I’d not seen a single episode of Bojack Horseman when I sat down to watch the first episode about three weeks ago. I don’t know what I expected it to be if I’m honest; maybe something a bit stupid about a horse-man in Hollywood being a general dude and making gags. It kind of is that, too, I guess, but it’s also not.
It turned out to be a really touching portrait of a group of people trying to find, and define, happiness. It deals with the nature of the human condition, what it means to feel like a broken person in a world that is full of broken people, and how to build a future from rock bottom after rock bottom.
The final half of the last season has taken it even further. Most of the six episodes exists in a showreel of Bojack’s past. We’re allowed to revisit old characters like Sarah Lynn and Herb, Bojack visits his own anti-chamber of living and sees them all putting on a show for him. Not only is the last season a farewell to Bojack, but it’s also a farewell to the show itself in a meta kind of way. The timeline is skewed so that we spend more time inside Bojack’s head. It makes me wonder if, because we’ve viewed the events almost through Bojack himself, we ever really left his head at all. Not to say that nothing has been real but that you can’t really divorce Bojack’s view of things from our experience of viewing the show.
I’m not going to go through all of the spoilers and ruin it here, for you. Because that wouldn’t be fair and I would probably have shot someone for doing that to me, but I do want to talk about the kind of ending that Bojack gets, and whether or not that ending is the kind of ending that he actually deserves.
The sixth season begins with Bojack checking into Rehab, and battling his way out of another rock bottom. We see him fully sober, and reckoning with the actions that have brought him to this point. We feel his guilt, and understand it. What’s more, is that we understand the other characters’ reticence to forgive and forget.
Now I know that a show about depression that’s also funny is probably as old hat as “bad guy does bad things but we like him anyway” in television, but the thing that catches me about the way that Bojack Horseman addresses depression, is that it never falls into the trap of having the show’s aesthetic mirror the drab banality of experiencing depression. It’s fluorescent, and joyful in its presentation. The colours are vivid, Princess Carolyn is a bright pink cat, Mr. Peanut Butter is a thoroughly loveable yellow dog, even Bojack himself is a vivid and drawing personality. The writing by Raphael Bob-Waksberg is the kind of hyperverbal, sometimes verbose, melancholy that we’re used to, in a way. It reminds me of shows like Californication, or maybe even My Mad Fat Diary, but coupled with Lisa Hanawalt’s sumptuously beautiful illustration it seems to transcend the gritty realism of these shows. It’s a funny show about being a fuck up, that allows the fuck-up viewer to exit their own world for a while. Her imagery also takes the concepts of narcissism, depression, codependency and downright melancholia and grounds them in something real; even if that reality is headed up by a talking horse.
I feel so moved by the ending, for all of the characters, not just Bojack.
It’s interesting that their journeys are so drawn out, too, because I can imagine going on this journey from the beginning might feel like you’re experiencing the character’s shifts and changes in real time. It takes three seasons for Bojack to hit “rock bottom”, and two more for him to seek help. Diane’s trajectory from struggling writer to a position of trust in her current happiness is a journey that takes all six seasons. Princess Carolyn spends a lot of her time looking for love, and settling for professional success so her achieving both of those things feels like a natural journey.
The series pits change, and self-development as a non-linear journey. One that includes crawling forward on one’s belly, only to slide backwards just as you think you’ve reached the next milestone.
It’s also visually stunning. The episodes are so varied, there’s “fish out of water” which is silent; there’s “Free Churro” which is an episode in which Bojack delivers a Eulogy alone for the full episode; “The New Client” shows Princess Carolyn’s struggle with having a new baby in her life; “Good Damage” breaks form to follow Diane’s depressive process. There’s always going to be an episode that you weren’t expecting, and that changes the way that you thought about the characters.
My favourite episode of the final instalment of Bojack Horseman has been “The View From Halfway Down”. In it Bojack enters the ante-chamber of life (I’m calling it that, not the show) and suffers through a dream dinner with all of the people in his life who’ve died: His mother, Herb, Sarah Lynn, Secretariat (who stands in for his father) and also his Uncle Crackerjack who he “Never met, but could never live up to”. It’s a hallucinatory episode, but I felt that it perfectly detailed the way you feel when you’re grieving. You want so much to see the people who’ve gone before you, and you want to apologise to them for the things you’ve done wrong. Bojack tries to apologise to them, but in the end he can’t – the show must go on, and he can’t get a word in edgeways. The absolution of an apology isn’t available to him, just as it’s not available to any of us. Apologies won’t help the dead, and they won’t help you either.
The ending of all of this, and the final question I’ve been asking myself is: “does Bojack deserve a redemptive arc”, or a sympathetic end, or even death? Does he deserve to be pitied, or loved, or understood? Do any of them deserve to find what it feels like they’ve all been searching for for six seasons: happiness.
I think what ends up happening is Bojack’s existential crises aren’t absolved, but he learns not to keep calling himself a bad guy and using it as an excuse. We don’t forgive him just because he feels bad about the things he’s done, because you can’t forgive someone who feels bad but ultimately does nothing to alter their patterns of behaviour.
Diane has a line quite early on:
“There’s no such thing as ‘bad guys’ or ‘good guys.’ We’re all just guys who do good stuff sometimes and bad stuff sometimes. And all we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff. But you’re never going to be good, because you’re not bad.”
I feel like that’s the line that defines the series, and defines it’s poignant ending.
For a show about a talking horse who is friends with a dog and a cat and various other mammals, Bojack has done an incredibly good job of teasing out the nuances of the human condition. It’s painting a portrait of depression that is neither condemning nor glorifying, and comes out pretty bang on the condition’s lived experience. Depression just is, and it’s shit, but eventually it ends one way or another. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it hasn’t happened because you are a bad person. It’s just happened. The show doesn’t forgive Bojack for his behaviour, but also doesn’t condemn him for it. It simply shows that the road from depression recovery is fucking difficult, for everyone involved, not just you.
The show ends on showing how each character learns to take responsibility for the things that they’ve done. It allows them a modicum of contentment, if not the “happiness” they’ve been searching for throughout six seasons.
Whether any of them deserve that contentment feels, to me, to be beside the point.