BoJack Horseman has always been an optimistic show, even when it’s being cynical and very, very bleak. But the show’s always had an underlying feeling of hope for the future that wants you to believe its characters can get better – you may just need a jogging baboon to tell you that it gets easier. Now that we’re on the first half of the final season of the show, BoJack Horseman finally asks: can a terrible person actually achieve happiness? And more importantly, do they deserve it?
Spoilers for the new season lie ahead.
BoJack Horseman is not a good person, and that much seems self-evident. For five seasons, we’ve followed the former star of a ‘90s sitcom do horrible things. He nearly slept with a teenager and is partially responsible for the overdose and death of a former co-star. But he has many excuses, like undiagnosed depression and a very shitty childhood. Last season, we saw him reach a new low when he nearly choked another co-star on set, and yet the show doesn’t necessarily portray BoJack as a bad person – just a person who has done terrible things. That season ended with BoJack finally taking some responsibility for his behavior and checking in at rehab to treat his alcoholism and painkiller addiction.
Back in the ‘90s…
As season 6 begins, Todd is living with Princess Carolyn and helping her take care of her baby, “Untitled Princess Carolyn Project” while waiting for someone to join his asexual dating app. Diane is trying to survive in the media world after she’s forced to pivot to video. Meanwhile, Mr. Peanutbutter is struggling to maintain the secret that he cheated on his girlfriend with Diane while preparing for his wedding.
As for good old BoJack, he’s still haunted by the pain he’s caused to others. In rehab, he finally begins to learn that he might be able to forgive himself for his past mistakes, as he starts thinking that maybe he deserves to be happy.
The first thing that came to mind as BoJack came to this realization was Neon Genesis Evangelion, the classic ‘90s anime by Hideaki Anno. Like John Maher argued in his excellent piece for Polygon, both shows explore abstract concepts and experimental animation to get inside the tumultuous minds of their characters. But while the article focuses on the similarities in animation between the two shows and their use of the medium to reflect the story, there’s also a thematic resemblance between BoJack’s journey and that of Shinji Ikari.
In the second half of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Anno pivoted from the “mecha” story of the kids tasked with saving the world by piloting giant robots, and instead used the show to deal with his own depression. The last two episodes in particular take place entirely inside the minds of its protagonists and explore the bleakest parts of the human psyche and our struggles with interpersonal connections. It has always been hard for Shinji to let others in his life, as he always thought people around him hated him. But in the final moments of the show, Shinji faces the idea that maybe it is his own mind that perceives reality as being ugly and painful, that he is simply not used to being liked by others so he perceives that as being hated by everyone. It is not until he realizes that what he hates about himself can be changed, and that if he changes those things he can learn to like himself, that Shinji realizes it is okay for him to be in this world. Likewise, BoJack has always considered himself to be a shitty person because of his upbringing, and the idea that he can do nothing right became to integral to who he is that his action reflected that, continuing his belief that he can only hurt those around him. He has denied himself to be happy because he doesn’t think he deserves it. But season 6 finally has BoJack consider the idea that maybe he doesn’t ruin everything.
I feel like my life is just a series of unrelated wacky adventures
Of course, this is BoJack Horseman, so nothing is easy. On the contrary, if there’s one thing the show does so well, is show how incredibly hard it is to be better or be happy. The first half of season 6 give us a fantastic example of this in “The New Client.” In it, Princess Carolyn attempts to be a woman who “does it all,” raising her baby while also managing her agency – with less-than-stellar results. The animators bring to life dozens of strained Princess Carolyns at once, each doing a different task in her endless list of things to do, superimposing them to show not only how much she already did before becoming a mother, but how restless her mind always was, and still is. To drive the point home, her new baby’s cries serve as a metronome, coordinating all the movements of Princess Carolyn’s doubles. It’s a simple yet highly effective way of getting us inside of her head that reminds of how “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” which voiced BoJack’s self-loathing thoughts aloud via crudely drawn doodles. Though she isn’t able to do it all, Princess Carolyn ends the half-season realizing she doesn’t need to do it all, and she can delegate some of her tasks and have some more time for her daughter.
