BoJack finally stops running from his demons in an uneven but mostly satisfying conclusion to TV’s best show about depression & addiction.
Redemption isn’t a one-step process. Beyond an acknowledgment of the hurt one has caused, and a (hopefully sincere) apology that is free of self-pity and defensiveness, we must also take steps to avoid causing that same hurt again. There are patterns to be recognized, and changes to be made so that we don’t keep falling into those patterns again, willingly or otherwise. A subdued series finale of BoJack Horseman illustrates how happiness can be achieved in making the conscious decision to rid ourselves of our most destructive patterns — and what happens when we don’t.
Almost all of the characters seem to be initially lapsing back into old, destructive habits — Diane is still going on self-righteous rants, Mr. Peanutbutter is dumber than ever, Princess Carolyn is a mean-spirited workaholic. BoJack (Will Arnett), though, he’s doing okay, living far away from Hollywoo and working as, of all things, an acting professor at Wesleyan. On the one hand, his half-sister, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), whom BoJack is desperate to be close to, is weirded out by his invading her territory and distances herself from him. On the other, he turns out to be a mostly knowledgeable and engaging teacher, bonding with his students after a bumpy start and a handful of misunderstandings over accents and natural talent.
BoJack enjoys his quiet little life, even if it’s kind of boring and he’s earning a fraction of what he made as a TV star. He’s safe there, and he’s close to feeling as much like his real self as he’s ever felt. As the saying goes, however, man plans, and God laughs. Peace of mind is short-lived, when BoJack learns that tabloid reporters Paige Sinclair (Paget Brewster) and Maximilian Banks (Max Greenfield) are on a quest to dig up some serious, possibly life-destroying dirt on him. BoJack initially believes it has to do with the season two incident with Penny in New Mexico, but it’s really about his role in Sarah Lynn’s overdose death.
After an initial panic attack, and some, as Todd (Aaron Paul) refers to it, “old BoJack” anger and defensiveness, BoJack decides that it’s time to come clean and admit his wrongdoing, if for nothing else so that he doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder and waiting for the hammer to drop. A resigned, remorseful BoJack lands surprisingly well with the public, but then, in what might be the root issue of all his problems, he can’t leave well enough alone and not make it about him. BoJack insists on doing a follow-up interview so that he can stay “part of the conversation,” to disastrous results.
Meanwhile, as BoJack slips back into old, negative behaviors, Diane (Allison Brie) is finally starting to recognize how much of her unhappiness is needlessly sustained. On antidepressants that prevent her from focusing on the trauma she’s experienced in her life, she’s unable to write the essay collection she’s wanted to publish for so long. She instead directs some of her creative energy towards writing a teen mystery novel (Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective, which honestly sounds like a fantastic premise), managing to produce some writing for the first time in months. Both World’s Greatest Boyfriend Guy (Lakeith Stanfield) and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) think she has a hit on her hands, but, naturally, self-serious, humorless Diane doesn’t think it’s worthy of her true talent, and goes off her meds.
Just when you want to shake Diane, the most complicated, sympathetic yet impossible characters on BoJack Horseman, she explains that if she never gets to write that essay collection, all her damage “will just be damage,” and there will have been no point to it except to suffer. The idea that there has to be a reason, or, even better, a payoff for all the hurt and injustices we endure in our lives, is one of the most difficult things that someone who struggles with depression must let go, in order to recover. Diane isn’t fully there yet, but she sees the value of it, and the value of taking whatever small victories we can get in this life (like writing a book, any kind of book, even if it’s not the one we think we’re “supposed” to be writing). She also begins to accept that life with Guy can be simple and full of love, if only she allows it to be, and believes that she deserves it (and yes, she goes back on her meds).
