3P Reviews

3P Reviews: Bojack Horseman, Season Five

Bojack Horseman Season 5 A

Series Breakdown Rating:

Characters: 8
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Humor: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Subplots: 9
Sum: 37/50

 

Spoilers: Yes

Audience Assumptions: No familiarity

 

Season Five – **

 

Part One: Adulthood

I’m not sure how long this series intends to run, but five seasons is pretty admirable. Because the series has more of an overarching narrative than more episodic animated shows like South Park or The Simpsons, I don’t imagine Bojack Horseman is going to continue into twelve or twenty seasons. However, it’s not really showing much indication of slowing down. Keeping all that in mind, I think it’s worth examining the arcs of the major characters so far to see where they might eventually end up.

Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter have largely been intertwined up until now, though they represent different aspects of a related arc. Mainly, they’re each concerned with navigating the pitfalls of an imperfect marriage. Mr. Peanutbutter’s arc develops in this season substantially, and combined with his character development overall, we might say it’s concerned with him failing to restrain himself in pursuing what he wants. Mr. Peanutbutter starts the series as a naive socialite who has good intentions, but is ultimately too self-centered to realize other people think poorly of him. He reveals that he knows what people think of him, doesn’t care because living this way makes him happy. However, especially in this season, Mr. Peanutbutter has to confront the idea that he’s not really happy, and that he can’t keep blaming other people.

Diane meanwhile is stuck trying to live a fantasy, imagining each step of her life moving in some direction that will make her famous and influential the way she’s always hoped. She settles for whatever job comes her way, imagining each one will be the next stepping stone to her dreams. She has a fabulously wealthy husband she loves, friends with means, and a platform where she can voice her opinion in a way many people can’t. However, over the course of the series, Diane realizes that she’s stuck herself with bad decisions. She’s drawn in by the idyllic sales pitch and holds out hope that something grand will come of these opportunities, and when she realizes she’s deluded herself, she doesn’t know how to ease away gently. Diane has an unhealthy habit of letting things build up until they crack under pressure, and her arc is largely about her gradually becoming more wise to this habit. In this season, she continues to stick with friendships and jobs that are unhealthy for her, but she’s making progress toward figuring out how to handle them.

Todd probably has the clearest arc in the series, starting out as a freeloader on Bojack’s couch and eventually finding his passion, getting involved in personal projects, recognizing when his friends are using him, reconnecting with his girlfriend, moving out of a toxic house, turning a profit, figuring out his sexual orientation, taking charge of his romantic life, and, in this season, landing a professional job. Todd takes on increasing responsibility in each season and grows as a person as aresult. A lot of Todd’s arc is about becoming self-reliant and coming into his own as a main character beyond just contributing jokes. Much of this is done through his relationship with Bojack, which becomes more strained and distant as the series progresses. Curiously, while Todd grows more responsible and successful as the series goes on, he also tends to grow more cynical and world-weary, gradually losing the kindness that defined him in the first season, though this trend is somewhat subtle.

Princess Carolyn’s arc mainly concerns her trying to figure out what she wants out of life. Like Diane, she imagines herself in a position of power and influence some day. While she’s on track to get there and readily capable of it given enough time, she spends much of the series realizing how stressful and ultimately disappointing her line of work is. The active environment gives her something she desperately wants — a challenge — but that alone is insufficient, especially when she’s likewise stressed out by other aspects of her life. Princess Carolyn seeks success, but it’s really more of a means to an end. She wants to retire early in an idyllic place so she can raise a family and feel like her life had meaning. Eventually, she comes to realize that she’ll never have that dream, at least not the way she imagines it. While it seems perfect on the surface, it’s someone else’s dream that she’s been told to pursue; in reality, Princess Carolyn needs to stay stimulated and find her own path. She needs to recognize her limitations and work with them instead of glossing over them. Her recognizing that she won’t get to retire early or have her own child are significant contributions to her arc, as is her becoming closely involved in Philbert.

