little ridiculous. Is it possible not to laugh in the face of such over the top pain?

The Ten of Swords is affirming our biggest feelings. Yes, someone betrayed you! Yes, that’s awful! Be mad! Be sad! Be devastated! Don’t minimize; this is exactly as bad as you think it is. If you need a reminder, try to find a place on your back that isn’t blood. And at the same time, it’s asking you to figure out when those giant feelings are no longer helping you. Are you still looking for blood when all that’s left is scars? Is it possible to move through this pain instead of bathing in it? Being with the dramatic feelings is necessary and important, but at what point does that stop being the case?

Tens end journeys, but those journeys start over‡. Tens imply aces. The Ten of Swords might feel like the end of the world, and it is, a little. But the wounds will turn to scabs, and the scabs will turn to scars. When you start back over, you won’t be the same. But the Ace of Swords gives you a sharp vision of the future. It isn’t there for the past. The Ten of Swords is not forever. Acknowledge the hugeness of your hurt, and begin to see if it’s possible to, slowly, start being with other things in your body.

Michael’s laugh comes at the end of season one. And it is truly horrible. (Again, in concept; in practice it’s some of the most fun I’ve had with a TV show ever.) But it’s not the end. Not only does the show continue, but pretty soon Michael has teamed up with our heroes. In this world, even betrayal doesn’t have to be forever. Outside of TV, reconciling with betrayal is a lot more complicated. But the Ten of Swords is asking us to look at the genuine drama— how people have harmed us, how we have reacted, how we might want to react going forward— and be willing to accept that it happened and to move from it.

* Forget Lena Dunham, Megan Amram is the voice of our generation.

† I could list a million, but “Do You Believe In Life After Love” popping out of Janet’s mouth in “Janet(s)” fucking ruins me every time.

‡ I have a lot of trouble with this, the seemingly linear nature of each of the suits and The Fool’s Journey ending and starting again from the beginning. I absolutely believe it’s not a one-time adventure, but I’ve long wanted to think more and think more deeply about how to talk about that in a non-linear way; I’m saying this here to hold myself accountable.

And here’s a Ten of Swords playlist! Highlights: Mr. Brightside by The Killers, Only Happy When It Rains by Garbage, and Sometime Around Midnight by The Airborne Toxic Event.