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BoJack Horseman’s Brilliant Crack-Up

The Netflix show's new season is a darkly funny reckoning with grief.

Courtesy of Netflix

It’s hard to think of a show currently on air that could make me want to watch a single character speak in one long, despairing stream for nearly a whole episode. Prolonged expressions of angst can sink live-action drama, which thrives on eventfulness and conflict. But BoJack Horseman—a cartoon sitcom whose title character is a melancholic, middle-aged stallion—inhabits a genre of its own, somewhere between slapstick and theater of the absurd. Midway through the show’s new season, BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) wears a charcoal suit and stands at a pulpit next to a coffin. His mother has died. For over 20 full minutes, with no interruption, he delivers a brilliant, pained, rambling eulogy.

Written by the show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, with brilliant art direction by Lisa Hanawalt, the monologue careens between pathos and black humor, delusion and acceptance—and is totally transfixing. BoJack doesn’t miss his mother so much as he despises her; he is angry that she’s left him without a sense of closure. He begins his story by saying that when he went to a fast-food place and said that his mother had died, the person behind the counter gave him a free churro. Later, he ties this anecdote up in a joke: “My mother died, and all I got was this free churro.” Then he adds, “That small act of kindness showed more compassion than my mother gave me her entire goddamn life.” His voice starts to break, as he finally confronts a lifetime of abuse from his mother. It is an aria of abjection and resentment. I’m still thinking about it, days later.

If this seems like heavy stuff for a cartoon, BoJack has earned it. Over five seasons, Bob-Waksberg and Hanawalt crafted a truly goofy world (there’s a spider who works as a playwright, multitasking with eight limbs, and an ingenue deer who has literal doe-eyes) that allows them to slip in and out of surreal, sometimes dark subject matter. In one episode, a pop star named Sextina Aquafina (a leotard-wearing dolphin) has a cynical hit song about abortion; in another, BoJack is present when one of his young mentees overdoses on heroin in a planetarium. In true Darwinian fashion, BoJack Horseman has evolved from an easy joke about a horse to one of the most complex and empathetic shows on television.

The first three seasons of BoJack established the world of Hollywoo—a fantastical Hollywood equivalent in which humans and animals not only interact, but also marry, divorce, collaborate with, disappoint, and mistreat one another—and focused on the career misadventures of BoJack, an aging, egotistical actor who once starred in a hyper-successful network hit as the surrogate father to three ragamuffin orphans. When the show opens, he has money and a mansion in the hills, but he hasn’t worked in years. He attempts to revive his career by writing a memoir, which he only completes by hiring a sardonic co-writer, a human woman named Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), married to a galumphing, ever-optimistic Labrador named Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tomkins). An ambitious pink tabby named Princess Caroline (Amy Sedaris) is BoJack’s agent, and Todd (Aaron Paul), a hapless, beanie-wearing human, is his best friend.

Together, these characters form a menagerie of desperate show-business hopefuls, who clatter around Los Angeles trying to wring opportunities and relevance out of an industry that is designed to break people down. These first three seasons present an inspired riff on disillusionment—the way people (and animals) fail each other, the way capitalism creates a system of bogus incentives, the way star-power is mostly cardboard and paste.

In the fourth season, the show plunges deeper. BoJack may be an insecure asshole, but his flaws have an origin story. BoJack learns that he has a teenage daughter, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla). This discovery sends him into a reverie about his own parents and their many shortcomings. BoJack’s father, a stallion named Butterscotch Horseman (also voiced by Arnett), was a failed writer, who swilled whiskey and tinkered away for years on his Great American Novel while working a dead-end job at a fish cannery. His mother, Beatrice Sugarman (Wendie Malick), was a sparkling heiress to the Sugarman Sugar Cube fortune. She had a fling with Butterscotch after falling for his bohemian ambitions, and this tryst resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. Although she considered an abortion, she decided to keep the baby and married Butterscotch.