You’ll notice that most of these arcs are in some way about growing up. All of the characters are immature in some way, and in order to find happiness, they need to confront that immaturity. These characters all come from some level of privilege, not having to worry about money or their jobs, and because of this, they all start the series having experienced relatively few hurdles in life. Even things that would normally bring someone to their knees often have had little impact on these characters because they’ve been buffered by their connections, their finances, their renown, or sheer luck. As the series develops, though, they’re steadily put under more refined pressures at the writer’s discretion, challenged on levels carefully tailored to each of them. Their only recourse is to become adults and face these challenges head-on.

Bojack is a more complicated case than the others. He doesn’t really grow in any direction; his character development is a series of oscillations. He often starts a season in a relatively good position, experiencing hardships in the latter half, and recovering ground just a bit in the last episode. This is true of his maturity, his relationships with the other characters, and his overall happiness. However, spotting a long-term trend among the seasons beyond this oscillation is difficult.

Bojack seems to become more successful each season as he stars in more lucrative roles and challenges his acting potential, though whether Philbert is a step up from Secretariat is debatable. The end product certainly seems to be an improvement, and Bojack also seems to become gradually more mature as he repairs his relationships and forges new ones. His drug addiction also seems to improve from season to season, or at least he becomes more aware and apprehensive of it. But for every improvement Bojack seems to make, there’s a backtrack to go along with it. The series seems intent on making the character suffer to show that he’s unstable. He gets a girlfriend, then dumps her to go creep on old friend. He gets nominated for an Oscar, then gets a friend killed. He parents his estranged daughter and reconnects with his mother, then gets one of them drunk and abandons another in a ramshackle nursing home. He starts to reduce his alcohol dependence, then gets addicted to opioids and strangles a co-worker.

Bojack doesn’t really grow up, he just gets more experienced. I suppose one could fairly readily make an argument that the amplitude of the oscillations increases as the seasons go on; the highs get higher, and the lows get lower. Eventually this seems like it has to reach a breaking point and Bojack will just linger near one of those extremes, but as I said in my last review, I don’t imagine that will come anytime soon.

I wanted to open my review of this season by looking back on the characters because all of them have undergone some pretty dramatic changes and endured a lot. But Bojack stands out as having one of the weaker arcs among the main characters. His is the most predictable and repetitive, and while the show clearly wants him to suffer more than any of the others with no light at the end of the tunnel, I can’t help but feel that’s no longer a compelling part of this narrative. What is there to say about Bojack at this point? He’s an asshole. He does good things sometimes, and he tries to be a good person when he royally fucks up, but five seasons of this and I don’t really have the capacity to give a damn anymore. He feels like a caricature more than a living person, not because his actions aren’t realistic, but because the circumstances orchestrating them are too artificial.

This is never more apparent when the show tries to show what’s going on inside of Bojack’s tortured mind, as it does heavily in the latter half of this season. It doesn’t feel edgy or dramatic the way I think the show intends. Instead, it feels condescending. I know this character, just as any audience member would. The reason he worked so well in the last season was because we saw so little of him; we were seeing him from the outside after spending so long in close proximity to him as the single main character. Now the rest of the characters are flourishing and we’re eager to see Bojack from their points of view, but the show insists on backtracking and centering Bojack again. We’ve already seen that. We know what it looks like.

 

Part Two: Will Versus the Bottle

I find stories about addiction fascinating in that “peering between your fingers” sort of way. They’re deeply unsettling and often heartbreaking, even more so because unlike trainwrecks, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least know an addict. I consider myself fairly lucky to have little personal experience with it, and that’s a bizarre thing to say when I know multiple people who have been through rehab. Addiction (I’m including alcoholism in the term) is pervasive, and while plenty manage to live productive lives with occasional indulgences, the story of those brought to their knees by substance abuse is far too common.

