A Meditation on Redemption: A Review of BoJack Horseman, S6 Pt1

December 23, 2019


When I watched the first season of BoJack Horseman, I was very prepared to dislike it. It was five years ago; I was a screenwriting major at a liberal arts college, and I was learning the techniques of film and story structure. Back then, I was doing what most students in this setting do: use their newfound knowledge for pretentious evil. I’m a big fan of animation, infamously so, but I judged BoJack like a book by its cover. It seemed a little too Family Guy, but not enough “golden age of The Simpsons, seasons 3.5 through 10." My standards were strangely specific standards for judging a show about talking animals. I didn’t enjoy the first season of BoJack, it tried too hard for my taste, trying to comment on the narcissism of Hollywood through a narcissistic lens. 


When season two of BoJack came around, I was at a different point in my life. I had graduated from college, and I was trying to navigate the hazy labyrinth that is “the film industry.” And I became stuck. In a lot of ways, I still consider myself stuck in that foggy post-undergrad maze. It was a humbling experience that made watching and judging other’s work a different experience. Realizing the difficulty of “making it” in the industry gave me a lot of respect for those already in it. It started to become a lot more enjoyable for me to identify what was ‘working’ in a show than to attempt to put on blast what wasn’t. What I’m trying to say is: I was wrong, and I realized that after watching season two of BoJack. BoJack has always been a great show, but I only started to really see that once I took off my pretentious art school glasses (thick rimmed Ray Bans) and became a little less narcissistic. Although I still think it’s during the second season when the show really starts to hit some of the more nuanced and complex notes it’s now known for, it was such a good experience, that I had to watch that first season again, and of course, I loved it.


Now it’s five years later, and to quote that Paul Rudd Hot Ones meme that hopefully isn’t already outdated: “Hey, hey look at us? Who woulda thought? Not me.” Over the course of its five seasons, BoJack Horseman has remained consistent in its hilarious gags, expert wordplay and poignant commentary, all at home in its zany, colorful world that isn’t all that different from our own. For a show with so many wacky characters (with insane pet names like Mister Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn and Todd) all of our major players have arcs, show growth, and have become more complex, than some of television’s dramas starring non-animated characters named John or whatever. It’s sad to see BoJack come to an end, but it’s always better to see a series end by its own design, rather than watch it suffer a long life it wasn’t meant for. This first part of the series finale is purposeful and it frustratingly ends with a cliffhanger, but for now, we have eight amazing episodes to dive into. 

 

 

 


PREVIOUSLY ON BOJACK HORSEMAN


When we last left BoJack at the end of season five he had seemingly hit rock bottom. Then he fell down into whatever happens after rock bottom. The show has never portrayed BoJack as a “good guy” per se, but more of a guy who wants to be better, his main obstacle being himself. When we meet him in season one he’s a narcissist: he hates himself as much as he’s obsessed with himself. In season five, we see cracks in his liquor-stained armor; we see someone who wants to change. As the series has progressed, it has attempted to explain the “why” of BoJack’s actions. We learn about the history of his hit 90’s television show, “Horsin Around,” and more about his childhood: how he was born from a loveless union, that soon turned abusive. Beyond that, we also learn about BoJack’s mother and her traumas growing up. Sometimes our flaws and neurosis run generations deep. However, the “why’s” of BoJack’s flaws, do not excuse the “what” of his actions. 


By the end of season five, BoJack seems irredeemable. There’s not enough booze and pills to suppress the pain of his childhood, or his regrettable actions that usually culminate in season finales. The act of suppression leads BoJack to one of his most extreme lows, attacking his co-star/lover, Gina, in a drug-fueled-dissociative-state when he is unable to separate himself from his character, Philbert, (a brooding detective that’s mostly a parody of method acting and HBO’s, True Detective. Gina continues to go on press tours and junkets with BoJack, and though a dazed but slightly less drug-fueled BoJack wants to confess his terrible actions to the world, Gina stops him, not wanting her career to be tarnished by scandal.


BoJack was starting to resemble someone who in our current culture would definitely be “canceled,” shunned from the public eye and cultural mindshare, only to be spoken of when their terrible deeds arise topically. This of course is done by design, perhaps because the writers and showrunners started to realize that their lovable asshole should be held more accountable. It was interesting to see the conversation on social media post season five - folks  who aligned with the #metoo movement, survivors of assault - judging a cartoon horse like he was human, all because his actions triggered and hurt fans of the show. This caused the audience to desire what real life assaulters and canceled celebrities often never receive: consequences for their actions. 


I almost thought the showrunners would do season six without BoJack, characters could talk about him being in rehab, but couldn’t bring themselves to forgive him. Although I’m glad BoJack is here, (not because I necessarily would forgive a real life version of a person who has done the things he’s done) but because we never get to see the exploration of what the recovery process of someone like this is like, and if they can change, can we the audience voyeuristically be there for that journey, and bring ourselves to accept those changes?

