Miles Jackson and Isaac Sneade round-up Bojack Horseman’s latest hard-hitting season by looking at the achievements of its 2nd and penultimate episodes.
Episode 2, Season 4 – The Old Sugarman Place
Many would scoff at the idea of a whacky animated comedy about talking animals doubling as the most nuanced depiction of depression ever to air on television. Yet over four seasons, BoJack Horseman has taken its cast of nonsensical goofballs and systematically broken them apart, providing an emotional realism as strong as any of the great television dramas of the past decade whilst simultaneously taking a viciously satirical approach to issues as complex as abortion, media corruption and sexuality.
BoJack’s ability to balance its inherent silliness against its signature brand of emotional turmoil is nothing short of miraculous. The show continues to make strides, with its fourth season standing as arguably the strongest yet, proving itself to be visually inventive, cleverly written and utterly heartbreaking in every single episode. Yet in no half hour was the show more devastating this season than in its second, entitled ‘The Old Sugarman Place’.
The episode reunites the audience with the show’s eponymous protagonist BoJack, a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions. Conspicuously absent in the season premiere, we find BoJack at his absolute nadir, having ruined every meaningful connection he had in the previous season. In a montage set to a beautiful rendition of ‘A Horse with No Name’, we observe BoJack’s lonely journey through the desert, his utter lack of purpose, his numbness.
Led by the show’s co-creator Lisa Hanawalt, the show’s animators truly shine here, perfectly capturing BoJack’s forlorn malaise, placing him against backdrops that bleed melancholia. The sequence recalls a classic piece of cinema, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas in its depiction of a person who has truly lost everything. His journey eventually leads him to his old family home, at which point the episode unveils its soul crushing conceit. A series of vignettes of BoJack’s ancestors, wandering through the frame playing out their own little Chekhovian drama alongside BoJack’s present day antics.
The story of BoJack’s ancestors is a microcosm of everything that makes the show great: grin-inducing silliness, wry political commentary and heartbreak. The story of the rise and fall of a wealthy American family in the 1940s, the audience sees the happiness of Joseph Sugarman, his wife Honey and their daughter Bea (BoJack’s mother) play out against the backdrop of the present day, in which their once charming house has fallen to ruin, occupied by a bitter alcoholic.
(the) fourth season stands as arguably the strongest yet, proving itself to be visually inventive, cleverly written and utterly heartbreaking in every single episode.
Indeed, the simultaneous juxtaposition of past and present is a canny reinforcement of the episode’s metaphor: that the scars of one’s past never truly heal. In one scene, a dent in a gas station in the present that the viewer eventually learns was caused by the Sugarman family in the past. This can be seen as a literal exemplification of the damage the past causes upon the present, and a sublime metaphor for the decades of familial trauma that have manifested themselves in BoJack’s addictive need for validation.
To speak of the show in such weighty terms is to detract from how funny so much of it is. BoJack’s bond in the present day with a talking fly named Ed are hilarious, with enough absurdity to stop the show from ever becoming too macabre. Yet even this story is lined with grief. The episode’s centrepiece is a musical duet in which past and present collide, with Ed and Honey performing a musical duet together in which we learn of Ed’s agonising bereavement.
Other shows would use a musical number as an attempt to cheaply mine sentimentality, yet here it feels totally earned, providing a moment as harrowingly sad as any other in BoJack Horseman. It helps that actors Jane Krakowski and Colman Domingo bring so much psychological weight to their respective guest roles.
The episode’s final note, so cruelly unfair and tragic that to give it away would in itself be a crime, cements the show’s reputation as the darkest animated shows ever and as a beautiful meditation on grief, time and America. As Joseph muses, ‘time’s arrow marches on’, and as BoJack leaves his family home behind at the end of the episode all we can do is muse on the ghosts he has left there, and those he has taken with him.
To speak of the show in such weighty terms is to detract from how funny so much of it is.
