IN SEASON FOUR, BOJACK HORSEMAN'S NIHILISM STARTS TO MAKE SENSE
*This article is intended for those who have seen the first four series of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman in their entirety. However, I hope that the following can be enjoyed by those who have not seen the show and have no current desire to watch it.
The following musings WILL contain some thematic spoilers, but should not detract from your overall viewing pleasure. The purpose of this piece is to delve deeper into how Bojack came to be the most self-deprecating manic horse on television, followed of course by Sarah Jessica Parker. The show boasts a star-studded cast and is beautifully written through a lens that begs the answer to the question, “What’s it all for?” Despite the show’s outward playfulness, replete with an array of whimsical animal characters, it stirs up the anxiety and insecurities of its viewers, highlighting the inner struggle we all deal with when choosing how to spend our brief stint on this rotating rock we call Earth.
When Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show’s creator, thrusts us into his imaginative world, we are given a finished product of Bojack, if you can call the eponymous stallion that. Sarcastic, nihilistic, and alcoholic, we are introduced to Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), washed up 90’s TV star that has the acclaim, house on the hill, and stargazed admiration of nostalgic fans. Bojack spends his days drinking, amusing himself with the zany misadventures of his permanent house guest and de facto best friend, Todd (Aaron Paul). But in his own weary yet honest self-reflections, he sees a loser, a Hollywoo (no typo) has-been, trudging through life’s pesky trivialities with no direction or future aspirations. What more could one ask for after reaching the summit of primetime TV? Surely, the accoutrements of such success (Horsin’ Around ran for a whopping nine seasons) would suffice one’s appetite for worldly happiness, with a cool chunk of change to spare. Not so in BJ’s case.
To BoJack every day is an itch that won’t go away. In his eyes, a star of his caliber should be shielded from life’s minor inconveniences. Long lines, federal laws, he just can’t be bothered with them. When America’s most beloved TV horse dad comes around, the least he is owed is the utmost servility of any serf fortunate enough to come into contact with him.
In some ways, the recognition and respect of those wrapped in Hollywood’s fleeting embrace suits him well. He is more than willing to accept the idolatry bestowed upon him. After decades of being puffed up by those around him, Bojack maintains an aura of brash confidence, awesome to the umpteenth degree. Every word he utters ought to be taken as gospel truth without an ounce of incredulity. And to that end, Bojack goes about seeking out a writer to pen his memoir. Enter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), one of the multiple female heroes in the show. Diane wrote a biography on Bojack’s idol, Secretariat, and would thus make a perfect medium for his own life’s story. Surely, a deep dive into his less-than-ideal upbringing and ascent to commercial albeit superficial success would only further endear him to his curious readers. Bojack expects the process to be a breeze, eager to offer up the unsolicited minutiae of his lavish and unrelatable life. For Diane, an inquisitive and honest writer, resigning herself to transcribing the self-righteous and unrefined ideas of an over-the-hill actor is off the table. Nothing other than a candid tell-all will clench her thirst for truth and justice when exploring the unfettered life of one of the entertainment industry’s untouchables.
When her rendition is finally released, dubbed One Trick Pony, the book is a hit, but not for the reasons Bojack had anticipated. The intended resurgence of his popularity was achieved, but at the cost of painting his character in a less than flattering light. His personal shortcomings are critically scrutinized, freed from the self-applied horse blinders (ha, ha) that Bojack wears to cope with his perceived meaninglessness of existence. Desperate to have Diane — whose honest and principled nature attracts the likes of Bojack — see him as a good person, Bojack is forced to deal with the idea that the obscurant nature of Hollywood stardom has obtained for him only a cheap semblance of true self-fulfillment.
Throughout the show, we see Bojack attempt to fill his days with meaning, whether it be through seeking out the role of Secretariat, his childhood hero, or judging a booty contest with Sir Mix-A-Lot. At the end of Season 3, we see BoJack flee from all his problems in LA and head east. Picking up in Season 4, we see Bojack and his Tesla arrive at the dilapidated house of his forefathers in Michigan. While BoJack struggles to repair the childhood home of his mother, we are introduced to his antecedents through a series of flashbacks. His grandfather Joseph Sugarman (Matthew Broderick), the fabulously well-to-do owner of the Sugarcane Sugar Cube Company. He and his demure but beautiful wife, Honey, have two children, Crackerjack (late teen’s), and Beatrice (5-6). Beatrice, Bojack’s future mother, is the epitome of innocence, impressionable and without a clue of how the world works. It is from Beatrice’s tumultuous and tragic life that we begin to fill in the blanks of Bojack’s character. As the season progresses, Bojack returns from his year-long hiatus and he takes in his dementia-ridden mother against his will. The lifelong strain between them becomes evident when we see Bojack’s short temper and sharp disdain for his mother.
