A hashtag is a mixed blessing. A catchy, viral phrase like “me too”—which exploded into the mainstream consciousness after The New York Times exposed the serial abuses of producer Harvey Weinstein, though it was first coined more than a decade earlier by activist Tarana Burke—creates a means of expressing solidarity while giving name to a distressingly common experience. Yet it also risks reducing lifetimes of entrenched power structures into a trend, something paid attention to only when a term for it merged into the zeitgeist.
Art is often where we go to work through impossible problems on a more manageable scale. Since 2014, one of the most dependable venues to do so has been Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, the animated show that filters a standard lovable-asshole story through a prism of self-reflexive satire and visual gags. BoJack’s show-business commentary has always included a silly-yet-sharp portrayal of Hollywood’s vested interest in protecting known abusers, as when a Season 2 episode introduced a powerful late-night host with elements of both David Letterman and Bill Cosby. Season 5, released last week, continues mining that series-long concern, though this time, the message finds itself amplified by accidental echoes of the three-dimensional world.
“It’s been interesting to see how the show has skipped across the surface of what’s happening in the real world,” says creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Every chapter of BoJack represents a phase in the title character’s slow, halting process of improving himself for the better. In Season 3, the embittered has-been sitcom star bottomed out; in Season 4, BoJack came to the hard-earned conclusion that change is difficult, but not impossible. By asking where one goes from there, BoJack dovetails with a discussion that’s dominated headlines for the last several weeks: Once you’ve admitted your screw-ups, how do you start to make up for them? What does it actually mean to try to do better? Or, as BoJack himself puts it: “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong, you can never go back?”
The difference is that BoJack engages with these questions far more sincerely than the vast majority of those who have posed them in real life. “Who is owed forgiveness from whom is, I think, an intellectually interesting question, even if, in the real world, it gets icky very quickly and there are a lot of bad-faith arguments out there,” Bob-Waksberg acknowledges. As BoJack begins the long and difficult process of making amends, BoJack Horseman presents an arc with all the empathy and sensitivity the equine celebrity’s human analogs so conspicuously lack.
As I started to make my way through BoJack’s latest season, the internet was still reeling from the reemergence of comedian Louis C.K., who performed an unannounced set at New York’s Comedy Cellar nine months after admitting to serial sexual misconduct. The parallels crossed over into the uncanny with “BoJack the Feminist,” an episode in which a Mel Gibson–type star retreats from public life after a series of over-the-top offenses, only to land a plum role years later. As it turns out, Bob-Waksberg conceived of the episode before the Weinstein news had broken. “All this stuff came out about all these dirtbag guys, and I started to think, ‘Is this episode outdated? Are we no longer forgiving men easily, and holding men accountable?’” he says. “Then again, before the episode came out, we’ve gone through the cycle and now we’re back to forgiving again.”
One of BoJack’s most admirable choices this season is its recognition that, by all measures, its title character is one of those “dirtbag guys.” A jerk and an alcoholic, BoJack’s charming dysfunction frequently tips over into much more serious transgressions: a bender that claims the life of BoJack’s friend and former costar; nearly having sex with a teenage girl; choking his current costar and recent ex-girlfriend in a painkiller-induced haze. When BoJack’s friend Diane finds out about the encounter with the teenager, it kicks into motion the reckoning that serves as the season’s centerpiece. “It’s one thing when this is a public figure who you have never met who’s done something despicable,” Bob-Waksberg says. “It’s very easy to say, ‘I will not forgive that person,’ because why should you, frankly? But when it is somebody that you deeply care about, it’s a stickier thing. I think it’s worth acknowledging that them doing terrible things does not necessarily change the fact that you care about them, and the fact that you care about them does not change the fact that they’ve done terrible things.” This applies equally to both Diane, a principled feminist who frequently pens righteous takedowns for women’s site GirlCroosh, and the audience, who have formed a years-long connection with this deeply flawed character.