Episode 11, Season 4 – Time’s Arrow
If Bojack Horseman’s fourth season is Bojack at its worst, best and most crushingly introspective then its penultimate episode ‘Time’s Arrow’ is up there in contention for one of the entire series’ many masterpieces. Following on from the final seconds of the previous episode in which Beatrice Horseman finally recognises her son, the viewer is taken into Bojack’s mother’s past, her dementia revealing, if nothing else, why Bojack is the way he is.
Following on from the lobotomy of her mother as a ‘cure’ for her hysteria in the second episode of this season, we see a young Beatrice Horseman, on the cusp of womanhood, being bullied by Camellia Bloodsworth goose and her ‘gaggle’. We learn that like Hollyhock she has problems with her weight and like Bojack resents her parents. Her father’s makes comments such as ‘reading does nothing for young women except build their brains’ and ‘I don’t give a damn where your interests lie’, before organising a debutant ball to effectively sell her off to the highest bidder.
It is at her debutant ball where she meets Butterscotch Horseman, Bojack’s father, who is meant to be her way out of her oppressive world. Unlike her father or any of her organised suitors, Butterscotch is care free and an aspiring beat writer aiming ‘to write the great American Novel’.
A few weeks after a passionate night together Beatrice realises she is pregnant with Bojack, and the optimistic tone starts to unravel into the most revealing twenty minutes of the season. From the very first moment Bojack is referred to as an ‘inconvenience’ by his father whilst the two are discussing the prospect of an abortion.
However, Beatrice decides to keep Bojack and the two elope to California to start a new life together as a family and fulfil Butterscotch’s dream of becoming the next great American writer. Despite their intentions, the couple’s life in California is a failure. The two direct their anger at this situation towards the force that brought them together: their son. We are then introduced to Henrietta, Bojack’s epithet from his mother for the entire season and, as it turns out, the Horseman’s family maid. Her face is violently scratched out; a memory Beatrice has tried to forget.
Bojack Horseman’s fourth season is Bojack at its worst, best and most crushingly introspective
It turns out that Butterscotch has been having the affair with and impregnated Henrietta. He goes to his wife ‘hat in hand’ asking her to talk Henrietta out of having the baby. This is the end of his dreams of being the great beat writer he wanted to be and the end of the life they tried to start anew in California.
Henrietta keeps the baby but is persuaded by Beatrice to put it up for adoption, leading us to the big reveal. Beatrice at Henrietta’s bedside takes the baby Hollyhock away from her saying ‘it’s for your own good’. This makes Beatrice’s first words to Hollyhock – ‘Oh it’s you’ – suddenly make sense. All this time Beatrice has been able to recognise the baby she pulled from its mother’s arms, and yet recognises her own son as that baby’s mother.
Moving swiftly back to the dingy care home, we see Bojack’s character in the warmest light of the entire series. All he has wanted is to deliver that big ‘fuck you’ to his mother, and now she gains some lucidity he has the opportunity. But he doesn’t. Instead he sits with her and calms his terrified, confused mother by describing the porch at the Old Sugarman place and the ‘fireflies’ in the night sky.
Throughout the show Bojack’s mother has been the universal villain. Bojack blames her for never being able to happy and the viewer blames her for making Bojack what he is. For the first time, the fourth season shows Beatrice holding the same trait that Bojack’s character has been founded on: vulnerability.
Now in late stage dementia she is subject to Bojack’s torments: throwing the baby doll she uses to calm her confused mind off his deck, or narcissistically staging a live viewing of Horsin’ Around in her care home to her hysteria. The dynamic of the pair’s relationships flips: Beatrice is no longer the tormentor, but the tormented.
At the moment where Bojack is about to land the final blow on the woman who has caused his constant feeling of inadequacy, he doesn’t. We see the human side of Bojack. We see the good Bojack. The viewer, like Hollyhock, starts to feel for the woman painted out as the primary antagonist. By the end of ‘Time’s Arrow’ Beatrice Horseman is no longer the villain, just a painfully recognisable mirror of her son.
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