Things seemed to be looking up for BoJack Horseman in the first half of the final season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s singular animated Netflix series, about a washed-up actor addicted to drugs and alcohol and his fledgling attempts to better his life. In the first eight episodes, which aired back in October, BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) is finally sober (despite some hiccups along the way, like getting Dr. Champ, his chipper therapist, er, “therapy horse,” back on the sauce). He is set to teach acting at Wesleyan College, where his half-sister Hollyhock is a student, and his relationships with the most important people in his life appear to be on the (cautious) mend.
But then, in the gutting last few minutes of Episode 8, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” Hollyhock hears a disturbing story from a guy named Pete at a house party in New York. A few years ago, Pete tells her, an adult man went with Pete, his girlfriend, and her best friend to their high school prom in New Mexico (“Yeesh!” Hollyhock says, alarmed). He bought bourbon for them “and practically forced us to drink,” resulting in Pete’s girlfriend getting so drunk she passed out. The guy drove them to the entrance of the ER and rushed off so he didn’t get in trouble for buying alcohol for minors.
“And the craziest thing of all?” Pete tells Hollyhock. “The guy, he’s actually kind of famous. I’ve never heard of him, but it turns out he’s kind of a movie star.”
“Who is he?” Hollyhock asks, as ominous music begins to play. “Who is he?” she asks again. The episode cuts to the ending credits as Pete answers — because the audience already knows who it is: BoJack Horseman, way back in Season 3. And it’s a testament to the laundry list of bad things BoJack has done that I had forgotten about that particular situation. I remembered New Mexico, of course; for the latter half of BoJack Horseman, BoJack has been haunted by what irrevocable damage he might have caused Penny, the 17-year-old girl he went to prom with and almost had sex with — immediately after he tried to sleep with her mother, Charlotte, an old friend who had made a new life for herself in the Southwest.
The revelation that Hollyhock now knows what BoJack did in New Mexico, coupled with the news that a fast-talking, His Girl Friday–type investigative journalist named Paige Sinclair (“front-page Paige, they call me”) is digging into the circumstances behind the fatal heroin overdose of BoJack’s former Horsin’ Around costar Sarah Lynn — who died as a result of a BoJack-enabled bender — makes it clear that the fragile peace BoJack appears to be building for himself is about to come crashing down. And that’s where we pick up again with the final set of BoJack episodes, streaming now on Netflix.
Do you nab the guy on “old shit”? Or do you give consideration to people like BoJack, who insists in the new half-season, “I’m a different person now!”
BoJack Horseman has always been unafraid to go there — to make you wonder how many morally bankrupt actions BoJack can actually get away with. In addition to the New Mexico prom fiasco and his involvement in Sarah Lynn’s death, there’s also the incident when BoJack, under the influence of prescription pain pills, strangled his costar Gina Cazador hard enough to visibly bruise her neck. And yet in each of these situations, he’s so far escaped lasting public repercussions. A police officer is hilariously uninterested in finding out what BoJack knew about Sarah Lynn’s death. Gina, loath to be forever remembered as “the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman,” does a joint TV interview with BoJack that suggests the video of him choking her was just really good acting. And Charlotte and Penny are reluctant to go public about their involvement with BoJack, though Charlotte does threaten to kill him if he comes near her family again. (Another miraculous thing is that the show, dark as these plotlines are, is also still a very funny, like laugh-out-loud, comedy!)
BoJack has been eerily timely as of late (on the show, assistants in “Hollywoo” are protesting against low pay and subpar working conditions, just like their real-life counterparts). And it’s hard not to see the parallels between BoJack and so many other real-life public figures, men in particular, who have abused their power in some way. Kobe Bryant’s untimely death has prompted the question of when is or isn’t the right moment to talk about the 2003 rape allegation against him (charges were dropped when the woman decided not to testify; Bryant settled a civil suit out of court and issued a public apology).
Do you nab the guy on “old shit”? Or do you give consideration to people like BoJack, who insists in the new half-season, “I’m a different person now!” What does holding these powerful people to account actually look like? What role does the public play? As Harvey Weinstein’s trial continues in New York, we’re quite literally working out these questions in real time.
The last season of BoJack Horseman has an answer: The only way to hold these public figures to account is to hold them to account. BoJack, a troubled but lovable antihero, will suffer the consequences of his many questionable actions. It won’t always be pretty. It may (spoiler alert!) result in prison time, permanently broken relationships, and emotional pain. But facing up to the reality of the ways BoJack has hurt people is the right thing to do, the show suggests. And by doing so, in spectacular and deeply moving fashion, BoJack cements its legacy as one of the good shows — in all senses of the word.
When BoJack Horseman premiered in 2014, it was a clever satire of the entertainment industry set in a kooky animated world of animals, humans, and hybrids, full of ingenious puns and sight gags that made it a somewhat niche viewing experience if you didn’t know, for example, who noted character actress Margo Martindale is. BoJack, in particular, was a familiar archetype — deeply sad, steeped in self-loathing, quick with the sardonic one-liners, always deliberately pushing people away in spite of his desperate need to be loved. BoJack could have been any number of brooding TV antiheroes from the 2010s, as the Mad Men–esque opening credits suggest, and the show itself spoofs that idea in later seasons with BoJack’s role in the dark detective drama Philbert.
