If you’ve never watched Netflix’s tremendously original BoJack Horseman, you need to stop whatever it is that you’re doing and start right now. BoJack is easily and immediately one of the greatest shows not just currently on television, but in television history. Its wildly imaginative and well-defined world, its deeply relatable and layered characters, and its incredible balancing act between outlandish humor and soul crushing drama, all under the guise of a silly cartoon about a talking horse, blend together to create an outstanding, thoughtful, and important experience. The show has yet to come out with a bad season or even a single bad episode, and season 5 maintains the quality while diving into current social issues more than ever before.
BoJack Horseman Season 5 deals with bad people doing bad things, as has always been the way of the world, and the show ruminates on the responsibility and accountability of those bad people. BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is a bad person. A very bad person. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and terrible men being held accountable for their actions, the series continues reflect the real world within its cartoon setting. BoJack has a lot to be held accountable for, and in this season, he is finally confronted with the reality of the bad things he’s done. Of course, one of these deeds haunts him more than any of the others: the time he spent in New Mexico and the people he hurt there back at the end of season 2.
BoJack begins filming a detective drama named Philbert, along with costar Gina (Brooklyn 99’s Stephanie Beatriz). Written and directed by Flip McVicker (voiced brilliantly by Rami Malek), Philbert is an overly dramatic show, full of twists that BoJack himself considers stupid (“No time for that now, the nuclear missiles are coming!”), but he’s more than happy to once again be the star of a major television series, especially when it gets greeted with tremendous success. Philbert is a clever way to set most of the season actively in the midst of the entertainment industry, the thing that the series loves to lampoon the most.
Diane (Alison Brie) is brought on as a writer for the show to make sure that it doesn’t come across as sexist (the first episode deals with an argument over having Gina in a gratuitous nude scene), but Flip informs her to keep her ideas to herself and they’ll just slap her name on the credits. Flip is a pretty despicable guy, a self-proclaimed genius who exists as a stand-in for every sleazy Hollywood creative. BoJack continues to hold a mirror up to LA and its film and television scene, unafraid to call out the grosser aspects of it and its hierarchy of misogyny. But while these themes and commentary are smart, they continue to serve as merely the backdrop to BoJack himself, and his eternal downward spiral.
BoJack has committed several heinous acts, and done many terrible things. He’s well aware of all these, and his sense of self-loathing and constant need to tear himself down come from his guilt and shame over his crimes. He’s depressed, he’s an addict, he’s self-destructive and brings others down with him, and he had a hell of an awful childhood. We know all of this, we’ve learned everything we could possibly know about BoJack by this point, so even when he messes up for the hundredth time and hits rock bottom again and again, we understand why he does it, and we understand that he both makes these choices while at the same time not wanting to be like this at all.
BoJack is a true sort of anti-hero. He’s a terrible, cruel person who does some truly unforgivable things, but you still feel for him. You still root for him. You still believe in him and care about him. There’s a large divide between the BoJack that he wants himself to be seen as and the BoJack that he actually is. It’s a twisted and deeply thoughtful character study, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Mad Men. It’s easy to find the similarities between BoJack Horseman and Don Draper. Both are womanizing, selfish addicts who hate everything that they are, who try time and time again to be good and better people, but who’s egos and emotional and psychological scars continue to dominate them and influence their choices.
The driving force of BoJack Horseman is seeing whether or not he can finally rise above himself and improve. Last season, Todd (Aaron Paul) gave BoJack one of the most brutally honest confrontations of his life. “You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it okay. You need to be better.” It’s to the point and right on the money. Fresh off of hearing this, BoJack takes a couple of surprisingly positive steps. He’s kind to his mother for the first time in his adult life, and he begins to build a healthy relationship with his sister, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla). Season 4 ends on a note of hope and healing, a first for the usually bleak series. Season 5 comes along to break that fleeting happiness that you were left with.
