SPOILERS FOR ALL OF BOJACK HORSEMAN AHEAD.
As I’ve previously stated, BoJack Horseman is a masterful show, balancing between genres to unapologetically tell the story of a depressed, alcoholic horse-man trying to become better. It manages to weave episodic storytelling (i.e. the one where BoJack steals a shot with his director for a movie he’s starring in) into the grander seasonal storyline (his director is fired for her participation in that scheme) which connects to a broader theme (BoJack needs to make amends for the people he’s hurt). Now that I’ve finished Season 3 within 3 days of its release, my faith in the show’s writers grows stronger. Here’s to Netflix’s most famous reverse-centaur.
The Tertiary Tale
Simply put, Season 3 of BoJack Horseman is fantastic and even more gut-busting and heart-wrenching as I’d expected. Now that the show’s in its second act, it no longer needs to pander to a wider audience, so it feels more like a taste of humor in a sincerely sad story rather than depression sprinkled on a comedy. Even better is its experimentation with format, given the gorgeous, emotional, and almost entirely silent fourth episode; the 2007 flashback episode; the episode that takes place entirely on a phone call; a bender episode that occurs between BoJack’s blackouts, etc.
If I’m being completely honest, I prefer Season 2 to Season 3. Its tighter storyline makes compelling use of almost every character and made me laugh more, even upon re-watch. Many times this season, characters would phrase jokes in ways that were slightly more realistic at the expense of comedic impact. Pop culture references populated dialogue, and they either weren’t that funny or went right over my head (if I wanted that, I’d just watch Psych). Nevertheless, the animal puns, spaghetti strainer payoff, and seemingly serendipitous tongue twisters satisfied me more than enough.
But all of these are small gripes. This show isn’t about making me laugh or showcasing depression. BoJack Horseman intends to unflinchingly tell the story it set out to tell, and it doesn’t matter whether that story is funnier in some parts and sadder in others. If Season 1 was about BoJack reclaiming the fame of his youth to capture fleeting happiness and Season 2 was about BoJack following his childhood dream to do the same, then Season 3 is about BoJack reaching for the new legacy that an Oscar promises so that he can erase the old one left behind by Horsin Around.
About Horsin Around
BoJack’s hit sitcom Horsin Around has mostly been used for laughs in BoJack Horseman and as the meat of BoJack’s backstory in Season 1. Since then, its legacy sort of hung around to haunt BoJack, providing something tangible for him to indulge in during his lower points. It feels very much like its own character, appearing whenever BoJack excessively indulges it, civilians recognize him, or even when his ringtone goes off. Even as he attempts to wipe its legacy away with his Oscar campaign, the old sitcom retains its iron grip on BoJack from beyond the grave.
It was even the first “character” that BoJack tried to get rid of. With BoJack being forced to dismiss Horsin Around to get the press to recognize him for the more gallant Secretariat, plot lines over the course of the season begin to take root. Flashbacks feature the critically panned sitcom less frequently than the other show in which BoJack starred in 2007: the crass mockumentary The BoJack Horseman Show; the failed comeback before One Trick Pony.
BoJack and Horsin Around have a very push-and-pull relationship; in contrast to the shame of being known for a critically panned sitcom, people tell BoJack that the Horse from Horsin Around wasn’t so bad. Even Diane, who grew up in a not-so-loving home, tells BoJack at the end of the season that for twenty-two minutes every day, she felt like she was part of a happy family. It’s a fascinating contrast, in which such an inane, crowd-pleasing show holds such value to some.
But Horsin Around holds a darker aspect as well. It represents, in the words of a drug-induced vision of Herb Kazzaz, “all [BoJack is], and all [he’s] ever going to be.” It becomes all the more devastating when BoJack realizes he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar and thus compensates by embarking on a months-long bender with his old Horsin Around star Sarah Lynn. They binge-watch the show, connecting over the loneliness that the show brought them as though bonding over mutual hatred of an abusive friend.
