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What TV Antiheroes Can Learn From ‘BoJack Horseman’

It is possible for “difficult” TV characters to evolve

Netflix

The anthropomorphic horse known as BoJack Horseman sits on the back deck of his Hollywoo(d) Hills mansion, overlooking the vast expanse of this cartoon Los Angeles. It’s a setup we’ve seen many times before, usually while BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) is in the thick of his latest existential crisis. This time, however, he’s on the phone with Hollyhock (voiced by Aparna Nancherla), the long-lost teenage daughter he’s just found out isn’t his daughter at all, but the result of an affair between his failed-novelist father and the family maid. BoJack’s afraid he’s messed their relationship up for good, just like he has so many others in his life and over the course of the series. Hollyhock, however, reassures him. “BoJack, look: I never needed you to be a dad. I’m going to be fine. I told you from the beginning,” she says. After a pause, she adds: “But I’ve never had a brother.”

And for the first time in four years, the Netflix show known as the depressed-talking-horse-comedy ends with a smile.

Though the show once literally took its protagonist to the ocean floor, BoJack Horseman, an animated series about a washed-up sitcom star navigating show business and his personal demons, didn’t hit rock bottom until the very end of its third season. Slowly but surely, the self-sabotage that defines BoJack estranged him from virtually the entire cast: ex-girlfriend and agent-turned-manager Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris); ghostwriter and occasional love interest Diane (Alison Brie); couch-crashing sidekick Todd (Aaron Paul); and most heartbreakingly, grown-up child star Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), who fatally succumbed to her addictions in a BoJack-enabled bender. By the end of last season, BoJack had finally followed through on the consequences of its premise—a washed-up, cynical narcissist who has the time and resources to let his issues consume him.

But the completion of BoJack’s initial arc put an almost impossibly high burden on the show’s fourth season, which arrived on Netflix last Friday. If this show wasn’t about the inescapable fallout of deep-seated dysfunction (and also a horse), what was it about? Could BoJack move away from its main character’s cynicism without feeling like a betrayal of its former self? Once you hit rock bottom, where do you go?

As unique as BoJack’s cocktail of wordplay and therapy-speak may be, these quandaries are actually fairly common among Peak TV’s glut of post-antihero series—even its most successful ones. Mad Men stalled in its later seasons in part because Don Draper’s recurring fuckups recurred a few too many times. You’re the Worst had a rocky third season trying to recalibrate after its bleakest stretch to date. And over on Adult Swim, Rick and Morty is currently testing the limits of its main character’s sociopathy and how, or whether, to balance it with genuine love for his family. All these shows share a fundamental problem: the impossibility of change may be a relatable, realistic theme perfectly suited to a longform medium like television, but after a certain point it risks becoming redundant, nihilistic, and, worst of all, dramatically inert.

How reassuring, then, that BoJack Horseman rises to the challenge by asking whether it’s possible to break the patterns instilled by decades of behavior, and potentially—terrifyingly—our own DNA. It’s a meta question as well as a character-based one; if BoJack’s namesake can move past his hang-ups, the show itself can too. With its final moments, BoJack arrives at the tentative conclusion that the character and the series can, or at least stand a good enough chance that they should try—though not before fully exploring the prospect that maybe depression really is destiny. BoJack’s fourth season actually earns its happy ending, in part because it patiently takes 11 full episodes and the bulk of a 12th to reach one.

Hollyhock, and her nascent bond with BoJack, proves the perfect case study for the question of whether unhappiness is a matter of nature or nurture. (In a fitting example of the absurdist humor that’s bought BoJack the time to stay so dark for so long, her full name is Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack, because she’s the adopted progeny of an eight-way, interspecies gay polyamorous relationship.) Hollyhock makes clear from the beginning, and references in the final scene, that she comes from a loving, supportive family, and doesn’t need another one. In other words: She’s not as vulnerable as the other young women in BoJack’s life.

