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BoJack Horseman was a powerful show about addiction and a messy one about celebrity

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Goodbye to six years of saying ‘actually, it’s about depression’

Image: Netflix

As BoJack Horseman progressed through its six seasons, the show’s most obvious punchline didn’t get funnier; it got scarier. Yes, the cartoon horse was depressed. And an alcoholic. And he hurt the man with cancer. And gave the teens booze. And nearly slept with one. And tanked careers in order to save his own. And left someone to die. But when BoJack concluded with its final eight episodes, it wasn’t interested in a laugh so much as a reckoning.

Mild spoilers to follow for the final season of BoJack Horseman.

Everything finally catches up to BoJack, in a way. A Netflix original about a former sitcom star attempting a comeback while also dealing with addiction and depression, BoJack Horseman followed an anthropomorphic horse who continually tried to dull the pain of his previous bad behavior with something worse. As the show grew in scope and fleshed out a large cast of characters, it explored all kinds of ideas and stories, but the two most persistent ones were directly tied to its main character: addiction and the way celebrity fosters and protects toxicity. With its finale, the show finally locks BoJack up (for breaking and entering after a near-fatal bender), following him on a break from his 14-month sentence, which was granted so he can attend his friend and former agent Princess Carolyn’s wedding.

Maybe it seems disingenuous to suggest a show that put its main character in prison for bad behavior is somehow letting him off the hook, but BoJack’s bittersweet farewell to its protagonist is a goodbye that chooses the parts of the show about addiction and recovery at the expense of those about abuse and power. It’s a decision that comes across as odd when the entire final season was built around taking stock of BoJack’s awful actions throughout the whole series and bringing them to light in a way that mirrors the way real-world bad men have been exposed in recent years.

When reporters piece together BoJack’s complicity in the death of his former child co-star Sarah-Lynn, along with many of his other misdeeds, the quieter life he’s come to find and love — sober, teaching college theater — comes crashing down. He gives a nationally televised interview that initially goes well for him, given our culture’s tendency to favor repentant men over their victims. Goaded by this success, BoJack does a follow-up interview, and this one reveals his pattern of abusive and predatory behavior for all the world to see.

BoJack Horseman is often overwhelmingly focused on its characters’ interiority — to the point that it had to remind the audience in stark, horrific terms that its protagonist’s selfish actions had real and devastating effects on the people around him. (One of the main ideas behind its fifth season was a cautionary tale about identifying with characters like BoJack too much.) In reminding viewers of its very large cast of characters and the ways almost all of them have been hurt or used up by BoJack — a few to their last breath — season 6 of the show is about as damning as you can get.

Image: Netflix

Yet, Princess Carolyn’s wedding is a bittersweet finale that reads as strangely fond of BoJack. BoJack Horseman isn’t unsympathetic to his victims. By the time the series ends, his former friends have drawn new boundaries around their lives, and it’s not particularly clear if there will be room for BoJack in them when he gets his freedom back. They all are friendly with him, sure, but he’s also presumably haunted by the ghosts of the people who won’t even see him or can’t.

That guilt is only alluded to in the finale proper, but it’s explicitly given its due in the penultimate episode, “The View From Halfway Down,” a near-death vision of hell or purgatory that traps BoJack in a dinner party with everyone he’s ever hurt. BoJack’s finale, “Nice While It Lasted,” is mostly preoccupied with how a man who’s made all of these mistakes might go on with his life.

In the end, it was always a messy idea to marry a story about mental health and addiction to a story about a powerful, abusive celebrity. Power muddies the waters, demanding a specific response when BoJack ultimately wants to contemplate more universal ones. What do you do when you let your demons get the best of you, when you’ve done things that are unforgivable? Can you find redemption? What do you do when you’ve done awful things, and the only answer you know for sure is that life’s a bitch, and you keep living?

A television show doesn’t owe anyone a moral roadmap for living our lives, or even a particularly moral fictional universe. BoJack can keep getting away with things, and BoJack Horseman could probably make compelling TV out of it. (Showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg had reportedly planned on having at least one more season.) The trouble is when BoJack collapses two of its running themes — one of mental health and addiction and the other of power and abuse — into a single conclusion, suggesting that they complement each other when they do not. In the end, BoJack Horseman loved BoJack Horseman too much.

This result — a finale that asks “How does BoJack go on with his life now?” without really giving a solid answer — is a fitting one for a show that wanted to explore the life of an awful person with unexamined mental health issues and addiction. But for the other BoJack, the show about a powerful celebrity who was once washed up and finds his way to relevance again through the discarded lives of the people around him, that ambiguity feels too kind. It’s dishonest about the nature of power, which lets people behave with impunity because the rules are different for them. This does not mean redemption and rehabilitation are impossible, but the rules for them, by necessity, are different, too. BoJack never really makes that distinction, and it’s arguably poorer for it.

In this way, Bojack Horseman recalls the finale of Breaking Bad, another show that went long and hard in its final episodes to damn its protagonist, only to bid farewell wistfully as the music played and its hero, while superficially punished, enjoyed one last moment with the life they stole. Perhaps there is honesty in this — life isn’t so neat, and attempts at being good don’t always work out — but I could find a way to wish BoJack, the horse-man all-time screw-up, all the best in his life, even if I didn’t want him in mine any longer. BoJack the TV and movie star? He can rot.