Oh, Mother where art thou?
You know this story, because it’s every story: an orphan — most likely an orphan boy because stories are usually about boys — is different from everyone else, not only because of some kind of special skill, but because they are an orphan; their journey is shaped by the parental gap in their life. This boy could be from Gotham, Krypton or a closet in Privet Drive, but they are fundamentally the same: people changed by an absence.
As the story develops, however, we learn more about this orphan’s lost family; they were part of a lineage of importance, full of secrets our protagonist will discover as missing pieces of his life come together. They will find out that their father had some part in this gigantic quest. He has left them something they will need to turn into the hero he is meant to be. Batman Year One has an iconic scene where Bruce Wayne, bleeding after a bad meeting with thugs, sees a bat fly through the window and interprets this as a message from the beyond: Yes, father, I shall become a bat.
As for the hero’s mother? Well, she was beautiful and she loved them very much.
Love is the most important thing for a mother in fiction; it’s no coincidence Batman vs Superman decides that their protagonists would stop their orgy of destruction upon finding out their mothers share a name, or that Harry Potter sees his father with all his flaws and qualities while his mother is defined primarily through her meaningful sacrifice: A mother is a symbol; a father is a legacy and a story.
So overwhelming is a mother’s love in defining them that the rejection of that love could not be tolerated for the longest time: in came the image of the usurper, the not quite mother who had no qualms about hurting their newly acquired child: The evil stepmom who would meet her punishment by the story’s end, as to remind us that there is justice in the world. A bad mother deserves nothing less. The stepmother fades from view; the punishment of bad motherhood remains.
The fourth season of Bojack Horseman is about the defining force of motherhood. That is fairly obvious from the set up: a new character called Hollyhock, who says she is Bojack’s long lost daughter, asks him for help in order to find her birth mother. Hollyhock has eight fathers, and as such does not need a ninth; the gap in her life is motherly love. This drama mirrors Bojack’s own: his mother, Beatrice, is distant and abusive, and he has never found himself the love Hollyhock seeks.
That Hollyhock reaffirms she does not need another father doesn’t stop Bojack from wanting to try to fill this role. Bojack needs validation from others even as he sees himself as intrinsically poisonous, a genetic trait he believes Hollyhock has inherited. He both wants to prove himself as better than what he thinks he is, and to confirm his own fears by disappointing his new daughter.
Hollyhock is not the first daughter figure Bojack has; one previous figure, Sarah Lynn died in his arms after a crazed drug binge that he incentivized; the other became something of a love interest after his attempts at seducing her mother failed. In this way, Bojack Horseman is close to a lot of TV’s tradition of bad fathers being allowed complexity, even sympathy. The difference is that while usually no such thing is allowed to bad mothers — it’s no coincidence that Walter White continued to be understood and even loved by many long after the show had made clear he was a villain who endangered his family and no similar mercy was given to Skyler White’s transgressions — Bojack Horseman dismantles its evil mother with sensitivity and care.
It is when Bojack and Hollyhock meet Beatrice that the link between both motherly absences is made increasingly explicit. Beatrice has an advanced case of dementia, and no longer recognizes her son. A mother that has always been distant is now unachievable for Bojack; he can’t even get the closure of spite as she constantly refers to him as “Henrietta”; it’s almost as though she has done this on purpose, as he at times wonders, a final act of passive aggression against her son.
Hollyhock, however, does not see the abusive mother that haunts Bojack; she did not endure the psychological violence of his past, and therefore all she knows is a senile, harmless old lady. More than that, Hollyhock hopes Beatrice can on some imperfect measure be the figure that she lacked. “Dementia is hereditary.” Hollyhock says. “And one day you will be here, and I’ll be here too, and we will hope someone does this for us.”, she adds, in the shows first real effort to humanize Beatrice.
