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‘BoJack Horseman’ wallows in existential dread in its quietly devastating 5th season
Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg plumbs the depths of his characters’ misery and offers a brilliant take on #MeToo.
Is there such a thing as a good person or a bad person? Or do all people exist on the same neutral plane, only as good or bad as their latest actions? If the latter is true, then how many horrible deeds must a person commit in a row before they’re beyond rehabilitation? Even if they’re eventually forgiven, how will they learn to live with the repercussions of their actions? BoJack Horseman seeks to answer these tough, existential questions in its intimately compelling fifth season. As usual, the answers don’t come easy, and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg plumbs the depths of his characters’ misery as they grapple with their past mistakes and slowly inch their way toward a (hopefully) better future.
Bojack Horseman’s new season opens on the set of Philbert, the gritty, prestige crime drama that stars BoJack as its titular protagonist. Having grown accustomed to unwarranted adulation from his fans and coworkers, BoJack obviously butts heads with the show’s narcissistic creator Flip (Rami Malek) over its contrived and sexist script. But he’s also having a no-strings-attached fling with his co-star, Gina (Stephanie Beatriz), and Philbert is already being hyped as a big award show contender. In other words, things seem to be going pretty well for BoJack.
Except they’re not. Bojack is still haunted by the ghosts of his past, namely the bender that resulted in the overdose of his old Horsin’ Around co-star, Sarah Lynn, and the time he almost had sex with Penny, the 17-year-old daughter of his old friend Charlotte, in New Mexico. His fling with Gina lacks intimacy and his show lacks ingenuity; BoJack just uses them both to distract himself from the guilt and self-loathing that have been threatening to consume him for as long as he can remember.
The rest of BoJack Horseman’s core cast doesn’t fare much better. Princess Carolyn has to jump through maddening hoops at the adoption agency, following her miscarriage and breakup from her boyfriend, Ralph. That includes a trip back to her Podunk hometown of Eden, North Carolina, where she struggles to convince a young pregnant woman that she’s fit to be a mother as she juggles constant phone calls from her insufferable clients and co-workers. Princess Carolyn might have what it takes to be a great mom, but she’s got to stop trying to be a great manager and producer at the same time if she wants that dream to come true.
Meanwhile, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are still taking stock of their unceremonious divorce. Diane moves into a shitty apartment and begins her journey of self-discovery, including a trip to Vietnam which inspires a new GirlCroosh listicle. (Diane’s boss, Stefani Stilton, sums up journalism’s click economy with the most hilarious lines of any minor character this season: “I need words for my website. There are words on the website now, but I need younger words, newer words, fresher words to feed the insatiable beast!”) She also joins the set of Philbert to doctor Flip’s script, drawing inspiration from BoJack’s own indiscretions. But in her quest to paint the protagonist as a bad person, she further normalizes his behavior, prompting viewers to valorize Philbert and use him to justify their own shitty behavior. “We’re all terrible, but we’re all OK, and that’s a pretty powerful message,” BoJack says at the Philbert premiere, a harbinger of bad decisions to come.
Mr. Peanutbutter tries to bounce back from the divorce the only way he knows how: by immediately entering into a relationship with a pug named Pickles who’s several decades his junior. He’s gone down this road before with his three ex-wives, all of whom were much younger than him when they started dating, and all of whom outgrew him as their marriages deteriorated. Mr. Peanutbutter wants to believe things will be different this time, but he makes no effort to fix any of his bad habits.
One of BoJack Horseman’s greatest strengths is its willingness to kill its darlings, literally and figuratively. After dedicating the bulk of season 4 to Bojack’s blossoming relationship with his long-lost sister Hollyhock, she only makes one substantial appearance in season 5, accompanying BoJack on a hunt for painkillers that he was initially prescribed after a stunt accident but has quietly become addicted to. The death of BoJack’s mother, Beatrice, doesn’t even function as a major plot point; it only allows him to air his grievances at her funeral for an uninterrupted 25 minutes in “Free Churro.” His self-effacing eulogy gives viewers further insight into the trauma he endured growing up with two neglectful, abusive parents, and—as several other critics have said—if this episode doesn’t win Will Arnett an Emmy, then the entire institution needs to be abolished.
As always, BoJack Horseman excels at hilariously scathing social commentary, this time setting its sights on the #MeToo movement. Flip casts Vance Waggoner—a Mel Gibson-esque, quintessential Hollywood scumbag—alongside BoJack in Philbert, even after he’s publicly professed his hatred of Jews and Swedes, beat a prostitute with a baseball bat, and threatens to murder his 14-year-old daughter. (Bob-Waksberg says the character was a response to his agency signing Gibson as a client.) Waggoner is killing his apology tour, and he’s about to be honored for his efforts at the Forgivies.
Waggoner is a comedic composite of Hollywood’s worst men and behaviors, but what about BoJack? He’s hurt countless people in his life, and he carries the weight of those bad decisions every day. Part of him is deathly afraid of Diane finding out about his New Mexico sojourn, and the other part of him wants to be held accountable because he secretly thinks he deserves to lose everything. He asks Diane to publish a takedown of him on GirlCroosh because he believes it would extricate him from his own web of shame, self-loathing, and feelings of inadequacy. But doing so would relieve BoJack of the burden of confession and repentance, and Diane won’t let him off the hook that easily.
“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,” Diane tells BoJack in the season finale. “Whatever you put in that story, no one is gonna ‘hold you accountable.’ You need to take responsibility for yourself.” That belief guides much of BoJack Horseman’s latest season, as Bob-Waksberg exposes every character’s shortcomings without explicitly passing judgment on them. If there’s truly no such thing as good or bad people, then every character exists on a level playing field, even when they’ve seemingly hit rock bottom. BoJack Horseman challenges its audience to maintain a certain amount of empathy and objectivity that’s often absent from a 24-hour news cycle fueled by hot takes and click incentives. There’s no fun in “canceling” BoJack when viewers already have to watch him shoulder the agonizing burden of his own fucked-up existence, day in and day out.
That crippling existential dread pervades nearly every crevice of Bojack Horseman’s fifth go-round, making it arguably the show’s most quietly devastating season to date. There are no gut punches on par with Charlotte’s confrontation of BoJack and Penny or Sarah Lynn’s overdose: This season’s characters have already thoroughly detonated their lives, and now they have to wade through the emotional wreckage of their decisions. In the season’s final moments, BoJack takes his first step toward recovery—a small act of faith that could reverberate throughout the rest of his life. But even if BoJack Horseman’s flawed protagonist finally learns how to unpack decades of emotional baggage, he’ll need to atone publicly and privately for all of his past wrongs. BoJack may have set the gears of his healing process in motion, but the real work has only just begun.
Need more ideas? Here are our Netflix guides for the best war movies, documentaries, anime, indie flicks, true crime, food shows, LGBT movies, gangster movies, Westerns, film noir, and movies based on true stories streaming right now. There are also sad movies guaranteed to make you cry, weird movies to melt your brain, old movies when you need something classic, and standup specials when you really need to laugh. Or check out Flixable, a search engine for Netflix.
Bryan Rolli is a reporter who specializes in streaming entertainment. He writes about music and film for Forbes, Billboard, and the Austin American-Statesman. He met Flavor Flav in two separate Las Vegas bowling alleys and still can’t stop talking about it.