And BoJack could have kept doing what it was good at — could have continued to be a low-stakes satire, or a realistic look at the experience of depression without any suggestion of real growth, of real change, of real accountability. But BoJack’s great accomplishment — its genius, really — as the show has progressed is the writers’ willingness to make clear that being damaged doesn’t justify hurting other people. It’s a heartening message. And it’s a message that might not have come from a different creator.
Bob-Waksberg has been consistently willing to publicly work through and address the show’s occasional slipups. When some people criticized the casting of Alison Brie, who is white, as the voice of Diane Nguyen, who is supposed to be Vietnamese American, Wakesburg was candid in a 2018 Slate interview about how he wouldn’t have made that same casting decision today. Bob-Waksberg’s thoughtful explanation of how he came to that conclusion has none of the defensiveness of, say, Matt Groening talking about the debate over The Simpsons character Apu.
BoJack cements its legacy as one of the good shows — in all senses of the word.
So in many ways, it’s fitting that the last season of BoJack grapples openly with the question of accountability. When BoJack gets word that there’s a big Hollywoo Reporter exposé coming, he freaks out. “They can’t get me on old shit, I’m a different person now!” a gray-haired BoJack exclaims, panicked, in his university office in “Sunk Cost and All That.” His manager and ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) immediately flips into crisis manager mode. She tells him to write a statement acknowledging that some parts of the story are true and others are not. “Then, in everyone’s head, you’ve apologized for the really bad stuff without legally implicating yourself,” she explains. Diane proposes another route: “I think you should do the hard thing and be honest. You can’t spend the rest of your life waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
And so BoJack is honest — to a degree. He agrees to a tell-all interview with journalist Biscuits Braxby (you’ve got to love the alliteration on this show) where he admits that he has addictions to drugs and alcohol, that he was there when Sarah Lynn died. And it’s a hit.
“Am I crazy or did I nail that?” says an excited BoJack after the interview. “It was good, right? People are going to like it?”
They do like it, and BoJack becomes a hero. “Poignant Pony Professes Penitence, Provokes Pity,” reads one trade paper headline. He’s praised for his bravery and honesty. His teaching position at Wesleyan is safe. But in typical BoJack fashion, he is so enamored of his own performance that he agrees to do another interview. In the second conversation, Biscuits (Daniele Gaither) goes in on BoJack and points out his pattern of dating women who don’t have as much power as him.
“I just see this story of you taking young women, grooming them—”
“I didn’t groom them!” says BoJack, growing more indignant. “I didn’t even have sex with [Sarah Lynn] until she was 30!” The interview ends with Biscuits summarizing the damning facts of the case: that BoJack waited 17 minutes to call the police after finding Sarah Lynn unconscious at the planetarium; that he had inadvertently introduced Sarah Lynn to alcohol when they were both working on Horsin’ Around.
Predictably, the fallout from the interview is horrendous. The public turns ferociously against BoJack; suddenly he’s radioactive — and broke, after he’s sued by Sarah Lynn’s parents. Hollyhock stops answering his calls. BoJack goes on one last epic bender and, in the fantastic penultimate episode, we wonder if he’s dead as he eats dinner with dead friends and family members in some sort of existential purgatory.
BoJack’s great accomplishment — its genius, really — is the writers’ willingness to make clear that being damaged doesn’t justify hurting other people.
In short, everything horrible that could possibly happen to BoJack — the comeuppance he so deeply feared — comes to pass. In the last episode of the series, we learn that he’s been sentenced to 14 months in prison, “officially for breaking and entering, but I think it was really kind of for everything.” He’s been released for the weekend to attend Princess Carolyn’s wedding. The writers could have killed BoJack as Breaking Bad did with Walt or left him in some ambiguous state like Tony in The Sopranos — where we are spared from witnessing the antihero’s utter abjection. But instead, BoJack’s writers do something arguably harder and more nuanced. They suggest that there are consequences for actions, that there will be punishment. But there is also the possibility of redemption.
Of course, in real life, justice is rarely ever meted out this fairly. Even in the show, there are people BoJack harmed, like Dr. Champ and Gina, who appear to never recover. And the advice that Princess Carolyn gives BoJack — to write an apology that admits some fault but doesn’t legally implicate him — is essentially what Kobe Bryant did in 2004. It’s what Louis CK did (much less successfully), and Russell Simmons. The world is full of apologies from men who are sorry that people got hurt, but won’t take full responsibility for their role in causing that hurt.
There are still a lot of questions raised by all of these stories, real and fictional, that we don’t know how to answer. Are we defined by our worst behavior? Should one isolated bad action be judged differently from a pattern of predatory behavior? What happens when that behavior was provoked by alcohol or drugs? How do you measure contrition? Is the public owed an apology, or only the victim(s)? These are difficult questions, ones that BoJack Horseman has grappled with in really thoughtful ways.
There’s one particular line uttered in the show that feels perfectly accurate and apt in this moment, because it’s both the reason why “bad” men keep coming back, and the reason why a second act and the possibility of redemption is always at hand. BoJack muses about a possible return to Hollywood and Princess Carolyn tells him, “People have short memories. It’s the best and worst thing about people.”●