Firstly, I must issue a spoiler warning. I can’t really talk about a series like BoJack Horseman without allowing spoilers into my discussion – that being said, they’ll be kept to a minimum.
The series’ protagonist, the eponymous BoJack Horseman, is the product of a poisonous relationship, and has subsequently been nurtured by alcoholism, drug abuse, and irresponsibility to become the well-meaning and deeply damaged man-child we all know and… well, know.
BoJack’s emotionally fractured nature is something the series never shies away from. He’s a damaged man (or horse) and he damages all who encounter him. It shows the remarkable complexity of the series that he doesn’t become the antagonist, even despite its recognition of his emotional failures.
BoJack’s insular spiral of self-destruction affects those who love him and he is held to account for this within the show’s narrative. The fact that he was shaped by his success in the care-free days of 1980s/90s excess with the privilege of a TV star is not used as some weak excuse for behaviour no longer tolerated in today’s updated ethics. A cartoon comedy is rarely so brave in delving the depths of the darker elements of humanity, let alone portray so nakedly the complexities of their situation. He is accused of fetishising his own sadness. It’s a heavy accusation to level but one borne out by the series. BoJack is unwilling to move on and points to his own – very real – damages as excuses in doing so.
BoJack is an individual given to disappearances, binges, and self-destructing spirals, in place of any real therapy. His medication is alcohol and his therapy is recklessness. The series holds separately, but equally, that BoJack has good reason for his behaviour but that it is also not necessarily excusable. Whether by deliberate action or mistake, BoJack has become a part of other peoples’ lives and with that comes a degree of responsibility to which he is not equal.
Perhaps the clearest example of how BoJack’s contradictory personality is not given carte blanche due to his own likely clinical depression is the relationship he has with resident couch-surfer Todd Chavez. He may be a victim of an abusive childhood home and trying to find a direction in life but he cannot bank on his once-victimhood for a lifetime excusing him of his behaviour to the friends of his present. The dynamic between BoJack and Todd may initially suggest that Todd is useless and a traditional slacker who offers little to the relationship but the series turns that on its head and continues to show the near-homeless Todd as more powerful than the reckless drunkenness of BoJack. He has an emotionally healthy understanding of the world and while he may not seek to reach the heights of success BoJack does, he goes about his interactions with others in a truly open and uncalculated fashion. Todd aims for little other than a good relationship with his loved ones – and, as the series continues – a better understanding of his own self.
BoJack is neither hero nor villain in his own story as he has shown himself unwilling to take control of the direction his life is taking. He is content to be passive in his own story all too often. He gives his agency over to alcohol, partying, and reckless thrills. So, what does this make him? He’s shown too great an understanding of his connection with the outside world to continue his directionless role as passive victim in his own life story and the collective understanding of his failing would surely be too much for him.
BoJack’s social privilege and financial success does nothing to keep away his own personal insecurities. The series uses this base as a perfect point from which to make brutally incisive commentary on the fleeting nature of fame, the predatory values of Hollywood, and the universal fact that depression, anxiety, and the horde of emotional concern they can bring with them, can find us even in the highest castles and the greatest peaks of success.
The emotional stability of BoJack Horseman is all too often handed over to those close to him who have a stronger emotional maturity. Whether it be occasional lover and agent Princess Carolyn, biographer Diane Nguyen, or Todd Chavez, BoJack is surrounded by people willing to shoulder the burden of his emotional brokenness, not because they are the Hollywood hangers-on the series makes a profession of taking well-aimed shots at, but because they simply care for him. Seemingly unconsciously, BoJack abuses this connection. All these characters get pushed to the side by BoJack and their
own feelings go without due care in his pursuit of his behaviours. The result of this is not some damning indictment on BoJack and all he stands for, nor an acceptance of his own moral frailties. The result is to see that BoJack behaves in a certain way for very understandable reasons and is neither to be condemned nor enshrined for his behaviour. His ability to bring such a tight bunch of determined friends around him shows that he is capable of better than he sometimes shows.
At the end of each progressively intense – and emotionally broad – series, we have pealed back a little more of what makes this man- horse- horse-man, such a compelling character who speaks not only to the complexities of mental health but to privilege, Hollywood excess, and the absolute mess that relationships of all kinds can quickly become. BoJack Horseman forces you to will BoJack to better, knowing he has the ability (if not yet the strength) to do so. It doesn’t forgive him his failings but offers hope he can better himself. Truly, that is a real and grounded hope it offers its audience – there is always room for growth.
Words by Liam McNally.