Part one of this article can be found here
Escape From LA (S2e11)
If “Downer Ending” was Bojack realising that he could have chosen the perfect life, then “Escape From LA” is when he finally chooses it. Over the half hour long episode, Bojack finally finds his perfect life, filled with substance and people who actually care, but then loses it. Not to over-generalise but I’ve found that American television rarely attempts to pull off “car-crash TV” like the British shows I grew up with. Look at The Office and it’s American adaptation; the original is grimace inducing through the awkwardness, whilst the remake (still brilliant) is more sentimental and likeable. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to this episode of Bojack Horseman – it’s twenty six minutes of excruciating tension as the audience is forced to watch a character systematically burn the bridge to the life he always wanted deep down.
Prompted by Diane to stop chasing short term happiness, and instead actively seek out a sustainable long-term lifestyle, Bojack finally goes to visit Charlotte. But the person she actually is three decades later, is different from the image he constructed in his head. She doesn’t live in a cabin in rural Maine, she lives in Albuquerque. She hasn’t sat around longing for Bojack, as he has for her, she has a loving husband and two teenage children. She has a complete, wholesome life. Bojack travelled this way to make a romantic play, but he is forced to confront the fact that just because he’s spent three decades stagnating, those around him haven’t.
But Bojack doesn’t leave this space immediately. He stays for a couple of months, and despite his romantic intentions falling through he still finds himself loving a better life. Charlotte and her family love him, not in that vapid Hollywood way, but they genuinely care about him as a human being. He has a role within their social hierarchy. He even has offers of meaningful, fulfilling work! It’s not exactly what he wanted, but the audience is finally shown Bojack having attained everything he has been longing for in the previous twenty one episodes.
But Bojack fucks it. I tried to find a way of describing it without swearing but that’s exactly what he does. He destroys this beautiful lifestyle so completely, so vigorously, that it will be impossible for him to ever get it back. If “Downer Ending” was Bojack trying to find the seed of goodness inside him somewhere, then this episode is the moment that proves that it doesn’t exist. “Escape From LA” is the moment where Bojack Horseman takes the incredibly brave step to condemn it’s central characters and irreparably evil.
Credit must be given to this show for how, despite it’s focus on mental health, it never uses this to excuse Bojack for all of his actions. Sometimes his failings are nothing to do with mental illness, they stem from the fact he’s not a good person. Whilst living in Albuquerque, Bojack becomes very close with Charlotte’s daughter Penny – who looks dangerously similar to her mother. When she is unable to find her a date to prom he takes her, and gives her the night of her life. But the young Penny misreads the situation and asks her fifty year old friend to take her virginity, which Bojack rejects. For a brief moment there’s a slight glimmer of hope that Bojack has changed. He no longer abuses his relationship with someone naive for his own gain. For the slightest moment the audience believes that perhaps he has learnt to control his urge to self-sabotage and thus can enjoy a life he deserves at long last.
This glimmer of hope is short lived. It’s revealed that the date Bojack gives Penny is similar to his first date with Charlotte. The whole evening therefore has Penny acting as a surrogate for her own mother; this is Bojack giving himself the nights he should have had thirty years ago if he had made the right choice. Spurred on by these feeling, he tries to kiss Charlotte, to beg her to run away with him. To this she replies:
I don’t know you, and you don’t know me[…]I can’t have you round here anymore, you make me too sad
Thus ends Bojack’s happy life here. As the titular character leaves the scene, the focus remains on Charlotte for just a bit longer. Eventually she goes to find him, to perhaps clear the air a little bit, but she walks into Bojack and her young daughter in bed together. The audience is never actually shown Bojack’s actions or thought processes, but the implication is clear: unable to actually have the love of his life, he seeks cheap thrills in the surrogate he has created for himself. There is no excuse for Bojack this time, he doesn’t defend himself or monologue about his tortured loneliness. Even Bojack is fully aware he’s just exploiting a vulnerable girl for his own gain. He fucked up. Now the episode comes full circle, with Bojack having to escape from New Mexico back into the vapidity of LA. But not before one last parting line, delivered in such a way by Olivia Wilde to give you chills, from the love of his life:
If you ever try to contact me or my family again, I will fucking kill you.
There is literally a season between “Downer Ending” and “Escape From LA”; an entire eleven episodes between Bojack, and therefore the audience, realising what he wants and his eventual burning down of the bridge towards this goal. This is what makes “Escape From LA” a particularly painful, and possibly the darkest, episode of Bojack Horseman to date. The audience has been lead to believe over the course of several hours that a life with Charlotte is the happy ending that this show is working towards. It is the narrative drive that pushes the entire show forward – the “what if”. And for a brief period of time the audience is shown this life. It may not be what Bojack imagined whilst tripping, but it was everything he had ever wanted! It should have been enough for him; but it wasn’t. The episode is a slow excruciating burn as the audience watches a character drive his entire life off a dark, and potentially paedophilic, cliff.
As much as this episode is explicitly about utterly condemning Bojack, I still think that the character is a mirror through which the audiences lives are reflected. As such “Escape From La” reflects the self-sabotage that comes with anxiety. Yet again, the very genre of the show allows greater distance from the subject matter at hand and thus the audience is positioned in such an interesting way; they are a shown a character who has something beautiful, and are made to watch him destroy it. But more than that, the audience is distant enough to know exactly why Bojack acted the way he did – he did it because he was scared. He was scared that this perfect life would go wrong somewhere down the line, so he destroyed it himself to prevent the pain of it falling apart later. In a way, Bojack is so sure that this life is going to implode later, that he would rather be active in the downfall than passively watch it happen.
Is this not the toxic sort of behaviour Bojack Horseman exists to explore in it’s audience. As I said in the previous article, it can be very difficult to recognise when you sabotage something good in your life but it gets much easier when these actions are dramatised on screen through a cartoon horse. It’s a very niche topic to explore, but I’m sure much of the audience can relate to it; I mean can you honestly not think of a time where everything was going perfectly, but you acted erratically anyway? Where “Downer Ending” was about the audience facing up to the “what if” scenario of their happy ending, then “Escape From La” goes full circle by prompting the audience to reflect on how they would act if this hypothetical lifestyle came true.
This episode of Bojack Horseman is a particularly painful gut-punch because both Bojack and the audience finally have to face up to the painful fact that sometimes they’re to blame for the misery in their lives. It’s no longer a case that we made the wrong choice in our life (a la “Downer Ending”), instead perhaps the real question is even if we did get our happy ending wouldn’t we ruin it anyway?