Over the years, she turns bitter and cold. Butterscotch refuses a job with the Sugarman firm in order to write fiction in San Francisco. The move never bears fruit. Between the grind of family life and the wasting of Beatrice’s inheritance through profligate spending, the couple grows destitute and resentful. Both turn into volatile, chain-smoking alcoholics. And into this environment—straight out of an Arthur Miller play or a Richard Yates novel—BoJack is born.

The weight of Beatrice’s death in the fifth season doesn’t come as a surprise. The entire fourth season showed how the effects of depression and anxiety have rippled through BoJack’s family. Earlier seasons also paved the way for the big formal risk of season five’s eulogy; Bob-Waksberg and Hanawalt have always leaned into the elastic potential of animation, using the medium to paint with a wide range of moods, from playfulness and pretentiousness to desolation and profundity. When BoJack attends an underwater film festival, the entire episode transforms into a silent movie, accompanied by twinkling music and air bubbles. In another episode, as Beatrice Horseman descends into dementia, an episode charts the inside of her muddled mind. She sees people as crude drawings, or as blobs with their faces crossed out in magic marker.

This inventiveness is perhaps why BoJack’s eulogy doesn’t feel self-indulgent or labored in the new season. It works because BoJack is a talking horse, and because that is ridiculous, and because it’s hard to guess where this already-bonkers premise will lead.

BoJack has become, more than anything, a show about how hurt people hurt people. It is about generational trauma, and how abuse trickles down until someone works out how to stop the train. In his eulogy, BoJack muses on the nature of sitcoms as a metaphor for life. He says that in television writing, you can never have a happy ending, because then the show would be over: “There is always more show, I guess, until there isn’t.” His mother’s story may be over, but he is still living with the trauma of her life, still acting out its major scenes. He is caught in a loop—a fact underscored by the eerie sense that BoJack may not be delivering this speech to anyone at all, but may be standing in an empty room, or perhaps inventing the macabre setting in his mind. He often cues an off-screen drummer to play a snare riff after his jokes, which makes the episode feel like a dream sequence, a kind of nonsensical vaudeville act.

He recounts his entire family story: his dad’s failed ambitions, his mother’s seething. He remembers how, at parties, she sometimes temporarily dropped her mantle of martyrdom and began to dance. It was one of the few moments, he says, that he could see love between his parents. “This cynical, despicable woman he married took flight,” he says.

This moment of grace, it meant something. We understood each other in a way, me and my mom and my dad. . . . My mother, she knew what it was like to feel your entire life like you are drowning, with the exception of these moments, these very rare instances in which you suddenly remember you can swim.

BoJack and his circle are drowners, and always have been. But they also attempt to keep swimming, despite everything. And it makes sense that many of these characters are zoological. We are less likely to blame animals for their own pain; if they are hurt, we tend to ask what the world did to them, rather than what they did to themselves.

There is a sticky cohesion to this episode, which is the apex of the season—it both stands alone and works as a mortar for the other characters’ stories (Diane travels to Vietnam in the numb wake of her divorce, Princess Caroline is desperately trying to adopt a baby, the feckless Todd rockets to the top of the corporate ladder in a position he can neither handle nor control). This is what BoJack Horseman has been building up to for several seasons—it is a cathartic release and a cruel joke. The last words BoJack’s mother ever said to him were “I see you” from her hospital bed. It was “not a statement of judgment or disappointment,” he says, “just acceptance and the simple recognition of another person in a room. Hello there, you are a person, and I see you. Let me tell you, it is a weird thing to feel at 54 years old that for the first time in your life, your mother sees you.”

By the end of his speech, BoJack realizes that Beatrice was in the intensive care unit, and she was probably just reading the words “ICU” from a wall. He steels himself against this knowledge and says that he is relieved to finally know that, like all other creatures slithering and trotting and flapping their way through Hollywoo, he is truly on his own. Then, he looks up, and we finally see his audience: a confused-looking room full of reptiles, flicking their tongues. He is in the wrong funeral parlor. The ordeal sends him on a long bender, a dizzying descent toward tragedy. But for a moment, the show conveys all the ache of another person’s loss, whether he is man or beast.