Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): Inside the heart-wrenching final season of Please Like Me
After four seasons spent highlighting mental illness with humor, candor, and sensitivity, the stellar final season of Australian half-hour Please Like Me featured a devastating storyline about a main character's suicide. Here, series creator and star Josh Thomas walks EW through the decision to end that character's life, and what he took from his own family's history to tell that story. (Note: The fourth and final season of Please Like Me aired in Australia in 2016, but it debuted in the U.S. in 2017. All four seasons are now available to stream on Hulu.)
The very first episode of Please Like Me, created by and starring comedian Josh Thomas, begins with its main character — fittingly named Josh — learning that his mother, Rose (Debra Lawrance), has just attempted suicide. Four seasons later, Josh finds Rose dead in her bedroom. She killed herself.
In recent years, television has been rightly heralded for incorporating more realistic depictions of mental illness. But for all the recent progress, there are still very few portrayals of suicide as more than a punchline used for dramatic effect. This is troubling, especially given that suicide isn't exactly rare: It's currently the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with an average of 123 suicides per day, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. And of the people who do kill themselves, research has found that about 90 percent of them suffered from mental illness and/or substance abuse — the kind of mental illness or substance abuse you've seen on TV shows like You're the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Mr. Robot.
However, telling a story about suicide on TV in a sensitive, smart way is extremely difficult to do. "Television is always trying to give a reason, and it's usually a pretty simplistic reason for anybody's behavior," Thomas says, noting that most of the time, suicide is not the result of a single inciting event. Having a character kill themselves also runs the risk of inspiring copycats, a proven risk of depicting suicides in pop culture — a risk that is increased if the series or film shows the exact moment the character dies. Maybe a few years ago, it would make sense to keep avoiding it as a topic on TV. But now that TV has become a medium not just for providing entertainment but for broadcasting experiences that viewers can relate to and learn from, it's just as important to tell tactful, layered stories about suicide as it is to tell stories about what can lead to it.
Thomas knows this firsthand. His mother attempted suicide when he was a teenager, and he noticed that this situation wasn't generally represented in media. When it came time to make his own show years later, he created the character of Rose based on his own mother. "Often, we tell stories on television and the point is you feel empathy for someone who is in a different situation and it helps you understand why different people make different choices," Thomas tells EW, "and it felt like something that was happening a lot — there are a lot of suicide attempts — and it had never really been dealt with in a proper way."
For Please Like Me doing it the proper way meant accurately representing someone with mental illness by showing moments high and low in Rose's life. Once Thomas decided Rose was going to kill herself in the final season, he consulted with organizations like like the National Alliance on Mental Health and the Black Dog Institute to make sure the scripts were "sensitive enough."
"The hardest thing with killing a character like that by suicide is not doing it in a way that makes suicide look fun. You don't want to encourage people," Thomas says. Part of this meant showing the devastation Rose's death caused to those she loved: Josh calls his friend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) soon after and tells her the news: "This is one of those things that's going to be really sh– for a while," she responds, "and then one day, it's going to feel less sh–." After he hangs up, he curls up on his bed and sobs.
Because this storyline was roughly based on his own family's experience, Thomas had concerns about misrepresenting and upsetting them. "One of the things I was most nervous about was taking my mom and dad's story and telling them for a TV show, definitely with good intentions of not being mean to them, but maybe not having the skill set to do that and accidentally making a show that's quite mean or portrays them badly, because I'm an idiot," he says. "Or even just taking their story and putting it into a sh– show."
But the award-winning Please Like Me — hailed by critics since its premiere — is far from a "sh– show," and his mom was "okay" after watching the episode where Rose dies. "She understood that it wasn't really her life anymore that we were portraying," he explains, adding that it was still "pretty f—ing weird."
"When my mom [attempted suicide], she was so embarrassed," Thomas recalls. "You never heard it spoken about that much. In Please Like Me, it offers some reasons someone might attempt suicide, but they're not malicious. A lot of people think it's kind of a mean thing to do, or it's a selfish thing to do. As we did more and more research, [we found] a lot of people do it because they think they're doing a favor, because they're in such a dark place that they think removing themselves will really help people out."
In one season 2 episode of Please Like Me, Josh takes Rose on a days-long camping trip after a hospital mate of hers, Ginger, kills herself. On that trip, Rose tries to figure out how to cope with the anger she's feeling about that death. "I don't understand how you never got angry with me," she tells Josh, referring to her own suicide attempts. "I'm so angry with Ginger."
"I just try and understand that when you do things like this, that you're doing them because you're ill," he responds, "and I don't get angry the same way you wouldn't get angry at someone with a cold for having a runny nose." It's a simple and common logic, equating mental illness to other illnesses, and even if it's not perfect — someone doesn't "get better" from depression the way they would recover from the common cold — it is a helpful comparison that explains the biology behind a suicide attempt.
"In that episode, I wanted her character to have to experience someone else attempting suicide to face how it makes other people feel," Thomas says, later noting that he didn't know until they began to write the fourth season that Rose would die.
"Once we got there, it was kind of like, we haven't explored what would happen if she had really done it," he says. "I always struggle with people who are like, 'What if she gets better?' But that as a storyline is so difficult to tell on television because it's so messy and nuanced and it takes years. You don't get a triumphant moment where somebody who's bipolar or depressed is suddenly better."
Rose directly combats that notion that depression is something to quickly recover from, even with all the tools available: She goes to the psychiatrist. She goes to the therapist. She takes medication. She stays in the hospital. She moves in with someone, Hannah, so she's not alone. She tries really hard to stay alive. And when she doesn't, the series doesn't punish her, it doesn't judge her — but it also vividly shows how everyone in her life is affected by her suicide, how they are deeply changed. And it shows how they continue on. They've experienced what Josh calls "the worst thing," and they try their best to live with that, to laugh and dance and cry and wake up in the morning. Even in the midst of this devastating life event, Josh and his friends manage to find moments of hope and levity alongside their pain.
Much of the series finale is about this, about Josh's struggles and triumphs in the wake of his mother's death. He sobs when his mother's house is sold for $1.5 million, he goes dancing and meets a cute boy, he has a tearful conversation with his father while looking at real estate. Then, in the final minutes of the series finale, Tom (Thomas Ward) visits Josh after getting dumped by his longtime girlfriend.
"Sorry about your life," Josh says to his friend.
"I'm sorry about your life," Tom responds, sitting in Josh's beautiful new, million-dollar apartment — an apartment he was only able to buy because his mom died.
With that, Josh turns around and makes two plates of homemade pasta. They're sad and they're grieving. But right now, they're sad and they're grieving and they're eating homemade pasta on the couch next to each other. It's a quiet, fitting moment to end the series on: two heartbroken friends bonding over the unfairness of life with gallows humor and comfort food, finding moments of hope and levity right alongside their pain.