The onset of Beatrice’s topsy turvy life comes at the time of Crackerjack’s death fighting overseas in WWII. Crackerjack was beloved by all (think Denny from Stand By Me) and his death is a huge blow for the whole family. Understandably, this event has a huge impact on Honey. She has no way to express her grief in a healthy way, as Joseph, in classic 1940’s fashion, is self-admittedly “woefully unequipped” to deal with the emotions of woman. Honey’s precarious imbalance leads her on a dangerous tear, embarrassing herself at a local gathering and drunkenly driving home with Beatrice in the passenger seat. Joseph, the upstanding community leader that he is, decides that this is unacceptable. He has a lobotomy performed on his “smart mouthed” bride, rendering her a low-maintenance and emotionless robot. This thoughtless decision to permanently impair Honey highlights the extent of Joseph’s detached relationship with the women in his life. He struggles to understand the growing Beatrice as well, tossing her beloved Baby (a plush toy horse) into a roaring fire, symbolically manifested in her bedroom that is made to look like her own personal hell.
Beatrice, to the chagrin of her father, blossoms into an individualistic and charming teenage girl. At her debutante ball, she is paraded around as an eligible single woman, a common event in the upper echelons of post-WWII society. Joseph, in a flash of his astute business acumen, decides that Corbin Creamerman, heir to the Creamerman Cream-Based Creamy Commodities fortune, would be the perfect groom for his young daughter. Corbin is, at first sight, meager, unconfident, and rather dull. Beatrice, rightfully jaded, spurns any efforts to allow the courtship, as she sees it as an unveiled ploy to open up business opportunities up for her dad. At the same ball, she meets Butterscotch, a gatecrashing bad boy, who engages her with his sharp wit and by jabbing at the pomposity of her event. From there, the rest is history. Beatrice becomes pregnant and runs off to San Francisco with Butterscotch to raise their baby and pursue their dreams. However, reality settles in and the two lovers are left to deal with the stark consequences. Butterscotch’s Great American Novel never materializes and the two are at odds when it comes to r caring for young Bojack. Beatrice angrily laments on her costly choice of keeping the baby and treats Bojack with neglectful contempt. After years of barely scraping by in a cramped apartment, Beatrice implores Butterscotch to finally accept her father’s job offer. While their dire financial situation is greatly ameliorated and she resumes her lavish lifestyle, the marriage only becomes more estranged as Beatrice’s constant regret hardens her malcontent with what her once promising future amounted to. Butterscotch finds solace in the arms of their housekeeper, Henrietta, and impregnates her. Beatrice forces the distraught Henrietta to put the baby up for adoption, just as her father had taken her Baby from her when she was a little girl….
In the final flashback, set in the 90’s, we see Beatrice visit BJ at his mansion. She is remarkably unimpressed with his accomplishments, as no corny TV show could be worth the price she paid throwing her life away on what is now viewed as a pipe dream. The effects of her harsh treatment are not lost upon Bojack, who bitterly resents her for never giving him the love he so earnestly craved as a child. He is bewildered that she has yet to demand a divorce from Butterscotch, but she brushes it off as a foregone conclusion; she is too old for any other man to have her. She has already resided herself to riding into the sunset with the same bitterness that has been brewing inside of her since she decided to skip town.
The cycle of abuse perpetuated by Beatrice’s parenting takes a disastrous toll on Bojack’s psyche. Her inability to separate the injustices done unto her by her father. Instead of allowing BoJack to grow into whatever kind of horse he wants to be, Beatrice instead airs a coldhearted disposition toward her pony, teaching him only of the futility of wanting a better future. Malleable as she was as a child, young BoJack internalizes this narrative throughout his life, unable to attain a sense of self-worth even in the midst of a successful career. Towards the end of Season 4, BoJack realizes that dwelling in the past and getting off on his own guilt is a pathetic way of living. As Joseph used to say, time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses. As he begins to ponder his future in the wake of the sudden arrival of his alleged daughter, Hollyhock, BoJack must decide if he can somehow let his animosity towards his dying mother go in order to redeem himself in his own eyes. When he sees the signs of self-destruction reflected in young Hollyhock, BoJack is reminded of his own narrative and how he would do anything to see his kin break the mold that his mother collaterally crammed him into.
The end of the season is left on a hopeful note, as BoJack realizes the opportunity to atone for all the pain he has caused others throughout his own life. Whether he can deliver is still up in the air, as he still has his own problems as well as his mother’s impending death to deal with.
BoJack Horseman has been officially renewed by Netflix for a fifth season, and is likely to be released some time in the fall of 2018. Will BoJack have the courage to put his past behind him and lead a virtuous life? Or will he fold under the pressure, reverting to his mother’s way of ingraining himself deeper into catatonic self-destructive madness? We can’t wait to find out.