HomeTelevisionBoJack Horseman Challenged Us to be Better Because its Anti-Hero Never Could

BoJack Horseman Challenged Us to be Better Because its Anti-Hero Never Could

Bojack Horseman
Photo Credit: Netflix

BoJack Horseman is over, and everything is worse now. The titular horse may never hit bottom, but the series finale delivered him to his closest brush yet with unexpected mercy and even hope. We could all safely exhale because BoJack survived to poison another day, and who in Hollywoob doesn’t like a comeback story anyway? 

With this week’s series finale, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg allows BoJack a grace note moment with each of the people with whom he has shared his journey over the run of the series. Princess Carolyn remains by his side as his friend and possible manager after marrying Judah. Todd can at least tolerate him again, while offering up some thoughtful reflections on how we change and how that informs the complexity of our interpersonal relationships. Mr. Peanutbutter is embracing being single for the first time and has evolved from BoJack’s most annoying rival to his most loyal friend. But BoJack finally stumbled across a line that would change his life forever. After leaving a haunting voicemail as an accidental almost-suicide note, Diane has finally cut BoJack from her life and stopped herself from being pulled down with him. Will BoJack stay sober for good this time? Will he ruin another life? Can he ever achieve lasting peace or will his clinical depression get the best of him? Who’s to say. 

The finale notably occurs before the end of his prison sentence. BoJack does not get the time-lapse cut to 14 months later. He does not get to merely endure his punishment and then walk away scot-free. He gets no ride off into the sunset. The series ends as BoJack is still being punished and with his future still very much uncertain. Did he deserve it? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make it any less painful for the viewer who has invested so much of themselves in this character. Hollywoo is dead. Long live Hollywoob. Life’s a bitch and then you keep living. 

As we follow BoJack through this “This is your life” style finale of resolutions and uncertainty, it is hard not to consider how we got here. BoJack Horseman, as a series, contained a striking degree of multitudes. Any with that sensibility comes a great diversity in the types of episodes we witnessed along the way. Every fan has one episode that means the most to them. One episode that plunges the deepest into their soul and without hesitation presents the murky ugliness inside. For me, it’s “Stupid Piece of Sh*t.” With its harrowingly authentic depiction of the actual mental state of depression and Will Arnett’s stellar inner monologue, this was the most significant time it felt like Bob-Waksberg (and staff writer Alison Tafel) was writing this show for me. 

Despite Arnett’s incredible performance and the way it often spoke so directly to me, every one of the series principal cast of characters at some point became a vessel in which I and so many like me felt safe depositing our anxiety and doubt in order to find something more profound reflected back on us. Moments such as when Todd exploded “You can’t keep doing sh*tty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay!” or when BoJack begged “I know I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down I’m a good person and I need you to tell me that I’m good,” helped to create the impression that this series and these characters were specifically for us as individuals to hear. 

This level of raw, messy humanity is a rare thing to find in an adult-oriented comedy series. When I first began watching the series, I came to laugh, and I did. A lot. But at every turn, I found myself becoming severely bumming me out. And every time I loved it more for doing so. As Diane puts it: “…when people find out that someone like you, who seems larger than life, is actually just as wounded and vulnerable as they are, it makes them feel less lonely.” 

This balance of incredible humor and incredible emotional vulnerability is exceedingly rare. With BoJack, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy ushered in an era for a new kind of comedy. It delivered laugh out loud puns and sight gags and witty dialogue galore, but instead of topping them all off with a gut-buster to send us home laughing, when it mattered most, the series would push its audience over a cliff of gut-wrenching reality and cynicism. The show regularly built up the audience’s love and belief in these characters’ best intentions, while punishing them for submitting to their basest impulses, each rise higher and each fall further than the last. 

What made BoJack Horseman work was its eagerness to say the quiet parts out loud. A hefty majority of its jokes and sight gags relied on brutal honesty, often critiquing the blunders of our real-life society in the process. Such a strategy yielded consistent laugh-to-keep-from-crying moments. But every so often, one of these characters would break through the walls propping up their shallow façades, mirroring the audience’s own flaws and hardships in the process. The series’ refusal to pull punches immediately became its signature style and its most precious attribute. 

Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s writing on depression and guilt and self-loathing rings of such honesty that it could only be an echo of personal experience. That authenticity and bluntness were what made BoJack feel like it knew me better than I knew myself. It captured the idea that all we are is the sum of our worst inclinations and mistake, allowing us to finally navigate our own regrets and shortcomings in the process. It also recognized that, while we may lie to ourselves in order to make it through the day, real change is only achieved through the bitter acceptance of our failures. 

BoJack was another objectively wretched figure serving as a comedic adult-humor protagonist navigating an ever-constant world of shenanigans. But unlike Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin or Eric Cartman, joyfully returning to their pre-established status quos of normal domesticity in which another episode can begin, his actions do not exist in a vacuum. Returning to that status quo was not a moral reward, it was what BoJack feared the most. His life was an inverted mirror of his Horsin’ Around sitcom. In the fictional setting of his ’90s big break, the promise that everything would turn out okay after 22 minutes and nothing would change was a source of comfort. But in his reality, that homeostasis and his inability to change, to finally be a better, more selfless person than he is was his damnation. 

Every season saw the horse desperately filling his days with a new job or project or prospect to force change into his life. All these superficial attempts to stimulate growth or change only ever inevitably crumbled around him until he was once again alone, in his house, utterly despised with all the money and time and bad inhibitions in the world. As with the penultimate episode of the series, it was a pool he had meandered into but could not pull himself out that would eventually lead to a demise of his own making. 

In the show’s latter three seasons, it transitioned from merely recognizing and labeling the anxiety and depression that pervades the 21st century culture to methods of actively conquering personal demons. BoJack finally began to grow and recognize the consequences of his actions. He began work on himself in a way that felt hopeful. It managed to keep BoJack’s character relatable while his journey diverged into a more personal exploration of the horse’s tortured psyche. 

Where the writers saw unhealthy attachment to the characters from the viewers, the series offered lifelines like stressing the importance of seeking therapy to BoJack or Diane agreeing to use antidepressants. Its fifth season even accused us of relating too much to BoJack’s misery and poison and using that sense of shared dissatisfaction as permission to do nothing about it. The writers saw how many of us saw ourselves as the titular horse and worked to widen the gap between us. It challenged us to be the better, unproblematic versions of ourselves we all wished we could be. 

The fact is, it was too late for BoJack. The abuse and moral decay inflicted upon him both externally and internally had taken hold and led him down paths of unforgivable action. Over six years his poison had spread and left a trail of despondency and trauma on victims with whom he never truly reckoned. And haunted as he may be by the death of Sarah Lynn or kissing Penny or assaulting Gina, he will never take full responsibility for any of it. This does not invalidate real growth and healing he managed to achieve over the years. He is a better BoJack than the one we met all those years ago. However, he still remains trapped in the repeating cycle of his inhibitions and decisions. BoJack is doomed to always be some version of who he is. He will always be either finding new ways to hit bottom and alienating those closest to him one by one or living in a heightened state of awareness to keep himself in line. The series ends on the most bittersweet note of its run. Diane’s farewell makes it painfully clear. “Yes, it was too late for BoJack. But you are not BoJack.” 

At its center, it was a show about fighting for change. About how we can all do better as people and as a society. Changing oneself for the better is bitter work. It is a constant uphill climb and as BoJack learned it cannot undo the worst in our past. But it can make for a safer, less toxic future, and every day it gets a little easier. 

BoJack Horseman is currently streaming on Netflix.



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