Many weren’t surprised by the end of the episode, but after Sarah Lynn’s first fake overdose on the hotel bed, I thought the writers had had their fun and enough was enough. And then she actually died, and I felt my breath catch in my throat. But her death makes sense. Everything about the episode was about two people with unfulfilled dreams; BoJack with his failed Oscar nomination and Sarah Lynn with her (literal) pipe dream of becoming an architect. Her passing joke to Mr. Peanutbutter’s accountant about the poor foundation of his son’s playhouse was a secret display of her hidden passion. She hides her architectural dreams with drugs and alcohol, an interesting reverse of her literally hiding drugs around her own house.
Sarah Lynn’s death has to mean something for BoJack moving forward. First, he needs to begin taking advice from the people around him. Ana told him that Horsin Around doesn’t show him as the star he is, that it symbolizes the very past that he can’t escape from. I was excited when BoJack decided to do Ethan Around to make up for the mistakes he made during its predecessor, but I was slightly relieved when that plot line fizzled with his PTSD. I’d like to see something addressing this in the future, though, as Ethan Around presents an interesting moral dilemma for BoJack: is it worth it to make millions of viewers a little bit happier even if it means putting yet another young actress through, as Sarah Lynn put it, “child labor?”
Every season culminates with BoJack thinking that the key to happiness lies somewhere in the past, and every season, he learns that same lesson the hard way. Horsin Around needs to die with Sarah Lynn to show BoJack that, as Secretariat once said, “There’s nothing for you behind you.”
The Penultimate Gut Punch
Speaking of Sarah Lynn, Netflix’s episode description makes it hard to ignore how similar the plot of “That’s Too Much, Man!” is to the plot of “Downer Ending” from Season 1. In many ways, it is: BoJack gets incredibly intoxicated with Sarah Lynn, he has poignant conversations about his regrets, and he encounters a monumental turning point at the episode’s end. BoJack’s addictions are a pattern that he’s been struggling to shake off since the beginning of the show, so these two episodes have each been about BoJack indulging his id while also allowing us a glimpse into his brokenness.
The context of “That’s Too Much, Man!” however, sharply contrasts with the original “Downer Ending.” The latter was BoJack trying to make something of himself; the drugs were creative fuel for him to write his memoirs and become relevant again. The effects of the drugs made me think of college study-drugs and psychedelics. It’s a wackily sincere underdog story.
“That’s Too Much, Man!” on the other hand, is no underdog story; it’s a pathetic, embarrasing downwards spiral. BoJack wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Secretariat, the anticipation of which was consistently undercut by the fact that he didn’t actually star in the movie. Whatever numerous drugs BoJack took this episode, they weren’t the colorful, flowy ones from Season 1. TTMM is indeed a drug episode, but the colorful, psychedelic feel of DE becomes the bleak nightmare of a hard-drug bender. Replace the wacky, hilarious hallucinations and colorfully animated insights into BoJack’s mind with constant blackouts, disheveled hair and clothing, trash-filled environments, and stalking, and you have the aptly-named, “That’s Too Much, Man!”
I wonder whether the two episodes would play out exactly the same if we actually got a look inside BoJack’s mind in TTMM rather than a montage of externally-focused shots between blackouts. Perhaps we would. But considering the theme this season of BoJack disconnecting from those he cares about, it makes more sense to hold us, the audience, at arm’s length.
The Flabbergasting Finale
In typical format, the last episode functioned less as a finale and more as a segue into next season. I was happy to find that certain elements of the finale reminded me of themes present in Breaking Bad. Mr. Peanutbutter’s Chekhov’s spaghetti strainers were not only a hilarious payoff to a long-waiting joke but also a response to the disaster of BoJack’s sins.
