What is the worst thing you’ve ever done? How hard do you have to work to avoid thinking about it every day? And do you actually deserve to escape it?
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman has, nearly since the beginning of the series, ascended beyond the surface level aspects of its premise: An animated satire about a washed-up sitcom star (who happens to be an anthropomorphic horse). And that transcendence has always been courtesy of the show’s obsession with examining questions like the ones above.
Unfortunately, the new episodes of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s emotionally affecting dramedy don’t manage to hit the high points of the past — but that’s not the show’s fault. BoJack’s final season will be 16 episodes long, yet only the first eight were released this previous weekend, with the final set to come January 31, 2020. It’s a similar move to what Netflix has done in years past for shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Arrested Development.
The choice to do so here is a major handicap to what makes BoJack truly great. Every BoJack season to date has managed to feel like a complete journey for the characters, one which demands some dark emotional turns before an end which represents some hope for the future, and thus the decision to split up the sixth and final season makes these episodes a deeply unsatisfying experience.
One way of framing this review would be a whine about the “please sir, I want some more” of it all, instead of being grateful that at least there is still a little bit more of this stellar show to be enjoyed. But while other shows might be built to be split up in this way, BoJack has always been a noble example of how distinctly episodic storytelling can ultimately add up to so much more. The first eight episodes of Season Six just aren’t satisfying to viewers who have been previously willing to make big emotional leaps alongside this show’s choices, knowing that some sort of catharsis is coming for them. The end of Episode Eight redefines what a cliffhanger means in such a haunting way, leaving us on the precipice of many characters’ well-being.
In many ways, Season Six begins like many others — with BoJack determined to make his life better, despite whatever setbacks/emotional trauma he’d endured over the course of the previous season. This time, this is even more explicit, because at the end of Season Five, BoJack made the decision (with some help from Diane) to go to rehab. His time there stretches across multiple episodes, even after a somewhat easy-to-predict inspirational montage where BoJack’s difficulties with sharing, crafts, therapy and yoga are overcome.
Perhaps because recovery is about facing truths with no blinders (horse reference), no metaphors and no games are involved in BoJack’s emotional journey. Eventually, he does leave rehab, and while he maintains his sobriety and seems close to turning his life around, maybe even finding peace, the final episode of this block makes it clear that a dark turn is coming for him, literally ending on a question that may unravel everything.
It’s the characters who have chosen to largely separate themselves from BoJack who honestly seem to be doing the best in these episodes; Princess Carolyn might still be his agent, but she’s far more concerned with both her new adopted baby and the ongoing career of Mr. Peanutbutter, her new “favorite client,” especially now that his idea for a movie about a Birthday Dad has evolved into a new TV show. Todd’s on the verge of good things, but his potential reconnection with his parents and a new asexual love interest are just beginning to emerge. Diane’s storyline does draw in the show’s constant cynical engagement with The State of Things Today, as the online media company she works for pivots to video and she finds herself facing an even larger mega-corporation.
While the above characters have always been instrumental to the density of the world depicted by previous BoJack seasons, right now their individual searches for balance among all of the different pressures they and/or the rest of the world place upon them are hauntingly incomplete … until, hopefully, this January.
And that’s the most unsatisfying part of writing this review, because it is literally half a story, and while it’s hardly uncommon for critics to have a limited number of episodes with which to judge a season, BoJack is at its best when it’s able to paint a complete picture.
The final episode in this block, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” is perhaps one of the best episodes of the season when taken on its own. BoJack doesn’t appear once; instead, the entire episode showcases minor supporting players going back quite a long time, revealing how getting tangled up in BoJack’s life for even just one night caused them personal damage.
Gina Cazador, after getting strangled on the set of Philbert by a drugged out, delusional BoJack, is trying to build upon her career momentum. However, while Gina chose not to confirm publicly what happened to her because she didn’t want the story of assault by a co-worker to define the rest of her career, her trauma from that incident has now made her, in the eyes of her white male director, “difficult” to work with.
And then there’s poor Hollyhock, still trying to get past getting drugged by BoJack’s mother with diet pills, still trying to find a level of normalcy. Her hope, though, that attending a New York City party full of young strangers that don’t know her will let her figure out how to be normal ends up hitting a tragic dead end. At least, we can assume that, because she meets Pete Repeat, the high school boy who in Season Two had to take his prom date to the ER because BoJack, hours away from a bad situation with teenage Penny, had bought them way too much bourbon.
“A Quick One, While He’s Away” ending just before Pete tells Hollyhock about perhaps one of BoJack’s darkest moments to date, loops back to the great existential questions of this series, serving as a reminder that our choices in life send out ripples, ripples which might improve the lives of others… or, sometimes, send them topsy-turvy.
This is something reflected in the season’s new opening credits, after the first episode. While the previous seasons have always used the credits to unveil the ever-changing status quo of BoJack’s life, this season serves more as a montage of the show’s most brutal hits, largely focused around death and decay. We see at one point a drug den graffitied with the words “BoJack Kills.”
As an unabashed fan of BoJack, I have personally spent untold hours inflicting one of the lamest cards in the critics’ deck of cliches upon friends, family and random acquaintances: “You have to watch until [This Episode].” For me, that episode is Season One’s “The Telescope,” where the show’s understanding of how to invoke the past collides in a haunting way with the present, revealing the true potential of this series. It’s also an episode which reveals how BoJack’s use of flashbacks is perhaps its greatest, most deadly emotional superpower: No one can withstand how the dance of nostalgia, hard truth, and real consequences lead to damaged, even broken lives.
This is a long-term train of thought that BoJack Horseman is close to completing. But waiting another three months for the show’s final thoughts is going to be rough.
BoJack Horseman is streaming now on Netflix. The final episodes will premiere January 31, 2020.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.