The third series of Bojack Horseman is undeniably brilliant. For a show that already has a reputation for being difficult, its latest season takes this to the extreme. It is deliberately polarising, difficult and uncomfortable television. There’s a lot to like about these twelve episodes: I welcome Princess Caroline in more prominent a role; there’s a more microscopic focus on the existing relationships, predominantly PC and Bojack but also Diane and Bojack, which changes the dynamic; it’s more experimental in its art style; it’s even more experimental in its sound design with one touching, completely silent episode.
But I’m not going to write a long form review of this season today. Instead I want to talk about how this new batch of episodes continues an hypothesis I have previously discussed on this blog – episode eleven of each season is an emotional crescendo of each contained narrative arc. Therefore, after the break in the page I aim to look in depth into the third “eleventh episode” and the main gut-punch offered in the new episodes. (In case it wasn’t clear, massive spoilers to follow)
“That’s Too Much, Man!” (S3e11)
I went into Season 3 refusing to believe that the show could get any darker. Despite what Will Arnett and Aaron Paul said in the pre-release hype, I honestly thought it would never be able to eclipse “Escape From LA”. Where do you go after you utterly damn a character? And indeed, the early episodes are relatively tame. You get the impression that after the explosive events of Season 2 the narrative needs time to decompress. But by the end of the season Bojack’s life is imploding yet again. So the answer to that rhetorical question: how can you further damn a character you already condemned? You have him kill someone.
That’s perhaps a slightly reductive statement but it’s true. This episode is about many things. It’s an exploration of the sheer amount of cognitive dissonance Bojack holds about his own behaviours: he knows what he has done, particularly in relation to Penny, is disgraceful but he still allows his ego to bring those around him crashing down. But it goes further than this, as I’d argue this episode is not entirely about Bojack. Structurally it combines the drug bender of “Downer Ending” with the uncomfortable exploitation of trust shown in “Escape From LA” to give a voice to those victims of Bojack. This is an exploration of the characters who were left drowning in his wake.
Because that’s what Bojack is to the people around him. As his PR articulates, he’s the thrashing body of a drowning person who drags the lifeguard down with him. This is such a wonderful metaphor for exactly who Bojack is – it’s never just himself he hurts, but also those who explicitly try to help him. This episode follows the titular horse and Sarah-Lynn, his child on his popular 1980s TV show, as they go on a drug fuelled bender and try to make amends with all of the people Bojack has hurt: he goes to see his publicist, who tells him he’s drowning; he goes to see Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane but never actually apologises; he finds Todd but ends up alienating him further; he goes to see Princess Caroline apologising outside her apartment, John Cusack in Say Anything style, but she silently walks away. Bojack has finally succeeded in pushing every single person around him away. He blacks out on the drugs and discovers that he has gone to visit Penny.
There’s a really interesting dynamic between Penny and Sarah-Lynn within this episode. They were both vulnerable female children who looked to Bojack as a pseudo father-figure at difficult times in their lives, and he manipulated this trust for sexual or professional gain. The juxtaposition is made literal within the narrative framework of the episodes through the blackouts – his real time drunken visit to Penny is intercut to a flashback in 2007, revealing that Bojack sent Sarah-Lynn into a lonely hedonistic spiral. Bojack claims he’s going to see Penny to ensure that he didn’t damage this impressionable girl for life, but I personally don’t buy this excuse. I think he goes to visit this girl so he can see first hand her horrified reaction to him; he knows he’s abused her and he goes to see whether his abuse lingered, whether she still thinks about him. The scene with Penny seeing Bojack is so perfectly realised as an example of your past abuse catching up with you – it’s evocative of a panic attack in a crowded place – and despite Bojack’s reaction I don’t think he’s necessarily that unhappy with how it all goes down. He’s now so lonely that even this lingering, painful reaction to him is better than no reaction at all. His abuse stems from a need that those around him feel something, good or bad, about him at all times.
After this Sarah-Lynn and Bojack drive away. She find’s the “Bojack” brand heroin from earlier in the season; the seeds laid very early on with the “Bojack Kills” tagline. The audience knows right away where this is going to go. – they have been shown the impact on one abused teen, the implication is there that we’re about to see another. But then Bojack Horseman does that thing it does so often and gives you just the smallest smidgen of hope. Spurred on by the incident with Penny, Bojack finally realises just how awful an impact he has had in Sarah-Lynn’s life. For the first time he detaches himself from his own ego, and attempts to focus on her. The episode ends with the two sitting in a planetarium, both as high as a kite. At this point Bojack finally has an epiphany (pictured in the gif above). In a moment of existential nihilism he realises that nothing he will ever do or amount do will ever have any real impact on the universe; failing to win an Oscar in a fake Hollywoo society doesn’t matter, it isn’t real. What’s real is the relationships we form in this life. For the first time Bojack seems to earnestly come to terms with the emptiness in just chasing fame and glory; the beauty of Horsin’ Around wasn’t his star persona but rather the relationship he formed with his fellow actors and audiences alike. What’s more this revelation seems to work in repairing the relationship between the two actors as Sarah-Lynn reveals that her whole life she wanted to be an architect, rather than be famous (a throwback to S1e3). Yet again the audience believes that perhaps Bojack has changed, that he might be able to get better. But it’s too late, Sarah-Lynn dies of an overdose at the end of the scene.
I honestly think this is the darkest place Bojack Horseman has ever gone to, as it finally forces the title character to explicitly face the consequence of his abuse. Through the character of Penny in this episode, Bojack’s role as the “abuser” is reinforced through the implied self-worth he gains from her suffering. But there’s nothing to be gained from Sarah-Lynn’s death at the end of the piece. Throughout the episode, Bojack faces up to the fact that he is a destructive force in the lives of those around him and attempts to make amends. But it’s too late. His on-screen daughter dies next to him, and by this point Bojack is finally explicitly aware that this is entirely his fault.
“That’s Too Much, Man!” is a remarkable half hour of television. It’s is a damning and heartbreaking insight into abusive behaviours from the point of view of the abuser. It never defends these behaviours, whilst at the same time gives insight into the lonely narcissism that causes them to perpetuate. One of the main questions Bojack Horseman repeatedly asks is whether it’s possible to change the person you are or whether it’s too late. This episode pushes the remit being explored further: what if it’s not only too late to fix yourself, but also to make amends for the colossal amount of damage you have done in this life?