The Agony and Ecstasy of ‘BOJACK HORSEMAN’

David and Nathan share their favorite moments from the fourth season of Netflix’s BOJACK HORSEMAN.

Time’s arrow neither stands still, nor reverses.

–Sugarman Family Motto

DAVID: BoJack Horseman is the most emotionally rich series on television. How’s that for a thesis statement?

In a way, that makes it even harder to write about, because not only are you painfully aware that nothing you could say about BoJack will match the show in depth or wit, you’re not entirely sure where to even begin. Should we talk why we love these vibrant characters? Its social awareness? The side-splitting wordplay? Its consistent, equal-opportunity skewering of Hollywoo culture? We could write pages and pages analyzing every episode, every line, every background gag, and never reach the terminus of BoJack’s brilliance. So instead, we’re just going to pick a few of our favorite moments from the sublime fourth season of Raphael Bob-Waskberg’s animated series. Nathan, start us off.

NATHAN: Incredibly well put. BoJack speaks to me on SO many levels, and, as such, it’s hard to discuss ONE season, this season, because those who watch the show don’t need to be convinced about the show’s brilliance (or read about a season they’ve watched three times already), and those who haven’t seen the show will have three incredible seasons to get through before reaching what we’re reviewing today. That established, let’s shine a light on the greatest moments of the newest season and hope to convert a few new followers into the cult of BoJack the Horseman, first of his name, king of the celebrities and the sad men.

The season opens, (and I hate to keep using this adjective, but I’m without other options) brilliantly – by removing their titular star from the opening episode entirely and then bringing him back in the following episode in a subtly powerful montage set to an utterly delightful cover of “A Horse With No Name”, composed by Patrick Carney (of the Black Keys) and Michelle Branch (because, why not?). “The Old Sugarman Place” (s4e2) is a beautiful tapestry that weaves our protagonist’s current ennui with flashbacks to the similar plight of his maternal grandmother (voiced, ahem, brilliantly by Jane Krakowski) who deals with her own tragic personal loss on parallels that match BoJack’s plight carried over from the previous season (and the reason for his exodus), though Honey Sugarman’s struggle is colored deeply by the fact that she’s a woman in the 1940’s whereas BoJack is pretty much free to wallow in his own misery and self-pity. However, by the end of the episode, BoJack has grown as a character, whereas his grandmother is destroyed in ways that will echo throughout the family and the rest of the season; it’s a masterful approach to introducing backstory and history four seasons into a series.

DAVID: I just want to talk about sweet, sweet Todd Chavez. The erstwhile layabout has stealthily become my favorite character on the show, as much for Aaron Paul’s delightfully frazzled line readings (“That’s a terrible thing to say to a baby!”) as for the genuine growth he has shown over four seasons. In “Hooray! Todd Episode!” the third installment this year, he proves himself capable of managing a series of escalating crises — DNA analysis for BoJack’s supposed daughter Hollyhock, faking dates with star Courtney Portnoy for the paparazzi, running errands for Mr. Peanutbutter’s gubernatorial campaign, and somehow making it to the orchestra stage in time to play his single note on the triangle. While he isn’t exactly cool under pressure, he means well, works hard, and can do a passing Channing Tatum impression when his back is against the wall.

But who is he doing it all for? Todd’s a pure Giver; though he occasionally gets sidetracked by wild business ideas (the theme park, his DentistClowns), there isn’t a more self-sacrificial character on BoJack Horseman. Yet he’s not a doormat or a simpleton; it was Todd who delivered the deepest knife cut to BoJack’s gut at the end of Season 3, saying “You can’t keep doing shitty things and feel bad about yourself like that,” not without regard for how everyone in BoJack’s orbit is forced to suffer alongside him for his mistakes. To Todd’s credit, he isn’t quick to take his friend back upon his return; he’s gotten used to not having BoJack’s destructive narcissism around, and tells BoJack he’ll have to change — really change — if their relationship is going to be restored. He’s not so bitter as to slam that door shut, but is seizing his new role as the only real adult in the room. The episode’s climax is a fist-pumping moment of agency for the longtime sidekick and comic relief; he commits to attending his first gathering with other asexuals, even at the expense of missing his symphonic cue. Keith David’s lion, over in the woodwinds section, says it best: “Good for him.”

