How Netflix’s absurdist animated comedy sneakily became one of TV’s best dramas.
Spoilers galore for BoJack Horseman season 2.
In the penultimate episode of BoJack Horseman’s fantastic second season, a series of decisions leads BoJack to live for a while out in New Mexico with Charlotte, the deer for whom he carried a flame in the first season’s 80’s flashbacks, and her family. After chaperoning her daughter Penny to prom as a “cool uncle”-type, he and Charlotte share a spur-of-the-moment kiss in the back yard, which leads to an argument, and eventually BoJack giving in to Penny’s sexual advances that he rebuffs earlier on a moral grounds. Later, when Charlotte discovers her daughter in the midst of undress in BoJack’s room, she banishes him and threatens to, in her own words “fucking kill [him]” if she ever sees or hears from him again.
At first, this scene is fairly shocking for a number of reasons with the uneasiness of someone in their fifties preparing to engage sexually with someone barely of age drowning out all else. When the dust settles, however, disgust quickly turns to lament as one realizes BoJack’s actions here, in addition to leading to yet another in a long line of irreparably scorched bridges, are the clearest look yet at his root failures as a person. From his rampant alcoholism to his countless on-again, off-again relationships (including one with an owl named Wanda that becomes one of this season’s main, most tumultuous plot threads), BoJack is someone whose self-destructive tendencies are a direct result of needing quick fixes of emotional numbing for all of his life’s long-standing or permanent hardships, regardless of their obvious repercussions that often dig him into a deeper hole.
Because of this, it’s reasonable, even accurate, to call BoJack selfish since his undying need to protect his own feelings and ego has repeatedly superseded his consideration for how his defense mechanisms affect those around him, but the patterns of his mistakes imply that his particular set of neuroses is borne not of self-interest, but self-preservation; the actions and behavior of someone willing to do anything to believe they aren’t as empty or evil as they often feel, and failing every time to be convinced. It’s in his plea to his memoirist Diane to tell him that he’s a good person at the end of season 1’s “Downer Ending.” It’s in his failed attempt to mend fences with a former friend after stabbing him in the back 20 years ago (a friend who, in this season, takes that hatred to his grave). And, perhaps most devastatingly, it’s in the tears he sheds after being told in preparation for a movie scene he’s shooting, that something in his character is broken and can never be fixed.
Personal flaws such as this have so far been the dramatic backbone of BoJack Horseman: a show about a man whose life has increasingly become a marathon of failing sideways. But where the first season concerned itself with why BoJack was unhappy, this one raises the broader question of how any of us define what being “happy” actually means to us by putting that question in the minds of the supporting cast as well as the main character. It’s a thorny, multi-faceted subject, to be sure, and BoJack Horseman is fortunately a show wise enough to realize and embrace the fact it has no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, it finds both inter-personal conflict and humanistic silver linings in observing a social circle occupied with helping one another find answers in hopes that they might stumble across a few themselves incidentally.
As the supporting character who arguably gets the most development this season, it’s Diane who turns out exemplifying this dynamic. Perhaps because her own failures begin to align with BoJack’s, fostering, maybe even forcing, a dialogue between the two concerning the nature of their respective miseries. When her marriage with BoJack’s quasi-rival Mr. Peanutbutter hits a rut, Diane goes on a trip abroad to catalogue the exploits of a self-aggrandizing humanitarian worker. Upon realizing she can’t do it, she returns home, crashes at BoJack’s house, and enters a foul-mouthed nihilistic stupor. Initially, this seems like a bit too jarring a character shift to sustain plausibility (at least as much as plausibility can be sustained in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals co-mingle), but in what’s becoming somewhat of a show trademark, her newfound irritability is carefully revealed to be a front hiding a multitude of underlying insecurities, from a failure to live up to perceived expectations, to the haunting notions of where there is to go when the best possible version of yourself still comes up too short. In a heart-to-heart with BoJack, she asks what small, temporary triumphs matter in a life full of disappointment and hurt. Neither know.
While such life questions are in abundance this time out (even BoJack’s slacker roommate and comic foil Todd’s misadventures now come into focus, retrospectively revealing themselves as a journey to garner acceptance), and concrete answers are never provided, the show’s pathos lies equally in its assertion that even though there’s no easy fix to all of life’s problems, and the solution to some may not even exist, it’s worth at least trying to find them anyway. Eventually, Diane goes back to Mr. Peanutbutter despite her apprehensions, willing to try and find a new lease on their marriage, but it’s BoJack whose arc provides the simplest yet most poignant example of the show’s grim-but-hopeful outlook. By the end of the season, he’s at the lowest point we have ever seen him, having laid ruin to two important relationships and now “starring” in a film he’s not even technically in. Yet he can still find the strength to try and run up that (literal and metaphoric) hill he failed to conquer earlier in the season. After succeeding but giving out, a more experienced runner comes over to tells him “it gets easier.” He resolutely responds: “okay,” not entirely sure if that’s true, but choosing to believe regardless. Haven’t we all?