As with any illness, I think there are some ethical considerations we as producers and consumers of fictional media should acknowledge in portraying addiction. For a long time, addiction — especially alcoholism — was considered a moral failing, something that befell the weak-willed and that could be overcome through sheer strength. We now understand addiction as a medical condition that is multi-layered and chemically-based, but the stigmata associated with it are difficult to shake. How many times have you seen a character who is irresponsible, reckless, and morally degenerate also happen to be a hardcore addict? What about someone who is professional, well-kempt, and restrained? While cultural context increases or reduces the likelihood of someone becoming an addict, that has far more to do with access to healthcare, financial and social stability, cultural expectations, and laws governing access to drugs. Physically, there’s nothing distinguishing the well-kempt professional from the moral degenerate in terms of whether they might become addicted to drugs; the genes that influence vulnerability to drug addiction have nothing to do with personality or social situation. Cultural context matters, and it’s important to decouple the idea of the person from the situation they’re in.

Addiction itself doesn’t make you an asshole, nor are you addicted because you are an asshole. Fiction often struggles with this concept, and Bojack Horseman is no different.

The series sets itself up from the start to be about addiction, with Bojack confessing that he’s driven to an interview while drunk in the first episode. This is meant to impart to us the idea that Bojack is inconsiderate for choosing to drive while intoxicated, and also to suggest that he’s a washed-up actor who’s gone off the deep end. The tone of the scene is comedic, but it has a dark tinge to it given the subject matter and the juxtaposition with Bojack’s lighthearted character on Horsin’ Around. The show demonstrates that it intends to use drugs as a comedic point and eventually turn them into something more horrific.

From there, the series adopts a couple of different attitudes toward drug addiction. Because the show wants to use Bojack’s addiction for dramatic purposes, it needs him to stay addicted. Him going through benders and experiencing the negative side effects of the drugs he’s on presents the character with internal turmoil that can be displayed visually. It’s easy to show that a character is in a bad situation when they’re slumped over on a ratty bed in a dingy motel with heroin needles scattered around the floor; culturally, this is the most readily apparent symbol of rock bottom. Drug and alcohol usage is full of similar cliches, like the lone bar patron downing a whole bottle of whisky or the drunk prom queen vomiting into a houseplant. That’s not to say that people don’t experience these situations from time to time, but they have specific connotations in fiction that play into the media’s theme or message.

Bojack’s drug addiction is paralleled with his antisocial behaviors. Bojack drinks, does something mean, feels bad about it, drinks some more, and does something even worse. Go back far enough on this chain of events and you’ll have difficulty attributing which came first; you’ll often find Bojack acting out of spite while apparently level-headed, but at the same times, the series regularly establishes that he’s always somewhat intoxicated. The show appears to find causality irrelevant, and that’s fine. Good, even. Whether Bojack’s addiction is directly linked to his personality has little bearing on the thematic significance of what he does. It has consequences for the plot — it’ll determine whether Bojack is “cured” after going through rehab — but in the end, that’s not really important. This show is impactful, as most shows are, because we sympathize with the characters. Attributing a straightforward cause to Bojack’s problems is uninteresting.

However, with that in mind, it’s important to realize that the show’s apparent disinterest in establishing a link between addiction and personality is an artifact. It’s one interpretation, and I would argue it’s not even the strongest; far more of the series seems to be built around the idea that Bojack’s drinking is his vice. In the flashbacks, Bojack states on multiple occasions that he doesn’t drink, suggesting a sort of fall from grace as he became a movie star. By ostracizing his friend and abandoning his love interest for a shot at glory, Bojack effectively sold his soul to Hollywood, and showing him fall prey to alcoholism is an effective representation of that. We see him become more of an alcoholic as time goes on, exemplified in Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos. The negative effects of addiction are the fine print in his deal with the devil, and ultimately the thing that always brings him to his knees, whether he’s the one using or not. It sours his relationships, often irrevocably, and it domineers his life to the point where he can’t escape, even when he tries.

