Josh Thomas’ critically acclaimed show has always been able to walk a path that few shows have successfully followed: (genuinely funny) comedies that treat heavy subjects. Please Like Me never undermined its themes of mental illness, homophobia, abortion and STDs, but it always managed to show some light in the darkness, something that told us “Hey ! This sucks, but it will pass, so might as well get some fun out of it !”. While still expanding on the foundations built over the years, the show’s fourth and final season takes a more serious turn. The comedy is still there and as strong as ever, but Please Like Me finally admits that sometimes, things actually suck so much that even a good joke can’t make them any better.
(WARNING: As it is pretty much impossible to discuss the season without revealing some major plot points, this will contain spoilers for the entire season, as well as the seasons that came before it.)
“I’m funny. I’m a funny guy.” By the beginning of season four, we’ve heard Josh say this about himself many, many times. It’s a trademark statement, and certainly a true one — but it also doubles more often than not as a coping mechanism. When he is the funny guy, he doesn’t have to be the sensitive guy, the hot guy or the nice guy. He is a deeply insecure character, and knowing that his sense of humor won’t leave him certainly helps him when Patrick confesses he’s not attracted to him or when Alan reminds him again that he’s a lazy failure with no job. As the audience, we almost mimic him in our expectations — it doesn’t matter too much what the show throws at us, we’ll still be laughing in the end.
This season wasn’t originally intended as the final one (it was a decision Thomas took a few months after the show aired), but it does often feel like a story about endings, especially ones that are hard to accept. In the very first episode, his mom, Rose, asks him to throw away his childhood teddy bears. He has trouble dealing with this sudden request, and is tempted to keep them for himself, even though he hadn’t thought about them in years and wouldn’t do anything with them. It’s a clever way of introducing Josh’s main problem this season: letting go of things — and people — because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s easy.
The later episodes of season 3 already carried hints that Arnold and Josh’s relationship wasn’t going as well as it used to. Babaganoush shows them slowly getting sick of each other, but neither of them are brave enough to admit it. Arnold is Josh’s first serious boyfriend and even though we don’t know much about Arnold’s dating history, considering that he is closeted and in a mental hospital when we meet him, he probably hasn’t had much experience either. This relationship clearly means a lot to the both of them — which is why it’s so hard to let go of it, even when it’s the only thing left to do.
Their relationship finally ends in a heartbreaking climax in Porridge, the season’s second episode. It is one of the most uncomfortable episodes of a show that has never been afraid of being uncomfortable, and this tone perfectly reflects what the former lovebirds now hate about each other. Josh’s jokes fall flat, Arnold’s singing is now more annoying than charming (something that Josh Thomas hilariously had to explain — “[…] So many people think it’s so beautiful. They don’t know why me and Tom and Hannah and Ella hated it. To me, it’s such an annoying thing to do, especially for Hannah’s birthday. But then a lot of people watched it and thought it was so beautiful of him. Especially for Americans, because they are a lot more comfortable with getting a guitar out at a party. Australians aren’t. They just think it’s disgusting to do that.”) Even having sex isn’t fun anymore. After twenty painful minutes of pretending that everything is okay, Josh is finally brave enough to break up with Arnold, who responds through a distressing and at times extremely cruel speech. “You are never going to be happy, Josh!”, he explodes before finally breaking down and screaming hysterically that he didn’t mean anything he said.
It would be simple if it was the case — but Arnold’s outburst is probably the most sincere Josh has seen him in the last weeks of their relationship, and while the shock certainly made him exagerate some of his words, there is no doubt that they take roots in very real feelings. Even though the ending sequence of the episode hints towards them remaining friends and finally gives us some time to breathe, reality catches up, and as it often happens, they completely disappear from each other’s lives. That Arnold was a main character for so long doesn’t matter — if Josh has to let go of him, even though he was so important to him for so long, then we have no choice but to leave him behind as well.
All of the boys Josh had dated or been interested in before had come back into his life at some point over the years. Geoffrey has evolved into a casual hook-up from time to time, Patrick reappears to offer Josh closure, Ben clearly puts an end to their short-lived chemistry. Even Claire, who might arguably be Josh’s first real breakup, is still a friend and makes regular appearances. This break-up with Arnold is the first time Josh has to deal with losing someone, not because they pass away, but because they have another life to live elsewhere, a life that does not include him.
Please Like Me has never been shy of pushing boundaries that other shows did not allow themselves to do, which sometimes involved killing off their most beloved characters. While often offputting for the audience, it was always for good reason in the greater scheme of the show. Aunt Peg passing away in the first season managed to show us that, yes, Josh does have some emotions underneath all his sarcasm, and while Ginger’s suicide in the second season did not affect him as much as it affected Rose, Hannah and Arnold, it did allow him to express some feelings he had bottled up inside him after his mom’s multiple suicide attempts. All of these deaths took place in the last few episodes of their respective season — in season three we could arguably say that the thing that was killed was Arnold and Josh’s love for each other rather than a person. However, the lack of any corpses brought hope for some that death wouldn’t invite itself back in the show anymore — or, on the contrary, that something way, way, worse than what we had seen before was on its way.
The introduction of the theme of loss so early in the season shouldn’t have left us any room for doubt — and yet, when the ball drops in Burrito Bowl, it is hard to make any sense of what we’re seeing. Over the past few episodes, Josh had been having casual sex in an attempt to get back in the dating scene, cooking food, having dinner with his parents, cooking more food, reconnecting with Geoffrey. We had been as distracted as him — and when he goes into Rose’s house to find her on the floor, pale as a sheet, eyes closed, a suicide note with his name in her hand, we are as lost as he is.
This is one of Please Like Me’s main strengths: it is able to make us forget what we already know. The show opened with Rose attempting suicide, yet we’re shocked to see her body on the ground. We’ve seen her in a mental hospital during an entire season, yet being reminded of her mental issues is disorienting. Through the entire season, she had been acting increasingly paranoid and angry, had been the subject to violent mood swings, and even though looking back on her behaviour over the last couple of episodes, everything does make sense, the thought hadn’t crossed our mind once — and it surely hadn’t crossed Josh’s either.
In retrospect, Degustation, the season’s fourth episode, might just be its best one. Josh invites his divorced parents to a fancy restaurant to share a fifteen course meal. Rose is happy, funny, relaxed, everything she hasn’t been in the first half of the season. Her decision has been taken, and she is enjoying her last moments with her son and a man she used to love. It is an ode to the woman, the mother and the wife she used to be. The show never glorifies suicide — but it is comforting to know that Rose’s last moments on Earth were ones of true happiness. As she disappears into the night, neither the audience nor Josh know that we’ll never see her again. All we know in that instant is that she is happy, and after so many years struggling with feeling anything, it is the most comforting final memory Rose could have left us with.
Of course, the aftermath of the suicide is as painful as its discovery, but Please Like Me isn’t interested in despair. Josh is sad — devastated even — but the show won’t let him wallow in his feelings. He goes to therapy and knows that even though he’s not okay now, he’s strong enough to be soon. He buys an apartment. He makes homemade pasta. His best friend Tom and his girlfriend Ella break up, and he’s here for him, even when his life is the worst it’s ever been. On a surface level, the show ends as it started, with two single, unhappy friends. Everyone left, some people died — in any other show, it might have seemed like an incredibly bleak conclusion. But here, for the first time since the season started, it is not so much about endings anymore. Please Like Me ends but life goes on — and even when it’s really, really hard to, they will make it the best it can be.