BoJack’s fifth season is the most precise dissection of who the character is and why he acts the way he does. After a significant event occurs at the tail end of the first half of episodes, BoJack begins to unravel once again. He becomes addicted to painkillers, and as the hours working on Philbert grow longer, he is no longer able to separate reality from fiction. The show once again expertly portrays the disorienting cycle of drug dependency, showing BoJack vulnerable, paranoid, and desperate as he stumbles through his life while blacking out, losing time, and being unable to know which side is up.
All of this culminates in a very high and confused BoJack doing something that may arguably be the very worst thing he’s ever done, and that’s saying something. In a deep state of self-loathing after the fact, BoJack attempts to come clean, telling Diane and Gina that he plans to destroy his own career and be held accountable for his actions. He wants to be taken down the same way so many other Hollywood honchos have. After all, it’s what he deserves. But both women refuse to assist him in this, and Diane tells him that he’s not a good person or a bad person — he’s just a person. Yes, he’s done terrible things, and yes, his career should probably end because of them. But she’s not going to help set that in motion, because it would, on some level, be doing him a favor. It would be indulging his self-destructive impulses, allowing him to feel shitty about himself but continue to be himself without taking real steps to improve.
BoJack’s self-hatred is a self-fulfilling prophecy of mutually assured destruction, complete with excuses such as a horrible childhood, depression, paranoia, and addiction. There are countless monsters that exist in our world who are beyond forgiveness. But there are also countless people like BoJack, who have done monstrous things but still might not be beyond redemption. BoJack continues to give occasional glimpses at the good person underneath – he helps his friends, he knows just the right thing to say sometimes, and he does care about others. How do you find forgiveness for people like BoJack? The ones who you know can be better, who have been better before, but still continue to let you down in devastating ways? As Diane puts it, “I hate you. But you’re my friend, and you need me.”
Season 5 has a lot to say about responsibility, be it about the rich, famous, and powerful or just the everyday guy. It’s aware of our culture pretending that responsibility and accountability are a joke, that you can absolve yourself of your bad deeds without having to actually work at redemption or growth. These ideas run through the season, with each and every character attempting to avoid responsibility for things they’ve done. The show refuses to give any sort of easy answers or solutions to these complicated questions and problems, because there are none. When and how should these people be held accountable? When and how, if ever, should they be forgiven? The answers are elusive and rarely satisfying, but it’s what makes BoJack such an insightful and thought-provoking show.
Besides it’s brilliant deconstruction of its characters and their lives, BoJack should also be applauded for its daring, and the confidence it has to do whatever it wants when it comes to playing with structure. Season 3 gave us “Fish Out of Water”, an episode set entirely underwater with no dialogue, and season 4 gave us the heartbreaking “Time’s Arrow”, a series of flashbacks told from the perspective of BoJack’s mother’s dementia-rattled mind. Season 5 gives us “INT. SUB”, where the character’s therapists fill us in on their adventures, and “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos”, an episode that shows the same Halloween party from four different years with Mr. Peanutbutter’s four different girlfriends at the time. But the most standout episode of the season, and possibly the entire series, is episode 6, simply titled “Free Churro”. It is exclusively Will Arnett monologuing for over twenty minutes, never cutting away to a different scene and never changing the location. It is a remarkable achievement, and the most pressing demand that Arnett receive a damn Emmy for his performance. He deserves to be, at the very least, nominated every single year for his work as BoJack. It’s incredible.
BoJack Horseman continues to be one of the smartest, funniest, and thoughtful shows to ever be put onscreen. Every single episode is a small miracle. Its characters, dialogue, jokes, and world are rich and tangible. It always manages to surprise and devastate, and there’s more to come back to, understand, and observe upon each rewatch. Season 5 may not be the most cohesive string of episodes for the series, with some character’s plot lines feeling detached from others (especially Todd’s), but it still stands strong. It’s a deeply personal series for me, and I’m sure it is for many others. It’s almost impossible not to feel attached to it. It’s a beautiful show with no way of knowing how it’ll end, when that might be, or where the characters might end up. But the journey has been tremendous so far, and I’m impatient for more.
BoJack Horseman is now streaming on Netflix.