You know, when we first met, I was looking for something in my life. And I wanted it so badly that I made myself believe you were it. But I think that wanting to believe something isn’t the same as something being real. And this isn’t real.
This line is spoken by a pink anthropomorphic cat as a means of breaking up with her boyfriend – who is clearly just three children stacked on top of each other under a trench coat. Cartoon or not, Bojack Horseman pulls no punches when it comes to emotional heft.
The series follows the titular Bojack Horseman, a washed up actor who made a name for himself on a broad, lowest-common denominator sitcom in the 1980s. But the cartoon itself imbues none of those qualities; instead the material is niche, obtuse and deliberately alienating. It is a funny show, but the overall aim isn’t to make the audience laugh. Instead, Bojack Horseman uses its characters as an intimate portrait of those struggling with their mental health. In a weird way, a cartoon that predominately follows a horse is one of the most human shows on TV. Those who are familiar with the show will know that often times it hurts to watch. There are no happy endings or easy resolutions; the narrative tensions are never sugar-coated, but rather full gut-punches that leave you reeling. Bojack Horseman is a made for those who recognise their own behaviours in these deeply flawed characters. It’s a mirror that allows the viewer insight into their own lives.
It’s because these characters are flawed that makes the show so refreshing. Take Bojack himself as an example – whilst it’s never explicitly stated, the show implies that he is suffering from a form of depression or anxiety. That’s not Bojack’s central flaw though, his flaw is ability to recognise these feelings but never take a step in the direction of help. Bojack Horseman is unable to reconcile the person he is, with the persona that has been created for him. Thus was follows in the show are the consequences of such a disconnect: loneliness; mood-swings; alcoholism; hedonism; self-sabotage. These behaviours are perhaps hard for an individual to recognise in themselves, but easy to recognise in a cartoon horse. This is why Bojack Horseman is so painful – the audience is positioned in such a way to recognise this behaviour as harmful, yet as Bojack pushes himself further to the point of collapse it’s incredibly easy to recognise some of yourself in him.
In preparation for the impending third season, I recently watched the entirety of the series again. Whilst I maintain the whole thing is a constant series of gut-punches, both season one and two have an episode where the emotional narrative reaches an apex. What surprised me however is in my re-watch, these apexes weren’t necessarily where I remembered. Therefore rather than discuss the series generally as a whole piece of work, I want to look at these two episodes in a bit more detail and discuss what exactly makes them work, and why they are so impactful.
Downer Ending (S1E11)
The general conceit of Season 1 of Bojack Horseman is that our titular protaganist promised Penguin Publishing a book, and they hire a ghost writer – Diane Nguyen – to write it. In “Downer Ending”, Bojack finally reads the completed manuscript and is horrified by the flawed portrait it paints of him. Thus he decides to rewrite the entire book in a single night on a hedonistic, Hunter S. Thompson style drug trip. But where Hunter S. Thompson aimed to get to the heart of the American Dream, Bojack’s trip is a savage exploration of his own psyche.
When I came up with the idea of writing about the biggest “oh shit” moment of each series, I honestly thought I would write about the episode where Bojack’s dying friend refuses to forgive his past misdeeds. But in re-watching the series as a whole I realised just how painful the psychedelic experience is within this episode.
The cocktail of study drugs, hallucinogenics and tequila finally forces Bojack to face who he really is, rather than the persona he constructs for himself. Immediately he experiences temporal compression, as he becomes increasingly detached from the reality of writing a novel. As Bojack starts to black out, his unconscious increasingly moves towards the idea of moving to Maine. What follows is a frantic sequence, full of paranoia and violence, where Bojack finally fully disassociates from himself. This is reflected by the the changing animation style; this includes the loss of outlines as characters begin to blur into the background, David Lynch-ian body horror, a peanuts parody etc.
Eventually Bojack “comes to” having woken up from the nightmare of Hollywood in his perfect life in Maine. He’s married to Charlotte, his pre-fame girlfriend who fled from the vapidity of LA life for something simpler in New England. She had asked Bojack to move with her at the time, but he turned it down. But in his hallucination, Bojack says yes. He chose the life he actually wanted, and lives with the love of his life in a rural cabin by the lack. The sequence follows the pair through the trials of life: getting pregnant, raising a daughter, watching her age, and eventually growing up together. In this world, Bojack was the perfect husband and father. His life actually had substance. But the drug trip ends with a simple exchange as Bojack asks what his wife is thinking about. Charlotte replies:
Oh, just how nice things could have been if you had chosen this life
This line stings. For the first time, Bojack explicitly confronts what he knows subconsciously – that he alone is responsible for the situation he is in. He chose a vapid, lonely existence. He chose to believe in an inflated, artificial image of himself rather than walk down a path that lead to happiness and substance. In the introduction to this article, I talked about how Bojack Horseman holds up a mirror to the audiences own anxieties and struggles with mental illness. It is human nature to reflect on the decisions that we made in our past; when you reach a fork in the road, what did the path we didn’t choose hold for us? With this episode, Bojack Horseman presents not only this anxious self-reflection but also the ultimate realisation that we started walking down the wrong path at some point in our past.
But “Downer Ending” doesn’t end there. No that would be too neat a resolution for this show. Finally realising that Diane’s book is captures the truth, Bojack goes to find validation that he’s not just “broken” (scene pictured above). In a brilliant monologue, Will Arnetts voice breaks as Bojack begs his ghost writer to find a shred of goodness underneath all the mistakes and personality flaws. Diane remains silent. It is another facet of human nature to believe that intrinsically we are good people. We can recognise our poor behaviours and traits, yet almost every single person believes they possess some redeemable quality deep down. Here Bojack is forced to confront the harsh reality that he doesn’t.
If we are to accept my theory that Bojack as a character is a vehicle to explore the audiences own anxieties, then “Downer Ending” certainly stands out as one of the most elongated “gut-punches” of the entire series. As an episode it perfectly captures that 3am sort of anxiety where you lie in bed and wonder if you had acted differently in the past could your entire situation have been avoided? Was the way to the better life there the whole time, but we just chose to ignore it? But more than that, “Downer Ending” captures the paranoia of feeling that you are irreparably broken better than any other TV episode I can think of. If Bojack is actually a mirror that allows the audience to recognise their own anxiety or negative behaviours, what does it say about said audience when Bojack ends the episode scared that he’s nothing but an empty husk?
[part 2 of this article, “Escape From LA” will be uploaded tomorrow]