Warning: Spoilers and descriptions of self-harm are ahead. HBO’s The Nevers attempts to begin with a tone of eerie wonder. It’s the summer of 1896 in London and something is afoot. We see various men and women going about their days until what sounds like a summer storm starts to brew above. But, whatever the sight is, it stops these Londoners in their tracks more than lightning ever would. In jarring contrast to the optimistic rising strings playing during the montage, the sequence ends with tragedy. The woman we’ll soon learn is The Nevers lead Mrs. Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) jumps off of a cobblestone path and into the water below. A jaunty tune continues to play, undercutting the seriousness of the moment.
If viewers have any question about Amalia’s intent, the closing segment of the pilot clears those up with a devastating lengthy shot of Amalia’s blue-toned body and purposeful, graphic drowning. This is a death by suicide.
While watching The Nevers’ opening salvo I was reminded of another series: HBO Max’s Made For Love, which ended its first season a few days ago. Towards the end of that series’ premiere, heroine Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) also attempts to die by suicide. She too chooses the method of drowning. Hazel is only saved by the goofy intervention of a microchipped dolphin named Zelda. Over on The Nevers, Amalia is liberated from her tragic fate by the sudden appearance of a magical flying ship and its ability to bestow superpowers through glittering specks of light.
“I think [creators] think if they show someone deliberately drowning themselves, then somehow that is not as graphic as showing someone using a razor,” Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and the founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, told Refinery29 over the phone last week. Suicide-obsessed teen show 13 Reasons Why infamously became a lightning rod in mental health discourse for its own, now-edited, graphic death scene involving a razor (Dr. Breland-Noble will not allow her teenage children to watch the series). But the foundational and unexpected drowning attempts in series like The Nevers and Made For Love — which count these surprise near-tragedies as inciting incidents — are not so innocuous either, according to Dr. Breland-Noble. By hiding possibly traumatizing material in supposedly zippy series, they’re putting viewers at unnecessary risk.
“Unless there’s a plot that really speaks to the need for doing that, I don’t understand rooting a show in a suicide attempt,” she said. “There is no reason to use it for shock value.”
Unlike 13 Reasons Why, neither The Nevers nor Made For Love is specifically about suicide, so the storylines don’t focus on the long-term, multifaceted causes that can lead to a person’s decision to take their own life, its aftermath, or ways to support at-risk loved ones, which are aims Dr. Breland-Noble believes merit using suicide as a plot device. The Nevers is marketing itself as now-disgraced geek god Joss Whedon’s take on Victorian Era-style feminist X-Men, with a dash of serial killer drama. (HBO confirmed Whedon is no longer affiliated with the production.) Last night’s new episode, “Exposure,” added fire and brimstone commentary on death by suicide to the series, with breakout character Penance Adair (Ann Skelly) announcing, “There’s not a place in heaven for them that scorn the gift of life.” Amalia only stares at her friend uncomfortably, her inner mental state remaining a topic The Nevers is not yet compelled to explore.
Made For Love is a dark comedy about divorce, controlling relationships, and the horror of love in the modern day. While the series is invested in the connection between mental health, romance, and consent, it immediately discardes any serious conversations about Hazel’s suicide attempt. Her infuriated drowning attempt is deployed as a hair-raising story-starter.
Considering how peripheral these suicide attempts are to the core plotting and messaging of these series, Dr. Breland-Noble recommends avoiding them entirely. Particularly since both The Nevers and Made For Love treat suicide as sudden decisions (remember, Amalia goes down one side of the alley before turning around and marching to what she assumes will be her death). “More often than not, unless a person is under the influence, they’re not making a snap decision to do that … Generally speaking, people have thought about this,” Dr. Breland-Noble explained about real-world suicidal ideation. “We don’t want people walking away from that thinking ‘Yes, that is a solution.’”
That's why, if stories like this are going to continue to air — or be available to stream in perpetuity — Dr. Breland-Noble hopes to see clear trigger warnings for sensitive episodes in the same way she advises them for social media posts (neither The Nevers nor Made For Love currently has one). Netflix’s quippy Ryan Murphy soap The Politician begins with one such extensive warning. Despite the dramedy’s silly-sexy advertising, it opens with yet another suicide attempt by drowning, along with a death by suicide. A trigger warning before such scenes gives viewers a chance to press pause, Google the possibly psychologically dangerous contents of a series, and decide if they really want to proceed.
“If people are going to watch [suicidal events], I think they should be able to go in with eyes wide open and understand that this is something that’s in there. They should have a right to make that decision,” she said. “If nothing else, we want people who produce the content to ensure they’re articulating to people that this is there, so it doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. I don’t want to be watching The Nevers and [a suicide attempt] pops up. I would be upset.”
Until these warnings become more prevalent, it is likely viewers around the country will be left processing the aftermath of these triggering stories in their homes. In emergency cases, Dr. Breland-Noble urges viewers to contact a crisis text line or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. For those who do not require urgent support, Dr. Breland-Noble still encourages audiences to reach out to a trusted loved one like a best friend to decompress. “Just say, ‘Look, I just watched this and I’m going to need you to talk me off a ledge. I don’t necessarily need professional help, but I just need some support. Will you talk to me?,’” she suggested before firmly asserting: “We don’t want people out there just sitting with that.”
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.