NATHAN: By the time we reach S4E6 “Stupid Piece of Shit” BoJack is deep into new conflicts, juggling his oft-estranged, verbally abusive mother, Beatrice, and his supposed daughter, Hollyhock, who are now living with him. The episode opens with a jarring inner monologue from a still-in-bed BoJack that has to be one of the most honest, stark portrayals of depression in media: “Piece of shit, stupid piece of shit. You’re a real stupid piece of shit”. The train of thought continues its downward spiral throughout the episode, as BoJack drinks through his insecurities and frustrations and slowly convinces himself that he’s the worst part of the lives of everyone he knows and that he’s completely undeserving of love. This episode continues building on the family backstory of the Horseman/Sugarman clan, as started in “The Old Sugarman Place”, casually dropping lines that appear benign only to rip your guts out on your second time through the season (seriously, there is hardly a wasted line from Beatrice, despite everything initially coming across as senile rambling).

Outside of BoJack’s inner monologuing, the episode’s story centers around BoJack avoiding his family, hurting his family, and then trying to overcome that guilt by righting the wrong he committed. It’s pretty straightforward sitcom structure, right down to a silly cameo by Felicity Huffman, and the B-plot centered around Princess Carolyn and Todd serves only to forgettably wrap up the Courtney Portnoy arc and nudge forward PC’s season-long story. However, again, what makes the episode shine, outside of a touching moment when kindly dope Mr. Peanbutter admits to his own shortcomings then earnestly announces to a downtrodden, drunk BoJack that despite BoJack’s failings “everybody deserves to be loved”, is the insight into what makes BoJack tick. By the end, BoJack resolves the problem du jour and, despite his own self-doubt, joins Hollyhock on the back deck as she tosses lit matches into the pool (a la Sarah Lynn from previous seasons) and confesses to her own inner-voices of doubt and self-deprecation. She asks if the things she feels are only temporary and BoJack does his best to comfort her, owning up to his own failings, and even lying to her that what she’s feeling will pass. It’s dishonest, but it’s supportive, proving that BoJack, like any number of mentally ill, deeply depressed people, isn’t the enemy of the people in his life that he thinks he is, just like they aren’t the enemies of his life — he is, and will always be, his own worst enemy.

DAVID: It was a big year for Princess Carolyn — not in terms of her personal success, which came a whisker from ending the season in absolute catastrophe, but for giving Amy Sedaris some of the meatiest material she’s ever had to work with. And I don’t just mean the Courtney Portnoy tongue twisters, either, which increased in degree of difficulty until I lost sense of where Princess Carolyn’s mania ended and Sedaris’s personal gauntlet of sibilance and slant rhyme began. (“How would you enjoy joining Portnoy for a scorched soy porterhouse pork four-courser at Koi? Glorify your source, but don’t make it feel forced, of course. And try the borscht!”)

Puns aside, Episode 9, “Ruthie,” was remarkable in how it played with television convention to deliver one of BoJack’s patented killing blows. Right away, we’re teased with the idea of a Hollywoo future where a young, familiar-looking pink cat is telling her class the story of how her great-great-grandmother turned her worst day into a victory. It then proceeds to take Princess Carolyn to places even “prestige” television has rarely gone: she suffers a miscarriage, and we learn it’s simply the latest of many; she fires Judah, for reasons even she doesn’t fully understand; she breaks things off with Ralph, heartbreakingly, because while she can deal with his cat-hating family, she can’t grapple with his false idea that everything is somehow “so easy” for her — the idea that Princess Carolyn can have it all, a high-powered job and a reputation and a family, seems as distant as it has ever been. Ralph doesn’t understand that, and she no longer has the will to help him try.

Through it all, we’re assured by the presence of our fresh-faced narrator that there’s a happy ending coming, that things will work out — but when the hammer finally falls, and we realize “Ruthie” is simply PC’s own construct to help herself cope, and the show cuts to black, I could only stare at the screen, as immobilized by grief over this cynical fictional character as her own repeated traumas have made her. But thankfully, in life as in television, there is still hope.

NATHAN: It’s the practice of BoJack Horseman, as a series, to leave the most damaging emotional gut-punch for the penultimate episode each season, and their S1E11 “Downer Ending” still stands as one of the most powerful pieces of animated storytelling that I’ve ever seen, as well as something that’s certain to bring tears to my eyes even after two dozen or so viewings of it. Keeping with tradition, S4E11 “Time’s Arrow” finishes out the Horseman family history storylines brought about in “The Old Sugarman Place” and brings Beatrice Horseman, BoJack’s abusive, cruel, unkind mother into a sympathetic, utterly heartbreaking light, as we take a journey across her past, viewed through the foggy, scratched lens of her dementia-addled mind.

