BoJack Horseman's brilliant season 5 offers a stunning indictment of the show itself
BoJack Horseman's season 5 may not go down as its funniest, or cleverest, or most poignant. But it is by far the show's most brilliant season yet.
Note: This review contains spoilers for Bojack Horseman season 5. But first —
"My mother is dead, and everything is worse."
Even the most casual watcher of BoJack Horseman knows that its e-pony-mous [Season 5, episode 10 shout-out] protagonist doesn't share a particularly pleasant relationship with his mother. And by "doesn't share a particularly pleasant relationship" we really mean it's the absolute pits. BoJack's interactions with his mother, Beatrice Horseman (nee Sugarman), could make the aftermath of a nuclear explosion seem vastly preferable.
Yet, "My mother is dead, and everything is worse," BoJack says, when delivering the eulogy at Beatrice's funeral.
BoJack Horseman season five — all 12 episodes of which dropped on Netflix on 14 September — experiments boldly with its storytelling. And episode six, 'Free Churro' — the one in which BoJack speaks at his mother's funeral (or at a complete stranger's, as it turns out) — is among its most inventive. The entire 26-minute episode is delivered as a monologue, a BoJack stand-up special. The "comedy" — and he delivers laughs aplenty, despite the grim subject matter — is reminiscent of what Hannah Gadsby achieved with Nanette: an emotional sucker-punch, via seemingly blasé punchlines.
'Free Churro' is as near perfect as a BoJack Horseman episode could get. It is also a key to understanding this season. During his speech, BoJack's narrates a storyline from his hit '90s sitcom, Horsin' Around: Olivia (the oldest 'orphan' he fosters) is reunited with her mother, a recovering drug addict. Olivia is thrilled; she gets to spend quality time with her mother, and they plan to move to California. As BoJack points out, however, Olivia can't just have her happy ending, because Horsin' Around needs her character on the show as long as it continues. So the script depicts her mother suffering a relapse, and a broken-hearted Olivia having to hitchhike all the way home. "The show must go on," explains BoJack.
You see then, BoJack Horseman's conundrum. What began as the story of a washed-up, alcoholic, depressed, self-destructive character haunted by the ghosts of his past cannot veer away from its origins to give him an all-okay makeover. BoJack cannot get a happily-ever-after, because the show must go on. And for it to go on, BoJack must continue to remain desperately unhappy, and lost.
So a season that starts off on a (relatively) positive note, spirals downwards until BoJack has a crash-landing by its end.
At the start of season 5, BoJack has a new show (Philbert, featuring an alcoholic cop, haunted by the ghosts of his past), a new girlfriend (his Philbert love interest Gina), a fledgling relationship with his newly-discovered half-sister Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack, and is trying to cut back on his alcohol and drug use.
By the end of season 5, Philbert has been cancelled (its parent company What Time Is It Right Now is shuttered after sexual harassment complaints against its CEO — a sex robot called Henry Fondle, created by Todd), BoJack has developed a prescription drug dependency, and worst of all, he attacks Gina on set in a drug-addled haze. Even a visit from Hollyhock, which BoJack looks forward to, turns into a scavenger hunt for drugs when she flushes his pills down the drain.
Working on Philbert contributes to BoJack's unravelling. The similarities between the character he plays and his real self (the Philbert set is a replica of Bojack's own Hollywoo home) make BoJack suspicious, and uncomfortable. BoJack believes his director Flip (voiced perfectly by Rami Malek) is drawing from his life to etch Philbert. When Diane comes on board as a consultant for the show (to make Philbert less sexist, more woke) she scripts an episode that examines (what she's found out about) BoJack's near-dalliance with Penny, the 17-year-old daughter of his old friend Charlotte.
BoJack Horseman has always been self-aware, but in using this show-within-a-show device with Philbert, it takes this self-awareness to a whole other level. BoJack's commentary on celebrity culture, mental health and millennial life has always been spot-on. But with season five, it offers up an indictment of itself.
It does this (mostly) through Diane, the moral core of season 5.