Spoilers for Season 2 of Breaking Bad: does anyone remember the flashbacks present throughout Season 2, with the pink, half-burned teddy bear floating in Walter White’s pool? Just as that calamity happened indirectly through Walt unforgivably allowing Jane to overdose and die (ahem sound familiar?), the spaghetti disaster, although hilarious, manifested from BoJack’s sins. None of it would have happened were it not for Character Actress Margo Martindale stealing his forever-tainted Escape From LA, or the reflective Secretariat blimp that represented his own insecurities, or his impromptu decision to fire the head chef of his Italian restaurant. I could be reading too deep into this (as usual), but it intrigues me nonetheless that a problem created by a series of one man’s sins was easily solved by the carefree innocence of another. Maybe there’s something to that. (End Breaking Bad spoilers.)
It speaks to the emotional depth of the show that the next scene, in which BoJack, the titular character of this show, lets go of his steering wheel to die in a fiery blaze, made me sad despite not surprising me. Personally, I was half-expecting Tesla’s autopilot feature to turn on as a joke, but that was a mere hope.
It’s okay though, because the next best thing happens. BoJack witnessing the wild horses running in a field brought many ideas to mind about how the show will proceed. I remembered the Wild Horses montage sequence from the end of Season 1, and I remembered Secretariat’s interview, that one day, he just started running, and it just felt right. Hopefully BoJack himself noticed those echoes of his childhood hero.
So what does this mean for the upcoming season? Or, a better question is, what could it mean? Maybe he realizes that acting as his hero isn’t enough; he needs to be like Secretariat and run like the horse he is if he wants to be happy. Or maybe he realizes that all these horses out here in the wild are so much happier than he is, and he needs to escape the entrenchment of Hollywoo. Perhaps he needs to embrace his “animal” side and run in the wild? But I think what he learns is that he can’t journey towards happiness alone. These horses–his brethren–are as strong as they are because they’re running together.
I’ve noticed that people believe the show will end on a depressing note, with BoJack killing himself after burning bridges with all of his relationships. Clues from “Downer Ending,” in which he envisions that his book will end with him peacefully drowning himself in a lake, and the series finale of Horsin Around, in which he dies of a broken heart from his adopted kids abandoning him, appear to support that.
But I call horseshit. I don’t accept that the series will end with sadness porn; it simply can’t. This is the story of a man trying to be happy. It definitely isn’t going to be a sweet, sincere ending, but I can’t believe that the show will end with BoJack not on an upswing. I envision that it will end similarly to the current season finales, each of which manages to find the happy in the sad.
Season 1 ends with BoJack winning a Golden Globe for his memoirs but alone on the balcony on which he and Herb had promised to reunite. But it’s still a small success, as people begin looking up to him. Season 2 ends with him rescuing his best friend and committing to his willpower despite losing his old flame. And Season 3 ends with him avoiding suicide as he learns that he doesn’t deserve to be lonely. So to everyone who thinks that this marvelous, hilarious, heartbreaking series will conclude with a true Downer Ending, I have three choice words for you: “Neigh way, José.”
There are plenty of things that I left out in this post. The hilarious Diane and Mr. PB marriage/abortion side plot, the breathtakingly artistic fourth episode “Fish Out of Water,” Todd coming out as asexual, Princess Carolyn’s sympathetic character arc this season, etc. were all noteworthy points. Writing about each of these, however, would take me months, so I decided to stick with the eponymous equine. He’s screwed up enough.
“Don’t do this to yourself, BoJack. Don’t fetishize your own sadness.” –Ana
“I wanna be an architect.” –Sarah Lynn
“Spaghetti or not…here I come.” –Mr. Peanutbutter
“You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about it, like that makes it ok! You need to be BETTER.” –Todd
“Bitches in my crawl space, have abortions sometimes? No. I’ma have abortions always.” –Sextina Aquafina
“He isn’t god. He’s just an old guy that likes to play pranks on people!” –BoJack
“Sure sounds like god…” –Todd
“See Sarah Lynn? We’re not doomed. In the great, grand scheme of things, we’re just tiny specks that will one day be forgotten. So it doesn’t matter what we did in the past, or how we’ll be remembered. The only thing that matters is right now. This moment. This one spectacular moment that we are sharing together.” –BoJack