It’s a sure sign of quality storytelling to bring depth to, and create compassion for, once-hated or antagonistic characters. BoJack Horseman is no stranger to this, and there are a healthy handful of characters that began as rivals or heels that eventually were revealed to be just as deep, complicated and worthy of our love as the titular Horseman himself. However, no one has been as Cersei Lannister-grade one-note in her cruelty as Beatrice Horseman, who spends all her screen time up until Season Four berating her son and/or husband for ruining her life. “Time’s Arrow” puts context to that misery, fleshing out Beatrice as a child bullied by her peers, a daughter neglected by her lobotomized mother and aloof father, a bright young woman victimized by the times, and a young bride with an unwanted pregnancy that forced her into a deeply unhappy marriage. Beatrice lives a life of expectations, of unrequited ideals, of tragedy, of confinement, and, ultimately, of crushing disappointment.

Without spoiling anything, the big reveal of this episode, which makes full, heart-rending use of the brilliant (yeah, I went back to that) narrative devices of Beatrice’s dementia, and manages to redeem Beatrice as well as ever could be expected, will leave you ugly-crying and wanting to call any family you’ve drifted away from over the years. It’s as powerful as anything BoJack Horseman has delivered to its viewers, as utterly (I’m going to do it again) brilliant in its narrative structure as it is in its emotional potency.

DAVID: We have to end, of course, with The Smile, the product of four hard seasons of character development and a shining beacon of hope (there it is again) in the darkness. Evidence that redemption is possible, and though BoJack may still have a long road to trot, his relationship with Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack — not his daughter, but his half-sister — may finally be the thing that shows him how to live beyond himself. But it’s not just about BoJack getting beyond his own selfishness, as one desperate mission to tell Hollyhock the truth about her parentage doesn’t mean Horseman is immediately a good Horse-Man. It’s a window into where those attitudes originated, generations deep, as the fourth season slowly reveals: his entire life, BoJack has never felt like he was enough. His damaged relationships with family and friends alike are a self-fulfilling prophecy; of course BoJack will always screw things up, so inevitably, he screws things up. “It’s hard to need people,” moans Princess Carolyn earlier in “What Time Is It Right Now.” But it’s just as hard to be needed, and to believe that you will always let them down yourself.

Until Hollyhock that is, who breaks the cycle with six simple words: “…But I’ve never had a brother.” And suddenly BoJack has an opportunity to start fresh in a new role, one he’s never played before and has never had an opportunity to fail at, with a person who already knows how flawed he is and is happy to have him anyway because that’s what siblings do. It feels better to give, and have the opportunity to give again. It’s so beautiful one could cry. And I did.

NATHAN: That smile is now the background on my iPhone, and it warms my heart every time I look at it. Here’s to a season of wonderful, ugly crying, and to a confirmed fifth season!

Odds and Ends:

  • We didn’t talk much at all about Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane, partially because those arcs — at least up until the heartbreaking finale — didn’t rise far beyond “subplot filler” status. But there were some amazing moments in Mr. P’s campaign, summed up succinctly by Tom Jumbo-Grumbo: “Of course, there are reasons why a gubernatorial election shouldn’t be decided by a ski race, but are there also reasons why it should?”
  • Tons of amazing guest stars this year: the stentorian Andre Braugher, playing his no-nonsense Brooklyn Nine-Nine character Captain Holt as a woodchuck, had us seizing with laughter. Lin-Manuel Miranda as Crackerjack, with Miranda also writing the original song featured in “The Old Sugarman Place.” Jessica “Biel With It!” Biel. Harvey “Let’s put a baby in you” Fierstein. And, of course, “This D’Onofrio has had Enough-rio!”
  • The Sugarman patriarch, played by Matthew Broderick, is a real piece of work: “As a modern American man, I am woefully unprepared to manage a woman’s emotions. I was never taught, and I will not learn.”
  • “And so the studio finished Mars Attacks without him, and since no one ever found a body, my client Tony Tromboni has been making movies under the name Tim Burton ever since!”
  • “I can’t believe this country hates women more than it loves guns.” The annual “issues” episode was a, ahem, shotgun blast of mixed results, but worth it for that kiss-off.
  • Sir Mix-a-Lot: “And if I’m famous for anything it’s that I cannot lie.” BoJack: “Yeah, I guess that would be the one thing.”
  • “Tony Sha-who? This is what-time-is-it-right-now-dot-com! Not what-time-was-it-15-years-ago-dot-geocities-dot-com-slash-monk-fan-page.”
  • “It’s the worst part of everything it’s in. It’s like the Jared Leto of fruits!”
  • And the crown jewel of Princess Carolyn Hollywoo Puns: “Kattan’s out? Right before his comeback? Right before the world is ready to settle for Kattan?!”

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