Previously On: BoJack Horseman

Eight episodes to revisit before Season 4

BoJack is back, baby!

Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated, surrealist ode to bastards and broken things returns to Netflix with Season 4 on Friday, and I for one cannot wait.

If you’re just tuning in, BoJack Horseman is one of the greatest shows of our time: A character study on par with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad in terms of sheer willingness to get dark. It stands as television’s most nuanced look at depression and self-destructive behavior yet, and watching it as someone who has struggled with themselves feels akin to watching a funhouse mirror version of your own life.

Oh, and it’s about an anthropomorphic horse/washed-up 90's TV star as he makes his way through the treacherous world of Hollywoo. Yes, without the D.

BoJack Horseman gets weird, is what I’m saying. And if you’re just joining the bandwagon, you’re in for a hell of a trip.

Of course, BoJack Horseman is best consumed in its entirety, and even its shaky first few episodes lay some valuable character and plot groundwork. However, if you’ve already seen the show, it might be easier to revisit just a few episodes, both to get back into the milieu of things and to remind yourself what made the world of BoJack and Hollywoo so engrossing in the first place.

Here are my eight suggestions for your condensed revisit. I’ll try to dodge spoilers, but there will inevitably be a few. Enjoy.

“The Telescope” (Season 1, Episode 8)

“You know what your problem is? You want to think of yourself as the good guy.”

For a series near-universally considered as one of these days’ finest, BoJack Horseman didn’t exactly have an auspicious start, reeling off an opening salvo that, while funny enough, failed to capture the increasingly dark and specific corners the show would explore as its run went on. While the episode preceding this, “Say Anything”, teased the show’s sharp tone change just a bit, it was in “The Telescope” when BoJack Horseman fully became the show we know and masochistically consume today.

At its heart, BoJack Horseman is a story about how difficult it is to come by both change and redemption, and “The Telescope” is its first real exploration of its central theme. It’s a storyline we’ve seen play out in fiction a thousand times: Two old friends who’ve grown estranged come together, rediscover their long-lost chemistry, and eventually forgive each other their transgressions. The episode starts off following this line, then turns it on its head when Herb, despite enjoying the reunion, denies BoJack his forgiveness. As will become the trend all series, redemption doesn’t come easy for BoJack Horseman, with his many sins and frustrating tendency to shoot himself in the foot. Herb was just the beginning.

“Downer Ending” (Season 1, Episode 11)

“I need you to tell me that I’m good.”

The penultimate episode of every BoJack Horseman season tends to be both its best and its darkest, as the show empties its clips an installment early and reserves finales to deal with the fallout. Here, BoJack, Todd, and Sarah Lynn go on an epic bender in an attempt to replace Diane’s true-to-life memoir of BoJack with something less scathing. From there, the episode takes us through a mushroom samba in BoJack’s fractured psyche, illustrating (in some of the show’s best animation) how broken he really is.

The episode ends where it began, with BoJack and Diane. Hijacking the open forum of a ghostwriters convention, BoJack begs Diane — the only person he has ever bore his soul to, the only person who knows everything about him — to tell him that there is hope for him. That deep down, beneath the crystallized nicotine and amphetamines coursing through his veins, beneath his mommy issues and self-destructive tendencies, BoJack Horseman is a good person. Diane’s uncertain silence says it all, and would set the tone for the show’s subsequent forays into the nadirs of the human (or horse-man) soul.

“Hank After Dark” (Season 2, Episode 7)

“I’m Hank Hippopopalous. Who the hell are you?”

BoJack Horseman doesn’t often tackle controversial topics head-on, but when it does, the show manages to be both thoughtful and organic in its incorporation of current events into the lives of those in Hollywoo. More often than not, these storylines prominently feature Diane Nguyen, the show’s neurotic, NPR-listening superego. Here, she takes on the dark underbelly of Hollywood harassment, with her Woody Allen/Bill Cosby being beloved television icon Hank Hippopopalous, who even her husband reverently calls “Uncle Hanky”.

While Season 3's take on abortion and celebrity, “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew”, might arguably the stronger Very Special Episode, “Hank After Dark” is the nudge that sends Diane spiraling into a series of self-destructive decisions that could only be described as BoJack-esque. From here on out, she flies to Cordovia and back, squats on BoJack’s patio, and refuses to see her husband. Hank Hippopopalous broke her, just like he broke the lives of so many other women, who are now scrambling to pick up the pieces as well. In a show that’s shown it’s more than comfortable with grey areas, it’s telling when they finally portray someone as a complete monster, and it makes for compelling storytelling.

“Let’s Find Out” (Season 2, Episode 8)

“I want to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.”

In a way, “Let’s Find Out” is the quintessential BoJack Horseman episode, almost perfectly divided between intelligent comedy and overwhelming melancholy. It’s a hilarious thirty minutes, from Alan Arkin’s scenery-chewing turn as game show producer J.D. Salinger to Daniel Radcliffe’s self-skewering guest spot to Todd and Mia McKibben’s increasingly petty backstage game of one-upmanship for Salinger’s pen. The gag rate for this one reaches 30 Rock levels of rapid-fire jokes, and the other guest stars — Tatiana Maslany! Lisa Kudrow! — are obviously relishing their material the way only old pros can.

