Review: Good guys, bad guys, “just guys!” BoJack Horseman’s fifth season delivers another swift punch to the gut

 
BoJack peers into his mother’s casket in “Free Churro.” - NETFLIX

BoJack peers into his mother’s casket in “Free Churro.” - NETFLIX

Spoilers ahead.

BoJack Horseman is a piece of shit.

We know this. He knows this. In season four, BoJack Horseman offers a brutal glimpse into BoJack’s head through the infamous monologue detailing his perceived worthlessness. It’s manifest destiny—BoJack acknowledges his tendency towards self-sabotage as a defense mechanism, demonstrates a feeble attempt to change his behavior in a way that could be promising if it were literally anyone else, and then, in traditional BoJack fashion, fails catastrophically. The cycle repeats. The snake eats its tail. Pick a metaphor. His narcissism and substance abuse endanger the wellbeing of those who mistakenly enter his path of rampant destruction, as showcased through virulent relationships with women like Gina, Hollyhock, Penny, and Sarah Lynn. BoJack’s bar for basic human (horseman?) decency is practically brushing the floor. It affords him ample leeway to fuck up, shrug, and do it again.

Season five introduces BoJack as Philbert, the tortured, alcoholic detective. The set mirrors that of BoJack’s own abode—or, technically, David Boreanaz’s. For the audience, it’s clear that Philbert is meant to explore the boundaries between fiction and reality, which become increasingly blurred as BoJack spirals into opioid addiction. Throughout the season, we follow Princess Carolyn through the perils of adoption; Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s respective journeys of self-reflection in the midst of a painful separation; and Todd’s ridiculous, accidental ascent up the corporate ladder. Season five also gives us Henry Fondle, the sex robot-slash-CEO, who provides much-needed respite from the gravity of BoJack’s deteriorating lucidity while imparting relevant social commentary in the vein of #MeToo.

BoJack Horseman has been hailed for its remarkable and unyielding portrayal of grief in all shapes and sizes, each more hideous than the next—both the everyday variety, a noted symptom of being alive; and the all-consuming, trapped-at-the-bottom-of-a-well despair that accompanies significant loss. We saw it with Sarah Lynn in season three’s “That’s Too Much, Man!” after BoJack rips her from the precipice of sobriety, and we see it again in the critically acclaimed masterpiece “Free Churro,” where Will Arnett delivers a stunning episode-length eulogy on the complexities of losing an abusive parent, and the desire for validation long after they’re gone.

The show has experimented with a variety of ambitious structures: season three’s silent doozy “Fish Out of Water,” the bender of epic proportions in “That’s Too Much, Man!” told entirely through BoJack’s blackouts, and “Time’s Arrow” in season four, which tackled Beatrice’s crumbling memories as she succumbed to dementia. “Free Churro” is a unique vehicle for storytelling, particularly within the confines of an animated series, but the writers navigate its delicate subject matter with nuance, while Arnett’s harrowing,  candid voice work carries us through the burdens of loss and toxicity. BoJack Horseman is a treasure of contemporary television, and “Free Churro” is the kind of episode that will haunt us forever.

“The Dog Days Are Over” examines a different kind of loss. Diane weeps in her car, mourning the collapse of a nine-year relationship. Her anguish is palpable. Of course Mr. Peanutbutter connected with Pickles, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, not yet sullied by the inevitable onset of adulthood. “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos” presents context for his ongoing list of failed romantic endeavors, not that we needed more insight to understand why each of his former wives eventually outgrew him. This season is integral to Diane’s character development. Her apartment is in shambles, her ex-husband has moved on, and she’s forced to reconcile with the knowledge that her best friend might have committed a reprehensible act. For the first time in nearly a decade, Diane is completely and utterly alone.

Season five leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the value of accountability, or lack thereof. Exhibiting remorse is incongruous to holding oneself culpable. The vehicle for this distinct brand of moral impunity is repeat offender and Mel Gibson-type Vance Waggoner in “BoJack the Feminist,” and, later, BoJack himself.  The writers of BoJack Horseman seek to remind us that BoJack is not a good guy.  He’s not an evil guy. He is, indisputably, an egocentric asshole with a victim complex who believes he deserves nothing, yet is owed everything. BoJack, like so many of us, has experienced unspeakable trauma, but season five reasserts that BoJack’s past doesn’t absolve him of guilt, nor excuses him from the consequences of his actions. At the end of the day, BoJack Horseman is a wealthy, powerful man, entrenched in the corrupt throes of the entertainment industry. The world will be on his side.

Why do we stick around? What draws us to BoJack, who so desperately clings to the narrative of playing a villain, who eschews responsibility by all means possible, who can’t make it through a single day without inflicting a wound? We’ve watched him fuck up again and again, yet we need to believe that he has to capacity to improve. Is it because we see parts of those in our lives reflected in BoJack’s character? We love a person who is hurting, and who, in turn, hurts others—whether it’s deliberate, or a byproduct of their shitty childhood, or a struggle with addiction, or an undiagnosed mental illness. There’s always a reason why.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to isolate intention from execution. We want the people we care about to get better. To be better. And still, like Diane, and so many others, we’re constantly searching for a reason to forgive them, because this is what we have come to expect.

BoJack Horseman has never shied away from the intricacies of the human condition. The show vehemently maintains that its protagonist is no antihero; BoJack’s few redeeming qualities are often eclipsed by the martyrdom he wears like a shield. Season five isn’t asking you to vouch for him. Instead, it challenges the audience to consider the implications of rationalizing his behavior, and, in its penultimate episode, presents us with an impossible dilemma: if BoJack isn’t a good guy, or a bad guy, then...what kind of guy is he?

9.5Rating.png

For fans of: Sad shows about anthropomorphized animals. Also, The Simpsons and Big Mouth.

Pros: Tackles relevant issues from a complex and dynamic perspective; “Free Churro” is a defining episode of contemporary television; perhaps the most important season for Diane, who deserves so much better; phenomenal voice work by a superb, cascading list of guest stars; Henry Fondle the sex robot loves it when you call him “Father.”

Cons: Mr. Peanutbutter’s antics grow stale over the course of the season.