American Horror Story just introduced the Angel of Death, played by AHS season vet Frances Conroy. The literal Angel of Death, with black wings and life-ending kisses, showed up at Briarcliff this week and interacted with a number of our favorite characters. This fact makes a lot of the rest of the action this week seem irrelevant, including Lana’s near escape, Jude’s crisis of faith and Grace’s shooting. I guess there’s now going to be a fight between the Angel of Death and the Devil in Sister Eunice. Interestingly, the Angel of Death’s appearance gave us a sympathetic and almost realistic discussion of suicide.
Suicide is a weird loophole in the discussion of mental health in pop culture. Over 1 million people commit suicide every year, and it is the 6th leading cause of death in people under 35. There is one suicide every 40 seconds. It comes up in a lot of different types of art, for a lot of different reasons. The main two portrayed on screen are shame and guilt. It’s often seen as a way to get out of doing something unpleasant, than it is as a symptom of a disease. The moral side is easier to show than the mental health condition, like a lot of the situations we’ve discussed so far. Unlike many other mental conditions though, a person who completes suicide can be a sympathetic character. If they don’t complete it, they are often judged as being selfish. (Law and Order was a prime culprit of the “witness commits suicide to get out testifying” trope.) The person attempting (or completing) suicide in pop culture is usually a young white woman, despite the fact that worldwide, men are three to four times more likely to commit suicide. (For more statistics about suicide and places to get help, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: http://www.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=1)
This episode had two suicides and one additional planned attempt, one of which brought the Angel of Death to Briarcliff. The first suicide was of a man we’ve never seen before, another minority who didn’t make it out of the episode they were introduced in (like the only Black character we saw in the pilot). He hears voices (another first one the show-attempting to show a symptom of an illness, rather than just craziness in general), and tries to stop them by cutting his wrist in the bread cutter in the bakery. He is saved by the Nun he was working with (first time we’ve met her, and she seems like a reasonable person. I guess there are more than the four people we know working at Briarcliff), given stitches and put in solitary confinement. He admits to Sister Eunice that he wants to die, to stop the voices. While in solitary confinement, he pulls out the stitches in his wrist and bleeds to death. This short plot is handled with more finesse and compassion than anything we’ve seen so far. His unnamed condition is handled with care and sympathy, and there is genuine sadness at his death. I wish the show had more time with him and the nun, so this scene had more history. However, in the general pandemonium of plot in this show, I’ll take his two scenes when I can get them.
The second one was handled less well. Lana manages to escape Dr. Thredson’s murder basement and makes a run for it, stopping a car. The driver of the car, played by Lost’s William Mapother, is an angry man distraught at women in general, but especially the wife who cheated on him. At first, it seems as though Lana was picked up by another, different serial killer, but instead, the man shots himself while driving. The crash nearly kills her as well. This suicide is dramatic but is a plot point more than anything else. It doesn’t seem to be a murder-suicide attempt. It’s a poor example of taking this serious topic lightly to advance the plot (something American Horror Story often does).
The last time the show deals with the topic of suicide is with Sister Jude. Knowing her character so well gives this more weight than the other two suicides. She has been struggling with her faith for a few weeks, after learning about Dr. Arden, getting fired from Briarcliff and beginning to drink again. All of these threads come together when she finds Sam Goodwin, the Nazi hunter she asked to research Dr. Arden, dying in his hotel room. In the diner later in the show, she imagines herself slitting her wrists and bleeding to death on the bathroom floor. Her suicide attempt is an example of the guilt trope. She feels overwhelmed and wants to end it all. Suicide is an answer. Ultimately, she decides against it, telling the Angel of Death that she has one more thing she needs to do. Visiting the family of the little girl she hit, she discovers that the little girl lived, giving her a reason to live. I have a feeling Jude will make it through the end of the season, and this will never be mentioned again.
Overall, the portrayal of suicide on the show was a little bit more nuanced than some of the other mental health issues have been. The reasons behind the suicides have been stereotypical, but for the most part, the issue has been sympathetic and handled delicately. There was no discussion of suicide in the context of religion, or any attempt to get the characters actual professional help for their mental health issues, but there hasn’t been much discussion for anything on the show. It’s interesting that introducing another supernatural element to the show seemed to allow the writers to handle the suicide discussion more realistically. I am disappointed that the show didn’t put up the suicide hotline number at any time. Using that platform to reach millions of viewers they have with that information could have saved lives, but once again, the show is only using mental health as entertainment, without thinking about the people struggling with it on a day-to-day basis. What did you think of how the show portrayed suicide?
**If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please know that there are people who can help. The suicide prevention hotline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. They also have a chat feature on their website, http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.