 

 

 


CIGARETTE BURNS IN FORGOTTEN MEMORIES  


We begin season six in Pastiches Malibu, the rehab center that BoJack checks into at the end of season five. The episode quickly tries to hone in on what leads BoJack to substance abuse. The idea of “deflection” is introduced by BoJack’s counselor, Doctor Champ. We’ve seen BoJack do this a million times throughout the series: use jokes or point out someone else’s flaws to cover up his own. BoJack has never been called out on this specific behavior directly. These “deflections” are revealed to simultaneously turn negative focus away from BoJack, while also keeping him in the spotlight. The episode serves as a stroll down memory lane as we work our way backwards through pivotal moments in BoJack’s life that all involve alcohol. These events usually lead to some kind of short term success for him, but ultimately show the worst sides of him. Therapy attempts to unearth these suppressed memories, vignettes that are burned away as if cigarettes were put out on them. We see BoJack offered a drink on the set of “Horsin Around,” leading to a more natural performance. We go back even further and witness BoJack at a high school party as he slams a beer and starts making fun of his other classmates. This mean humor leads mostly to cheers, but also pushes away the people who actually care about him. Further back, we see BoJack stumble into his father’s office, only to witness his dad having an affair with his secretary. BoJack’s father gives him a “Jack and Coke” to help him forget what he saw. Then we go even further back to observe BoJack’s parents, passed out on the couch during BoJack’s birthday, where he couldn’t be any older than five or six. It is at this time that he sips some vodka out of a bottle that’s just lying around. Is that even his first drink?  Or is that the earliest suppressed memory his now sober mind could uncover? The show is beginning to plant the seeds of making its case for BoJack, trying to garner our sympathy for him again. These memories show another side of BoJack’s addiction, presenting the cause instead of the symptoms. Here we learn that his relationship with drinking wasn’t always about forgetting; some of his earliest drinks were forced upon him. That being said, the series creator’s cannot just show what led him down this path, they have to display how and if he can grow and change. 

 

 

 


A CROSSOVER EPISODE?!


I mentioned before that I wasn’t sure if BoJack’s friends would stay with him along this journey to recovery. He’s spent most of the series pushing away the people who are close to him, apologizing, then doing it all over again. Todd, Princess Carolyn, and Diane are all characters that have been screwed over by BoJack in one form or another. Most examples have them getting burned for even trying to help the guy. I shouldn’t have been surprised though when these eight episodes showed that BoJack’s friends were here for him, and they loved him despite what he had done. It’s more realistic this way, if you’ve ever had a friend or loved one who struggled with substance abuse, you know that you often try to help because the sober person in there is trapped, and abandoning the person who’s struggling means you’re also abandoning the person who’s suffering. It was refreshing to see scenes of BoJack talking to these other characters calmly, listening and even offering sound advice in contrast to scheming or trying to hurt their feelings. Again, to quote the Paul Rudd Hot Ones meme that I really hope isn’t outdated by now: “Hey, hey look at us?  Who would’ve thought?  Not me.”  In this season it’s not BoJack who needs the help and validation of his friends, it’s his friends who need the help and validation of BoJack. One of BoJack’s most complex relationships is his friendship with Diane, who is the catalyst for him going to rehab. In this season, Diane moves to Chicago with her new boyfriend, Guy, and attempts to start a new book. Her writer's block leads to other bad habits that hit very close to home for this writer (sometimes you need to smoke a pack of cigarettes or eat a whole pizza to get the creative juices going). Diane admits to struggling with depression, and she is reluctant to take antidepressants for fear of their side effects. Our newly rehabilitated BoJack is able to offer advice and listen to Diane, something that feels so alien for the character that it’s also refreshing. Before he leaves her apartment, he cleans up her depression-riddled living room, proving that contrary to popular belief, not everything BoJack Horseman touches turns to shit. 


In this same episode the showrunners start laying the groundwork for the end of the series. BoJack makes amends with his ex-hair stylist, Sharona, and she gives him one final cut, revealing that BoJack’s black main is actually a gray one. Old man BoJack goes on a journey to visit his loved ones. He helps Todd with his Asexual dating app by getting him a date. He gifts Princess Carolyn an old painting from his house. He even runs into Mr. Peanutbutter at a museum that is displaying props and sets from their respective 90’s TV shows, and gives him the crossover episode he’s always wanted. BoJack then visits his estranged sister, Hollyhock, at her college in Connecticut, and there he learns her school is looking for an acting professor. The penultimate episode of this season ends with BoJack, seemingly making amends with his closest loved ones, heading to Connecticut to start the new and final chapter of his life. It’s during the final episode that we learn that his past may not be entirely behind him, and the ripples of his self- destructive ways have consequences for more than just the core cast. 