While undeniably effective as a metaphorical representation of Bojack’s problems, I can’t help but worry about the connotations produced by ascribing metaphorical meaning to a real-world phenomenon, especially one so stigmatized. Saying Bojack’s addiction represents his self-destructive tendencies oversimplifies both. It’s too neat; real life is complex, and this show is eager to explore its complications. Diane’s liberalism or Todd’s shenanigans can be ascribed meaning beyond their stated role in the story, but the show purposefully avoids judging those attributes in clear colors. Sometimes they’re harmful, sometimes they’re necessary, sometimes they’re there to establish a pun. But not addiction; the show is much more adamant that addiction is symbolic, and that causes a cascade of problems.

For one, it absolves Bojack of any responsibility for his actions, even those done while sober, because the implication is that if he weren’t an addict, he would be a nicer person and probably wouldn’t have done those things. The series also does this with Bojack’s difficult childhood, framing it as an explanation for his behavior. When elements of a story line up neatly, the audience is funneled to dangerously simple conclusions: Bojack is a nice guy, he’s just misunderstood. That’s not the sort of mindset you want to hear if you’ve been on the wrong end of someone like Bojack.

In implying a causal link between Bojack’s addiction and his personality, the show also plays into the harmful trope that addiction is based in willpower. If addiction is portrayed as a monster, then there’s a narrative suggestion that the character has to combat it to defeat it. Similar language is used in describing other medical conditions, like cancer (battling, defeating, surviving cancer). Sometimes this is a useful paradigm, both for people with and without a given medical condition. However, it also suggests an end state of victory, which really just isn’t how life works. You don’t “win” at addiction. You treat it, and you live with it; it’s a process, not an event.

The way we frame these sorts of things has consequences. We associate failure, especially in battle, with physical weakness, even though that’s not really how war works either. It makes a better story if the winning side is stronger or smarter or more tenacious and that’s the reason they won, but storytellers need to be aware of what they’re saying narratively when they fudge reality like that. If the cultural expectation is that an addict defeats addiction by being strong, what are we saying if they need help from others, or if they backtrack? What are we saying if they give up?

Making something more dramatic often means cutting off other routes for exploration. The series has something to say about Bojack, and to make its point crystal clear, it removes all ambiguity or clutter. This technique packs a punch, but being punched isn’t a wholly positive experience. Bojack’s character is the simplest of the bunch, and also the most problematic. By preventing us from viewing him in variable light, the show forces conclusions on the audience that they may not agree with. Your enjoyment of Bojack, therefore, is largely dependent on how much you agree with how he’s framed.

This was the first season where I skipped through episodes on my initial run-through. The particular point was halfway through The Showstopper, where Bojack starts hallucinating a surreal dreamscape. I found myself wholly uninterested in Bojack’s confusion between his life and the character he was playing. I could see where this development was going, and it was kneecapping the pacing of the series. I wanted to see what was happening with anyone other than Bojack — I wanted to see how his delusions were affecting them. The series was reluctant to explore anything other than Bojack, so I ended up skipping through a good third of the episode.

I went back later, of course, out of guilt more than anything else, but I had a question hanging over my head the whole time: What am I getting out of this section that couldn’t be delivered in a single line or shot? What new information does this sequence convey?

And I kept on coming up empty-handed because even if there’s something novel in Bojack’s delusions and fever dreams, it’s small and insignificant. There’s a somewhat famous pitfall in parody that happens when the audience doesn’t find the jokes very funny. In trying to mock something, you run the risk of promoting it instead, becoming the very thing you disdain. The Showstopper is not meant to be humorous; Bojack confusing his life with the melodramatic crime show he’s filming is played mostly serious, with jokes coming primarily from any character other than Bojack. The consequence is that when Philbert’s actions are overdrawn and conceited, so are Bojack’s, and because Bojack is framed in a grim, tragic light, so is Philbert. We know Philbert is overwritten and generic. Emulating it isn’t likely to gain much sympathy from the audience, especially when it leads to Bojack strangling one of his coworkers. If the show intends to point out how much of an asshole Bojack is, then I’ll ask the question I’ve posited to this show many times before: Why are we seeing it from his point of view?

