I started watching Please Like Me via Netflix around the time Chester Bennington took his own life. It may have been a coincidence but the show and the Linkin Park frontman’s unfortunate passing did share underlying themes of mental illness and the grasp it has on those afflicted with it.
On the surface, Please Like Me is an Australian dramedy about 20-somethings figuring their life out. It shares that narrative skeleton with shows such as Girls and the first five seasons of Friends. We have the main character, the awkward 20-year-old Josh (Josh Thomas), who discovers he’s gay on the first episode and starts his self-exploration with the help of his friends, roommates, and the boys that come into his life.
But the real meat of the show goes far beyond that one-sentence TV-show pitch. Just when you find yourself enjoying the first episode’s laugh-out-loud scenes of Josh dating and having gay sex for the first time and his roommate trying but failing to break up with his girlfriend (Chandler and Janice, anyone?), the news of Josh’s mother’s attempted suicide breaks the comedic momentum.
Josh rushes to the hospital to see his mother, Rose (Debra Lawrance), bedridden and fresh from being pumped of pills she took spontaneously to end her own life. Josh and his father surmise that she did it because of the divorce but they soon find out that Rose had been afflicted with Bipolar Disorder all this time. The divorce may have been the trigger but the root of the problem goes much deeper.
Over the course of four seasons, we see Josh and Rose attempt to deal with how this gradually takes a large chunk of their life. They do their best. While he doesn’t live with her, Josh tries to be there for his mom even though he doesn’t know what to do. Rose, on the other hand, tries her best everyday to get up and make it through the waves of mania and depression that come and go without warning.
They do what’s expected in these circumstances. Rose starts taking medication and undergoing therapy. The family gets Rose’s aunt to live with her to play suicide-watch. When the aunt dies of old age, they check her in a private mental institution. Incidentally, that is also where Josh meets his would-be boyfriend Arnold who struggles with Anxiety Disorder.
The portrayals of mental illness are both sensitive and accurate, especially the parts where characters afflicted with it don’t always look the part or have control even if they are aware of their condition.
In a camping trip in Tasmania during the second season, Rose apologizes to Josh for attempting to kill herself. She knows how selfish it looked. She understands the stress and the heartbreak she put Josh through. The following episodes have her seemingly improving to a point where she decides to check out of the mental home, get a roommate, and start living her life again.
In the final season, Josh treats his mom and dad to a luxurious dinner where they have a discussion about their life and how they have coped so far. While there is the usual family conflict and awkwardness at the table, they reach a point of forgiveness and being able to brush off their resentments and choosing their love for each other. Rose, unusually bright, cheerful and lucid, tells Josh how proud she is of him and the man he’s become.
“It seems your mom is in a really good place, doesn’t it?” Josh’s dad says.
“Yeah, yeah. She seems good,” Josh agrees.
This apparent development only makes the penultimate episode of the show more heartbreaking. People who decide to kill themselves usually appear calm or happy right before committing the act. Josh comes to his mother’s house one morning to see Rose slumped on the floor, cold and with a suicide note in her hand. She’s finally done it. After four seasons, the show comes full circle and sees Rose finally following through on what she tried to do on the very first episode.
If you followed the show since the beginning and kept track of Rose’s progress, this is especially haunting. While having his own psychotherapy session to deal with Rose’s suicide, Josh says this to his therapist:
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how my mom used to be happy and okay, you know? And then she deteriorated into this dark place. Well I’m happy and okay. You’re happy and okay. It’s terrifying.”
It is terrifying, isn’t it? To look in a mirror and see a person who is seemingly well and healthy; a person who doesn’t look like the type to spiral into madness. It might be hard to imagine having the capacity to swallow 20 pills at the same time or making a noose and tying it around your neck. And yet it happens to seemingly normal people all the time.
Recently, Chester Bennington’s wife Talinda shared a video to her Twitter page showing her husband playing, laughing and tasting jellybeans with their kid. She says the video was taken 36-hours before Chester hanged himself. They never saw it coming.
“Depression doesn’t have a face,” she said.
But it does have a face. It is hidden in plain sight. It is the face of people walking the streets. It is the face of people you work with. It is the face of diners having the meal of their life inside a five-star restaurant. It is the face you see in the mirror.