The Entertaining Existential Crisis And Lurid Magical Realism of Bojack Horseman
That’s the thing. I don’t think I believe in deep down. I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do.-Diane Nguyen
It was nice while it lasted. Bojack Horseman was three seasons in by the time I started watching. Suffering through a bout of insomnia and praying I wouldn’t slide into mania I selected Bojack from my Netflix recommendations. It had enough episodes built up to binge when I was sleepless.
For anyone struggling with mental health issues, addictive personalities, or family trauma (so…a lot of people) the show’s bright dreamscape of anthropomorphic characters was one of the most representative shows to have ever aired.
The pessimism of Bojack was refreshing. When you’re depressed it can feel like the world demands optimism. Like you are surrounded by Pollyannas trying to convince you if you just looked at the bright side you would be able to crawl out of bed and walk into the world again.
I would find myself clinging to scientific studies about optimism bias and depressive realism. Research detailing how mildly depressed people are better at predicting when they are in control of outcomes.
So there was a bit of sad comfort in this alcoholic, narcissistic, chronically depressed horse saying of his aggressively optimistic neighbour, “He’s so stupid he doesn’t realize how miserable he should be. I envy that.”
This isn’t to say the show glorified Bojack’s perspective. Depression sucks. And optimism seems to have evolved at the same time as our awareness of mortality. Likely so we would keep moving forward and not flounder in a perpetual state of existential crisis like Bojack does for six seasons.
There is an existentialist theme running throughout Bojack. He wrestles with the guilt of past wrongs while simultaneously causing more damage to the people who care about him. Succumbing to his need for praise and attention as much alcohol or drugs.
There’s no soul to be saved, the show insists. You just need to be a better person (or horse).
There are some standout episodes which explore our shared humanity and vulnerability:
Fish Out of Water has only a few lines of dialog. It has a Lost in Translation feel. A character at a turning point in a different culture unable to communicate. The awe of exploration. The consequences of miscommunication.
Escape From LA presents a return to first love. It cautions against the alternate stories of a life from imagined different choices. These fantasies are based on a different version of you. All you can control is yourself, now.
Stupid Piece of Sh*It offers a glimpse of Bojack’s oppressive inner monologue. From the moment he opens his eyes it is a battle with the voice in his head. A caustic record restating his worthlessness. Causing a drink, disappoint, repeat cycle that he cannot seem to break out of.
Then there is The View From Halfway Down. A surrealist callback to past episodes. Bojack finds himself at a dinner party with deceased friends, family, and coworkers all asking, “What does it mean”? Then answering “Nothing”. We know that this is not a dream. Bojack is high and drowning in his old swimming pool. So is this a prelude to the afterlife?
Bojack’s former friend Herb clarifies that he is not in a place “it’s just your brain going through what it feels like it needs to go through”. He responds to Bojack’s hopeful “see you on the other side” with “Oh Bojack, there is no other side. This is it”.
The ending of the series is less finite. Bojack is alive but his cyclical self destructive behavior has cost him. He has barely nudged himself forward from the first season. Diane, Princess Carolyn, Todd, and Mr. Peanutbutter have all moved on.
He’s on the cusp of abandoning plans to volunteer with prisoners at the first hint that his career isn’t over. He is also seemingly preparing himself to abandon sobriety should he slip up outside of prison (leading to one of my favourite Todd speeches about the point of the hokey pokey being the “turn yourself around” part of the song).
Ultimately his fate is open to interpretation. A good outcome depends on how optimistic you are.