Early on in this season (episode: 'The Dog Days Are Over'), we see her struggling after her separation from Mr Peanutbutter. She moves into a decrepit studio apartment, writes her click-bait stories for Girl Croosh ("Which soups do these celebrities most resemble?" 1. Orlando Bloom — Cheddar Broccoli Soup. 2. Julia Roberts — French Onion Soup. Etc), and navigates the "we're still friends" waters with her ex-husband. When her therapist advises a change of scene, Diane takes off for Hanoi, thinking she'll mix work with leisure by writing up a "Reasons to travel to Vietnam" listicle for Girl Croosh. In her hands, the listicle — some may say the lowest and laziest byproduct/article form to emerge from digital journalism — turns into a brutally honest exploration of identity, loneliness, and loss.
Amid her personal troubles, she's also giving BoJack the lowdown on Feminism 101.
Her new role as BoJack's mentor comes about when Princess Carolyn (the producer) and Flip (the director) of Philbert cast an actor to play the part of a bad-boy former partner of the show's protagonist. The problem is, the actor is an actual "bad boy" who'd make Mel Gibson look good. His transgressions include but are not restricted to: Leaving invective-laden messages for his young daughter, driving under the influence and attacking a cop who pulls him over, hurling anti-Semitic slurs, choking and hitting his former wife. Aided by his publicist (Ana Spanakopita, BoJack's PR manager from season 3) he's on the comeback trail, hoping to revive his stalled career. It's a shocking reflection of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood today — the way men accused of sexual harassment (and other unacceptable behaviour) have been staging triumphant returns, while the lives and careers of the women they victimised have mostly faded into oblivion. As one Twitter wit recently noted of disgraced comedian Louis CK's blink-and-miss "exile" — "My shampoo bottle lasted longer."
BoJack inadvertently becomes a feminist icon when he seems to disapprove of his new co-actor at an award ceremony (called "The Forgivies") and asks Diane to help him and his show actually be more enlightened.
Diane begins by lecturing BoJack on how pop culture normalises sexism and misogyny. By the time Philbert premieres, she realises how she has helped normalise the character's problematic behaviour with her contributions to the script. That by presenting the "we are all fallible" message of Philbert, she has also (unintentionally) presented the message that "it's okay to be an absolute asshole". And at the moment Diane has her realisation, you — as the viewer — have your realisation. That BoJack's showrunners are also pointing out how they have normalised the behaviour of their deeply flawed protagonist — a character who we've seen destroy the lives of many of the people closest to him, whether it's his onetime onscreen daughter Sarah Lynn, or Charlotte's daughter Penny, or his co-star/girlfriend Gina. And that while his troubled past may drive his behaviour, it certainly cannot excuse it.
The denouement is disconcerting. BoJack holds up a mirror to Philbert, then it holds up the mirror to itself, and then it holds up a mirror to you. You too are culpable, it says, for the way you've loved and followed without compunction the story of this character who's an asshole.
And just at that shattering moment of self-realisation, BoJack gives you — and its protagonist — the unexpected. It gives you compassion. Just as BoJack's mother gives him with her final words at the hospital: "I see you."
While performing its feats of narrative genius, season 5 also takes forward the stories of Todd (who's exploring the asexual dating scene, heading sales for What Time Is It Right Now, and building a sex robot), Mr Peanutbutter (who's found himself a new girlfriend called Pickles), and Princess Carolyn (who's juggling her quest to adopt a child with her newfound role as TV show producer). However, these feel less momentous in light of what's happening with BoJack and Diane. Still the three of them do get in some nice episodes: Todd gets 'Planned Obsolescence' (Hooray! Todd episode!), Princess Carolyn gets 'The Amelia Earhart Story' (after season 4's bittersweet 'Ruthie'), and Mr Peanutbutter gets 'Mr Peanutbutter's Boos' — a rare moment of soul-searching for everyone's favourite yellow Labrador Retriever.
The interactions between all the characters also gets a meta-look in episode 7, 'INT. Sub' or as you're more likely to call it, 'the one with BoBo the Angsty Zebra':
BoJack Horseman's season 5 may not go down as its funniest, or cleverest, or most poignant. But in ambition and achievement, it is by far the show's most brilliant season yet.
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