Warning: contains season 4 spoilers
Empathy is essential to good storytelling. We don’t have to like our central characters as such, but it is imperative that we understand, relate to and feel for them. If that empathy dissipates then it can be very hard to muster up much passion for the story, particularly in serialised television.
At the end of BoJack Horseman’s generally strong but flawed third season, I had started to get a bit tired. Especially binged, the third season was so dark and certain actions of the central character so deplorable that I had reached the point where I no longer found myself wanting to continue following him. In interviews series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg asserted that things had to get worse before they got better, that BoJack needed to hit rock bottom before he could begin to improve, yet this seemed at odds with the fantastic ending of the second season, which suggested that the character was ready to learn and change until he went on to spend the third season doing exactly not that.
It made for a frustrating season of television that felt, more than BoJack ever had before, depressing and stagnant, and the prospect of another twelve episodes of the same was a grim one to consider. Luckily, early in season four, it became clear that we wouldn’t have to. That’s not to say season four isn’t dark. It is, sometimes shockingly so. But more than last year’s run, season four foregrounds hope and empathy in a way that elevates the show once again to the superlative heights of its second season. By centring on the theme of family; the ways in which human (or in this case animal) connections can both save and destroy us, BoJack finds a new clarity and focus that puts to rest any fears of stagnation.
The question of whether BoJack can change has always been intrinsic to the series, but season four approaches it from a fresh and interesting angle. While the death of Sarah-Lynn hangs over the character this year, it’s less central than you might think and there isn’t much of a search from redemption. BoJack recognises that changing is hard, especially when just about everyone you care about has abandoned you. It’s complicated; how much does a person deserve the patience and love that could save them if they keep burning every bridge? After all, the people around us all have their own problems, and at a certain point it makes more sense to focus on helping yourself than someone who won’t do the same. Refreshingly, BoJack is not the centre of everyone’s universe this year, and it takes a long time for many of the central characters to even share the screen with him.
For the most part, when they do the exchanges are brief and terse before they return to their own subplots. It’s a savvy move, one that allows the show room to focus on the new major relationship in our protagonist’s life, with a potential daughter who doesn’t yet know just how broken the man she has sought out is. Hollyhock gives BoJack a tangible and fresh reason to change after almost everyone else has given up, especially as we realise that she has her own problems and insecurities reflecting those of her ‘father’ (more on that final reveal shortly). This puts BoJack in a whole new position, one where he is forced to be less selfish due to the fact that he can see the warning signs of somebody else repeating his mistakes.
But, deeper than ever before, this run delves into just how miserable it is to be BoJack Horseman. It would be easy to put BoJack’s pain down to some vagaries about the emptiness of fame and success, but season four shows that the problems go a lot deeper than that. In a deeply sad series highlight we get an episode essentially tethered to BoJack’s perspective, a tiring and perfect depiction of just how crippling anxiety can be, how those biting voices in our heads can make it very hard for us to break out of cycles that might seem, at least on the surface, comforting. Mental illness can make day to day life an uphill struggle and while this fact should never be allowed to excuse bad behaviour, to a certain degree it does explain it and seen in this light expecting any clear redemption from BoJack seems like not only a tall order, but asking too much. For somebody with these demons, small steps are huge.
BoJack’s parents have a lot to answer for, but the empathy of season four refuses to allow them to just be villains. Taking out your misery on someone else is never acceptable, but misery always starts somewhere and for BoJack’s mother it started with a once happy family who were woefully unequipped to deal with the loss of one of their own. The second and penultimate episodes of the season hone right in on Beatrice Sugarman and her vibrant, wonderful mother, broken by the death of a son and the shortcomings of a husband and a society who saw lasting grief as a sickness to be cured. BoJack and subsequently Hollyhock fall prey to Beatrice’s particular brand of broken, but by the end of this season it’s hard to regard her with anything other than sympathy, leaving us angry at the son who blames his mother for trauma that ultimately was never her fault.
It’s here that the cleverness and empathy of BoJack Horseman comes to the fore, because while nobody is blameless, everybody is human and it’s impossible to avoid letting our own bitterness, resentments and demons spill into the way in which we live our lives. Recognising our flaws, an area in which BoJack far surpasses his mother, is a first step that some people are never able to take, and while it certainly doesn’t make up for his worst mistakes, it’s a start and a potential beacon of hope that this cycle may one day be broken.