One of BoJack Horseman’s greatest strengths is that there’s no guarantee of a cure for whatever ails us, whether it’s through medication or 12 step programs. All we can do is try and hope for the best, and the sooner we can forget any idea of the cosmic scales balancing to right the wrongs we’ve experienced, the better off we are. Those of us who had rotten childhoods and/or abusive parents, or just seemed to be born unhappy, we’ll likely never get an explanation for why we got such a raw deal. After a certain point, it doesn’t matter. All we can do is turn ourselves down the path we need for happiness and recovery, and keep walking without looking back.
Regrettably, we’re also still working on the storyline where Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul S. Tompkins) is trying to make up his infidelity to fiancee Pickles (Hong Chau) by encouraging her to sleep with other people, this time the Justin Bieber-esque Joey Pogo (Hilary Swank). It was a labored subplot when it was stretched into a second episode earlier in the season, and here, particularly when it’s wrapped up exactly the way you think it’ll be, it’s a jarring tonal shift to BoJack coming to terms with his part in the death of Sheryl Lynn. Granted, jarring tonal shifts are the cornerstone of BoJack Horseman, but having most of the humor rely on a love triangle between three dingbats, plus some wan parody of college culture and rude teenage retail workers makes it feel almost pointless, as if the writing staff forgot to add some sugar with the bitter and threw it in at the last minute.
A resigned, remorseful BoJack lands surprisingly well with the public, but then, in what might be the root issue of all his problems, he can’t leave well enough alone and not make it about him.
The second half of the season also sends a somewhat muddled message when BoJack is eventually “canceled” (though, interestingly, the word “canceled” is never used, nor is #metoo). Presented as a sort of “in a just world” take on cancellation, he loses his job at Wesleyan, his house, most of his money, and almost all of his friends (even sweet, guileless Todd), and is treated like a pariah wherever he goes. He’s even forced to take a deal in which his character in Horsin’ Around is digitally removed from every episode (“Each episode will be around eight minutes long, perfect for today’s ADD-addled youth”).
We know, of course, that that’s not really how “canceling” someone who’s done wrong works. Oh, they go away for a little while, but always maintain a robust base of fans and colleagues who demand that they be allowed to return to their old lives, because they’ve said sorry, and haven’t they suffered enough? This is how we end up with disgraced stand-up comedians laying low for a few months at best before doing secret shows, where their standing ovations from the audience are dutifully reported in the news, because no matter how “canceled” someone supposedly is, we keep talking about them.
The fact that the architects of BoJack’s destruction are mostly women, whether reporters or the executive producer of Horsin’ Around, also sends a somewhat mixed message. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg clearly understands that some of BoJack Horseman’s fans, similar to fans of Rick & Morty, come away from the show with the wrong message, that BoJack’s give no shit about anyone but himself attitude is cool and aspirational. Surely there’s a significant overlap of those fans with men who believe that the concept of “cancel culture” is an insidious plan by feminists who want to make men suffer for the mere act of smiling at them or telling them they look pretty today. To play a bit into that misconception is a puzzling choice, even if it’s balanced out by BoJack getting a taste of what he could turn into if he stays bitter and defensive after he spends time with fellow canceled actor Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale).
Nevertheless, despite some ups and downs, BoJack Horseman ends on a cautiously hopeful note, while maintaining its core messages: dwelling on the past does no good, sometimes “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, and while happiness itself isn’t a choice, taking the first step on the road pointing towards it is. Realistically leaving some plot threads unresolved (because real life isn’t that neat either), it closes with some of the characters in much better places than they were when the show started, and others…well, not quite, but at least understanding the value of trying. If staying clean and holding himself together sticks for BoJack this time, it’s because his closest friends are no longer there to agree with him that life is terrible and unfair, and that trying to be happy is a mug’s game.
Will it stick? Who can really say? It depends on how much pain BoJack is willing to accept is his own doing, and how much of it just comes part and parcel with being a body in this world. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” he tells Diane, in a closing conversation, to which she responds “Sometimes life’s a bitch, and then you keep living.” It’s hard, and the road is long, and we get no prizes for trying, except, perhaps, a new day, and a new chance.
The final season of BoJack Horseman premieres on Netflix January 31st.