Up until this point, Beatrice followed the traditional trope of the cruel mother in sitcoms, like Mallory from Archer or Lucille from Arrested Development; her acts were funny in how heartless and unmotherly they were, and the jokes only ever landed because their children were so terrible, though Bojack Horseman went a step or two further adding very real uncomfortableness to her neglect. “You were born broken” Beatrice tells Bojack in season 2. “That is your birthright”. This hints at her awareness of how parents shape trauma; in season 4 we see how this is also true for her.
In her new fragile state, Beatrice unravels into someone the audience grows to pity and understand; we start to catch glimpses of her life, including her parental relationships. Beatrice and the viewer watch as motherhood — that large, terrifying thing — condemns her own mother to uncontrollable grief at first, and then to be removed of all emotion via a lobotomy. In her life, motherhood ends with being hollowed out and inhuman. Beatrice’s father, a perverse faux affable business owner, tells her that this is the fate of all overly caring mothers; Beatrice, then, has a huge gap in her life herself, which will give birth to all other absences that follow.
Beatrice own dealing with motherhood are unraveled in Time’s Arrow, the season’s best episode, and one the best in the whole series; Beatrice, in an act that is both parts genuine love and rebellion against her predetermined rich life, falls for Bojack’s father, Butterscotch, and after an one night stand, impulsively marries him. There’s a revealing gag in the episode; Butterscotch disappears at first after sex, giving her a false number just as his son would do with all his one night stands. Men escape parenting; women endure. Butterscotch grows bitter with his own failings as a writer; Beatrice learns that her role as a mother is just as much of a prison as her life with her father, and her son becomes in her mind an unaware jailer. It’s terrible and unfair of her; it’s also understandable and intimate, and just as we know Bojack can do bad things and have reasons for it, we can also do that for Beatrice.
Time’s Arrow has one last reveal: the Henrietta that Beatrice constantly referred to was not a random tic, but actually a former maid that Butterscotch had an affair with, producing a sister for Bojack, Hollyhock. Like the pathetic unaccomplished man he is, Butterscotch begs Beatrice to take care of it for him. Beatrice agrees, less so because of any attachment to her marriage and more because in a strange way, she takes pity on Henrietta, convincing her to leave her child for adoption and pursue a career of her own.
It’s a cruel act, no doubt, but in the context of Beatrice’s story, the closest thing she gets to a kindness; save yourself, she tells Henrietta. Be a mother if you want to, but not only a mother. That is the character at her most human (well, in the way horses can be human in the universe of the show): she looks at a girl she has every right to hate, and she decides to protect her from a life that took her mother and herself.
The show has a third plotline about motherhood: Princess Carolyn has decided to have a baby with her boyfriend, and spends much of the season juggling her work and trying to conceive after a certain age. It’s not uncommon for characters on TV to go “baby crazy” after a couple of seasons, such as Lisa Cuddy from House, and Carolyn’s struggle with fertility is part of trodden path by female characters. Many characters have a personal drama involving the desire for motherhood and infertility, even ones who are otherwise very progressive such as Dana Scully. Motherhood, to writers, is an universal; if a woman can’t have children then she must be very sad as she is incomplete as a woman.
Yet Bojack Horseman largely escapes this trap. Carolyn wants to have children but that is rooted in an already addressed need to take care of others and fix problems. More than that, unlike House M.D’s Cuddy, her focus on work is not affected by it, and conflict involving other interpersonal relationships are just as important as the ones involving her biology.Princess Carolyn might become a mother, or she might not; but she is not defined solely by motherhood or lack of it; it’s a part of her own private life alongside with many others. Unlike Beatrice’s personal history, motherhood will not define her.
Bojack Horseman’s final scene with Beatrice gives us mother and son together, in the terrible elderly home he chooses to punish her not only for her recent actions but also to her past ones; yet when she finally gets a glimpse of recognition he might have used to hurt her, Bojack falls short of his own plans, choosing instead to tell her a comforting story about how they are all together as a family. Beatrice is not forgiven for her bad motherhood, and neither should she be. By this moment, though, something else has occurred: Both Bojack and the viewer realize that Beatrice is neither an all loving symbol nor a monster. She’s simply a person.
That makes all the difference.