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31 January 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 6:12am

The ending to BoJack Horseman isn’t perfect. But isn’t that what it’s about?

BoJack Horseman showed us an unrivalled depiction of what it means to be flawed and its final episodes were no different. 

By Sarah Manavis

“I am not emotionally secure enough for my favourite depressed horse,” one of my friends sent to our group chat on 8 September 2017. The release that day of BoJack Horseman’s Season 4 had us all preparing for the onslaught of raw depression thanks to a cartoon about a washed-up TV star who happened to be a horse. Around this time, BoJack Horseman became regularly acknowledged as the “depressed horse show” for its bizarre ability to portray the realities of extreme mental health issues through high-functioning humans, horses, and other anthropomorphised animals. And despite its talent for making almost every single viewer feel deep, existential sadness, nobody could wait to masochistically inhale it.

BoJack Horseman premiered on Netflix in August 2014 to a lukewarm reception. Most critics marked it as merely okay, some as being “more clever than it is funny”, and few said it had the legs to become enormous, handling gritty subjects through a surprising, surreal medium. When its second season premiered a year later, it received universally glowing reviews. It received a 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Vox called it one of television’s best shows. It had guest appearances in its second season from Paul McCartney, Ali Wong, Ricky Gervais, Angela Bassett, Ilana Glazer, Lisa Kudrow, Daniel Radcliffe, Stephen Colbert, Amy Schumer, Stanley Tucci, Henry Winkler and countless others alongside its already star-studded cast of Will Arnett (BoJack), Aaron Paul (Todd), Alison Brie (Diane), and Amy Sedaris (Princess Carolyn). Suddenly this Hollywood-skewering, substance abuse-laden show was a bizarre hit. By the start of its third season, it had become a mainstream hit.

BoJack is the story of its titular lead, the ex-star of Nineties sitcom Horsin’ Around who was a womanizer, wanted to write a memoir and had a drinking problem. Through BoJack’s life and the lives of his friends, enemies and colleagues, the show created painful, unbelievably real scenes of depression, showed nuance in public debates about guns and abortion, satirised celebrity culture and the media around it, while also containing some pretty funny jokes. It had superb comic relief via Aaron Paul’s character Todd and Paul F Tompkins’ Mr Peanut Butter, who were a necessary foil to the unrelentingly heavy A-plot of drugs, death, and depression. The acting was superb but the writing was even better, and the character’s complex struggles with their own humanity felt, for a bunch of animals, agonisingly human.

What made BoJack really special was its capacity to depict archetypes viewers have seen a million times before as flawed, empathetic, and honest. In her essay “O Mother, where art thou?”, Julia Blunck honed in on one place it particularly flexed this muscle, in its portrayal of motherhood, through BoJack’s mother, Beatrice (a hilariously cruel Lucille Bluth-type parent), and tangentially through Princess Carolyn, BoJack’s agent and ex-girlfriend (who is also a cat).

“Beatrice and the viewer watch as motherhood — that large, terrifying thing — condemns her own mother to uncontrollable grief at first, and then to be removed of all emotion via a lobotomy. In her life, motherhood ends with being hollowed out and inhuman,” Blunck writes. “Beatrice learns that her role as a mother is just as much of a prison as her life with her father, and her son becomes in her mind an unaware jailer. It’s terrible and unfair of her; it’s also understandable and intimate, and just as we know BoIack can do bad things and have reasons for it, we can also do that for Beatrice… Both BoJack and the viewer realize that Beatrice is neither an all-loving symbol nor a monster. She’s simply a person.”

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BoJack had its flaws, especially in the lack of diversity among its cast. One of the most prominent critiques revolves around the casting of a white woman, Alison Brie, as a Vietnamese character, Diane Nguyen. Both the creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Brie herself have addressed this problem, with Bob-Waksberg describing its all-white main cast as the show’s “original sin”.  “The fact that I’m still making this show with mostly white people in every episode fills me with tremendous guilt,” he said, “I say this not to just flagellate myself or to show off what a great guy I am, but because I want to put this on the record and to hold myself up to this when I go about making other shows. Also so that other white people making shows can see that this has been something that I have wrestled with, [instead of] looking at my show and saying, ‘Oh well, he did it and it’s OK, so maybe it’s not that big a deal.’”

As for the last episodes of the show, which dropped today, Season 6 picks up where it left-off: BoJack teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and finally finding stability from it, and trying to win back the love and friendship of the people around him. The season grapples with BoJack’s fuck-ups returning to haunt him, Diane’s path to self-acceptance and the rest of the cast trying to find happiness in their changing romantic, familial and financial circumstances. Most feel like standard BoJack episodes; a cocktail of sadness, nihilism, and gags.

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The stand-out episode of the final half is the penultimate “The View From Halfway Down” – a distorted dream in which BoJack has a dinner party with the significant people in his life who have died, an episode that isn’t just the best of the series but among the best of the show. The main action happens during a post-dinner variety show in which each deceased character puts on one final act for the other guests on a tiny stage, before drifting through a black door to death. The climax of the episode is a reading of the titular poem “The View From Halfway Down” written and delivered by one of the characters Bojack has played, Secretariat, the first half of which is a jubilant homage to his suicide by jumping from a bridge:

“…A little wind, a summer’s sun

A river rich and regal

A flood of fond endorphins springs

A calm that knows no equal.”

But with the poem’s turn (“You’re flying now / You see things much more clear than from the ground / It’s all okay / It would be / Were you not now halfway down”), amid whoops and cheers from the crowd, Secretariat suddenly becomes panicked in a way that’s so real you feel yourself sweat. “I changed my mind, I changed my mind!” he shouts as he eventually, terrified, accepts there’s no way out. It ends:

“But this is it

The deed is done

Silence drowns the sound

Before I leaped

I should have seen

The view from halfway down.

I really should have thought about

The view from halfway down

I wish I could have known about

The view from halfway down.”

Until the final episodes of BoJack, this one in particular, I would have said BoJack was about life’s main demons. It confronted depression, abuse, self-acceptance and forgiveness, doing so authentically and gracefully while still managing to make us laugh. But the last episodes show us that all of this, all of these plagues, are bound together by one thing: we are scared of death and desperately scrambling to do something to evade it; BoJack is about dying. In the final episodes of BoJack, we see characters find peace, or not find peace; they do what they can to forget death exists and reckon with the fact that every glitzy achievement they’ve accomplished in life will not help them escape their inevitable fate. Rather than merely show us these unglossy realities of being human, the final episodes of BoJack show us that this is what happens to our souls when we can’t face our own mortality.

Despite this existential realisation, the way BoJack is brought to a close is in some ways disappointing. In the final season, BoJack gets embroiled in a MeToo-esque story, with his treatment of women, bender with Sarah Lynn and countless other transgressions catching up to him. The writers have spent slightly too much time trying to tie things up nicely for their characters, having BoJack pay for his mistakes and face the people he hurt, and not enough time on what made the show great: characters grappling with their existential problems punctuated by humour. A messier ending could have brought for a more fulfilling show as a whole, rather than the slightly moralistic one we get.

That said, a weak ending can’t take away what BoJack really gave us. BoJack was a show that, somehow, through the medium of anthropomorphic horny cartoon animals, made people face themselves. And no bad ending can take away that it made people, ultimately, feel like they were understood.