It’s here that BoJack Horseman season four lets some real hope shine through all the pain, the hope that maybe in Hollyhock BoJack has found a real, healthy human relationship. He may lie to her and he may be less than a perfect father, but as she says in the final moments of the season, she already has plenty of fathers, but she’s never had a brother. And the significance of this is huge, because for the first time BoJack has a connection that he can’t burn so easily. Children can blame parents and parents can screw up children, friends can fall out and lovers can hurt each other, but siblings are different. Siblings are on the same page and no matter what they do to each other they will always be linked by their shared blood.
And so the season ends on a moment of shining, beautiful hope that in Hollyhock BoJack might just be able to help someone who can also help him, away from the responsibility of parenthood that he was frankly unsuited for. Unlike poor Beatrice, who never had the chance or the choice. It’s powerful, complex stuff and were we not four seasons in now it would be incredible that these ideas are being explored by talking cartoon animals. But BoJack has long since proven its quality and season four only consolidates it.
One thing that does stand out is the fact that nowhere do we have any individual episodes that quite hit the heights of the series’ best – there’s no Fish Out Of Water or Escape From L.A. here – but the consistency of the show has never been stronger and there are several episodes that do stand as strong contenders for the inevitable ‘top ten’ articles that will one day fill the internet. Princess Carolyn in particular gets some of her strongest ever material this year; the heartbreaking episode framed as a presentation by a descendant of hers far in the future packs a real wallop, not least for the rough firing of the loyal Judah (#BringBackJudah) which I had hoped would be rectified by season’s end. Not so. The conflict between wanting a family and trying to maintain her career foregrounds her arc this year, with the growing fear that it might be too late leading her to make some questionable and painful decisions.
Not everything this season is a home run. An early feint towards a Trump-like rise to power for Mr Peanutbutter ultimately fizzles out while the once compelling conflict between Diane’s high-minded ideas and opulent lifestyle feels directionless now, despite a breaking point seeming to be reached in the finale. Diane and Mr Peanutbutter’s marital troubles have been a major subplot in every season, which implies that they can’t simply be a happy couple, in which case the only logical step is to end the relationship as it is already running the risk of becoming tedious. That said, compared to the problems that made last season feel so unsatisfying, these are minor quibbles and are largely offset by the inspired levels of gonzo invention the series uses to offset all the anguish. From a governorship being decided by a ski race to Todd’s latest business schemes to Jessica Biel starting a fire worshipping cult by eating Zach Braff, the show is packed full of gleeful absurdity that would seem to be a strange fit for its deeper themes if it didn’t pull it off with such style and confidence.
Princess Carolyn’s lamentation that “it’s so hard to need people” sums up the controlling idea of the season and show overall so perfectly that this could almost be a satisfying goodbye. Human connection is hard, sometimes painfully and impossibly so, but in the end we’re kidding ourselves if we pretend we can get by without it. Having everything we ever could have wanted amounts to very little if we don’t have anyone to share it with and no matter how rich and famous these people are that fact will always ring true. The difficulty of needing others is exemplified in the various places we leave them; although BoJack and Todd make positive progress, Diane and Mr Peanutbutter are grappling with a marriage that was maybe always doomed while Princess Carolyn steps into a new business venture that almost explicitly exists to fill the void in her life left after her pain and need for a family drove away the people who really cared for her.
Needing people may be universal, but that doesn’t mean it always goes well. It’s this messiness that makes BoJack Horseman so singular; a willingness to embrace the untidiness of life that is characterised by Princess Carolyn’s monologue about stories at the start of the finale. In some ways that messiness is reflected by the series itself, one that takes place in a nonsensical world, veers between genres at the drop of a hat and yet somehow not only works but manages to take us to places few TV shows ever have.
At the time of writing there has been no confirmation of a fifth season. I don’t doubt there will be one and that it will be fantastic, but the more I think about the ending of season four and how it left me feeling the more I think I could be satisfied with this conclusion. After the darkness of last year this season saw the show make real progress and realistically I don’t think it has more than a year or two left without unnaturally extending itself or repeating character beats that are already starting to feel worn out. Season four successfully mined new ground, but I do have to question how much longer BoJack Horseman can manage that. But hey, I said that last year. And after a run as good as this one, nobody is happier to be proven wrong than me.