By John MacDonald
This article examines the theology/literary sources of the TV show Good Omens from the point of view of the theological/existential/cultural problem of boredom, especially as developed by Ecclesiastes, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Starting around 18:38 of Good Omens Season 1, Episode 6, Beelzebub says to Adam Young, “When it’s over, you’re going to get to rule the world. Don’t you want to rule the world?” To this Adam Young replies, “It’s hard enough to think of things for Pepper, Wesley, and Brian to do all the time so they don’t get bored. I’ve got all the world I want.”
This scene makes an important point: Society must be structured in part to distract people from themselves.
The series ends on the theme of boredom, as well. Adam is being punished, stuck in the Garden (his parent’s backyard), bored with nothing to do. He wants his hellhound to run away so he would have justification to escape the Garden and chase him down, which the dog does, allowing Adam to escape the boredom of the Garden. It’s an interesting thematic play on the concept of the first Adam in the garden of Eden, raising the question of how long Adam and Eve would have been satisfied in the Garden had Eve never been tempted.
The boredom of Adam Young in the Garden at the end of episode 6 illustrates some important theological/existential points. One point is the ultimate tedium of life, which the book of Ecclesiastes talks about (nothing new under the sun). The other is how the luster of life falls off of beings, and we experience things as if they were worn out recordings of a favorite song; Nietzsche talks about this point in his analysis of the idea of “eternal recurrence.”
The final scene with Adam and the Antichrist sees him disobeying his human mother and leaving the Garden where he has been grounded, eating an apple after he does so. Adam didn’t really disobey; he found a way to do what he wanted (leave the boring garden where there was nothing to do) in a way that his parents would have approved of (by finding the dog), placing responsibility on the hellhound, much like Adam and Eve blaming the snake.
So, Adam Young found a way to get away with breaking the rules. But does this mean he did something wrong? Perhaps not—Adam Young in the boring Garden illustrates a theological point, beyond good and evil, about boredom and the nature of human conduct: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece (Proverbs 16:27—very loosely translated).”
St. Jerome wrote in the late 4th century: “fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum,” or “Engage in some occupation, so that the devil may always find you busy.” This proverb was later repeated by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, which was probably the source of its popularity. It has appeared in many forms, especially in English literature, throughout the ages.
Kierkegaard also makes a good point regarding this interpretation of the relationship between evil and boredom in Good Omens. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes
Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off … Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse. To amuse themselves, they hit upon the notion of building a tower so high that it would reach the sky. This notion is just as boring as the tower was high and is a terrible demonstration of how boredom had gained the upper hand. Then they were dispersed around the world, just as people now travel abroad, but they continued to be bored. And what consequences this boredom had: humankind stood tall and fell far, first through Eve, then from the Babylonian tower. (Kierkegaard, 1843, p. 286)
It is interesting that Good Omens brings up the fundamental existential issue of the relationship between boredom and bad behavior, specifically in relation to the Antichrist child Adam and his friends. Kierkegaard highlights the same issue, again in Either/Or:
How corrupting boredom is, everyone recognizes also with regard to children. As long as children are having a good time, they are always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on … (Kierkegaard, 1843, p. 258)
Children are an extreme case of the subtle boredom that underlies all of human existence, which can be coaxed to the surface when we are separated from novelty, such as in a child’s fidgeting in time-out, or to use Nietzsche’s example, the jittery irritation brought to the surface in cabin fever. There is a kind of addiction to novelty that belongs to human existence, especially the modern person, which manifests as jittery withdrawal symptoms. It is curious that boredom can be experienced both as agitation and slowness/depression.
The series does a great job of showing how the categories of “good” and “evil” can be quite fluid! Good Omens is a great case study of what early postmoderns like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were up to. Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers were concerned with coming up with a formula to categorize and prescribe behaviors as either good or evil, the postmoderns were asking what forces/ideologies/narratives were underlying the assignment of actions to these categories. For instance, instead of just asking whether particular acts were necessarily bad/evil, Kierkegaard asked what could be causing such unmanageable behavior (such as a bored child being unmanageable for a parent, a person being unmanageable for society, or a person being unmanageable for God). The bored child who is acting out is not at the most rudimentary level bad/evil; they are fidgety. Nietzsche performed a similar causal analysis with his case for “slave morality.”
This postmodern approach is important because if we simply identify someone as bad/evil because of their deeds/thoughts/words, it naturally supports demonizing/dehumanizing them via a strict retributive approach. But if we ask the postmodern question of what personal/societal forces and structures/narratives are in place in recalcitrant behaviors/thoughts/words, we have an approach that goes beyond mere retribution (although that is still necessary) and asks how we may reform/rehabilitate the individual or the society. As Good Omens shows, one is not necessarily evil because one is a demon, just as one is not necessarily good because one is an angel.
- Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Penguin Classics. 1992.
- Gaiman, Neil. Good Omens, Season 1. Amazon Prime Video, BBC Two. 2019.