BoJack: “I’m the one who has to live with this shit. I’m the one who has to feel the guilt all day, every day.”
Diane: “So you’re the victim here?”
If four seasons of BoJack Horseman have taught us anything, it’s that it is perfectly possible to be simultaneously laughing out loud and dying inside because of the selfsame thing, and that the actions of a cartoon horse can leave one completely emotionally devastated. After the shock death of Sarah Lynn in season three, and the revelations about Bojack’s mother in season four, (which then ended on a cautiously optimistic note), it was sensible to go into season five with the awareness that one was likely to be punched in the gut at least once during its twelve episode run. And it doesn’t disappoint.
So let’s start with the episode that everyone is going to be talking about: ‘Free Churro’. The synopsis on IMDB for ‘Free Churro’, the mid-point of the season, says, simply, ‘BoJack delivers a eulogy at a funeral’. And that’s it – that’s the entire show. After season three’s award-winning ‘Fish Out of Water’, which was almost completely devoid of dialogue, it’s not surprising that BoJack Horseman would do something a little out of the box, and ‘Free Churro’ moves in completely the opposite direction by having BoJack deliver a 20 minute monologue about his relationship with his mother, during her funeral. It’s a stunning piece of writing from show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg: moving, funny, painful, painfully-funny, thought-provoking, heartbreaking. It’s BoJack doing bad stand-up; it’s everything that he should be pouring out to a therapist; it’s both a rejection and an acceptance of everything that his mother was. And as with the rest of the show, it contains vast amounts of emotional truth about the realities of dysfunctional relationships. If you’re binge-watching, you might want to take a break after this episode, and get yourself a glass of water. Or something a little stronger.
BoJack is a complex character: vastly damaged, heavily flawed, and yet – somehow – likeable. He might be a cartoon horse, but emotionally he is realistic. And there have been many discussions around how characters such as BoJack are used by (mostly) men to excuse their own bad behaviour. Season five of BoJack Horseman decides to tackle this issue head on, with BoJack starring in a TV show called ‘Philbert’, as a character that he soon comes to realise reflects his own damaged and damage-causing self. Diane, in response to BoJack using his character to assuage his own guilt over the terrible things that he’s done, tells him: “That’s not the point of Philbert, for guys to watch it and feel ok… I don’t want you, or anyone else, justifying their shitty behaviour because of the show.”
Bojack Horseman is hardly subtle in its meta-ness, but this season it threads its references back to itself in its discussions of toxic masculinity, feminism, the #MeToo movement, addiction, and mental illness, allowing for both absurdity (sex robot Henry Fondle) and serious observation (Diane: “There’s no such thing as bad guys, or good guys…. You need to take responsibility for yourself.”). It presents these issues as a dialogue, and loops back around to the thought that there can’t be any happy endings whilst there’s still more show, and that, relatedly, BoJack is never going to change.
Surprisingly though, the characters on this show do actually grow as people, if only incrementally. Diane and Mr Peanutbutter have further realisations about themselves and their relationship. There is an exploration of Todd’s asexuality. And we get some Princess Carolyn backstory. And BoJack – sets out to change? Or maybe not. Because as he sinks deeper into drug abuse and paranoia, BoJack starts to further resemble the character that he is playing. And with the set of his show looking exactly like his own house (based on a joke from season one!), he becomes unable to distinguish reality from television. He clearly needs to change. But will he? Let’s find out.
There are many things to praise about this show: the quality of the writing; the humour; the attention to detail; the way that it keeps track of its own story threads and returns to them, sometimes seasons later; the way that it takes risks with format… I could go on. Yes, it’s animation, but this isn’t a show that you just dip into. It has complexity and nuance, humour and truth. And it is best viewed from the beginning. Season five certainly works its magic, and if it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as earlier seasons, it’s still something of a hefty hit.