Back in the mid-2010s, Bojack Horseman was a groundbreaking TV show.
We all know the story. Former sitcom superstar Bojack Horseman, subsumed in neuroses, must learn to become a person while navigating the treacherous, dehumanizing waters of the entertainment industry, with a little help from his friends. But nobody could've predicted in 2014 (to be fair, the show's first season was also its weakest) the impact Bojack Horseman would make, proving better than South Park or almost anything Adult Swim was putting out that cartoons could be for adults and paint powerful portraits of the human condition.
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This cartoon, about a talking alcoholic horse, confronted the realities of depression, trauma, addiction, abuse, and loneliness in ways more real than most live action shows dared. It was also deeply philosophical without trying that hard to be—sure, Westworld was fooling around with Descartes, but Bojack was mixing it up with Sartre and Schopenhauer.
Somewhere along the way, the show settled into a dependable formula—Hollywood metacommentary, trope lampshading, crippling depression, fun tonal shifts via Todd Chavez side story—but it was always done well, and the show always, always led us to believe our struggling hero would come to some sort of existential finish line.
And for six seasons, we gobbled this up, watching the living wreckage that was Bojack Horseman cycle through the same narrative beats each season in almost all of his damn arcs: do terrible things, feel extreme shame, attempt to change for the better, and then come out of the whole thing somehow changed but somehow still the same. Sisyphus pushes the boulder up the hill, the boulder goes back down, Sisyphus tries again.
It looked like the show was ready to bring its hopelessness histrionics to its most logical narrative conclusion in season 6, released in two parts (which I see really as two acts). In the first installment of season 6, Bojack battled alcoholism and drug addiction in rehab and—despite a towering compost heap of blunders that include relapsing a fellow alcoholic back into addiction—got sober, and became an acting professor at a respected university. This was the part where we were all like, Look how far he's come! Leagues away from the tar pit toxicity of Hollywood, Bojack stood a chance to be a happier, better person. This was uncharted territory for the character, a build-up that absolutely needed every other season preceding to be even possible.
At the same time, this was supposed to be the season of Bojack's ultimate comeuppance. Six seasons worth of misgivings, resentment from his victims, and the consequences of poisonous behavior were going to bite him in the back in one last grand way. The true test of his character would lie in how he'd respond to that kind of adversity.
In the second half of season 6, Bojack... relapsed. The show or the character, you might be asking. Kind of both.
The climax of the season 6 was "The View From Halfway Down." In this episode, Bojack relapses into a bender—seemingly triggered by the contents of Hollyhock's letter—that causes him to nearly drown in a swimming pool. This brush with death sends him into a dream slash vision in which he shares a room with people who have died, before being forced to spectate a variety show in which they dive into oblivion in their own ways. We'll never know what Hollyhock's letter said, but like the suitcase from Pulp Fiction, that doesn't really matter. Here we were in that tested narrative beat, watching our hero struggle once again to learn a lesson he should've learned after all his trials. It was supposed to be this season's "Free Churro" I guess, or that other vision he has of having a family with Charlotte Carson—a clear demonstration of turmoil that sets our character up for more growth.
And in the next and last episode, "Nice While It Lasted," he goes to prison. He gets out for a day to attend a wedding. He's back at the bottom, hated and sad and unchanged.
For six seasons, we bore witness to a protagonist whose whole journey's point was to unshackle himself from the darkness of his inner world by confronting the destructive consequences of his actions. In making its hero go through one more round of self-foiling and punishment, just for him to end up at his lowest low, it feels as though the show undid everything it built.
I know there are going to be people who'll say that Bojack Horseman's ending was perfect. I get it. I mean, everybody else in the crew got to their own satisfying finish lines: Diane and Princess Carolyn got married, Mr. Peanutbutter found peace in singlehood, Todd closed a vague distance between him and his family. There is also something quite right about the show—which has settled into the comfortable storytelling routine of finding hope only to relapse in despair, that tired song and dance—ending on the blue note of loneliness. It just felt anticlimactic that when we finally leave our hero, it's in a moment where he sits in the recognition that his old flames are married. Like, that's it? At the end of this Goldberg machine of extreme emotional stress, I expected (maybe childishly) some kind of transcendence, not a dull ache.
In the last episode's final scene, Bojack shares a conversation with Diane that sounds like so many conversations they've had before. It's just Bojack saying sorry for being terrible, Diane trying to be a friend, and both of them wistfully looking into an indifferent night sky. Diane has a ring around her finger that ties her to commitments more meaningful than watching a friend go down the same spiral so many times, and Bojack is still alive and unhappy. It's Sisyphus watching the boulder roll back down.
I don't know if its a stroke of genius that we as an audience spectated a Sisyphean show, marvelling at such pained exertions, or if I should feel cheated, watching the boulder roll back down, when I was led to believe that this time it would be different. Maybe it's both. So much of living is just taking the good with the bad.
Photographs from Netflix