This season revisits the pedophile subplot, touching on some very cogent observations about human behavior and forgiveness. In the environment the show has cultivated, though, I don’t think I can watch anything regarding this subplot anymore, at least not where Bojack is involved. I’m not entirely sure I’ll find it worthwhile to watch much of anything involving Bojack on his own. Whether the show wants to redeem him in practice, it’s demonstrated an affinity toward automatically forgiving him. And I just can’t do that. Stories are participatory, and in this case, I choose not to participate. I still care about the other characters, and I still care about this series’ ability to communicate complex ideas. I’ll still watch the show, because it’s worth it for everything else. But if I find a way to receive all that without having to sit through thirty minutes of Bojack feeling sorry for himself, puerile or not, I’m going to take it.

 

Part Three: Needs More Todd

Heavy stuff out of the way, let’s talk about something fun. Like a funeral!

Free Churro is very similar in structure to the underwater episode, in that it has a clear gimmick and is all about Bojack’s life and theme. Some people are going to love this episode. Maybe most people. It’s intense and could very well bring tears to your eyes because it’s entirely Bojack giving a eulogy at his mother’s funeral, and it’s a powerful eulogy. I could go into great depth about the relevance the eulogy has to people in real life as they grieve and remember loved ones. I won’t, though; other people have already done that, and better than I ever could.

What I can do is criticize, though, given that I haven’t seen much discussions of this episode’s weaker points. This isn’t the only experimental episode this season, but it is the most rigid in format, and as I mentioned earlier, that rigidity limits its interpretation. Almost all of the weight of the episode is placed on the eulogy because even camera angles and lighting in the episode are minimal. The eulogy is decent, but only if it’s judged by the same criteria as a real eulogy.

It pains me to say it, but narratively, this episode is unnecessary. The thesis of the eulogy is effectively, Bojack’s mother is dead, he expected to feel either elated or distraught from it, he’s not either, and he doesn’t really know how to cope with that. This is a relatable concept that you can dissect further, but it tells us very little about the character giving it. Nothing Bojack says couldn’t somehow be surmised from past events, and it has no real impact on later episodes, either. For story purposes, it could have been fifteen minutes shorter, and I don’t know that sacrificing fifteen minutes of narrative for it was worthwhile.

I’m sure plenty of people would disagree with me, though. I kind of feel like this episode should have been an aside, like a bonus episode or even a voice recording (the voice acting is of course excellent), but as a full episode, I find it to be a bit much. I can’t help but feel that it was always going to be praised for being artistic and covering an emotional topic, which, whether true or not, taints my enjoyment of it.

My disappointment in this season is only partly on Bojack, though. While I dislike that his contributions to the story take away from time that could be better spent with the other characters, I also feel that their portions of the story are, on average, much weaker than usual. All of them get great moments, don’t get me wrong, but the moments between these are underwhelming. It doesn’t help that the season both reduces their impact and screentime after about the halfway point.

Todd first, because Todd is the best character. This is probably his weakest season overall, mainly because he’s not in it nearly enough. When he does show up, though, he’s appropriately brilliant. This season, much more so than the last one, tries to involve Todd’s asexuality in his comic hijinks, and as an asexual, I fucking love it. The farcical subplot in Planned Obsolescence where Todd meets Yolanda’s sex-obsessed parents is utterly absurd and a beautiful demonstration of why every series needs more asexual characters. Look at the comedic gold you’re missing out on! How else would you get glorious lines like, “The big toe is the penis of the foot?” It’s genuinely nice to see the series explore situations with its asexual characters beyond cliches, and I can’t express enough how important it is to me that the series never questions the existence or legitimacy of its asexual characters. The series addresses that some aces do have sex, but it also shows that some of them (Todd in particular) aren’t comfortable with it. And it never judges them for it.

