Warning: contains spoilers for BoJack Horseman season 5
The poster for the third season of BoJack Horseman directly drew comparisons to the pantheon of prestige antihero dramas, placing the titular protagonist’s surname in a list that included Don Draper and Tony Soprano. Given the subject matter and the themes BoJack Horseman had engaged with from the start, it wasn’t a ridiculous comparison, with many of BoJack’s actions and choices over the years having directly reflected those of the ostensibly more serious Don Draper. Season Five of BoJack Horseman directly engages with these comparisons, as BoJack takes the lead in Philbert, a dark, gritty drama about a tortured detective. But it’s far from a plum role – quite aside from the overwritten pretentiousness of the whole endeavour, BoJack finds himself relating a little too much to the character, seeing aspects of the show in his own life and vice versa.
It’s a clever device that serves to both underline the differences between BoJack and other antihero dramas (apart from the whole talking horse thing) while forcing BoJack the character to confront his own behaviour. On the whole, it almost works.
The big problem with characters like Walter White and Don Draper is that, for all of their despicable behaviour, they’re still essentially treated as heroes by the shows they’re on. Walter White’s victories were thrilling, satisfying and unquestionably badass. Don Draper is rarely presented as anything less than a genius symbol of elusive, damaged masculinity. Their flaws are part of what makes them so alluring. And even now, ostensibly past the TV era of ‘difficult men’, we’re seeing similar adulation heaped on Rick from Rick And Morty, an alcoholic asshole genius who certain corners of the internet would really love to be.
It’s an issue summed up brilliantly by Diane upon seeing the completed pilot of Philbert – by telling this story and making the character likeable despite being kind of awful, have they inadvertently offered a way for jerks to rationalise their own bad behaviour?
BoJack Horseman appears to be asking itself the same question. As the season progresses the lines between BoJack and Philbert become increasingly blurred until, in an opioid fuelled haze, BoJack finds himself mistaking a shoot for reality and genuinely strangling his on screen lover with whom he’d been having an actual affair. This, the show says, is what being a Philbert type really means. It’s not glorious, cool or exciting. It’s horrible and toxic. It’s a strong and relevant point, well made.
Except putting BoJack in that place actively damages the show. Because at a certain point, there are only so many times you can watch BoJack go through the same vicious cycles again and again.
But, I can hear people already typing, that’s the whole point! Well if that’s the point, the show made it two seasons ago. If what BoJack Horseman was fundamentally trying to say is that people are incapable of change and will always be dragged back into the same destructive cycles, then I got that in season three, the last time BoJack undid all the development he seemed to go through the year before. To accept the conclusion of this season is to accept that even after the death of Sarah Lynn and everything else, BoJack would still slide back into addiction and refuse to find help. And yet the series keeps suggesting that lasting change is not only possible, but happening. Look at the end of Season Two (“it gets easier, but you have to do it every day”), of Season Four (“I’ve never had a brother before”), of this season, where BoJack reluctantly goes into rehab.
We’ve seen this all before – even the season’s big experimental episode, essentially a half-hour monologue from Will Arnett, doesn’t really make any new points. BoJack had a rubbish childhood. BoJack has complicated feelings towards his parents. BoJack’s mother wasn’t all bad. We know.
Look, BoJack Horseman isn’t the first show in history to feature a protagonist trying to be better only to keep falling back into their old ways. But there are key differences. Mad Men never really tried to convince us that Don was changing. Instead it charted the many, many different costumes he wore in pursuit of happiness and how his fundamental need for more always damned him to the same mistakes. Better Call Saul has a clear endpoint baked into the very title of the show, one that indicates to us that Jimmy McGill’s vacillation between the angel and devil on his shoulder is ultimately a struggle doomed to fail, making the show a tragedy. Without that clearly delineated endpoint there’s no sense that any of BoJack’s relapses are part of a bigger plan, which just makes them repetitive. And unlike Mad Men, the show seems genuinely optimistic about BoJack’s attempts to change, until it’s not.
During the aforementioned eulogy episode, BoJack talks about how sitcoms reflect real life in that the characters can’t ever find lasting happiness because otherwise there’s no show, and in real life there’s always more show. It’s a great point. Maybe BoJack’s advances were only ever intended as false victories. But if that’s the case then I’ve seen enough. I don’t need another season making the same points. I don’t need BoJack to appear to improve only to hit rock bottom again. That already felt played out in season three and was half the reason that last year’s run was so superlative and satisfying – he was really getting better. To be back at square one yet again? That’s too much, man.
The morning after finishing the season I made a first pass at this review, full of furious criticism. Giving it a couple of days to breathe before re-watching left me appreciating where it succeeded far more, but I remain in a place of ambivalence. The Philbert subplot exhibited the kind of pointed satire this show excels at. Princess Caroline’s niggling fear that the past she ran away from might have been closer to the life she really wanted was quietly powerful stuff. Mr Peanutbutter’s slow realisation that his inability to grow up has been what killed all his marriages was a poignant arc for a character who has been a little stagnant of late. Todd getting a great new job only to accidently embroil the business in a #TimesUp scandal by creating a literal sex robot who becomes their CEO is a warped kind of brilliant. BoJack Horseman remains cleverly written, layered and heart wrenching. But for the first time, the show’s shortcomings threaten to outweigh the rest.
I think there could be a lot of life left in BoJack Horseman, but it can’t continually promise change and then renege on that to play out the same arc again and again. I still think the series could have ended last year and gone down as an all-time classic. It could probably do the same at this point. But if it is going to continue then it needs to genuinely move its protagonist forward. An upward trajectory can be just as compelling as the opposite, and certainly less frustrating.
BoJack Horseman season 5 is available now to stream on Netflix.