Diane’s discovery prompts an unwitting proxy debate about what it truly takes to move on from, and make up for, one’s past. “It’s a struggle for me, personally,” Bob-Waksberg says. “I, as an individual, believe in the power of forgiveness, and I want to believe that everybody is forgivable, that nobody is hopeless, that there are things people can do to make things right. But also, if you look at some of these examples of the long list of dirtbag men, I believe, fuck those guys. I’m not interested in their redemption. So, how do you negotiate those two ideas? I’m not sure I have, fully.”
For starters, Bob-Waksberg draws some crucial distinctions. “There are different kinds of forgiveness,” he argues. Public forgiveness—reclaiming one’s rarefied position, and the compensation and prestige that come with it—is different from private forgiveness, repairing relationships as one person to another. “All of these dirtbag men do have people who care about them deeply,” Bob-Waksberg says. “I think that they deserve love and help just as much as anybody else. I don’t think they deserve the spotlight. I don’t think, as a society, it’s our job to love them and help them. I hope they get it from the people in their lives who care about them.”
Amid so many negative examples and after a season’s worth of flailing, BoJack finally arrives at a positive vision of what getting help can look like. Despite its reputation as a show about depression, BoJack has never previously given its lead a diagnosis, either of mental illness or addiction. Much of that has to do with BoJack’s personal reluctance to seek treatment. “He’s really internalized this idea that he’s already gotten a lot of help and people resent him for it, and at this point he’s too old already to be asking other people for help. He needs to figure this out on his own,” Bob-Waksberg says. “I think that kind of thinking is actually very dangerous and very prevalent. Sometimes, the most selfless thing you can do is ask for help, and it’s actually very selfish not to ask for help when you need it.”
By season’s end, however, BoJack has voluntarily checked himself into rehab, at Diane’s urging. Before BoJack can treat others as they deserve to be treated, he first has to fix what’s broken about himself, oxygen-mask style. Only by addressing the root cause of his misbehavior can BoJack start to rectify it—a philosophy Bob-Waksberg sees as conspicuously missing from most famous bad actors’ premature redemption tours. “The first priority is him doing work on himself, which I actually think a lot of these men who are, some would say, not being allowed to make amends have not done.”
This season of BoJack also reiterates certain series-long themes about the unsexy, day-to-day work of being an accountable person, weaving them into something like a coherent worldview. “All I know about being good, I learned from TV,” BoJack says at the season’s midpoint, a marquee episode that consists almost entirely of a single monologue at his mother’s funeral. “And in TV, flawed characters are constantly showing people they care with these surprising grand gestures, and I think that part of me still believes that’s what love is. But in real life, the big gesture isn’t enough. You need to be consistent. You need to be dependably good. You can’t just screw everything up and then take a boat out on the ocean to save your best friend, or solve a mystery and fly to Kansas. You need to do it every day, which is—so hard.” This speech is neither the first nor the last time the show presents this point of view. “You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it OK. You need. To be. Better,” BoJack’s friend tells him in a notorious speech from Season 3. “I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down,’” Diane speculated in Season 1. “I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do.” In this season’s finale, she brings the concept full circle: “There’s no such thing as bad guys or good guys! We’re all just guys, who do good stuff sometimes, and bad stuff sometimes, and all we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff. But you’re never going to be good, because you’re not bad. So you need to stop using that as an excuse.”
There’s no one thing BoJack, or anyone, can do to magically absolve himself of the many awful things he’s done, some of them covered on his namesake show and many of them not. There’s only a critical mass of things that take time and effort to accumulate, a takeaway that’s simultaneously daunting, reassuring, and surprisingly intuitive. Atonement isn’t a self-flagellating mea culpa. It’s a process, and a painfully mundane one. “Nobody is automatically owed forgiveness,” Bob-Waksberg says. “People need to earn it.” BoJack hasn’t earned his, but at least he’s trying.