Also, the sex robot is 100% perfect in every way. Two dildos, a butt plug, a mysterious purple fluid, and an awkward voice recording of weird sexy phrases? Yep, sounds good!

Todd has some surprisingly touching character moments in this season as well. Yolanda lies about his education to her parents, which prompts him to realize they have nothing in common other than their asexuality and that’s not a healthy basis for a relationship. He’s put in a position of power over the other characters when he accidentally ascends the corporate ladder, and he takes it pretty seriously. He holds the other characters accountable and uses his authority as intended, which is a bit weird, but nice. I mean, okay, he does accidentally replace the CEO of the company with his sex robot and subsequently get everyone fired, but we’re working with baby steps here. The mere fact that he built the sex robot in a horribly misguided attempt to woo Emily is adorable.

Princess Carolyn gets her own episode that delves into her backstory. It’s nuanced, insightful, and builds upon her established character, revealing her relationship with her mother and a long history of painful miscarriages. She spends much of the season running her new show and attempting to adopt a baby, frequently being challenged by the idea that she can do both. Overall, I would say that she doesn’t get a lot of time in this season, but like Todd, the time she does get is mostly well-spent (mostly). Regardless, she eventually receives a newborn baby, and even though Philbert gets cancelled, she ends the season on a rare positive note.

Mr. Peanutbutter also has a good season, and a surprisingly deep one at that. He and Diane have broken up but are trying to stay friends (yeah, that goes well), leaving Mr. Peanutbutter free to date. He finds a pug, Pickles, who has a personality very similar to his own, and they click immediately, but Mr. Peanutbutter eventually realizes that she, like the other women he’s dated, is very young, only twenty-five while he’s got to be at least pushing fifty. The Halloween episode Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos explores his relationships with his past wives and the consistent problems he’s faced with them, mainly stemming from his own flaws. Diane points out to him that he needs to become more mature or his relationships will keep falling apart, and he starts to consider it seriously. Eventually, he realizes that his relationship with Pickles is only going to end tragically for both of them, but true to form, he panics while about to break up with her and proposes instead.

Of the side characters, Diane has arguably the least compelling season arc, but she still gets a few good points, especially in the episode where she goes to Vietnam. The series is doing this irritating thing that I kind of hoped it had finished in the first season after Diane got married, but apparently it’s back; the show’s basically trying to push Diane and Bojack into a relationship. I find this excessively tedious, but it’s offset somewhat by Diane learning that Bojack got involved with a teenage girl in New Mexico a few years back. She’s willing to overlook Bojack’s actions as a friend, perhaps too optimistically, and her discomfort about the subject occupies much of her time throughout the season. She has something of an epiphany when she first confronts Bojack about it and realizes he’s looking to forgive himself more than he’s looking to make up for nearly sleeping with Charlotte’s daughter. Her response has tones — albeit lighter ones — of Todd’s monologue in Season Three.

Overall, the season has its merits, but it’s one of the weaker ones. It’s easily the most artistic, which is somewhat jarring for a series whose merits are mainly in its writing, but I have to give the animators credit. This season is the most daring in its structure, with multiple episodes that buck the series’ conventions. Sometimes this falters a bit for me, as with the Bojack-centered episodes, but it’s really more the result of the writing than the visuals.

I should mention that this season breaks the fourth wall fairly often, which is also a bit of an odd design choice. Occasionally, this allows the series to deliver commentary on its own material, but it can be somewhat hit or miss. Some of the fourth wall breaks suggest to me that the series recognizes problems in the way it portrays Bojack, which is insightful and welcome. However, the series also opts to claim that Princess Carolyn and Todd’s subplots — specifically the comedic ones — are inferior to Bojack’s whinging. It even makes a point to cut away from them for no reason other than to point out that it can do so and get away with it. I don’t suppose my dreams of the minor characters becoming more important than Bojack are in the show’s long-term future.

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