WHAT HAPPENED IN NEW MEXICO?


There’s an exchange of dialogue between character actress Margo Martindale and a nun at the beginning of episode eight: 


MARGO MARTINDALE: I find myself consumed by thoughts of my past.
                
NUN : You have no past. You’ve confessed. Your sins have been washed clean. This is like day one stuff, what are we talking about here?          
            
MARGO MARTINDALE: The people I’ve hurt, the lives I’ve ruined, are they washed clean as well?
 
The two discuss solipsism: the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. The Nun mentions how that does “little for a woman of the cloth,” a position Margo Martindale now finds herself in. 

 

MARGO MARTINDALE: Is it solipsism to be concerned with the fates of others? Perhaps one could argue cloistering oneself from the world is a form of solipsism. 


This is followed by Margo fleeing the church in a red sports car, leaving her exile far behind. This exchange of dialogue mirrors what’s been happening in the sixth season so far: BoJack’s arc over these seven episodes are about him trying to become clean and finding some kind of redemption. In this season, he has shown signs of growth and change for the better. He has made amends with some of his closest friends, and he has even made strides to benefit their lives. With the focus on BoJack, we forget about some of the other characters he has interacted with over the years. This season goes to great lengths to show us a BoJack who is genuinely on a path towards becoming a better person, one who is no longer self-loathing, but instead starting to forgive himself. Despite the fact that BoJack may be doing better, his past remains ugly, and it is trailing quickly behind him.


Two fast talking journalists, Paige Sinclair and Maximillion Banks, are hot on the potential scoop of the century: who was present for Sarah Lynn’s overdose; who gave her that heroin? There’s more to this story and these two journalists are hellbent on finding out. The entire episode serves as a reminder of the people BoJack hurt that he did not go to great lengths to apologize to. Kelsey Jennings, the former director of the Secretariat film staring BoJack, was fired from the film when the crew broke into the Nixon library. She’s been in “Director jail” ever since, and only now is she starting to navigate her career out of it. We catch up with Gina Cazador, the co-star BoJack strangled on the set of Philburt. She’s on the set of a different project, number one on the call sheet, her career is moving forward, but she herself is stunted by the incident with BoJack. It’s clear she has PTSD; she has apprehension towards stunts with male costars, and because she continues to repress this incident, her director finds her difficult to work with. Kelsey Jenning’s becomes the director of a new superhero flick with a female lead. She asks Gina’s current director if she’d be a good pick for the role, and he tells her no. He finds her difficult to work with and is unsure why. 


The episode ends with Hollyhock, BoJack’s sister, going to a party with her friends in New York City. Far from anyone she knows, she’s eager to get to the party and start drinking. Hollyhock is less afraid of “losing control” when she’s drinking, she’ll only be judged by strangers. She’s rightfully cautious however, since alcoholism certainly runs in her family, but she doesn’t want to close the door on something so many other people enjoy. When she finally arrives at the party, she has a panic attack and is helped out by a boy named Peter. Peter, who viewers may remember as Pete Repeat, tells a story about a celebrity from his hometown in New Mexico, that essentially recounts the events of the season two finale: one of BoJack’s biggest and most controversial moments on the show. This episode ends just as Peter is about to tell Hollyhock the identity of the celebrity, an older man who went to prom as Penny’s date, who forced him and his friends to drink bourbon, and then left them all at the ER while his girlfriend had alcohol poisoning. It’s quite the cliffhanger and purposefully undermines the progress BoJack has made this season. 

 

 

 


I’M MORE HORSE THAN A MAN


Redemption is a road that is becoming less and less clear nowadays. Just as BoJack’s showrunners try to make you understand rather than forgive BoJack, I’m too, do not wish to sway sides in the culture war. Personally, I think a lot of “cancelled” celebrities should stay cancelled, or in other cases, go to fucking jail. If my only knowledge of BoJack was as a famous actor who did a bunch of terrible stuff behind the scenes, had a major drug problem, and went to rehab, then I would probably cast him out from my own mind. He’s too controversial a celebrity to give so much attention. Seeing the “why’s” and the “how’s” of his problems, even the ones predating BoJack’s own birth, does help shape our opinion of him. If we knew more “how’s” and “why’s” of the people we judge and cast out from the cultural mind, would we find easier avenues to forgive them? I’m not sure how the final eight episodes of BoJack are going to shake out, but I don’t think the showrunners are going to try and convince us to forgive BoJack. 

 

I’ll be back with more opinions in January, and surely, many, many emotions.

 

 

Robert Anderson

Co-Head of Podcasting

 

Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RoBaeBae

 

 

 

 

 

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