The fifth season of Netflix’s sad horse show has been out long enough that we can explore some more complicated ideas—and speculate about the recently-commissioned sixth season—without my having to pepper this with spoiler alerts. But of course, you know, spoiler alert here.
It’s difficult to peg exactly what narrative arc is happening on Bojack Horseman right now. You’d think, storytelling-wise, that we’d be at the point where the titular horse would be entering a true redemption arc, or at least a bit of an upswing. That’s not… that’s not what’s happening. This tale of a broken former actor attempting to reclaim his fame while fixing his broken, uh, entire being has been on this slope since the very beginning of the series. Episode One involves picking apart the self-hatred and self-destruction that has marked the last decade plus of Bojack’s life, as he begins a journey of introspection that eventually takes him from surrendering to be a broken shell of a being to taking the first baby-steps towards being an actual person. Or horse. Or horse-person. That’s tricky.
The journey that Raphael Bob-Waksberg has lead us through over the last few years has seen a brutal pattern: for each step towards redemption or being a better person, Bojack must take two (or ten) steps backwards. It’s been a revelatory portrayal of self-improvement. After all, nothing works like a sitcom: just trying to do better does not make you better and people will not forgive you for your first and only attempt. Perhaps that’s why it was extra important to do this with a former sitcom star; someone trained and controlled by a pattern of irrational emotional story beats designed for breezy entertainment.
To provide the alternating chutes and ladders along the way, Bojack’s world is filled out with other characters that occupy all positions along the spectrum of power and across the ethical grid. If the first season, the entire ensemble existed to remind Bojack Horseman that what he was doing was wrong and that he needed to make better choices, or at least stop damaging everything in his orbit. Or, perhaps better put, that was the thrust of the entire world. Those closest to Bojack had to juggle some variation on being overly supporting, softening the truth so that he wouldn’t spiral, pushing him to acknowledge he had the potential to become a better being, and/or spitballing methods by which he might accomplish these tasks. Bojack’s inability to differentiate between the good pitches, the bad plans, and the absolute worst ideas (his own) was the main source of his game becoming that of Chute & Chutes as he kicked the ladders out from under himself.
The subtle shift over the last few seasons has left the inner orbit of Bojack’s world completely broken. There are no longer any adults left in the room. Each of the possible guiding lights is now dark, as those characters whose most notable facet was “reliability” have each moved on (sometimes literally) and have their own demons to battle. Again, this is Bojack Horseman throwing out the expected TV arc, and denying the audience the release that would come with the sitcom solution. Here, not only is our troubled antagonist too flawed to fix himself, but the emotional labor and intertwined lives of the other name characters is an albatross pulling them down. It’s a brutal process of watching those who love and care about someone burn out completely and, in the wake of that, unlearn the very lessons they originally meant to impart upon Bojack.
So while this season dabbles in a number of bigger cultural issues, there’s also an immense drop-off in the percentage of screen time spent in farcical whims. This is suddenly a much more serious show with a much more serious endgame. The decision to use an entire season and avoid almost any attempts at Bojack “improving” makes a case for where I think the show is heading next.
It’s time for Bojack to embrace Radical Acceptance.
A modified form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Radical Acceptance requires the patient to accept the reality of the world around him. Mostly, this includes the understanding that the events of the past cannot be changed, and that if doing good in the world is your ultimate goal, wasting time and energy on being angry and self-loathing is doing no one any good.
I’m aware it’s very armchair psychology, but I’m also such a fan of the show that I was taken aback to this season’s strange stagnation. When looking back on the previous seasons and what it felt like they were heading for, I suppose this is the ultimate version of denying the audience that release they expect. “When does Bojack get better?” is a question replaced now by “When does everyone get through this?” The entire world of Bojack Horseman is becoming noticeably worse. The only way to correct that course may be to give up on some things, and giving up on Bojack himself would’ve saved almost all the other protagonists from their current fate.
But that’s too bleak.
The season ends on Bojack abandoning Bojack. His self-made plans and his own moral compass never fixed the problems he set out to control, as evidenced by his ever loosening control over his vodka delivery system. But Diane believes in him and that belief is not misplaced, and she helps deliver her friend to a system of care that is, perhaps most importantly, not reliant on her or her further efforts. Bojack has to do the work now, and he’ll be guided by people who he cannot destroy in the process. And perhaps by finally setting aside his self-imposed redemption goals (that could never actually be satisfied) he’ll return to this world with the energy and the empathy to save everyone else. If the power of emotional destruction is cyclical, I think this is the kind of show that could prove forgiveness is cyclical as well.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.