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Why BOJACK HORSEMAN’s Emotional Punches Land So Hard

Why BOJACK HORSEMAN’s Emotional Punches Land So Hard

Portuguese man o’ war-ning: Animal puns and BoJack Horseman spoilers from season four abound.

Deep into the fourth season of BoJack Horseman, after a bumpy, but largely sweet romance with Ralph Stilton that has involved meeting his family, moving in together, and trying to have a baby, Princess Carolyn’s world falls apart. In a single day, she discovers her trusted assistant kept a lucrative deal from her, her family heirloom necklace from the old country is worthless, and loses a pregnancy. Devastated, she lashes out by getting wasted and blowing up her relationship.

The whole story is narrated by one of Princess Carolyn’s plucky descendants giving a class presentation in a far-flung future, suggesting to us that everything works out–how could little Ruthie exist if Princess Carolyn never started a family?  The episode concludes with Princess Carolyn selflessly listening to BoJack whine about frozen yogurt, telling him that whenever she has a truly bad day, she imagines her precocious great granddaughter telling stories of how great her great grandmother’s life turned out. BoJack bristles. “But it’s fake.”

“Yeah, well,” Princess Carolyn responds flatly. “It makes me feel better.”

The show slams to the credits; Tank and the Bangas’ “Oh Heart” twists the knife deeper. It’s an emotionally annihilating final moment, not just because of the host of life-crushing events that we’ve just seen, but because the show offered hope only to destroy it in front of us. There’s no happy ending because there is not supposed to be.

In its fourth season, Bojack Horseman is equally dramatic and comedic, but has learned throughout its Netflix run not to use one at the other’s expense. So to fully understand why the above scene and many of BoJack‘s other dramatic beats work so well, consider what the show doesn’t often do: make us feel better. Even as clown dentists run rabid in the forest and all of Princess Carolyn’s movies are excessively long puns, Bojack never strays too far into the territory of bathos, a narrative tool for comedic relief.

Undercutting a serious moment with something frivolous can be really helpful tool if context permits: Drunk History does this well because because undermining serious moments is the entire hinge of the show. Great battles filled with death and destruction are punctuated with a belch and the narrator saying she’s got to throw up tequila. However, sometimes relying on comedy can cheapen otherwise deep moments. The My Dinner with Andre-spoofing episode of Community, another great show that blends heart and humor, includes a thoughtful conversation between Jeff and Abed about honesty only to be punctuated by Abed pooping his pants. If you were hoping for an earnest intimate moment after all the hijinks, you’ll have to take it with a side of scatological humor lest things get too emotional.

Yet some shows akin to BoJack expertly avoid silliness in order to let misery breathe. Louie may be the all-time champion, a series uncomfortably comfortable wallowing in the despair of its lamentable sad sack. Daria is an elder stateswoman of letting somber, sardonic situations dig their nails in: the “Misery Chick” episode in which a popular former football star dies shows Daria having to deal with everyone assuming she understands pain. Little is funny about this to the audience.

Letting tragedy breathe has catalyzed this season of BoJack in part because the show has finally given him two living reasons to change his life with no easy way to do so. It’s drawn thicker lines between its clever wordplay (“Who knew Portnoy had so many complaints?”), ridiculous plot situations (Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s house sinking), and the crushing emotional toll of its more realistic circumstances (what to do with an abusive parent with suffering dementia). As we suffer through BoJack’s often irresponsible reactions to his family, the show flourishes, giving us a better idea of the protagonist’s emotional spectrum.

Though the show has a more confident balance now, it’s important to recall that BoJack has relied on cheap comedic relief in the past: Todd could almost always be counted on to alter a rough moment with levity, but his character has shifted from a bumbling sidekick into a struggling human over the last two seasons. Away from BoJack, he has agency to learn about himself, to accept who he is as an asexual person, and to thrive both as a source of irreverence and as a welcome addition to the show’s beating heart.

Formerly, anytime BoJack started a sentence with “Well, …” (as in “Well, that turned out fine” or “Well, I’m gonna get a scotch”), it was almost always a coda to something uncomfortable he didn’t want to face. It was a means of the character protecting himself, or the writers protecting us, from the full brunt of the emotional impact. But the most recent season showed a greater willingness to leave the wound raw.

The clearest illustration is BoJack’s personal growth spurred by Hollyhock’s introduction and his mother’s reintroduction into his life. In the sixth episode, we get to hear and see inside BoJack’s head as he berates and degrades himself for the smallest things, embracing his alcoholism in a messy heap of ugliness. Each nagging doubt is a rat and his brain is a rat-king held together by whiskey and loathing. He knows he has to change, but doesn’t have the tools to do so, and in confronting his mother’s kindness toward a doll (which echoes the doll her own father glibly tossed in a fire when she was young), the episode turns the absurdity of jealousy toward a plastic toy into something pitiful and upsetting.

The episode ends with a breakthrough. Hollyhock, a tangle of teenage anxieties, asks BoJack if the angry voice in her head goes away with age.  Hoping to protect her, he lies, telling her it does. Instead of dropping one last gag on us, that’s it. No bathos. Just the end.

That’s the exact halfway point of the season, and the moment is mirrored in the last shot of the season finale, when Hollyhock reconciles the revelation that BoJack isn’t actually her biological father but is in fact her half-brother. she tells him she’s never needed another father (since she has eight…), but adds with unmistakable vulnerability, “But I’ve never had a brother.”

This gets so stunningly to the core of what is broken about BoJack–his rejection of other people before they can reject him. As a result, his understanding and acceptance of a new person in his life, a newfound sister, is profoundly important to how he understands his identity. It’s a glimmer of how he might grow yet. It’s also dramatically powerful, and the lingering camera suggests that creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg was aware of the opportunity for a comedic beat.

But he doesn’t take the bait. Like watching to see whether the top will stop spinning or not, we wait to see if BoJack will crack a joke, or if Todd will fly by with some kettle corn, but all that happens is the actualization of something astonishingly beautiful. Sometimes, even if rarely, it’s the real moments that can make us feel better.

Images: Netflix

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