Likewise, we slowly see Diane learn to realize that happiness cannot come from external sources or relationships. She finally leaves Los Angeles for Chicago, and we leave her starting to come to terms with her depression while trying to finish a new book. Through Diane’s story, BoJack Horseman has explored its bleakest bits of social commentary about celebrities and corporations. This season deals continues the merger-mania of past seasons but explores it from the perspective of small businesses being folded into massive new media ventures (and also the psychopathy of CEOs who are apparently allowed to outright murder people in this world). Then there’s the timely issue of the overexploitation of Hollywoo assistants, who start a strike in the show in order to get some respect every once in a while. That actual assistants are starting to fight back and demanding improvements in the work place is just another point for the writers.
Though Todd once again is somewhat left behind by the bigger stories of the season, we do get another goofy mess-around as Todd breaks into the office of a giant corporation’s CEO to steal a kidney. After several writers accurately criticized BoJack Horseman for its racial blind spot when it comes to Diane and Todd, the show at long last acknowledges Todd’s background when we meet Todd’s stepfather Jorge Chavez. It’s a small scene, and it may not be enough for some people, but it is a step forward, even if it comes late in the game.
Mr. Peanutbutter doesn’t get the deepest story this season, but he gets the funniest and most inventive episode in how it tells its story. Episode 4, “Surprise,” deals with Todd having planned a surprise wedding at Mr. Peanutbutter house, and the problem that arises when Mr. Peanutbutter shows up and confesses his infidelity to Pickles just before all their friends and family are about to jump out and surprise the couple. The episode then deals with the fallout of the confession, with Pickles struggling with knowing how to move forward with her relationship while acknowledging this egregious betrayal of trust. Meanwhile, the funniest part of the episode is watching all the wedding guests having to hide and awkwardly move around the house trying to leave whenever the couple gets close to them. It serves as a goofy and fresh break between some very dark and emotional episodes, even if the audience was never fully invested in Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles.
I need you to tell me that I’m a good person
Then comes episode 7. “The Face of Depression,” has BoJack finally make a breakthrough in his healing process and decides to get away from the toxic environment of Los Angeles and Hollywoo, get better. Along the way, he even does a couple of nice things for a chance. When he visits Diane in Chicago, he reflects how for so long, he believed that he was a thing that couldn’t be changed, but after a therapist from his rehab center told him he ruins everything, BoJack finally realized that is simply not true. He has done terrible things, but that doesn’t make him an inherently bad person, he just needs help and a support system to get him on the right track and maybe even achieve some sense of happiness if he tries to change.
What has always driven BoJack Horseman the show is the different between BoJack as he wants to be seen and BoJack as he actually is. Episode finally allows its protagonist to actually remake himself – changing his jacket and sweater and going as far as trading his dyed-black mane for a shorter, grayer haircut. He knows he can’t change the past, but he can start making the future a little brighter, having a nice lunch with his former roommate Todd, giving some good advice to Princess Carolyn and even giving Mr. Peanutbutter the crossover episode he always wanted.
If episode 7 made the audience imagine what a happy life would be for BoJack, then episode 8, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” reminds us that you can’t fully escape your past and that he may not deserve a happy life after all.
To achieve this, the episode doesn’t show BoJack or any of the main characters, and instead follows all the women that BoJack has hurt in the past. First up there’s Kelsey Jannings, the director who was fired from Secretariat back in season 2 following her and BoJack breaking into the Nixon Library to film a scene for the film on Bojack’s suggestion. Jannings has been in “director’s jail” ever since, reduced to a career of shooting commercials – or “immersive product-placement journeys” – for a fast food chain. Then there’s Gina Cazador, Bojack’s former co-star on Philbert and his lover, who he cut ties with after he choked her on-set while high on opioids. Gina decided not to expose the incident in order to avoid a media frenzy, but she still suffers from PTSD following the attack. Worse yet, a director steers Jannings away from making Gina the star of her upcoming superhero blockbuster, describing Gina as difficult.
The main story is also supplemented by the addition of two fast-talking His Girl Friday-style reporters looking for the real story of Sarah Lynn’s death, threatening to completely destroy everything BoJack is just starting to build. It’s a phenomenal, if emotionally devastating way to end the first half of the season.
For a long time, we have seen BoJack made mistake after mistake without any sort of consequence besides the bridges he’s burned with the people around him. But season 6 focused on repairing Bojack’s psyche and closest relationships, convincing the audience that he has actually changed. But is it fair of him to move one and just wipe all the collateral damage he’s done? “A Quick One, While He’s Away” seems to say, no. He may be happy, but he’s not free just yet.
BoJack Horseman continues to prove it is one of the best American animated series in decades, and as it nears its ending, it promises an emotionally devastating, and maybe hopeful ending.
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