“You say you want to get better, but you don’t know how.” This statement, repeated multiple times during the trailer, wholly captures the theme of season five of the critically acclaimed Bojack Horseman. The whole season is about characters chasing a goal that will purportedly make them a better version of themselves. All the characters cocoon themselves in a narrative they have set for themselves. The show puts them through trials that incite them to break out of the cocoons and hopefully emerge as butterflies.
The titular character, Bojack, wants to stop the vicious cycle of destruction that seems to follow him; Princess Carolynn, the pink cat who drowns herself in work, which she believes is her dream, wants a baby that she thinks will make her whole; Diane, the underappreciated writer, wants to provide solutions for her friends’ problems all the while fighting the pernicious hetero-normative standards of society; Mr. Peanutbutter, the happy-go-lucky dog, finally understands his immaturity and his own cycle of failed relationships, which he wants to rectify.
Of course, as it is the Bojack world, they are doing this in a society gripped by bureaucracy and capitalism. This season also explores themes like the patriarchy, accountability, balance (or lack thereof), nature of relationships, double consciousness, sexuality, pop culture’s influence on values and more.
It starts with Bojack finally finding succor in the knowledge of his easygoing relationship with Hollyhock, a sister-like figure that occupied the arc of season four. He rations his vodka by the days of the week. He goes to work as an actor in a detective TV series, Philbert, which oddly starts mirroring his life. But since this is Bojack, it doesn’t take long for his newfound sense of control to unravel, partly due to addiction and partly due to his inability to come to terms with his past. He tries to balance who he is and who he wants to be. And this is true for all the main characters. All of them straddle the line dividing their ideal selves and their current selves, which again is a mixture of public expectations and their own narratives.
In terms of entertainment, if the character arcs themselves aren’t entertaining, the season has plenty of standout episodes, many following episode six, the midpoint. But episode six is the high point among all high points. It basically features Bojack’s eulogy for his mother. The setting throughout is a funeral pulpit. This 26-minute monologue is emblematic of the show writers’ brilliance. In one swift stroke, the writers show Bojack’s dysfunctional relationship with his parents, the result of that and Bojack laments, “My mom died and all I got was this free churro!” stamping his view that the stranger who gave him that churro was more compassionate than his mother ever was. Bojack’s need for validation is perfectly exemplified by him forlornly remembering his mother’s last words: “I see you.”
The reason Bojack Horseman is a masterpiece is that it not only explores the damaged psyches of the characters but also does so in a socio-politically motivated climate. Diane, for example, fights against the “male-gazey” atmosphere prevalent in the movie industry, realizing that pop culture can normalize anything. She is met with bureaucracy and dogmatic attitudes of her coworkers and her boss, Flip, a self-involved writer who refuses to see the error of his ways. She does this while simultaneously trying to help Bojack deal with his self-set narrative in which he is a villain.
Bojack knows he is complicit in a society that values material and lets power go unchecked. He knows he has left a path of destruction behind, destroying himself in the process. He blames himself, his traumatic childhood, his addictions et cetera. He clearly is the villain.
But Diane offers a refreshing view: “There is no such thing as bad guys or good guys. We are all just guys who do good stuff sometimes and bad stuff sometimes, and all we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff, but you’re never going to be good because you’re not bad. So you need to stop using that as an excuse.” She ends by asking Bojack to be responsible for himself.
Is this the answer needed in a society that glorifies anti-heroes and their bad actions? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Accountability is certainly good, but what does it amount to when we have internalized an attitude of forgiveness that leads back to regressive behaviors. Bojack Horseman offers no easy, clearly defined answers to any of the questions it asks.
So even though it is inhabited by characters outside the normal, the world of Bojack mirrors ours. It makes its viewers question their ideas about the world and encourages discourse. And that is what is so appealing about the series, which seems to be impossibly bettering itself every season.
Rating: 5 out of 5