Still, throughout the season, our hero repeatedly expresses his fear that “I’m gonna BoJack things up” with Hollyhock—meaning, hurt her as a means of confirming his own warped self-image—but when it comes to a personality as destructive as BoJack’s, it turns out that self-awareness can encourage further screwups instead of preventing them. BoJack has explored its lead’s unhealthy thought patterns before; it’s the suggestion Hollyhock might share them that makes this season such a gut punch, and an evolution. “That voice, the one that tells you you’re worthless and stupid and ugly—it goes away, right?” Hollyhock asks at one point. In doing so, she raises the possibility that even with all her situational advantages, BoJack’s daughter would be doomed to be as tortured as he is. We already know fame, wealth, and success don’t automatically add up to happiness, but what if the self-esteem and maturity that come from a stable upbringing don’t, either? BoJack’s certainly considered the possibility. “If you do have any of the old Horseman gunk bouncing around in that brain of yours,” he tells Hollyhock in an earlier episode, “I gotta tell you right now: you should give up on looking for ‘enough,’ because it will never be enough."

This concern becomes even more pressing when we learn that “the old Horseman gunk” goes much further back. At Hollyhock’s insistence, BoJack’s dementia-afflicted mother Beatrice (Wendie Malick) moves in with them, and it’s Beatrice who triggers the season’s climactic disaster: She secretly doses Hollyhock’s coffee with vintage diet pills, causing her to overdose on amphetamines on an oblivious BoJack’s watch. But Beatrice’s story is inextricable from Hollyhock’s, because this is a story about family legacy. In a flashback, we watch Beatrice, a sugar heiress with her own family tragedies, turn from bright to bitter when she gets pregnant by BoJack’s significantly lower-class father. (“No one’s ever nice to me,” she spits at her detested husband. “Why should I be nice?” Those in pain inflict their pain on others, on and on down the family tree.) When Mr. Horseman impregnates the help, however, Beatrice sees an opportunity to break the cycle, informing the maid she’ll pay for nursing school tuition in return for putting the baby up for adoption. It’s harsh; it’s also the sole well-intentioned deed we see Beatrice do. The maid, Henrietta, really does become a nurse. And the baby grows up to be Hollyhock, a funny, smart, well-adjusted young woman who, BoJack approvingly notes just before her call, will have a good life. Beatrice partially atones for wrecking BoJack so thoroughly by making sure Hollyhock doesn’t become yet more collateral damage.

Everything culminates in that last conversation. By the standard of BoJack season finales, Hollyhock surviving her time with her half-brother unscathed is hopeful enough, but it’s BoJack facing his worst fear that elevates the finale to outright uplifting. Throughout the series, BoJack is petrified that he and his self-loathing subconscious are doomed to keep lashing out. “I don't want to [make Hollyhock hate me],” he tells another character, “but every time she looks at me with those big, innocent eyes, all I can think about is every shitty thing I've ever done, and I think, 'I don't deserve that kind of love.'" Yet Hollyhock isn’t a lost cause, and that gives BoJack the tiny spark of faith he needs to start believing he isn’t, either. BoJack has a mess of unresolved issues left to tackle, but a healthy human(-ish) connection suggests that he’s cleared the most basic hurdle separating him from inner peace. BoJack Horseman has finally stopped hating himself enough to look past his own problems, and BoJack Horseman has carefully guided both him and us to the point where this small-yet-momentous turn for the better feels believable.

Though it’s only just begun to take steps in a more upbeat direction, BoJack Horseman has successfully laid the groundwork for a brighter, less tragic future. The finale of Season 4 suggests that it really is possible for infamously bleak shows to do more than simply describe the experience of spiritual malaise. They can indicate a way out of it, too—and without regressing into the pat, maudlin sitcom logic BoJack satirizes so well. BoJack Horseman, the character, might be an incurable cynic. BoJack Horseman, however, has an emotional spectrum wide enough to accommodate sweetness and vulnerability alongside skepticism and despair. To show it, BoJack just needed to do what it’s always done, and what great TV always should: push characters into new places without losing sight of where they’ve come from. And when where they’re coming from is rock bottom, the logical place to go is up.