All this helps make the pill a bit easier to swallow, but when Mr. Peanutbutter unfolds the steel chair and asks BoJack if he’s ready to get “really, really, really real”, all of it falls away, revealing an achingly vulnerable BoJack standing in the eye of the hurricane, admitting that he loathes Mr. Peanutbutter because he is happy, and BoJack doesn’t know how to be. It is a sentiment that rings true if you’ve ever suffered through any sort of depression, that despondent plea for others to understand that you never wanted to be this way, but that you don’t know how not to be. It’s perhaps the show at its most naked and sincere, and for BoJack Horseman, that’s saying something.

“Escape from L.A.” (Season 2, Episode 11)

“Yup, still here.”

Recently, I’ve been working my way through Mad Men, a series BoJack Horseman owes a significant chunk of its storytelling DNA to, and I can’t help but compare “Escape from L.A.” to the former’s own second season penultimate episode, “The Mountain King”. In both episodes, our ertswhile protagonists abandon their responsibilities to go on a soul-searching trip in the country — small-town California for Don Draper, and Tesuque, New Mexico for BoJack Horseman. Once there, they both find themselves searching for a woman they had once found some sort of kinship with, the way weary travelers search for oases in the desert.

But while Don finds some sort of benediction and a listening ear from his time with Anna Draper, BoJack is considerably more broken by the time he reaches his old friend Charlotte Moore’s knick-knack store, and by the end of it, he completely burns down bridges with perhaps his last real friend, the only person who knew BoJack before fame wrecked and distorted him. It is a difficult, frustrating watch, precisely because we’re lulled into a false sense of hope for BoJack, and then are forced to watch him throw it all away, in disgusting BoJack fashion. For the first time all series, we begin to think that BoJack might be irredeemable, and if season three’s penultimate episode is any indication, BoJack seems to think so too.

“Fish Out of Water” (Season 3, Episode 4)

“In this terrifying world, all we have are the connections we make.”

Despite his failings, of which there are many, BoJack has always shown a genuine — if occasionally misguided — gratitude to those who’ve truly believed in him. It’s one of the many traits that keep us rooting for BoJack, the notion that he still has a shot, no matter how small, at true redemption. In attempting to reconnect with Kelsey Jannings, the only fellow Hollywoo notable to ever see him as anything other than “that horse from Horsin’ Around”, BoJack bares his soul just a little, revealing that there’s still a beating heart under all that nicotine and booze.

This episode is perhaps the closest the show has ever come to sheer euphoria, and it offers a lifeline for our favorite anthropomorphic horse to pull himself out of his self-destructive patterns, in the form of a baby seahorse separated from his father. Almost entirely silent, “Fish Out of Water” almost bursts at its seams with color and joy as BoJack journeys through seaweed and coral to reunite father and child, and even as it ends with a trademark BoJack Horseman twist of the knife, you come away really, truly believing that BoJack could still change for the better: A belief that should help sustain you through the overwhelming darkness that would soon envelop the show’s third season.

“Best Thing That Ever Happened” (Season 3, Episode 9)

“I do love you, by the way. As much as I’m capable of loving anyone.”

Another key element the show shares with Mad Men is its emphasis on semi-platonic relationships between its male lead and female supporting characters. Just like how Don Draper’s relationships with Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway helped his growth and our understanding of his psyche, BoJack’s relationships with Diane Nguyen and Princess Carolyn are perhaps the two most important dynamics on the show. In burning down the latter one in spectacular fashion — through a bottle episode, no less — the show reshuffles its deck in a major way, and shows just how far BoJack Horseman has fallen.

In an hours-long, restaurant-ruining argument at Elefante that’s more than a little reminiscent of Before Midnight, BoJack and Princess Carolyn tear into each other with the ruthlessness and precision of two people intimate enough to know how to truly hurt each other. They take turns attacking and retreating, both clearly still caring for each other despite it all, but unwilling — both out of pride and hurt — to yield a single inch. Words are spoken that can’t be taken back, and by the end of it, the show’s oldest relationship is no more, punctuated by one perfunctory, melancholy “No”.

“That’s Too Much, Man!” (Season 3, Episode 11)

“I want to be an architect.”

I know this is meant to be a collection of episodes for you to revisit before Friday, but I simply can’t imagine anyone willingly gutting out a second viewing of “That’s Too Much, Man!”, one of the most heart-wrenching pieces of fiction I have ever seen. I’ve seen this episode three times — mostly because I’m a masochist — and I have left shell-shocked every time. The story of BoJack and Sarah Lynn’s final, ultimately fatal bender is an adventure into the darkest, most hopeless corners of the human condition. Try not to watch it alone.

BoJack Horseman has always found mileage in the idea that its characters are desperate to change themselves for the better, but are often too self-destructive or emotionally weak to follow through on anything that might help them get there. It isn’t an exercise in what is good or evil, or moral or immoral. Rather, it’s about the soul-crushing inertia of being a certain way, and not being able to change that, despite wanting to, despite knowing you have to. Some of us make it out, but for others, it’s simply too late.

Not everyone can be architects. Most of us just pass away in someone else’s planetarium.

Season 4 comes out on Friday, and I will see y’all then. Stay excellent to each other.

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