Warning: this article is going to be full of spoilers for BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman is an animated comedy show on Netflix about an anthropomorphic horse named BoJack Horseman who is also a washed-up ’90s actor. A few episodes’ plots include trying to rescue his friend/roommate Todd from the cult of improv comedy; and others’ are about a yellow labrador named Mr. Peanutbutter trying to win the race for governor of California via a ski race. BoJack Horseman is also a drama diving into the horrors of depression, anxiety, and addiction, and is a deeply nuanced and thoughtful show, offering a no holds barred criticism of Hollywood, the media, politics, and sexism.
Confusing? Yup. From the get-go, the show never shies away from the absurdity of its premise, and season four is no different, continuing along the same bizarre and hilarious plot points of the last three seasons, while still providing the same ruthless look at the humanity (so to speak) of its characters.
Take the titular character, BoJack. While we’ve previously seen the disastrous results of his depression and addiction, the season four episode “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” takes us directly into his mind, where he has to listen to a near constant monologue of self-hatred and intensely harsh criticism. BoJack’s inner thoughts continually try to lead him to bad decisions, then berate him for doing so. He thinks of alcohol as an easy reprieve, only to regret it right after. Many on the internet with depression and anxiety have noted the accuracy of this inner self-hating voice and the damage it wreaks.
Though this isn’t the first season of the show to delve into mental illness, but so far it’s mostly been through BoJack’s experiences. The fourth season gives us a story in a flashback of BoJack’s grandmother, who, after experiencing severe grief following the death of her son and acting “hysterical”, is forced by her husband to have a lobotomy. It’s a terrifying scene made all the worse because it’s grounded in real life. The fear and discomfort surrounding women’s emotions is apparent, with BoJack’s grandfather even cheerily noting, “As a modern American man I’m woefully unprepared to manage a woman’s emotions. I was never taught, and I will not learn.”
BoJack Horseman has certainly been willing to explore sexism (as in episode “Hank After Dark” in the second season and the episode “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” in season three). But in this season, it is never explicitly a part of a ‘Very Special Episode.’ Instead, the show lets the issue simmer as a main theme throughout. In a flashback, BoJack’s mother Beatrice recalls both classmates who mock her weight and her father — the same man who ordered his wife lobotomized — say this about her experiencing scarlet fever: “Some good may yet come of this. Doctor says your throat is nearly swollen shut. So perhaps you’ll finally lose some of that weight that’s given you such troubles. Won’t that be nice?”
To be fair, those flashbacks take place between the late 1940s and early 1950s, so such disturbing displays of sexism aren’t quite as present outside of the flashbacks, at least on the surface. But lest we breath any sighs of relief: in a subplot in one episode, Hollyhock (BoJack’s biological teenage daughter, who turns out to be his biological half-sister…it’s complicated) calls herself a ‘blob’ compared to several skinny Hollywood women. Later BoJack discovers that his now senile mother has been secretly drugging Hollyhock with ‘Chub-B-Gone,’ showing how Beatrice has internalized the misogyny to the point where she herself perpetuates it.
But this season isn’t all terrifying mental illness and misogyny. Beyond the usual sight gags, puns, and amusing celebrity cameos (Jessica Biel becomes a power-hungry political figure and Zach Braff wails about needing someone to validate his parking for a good 20 minutes), the show manages to find one particular bright spot in Todd, who’s attempting to figure out his asexual identity. In the last episode of season three, Todd admitted to his friend Emily that he wasn’t straight or gay, and wondered if he might be “nothing”, as he put it. This season has Todd trying to decide if asexual is the right label for him, and what exactly he wants from a romantic partner, or if he even wants one at all. In the episode “Hooray! Todd Episode!”, after spending an episode trying to be as helpful as possible and getting into a bizarre array of shenanigans, Todd finally allows himself to have some quiet introspection, and plucks up enough courage to go to an asexual meet-up. It’s a lovely ending, and stands in contrast to the other, much harsher storylines of this season. It’s worth noting that Todd is one of the first main characters of a widely-viewed TV show to identify as asexual, and the show is doing a really good job of it, handling his identity with a gentleness not often seen on television.
Other subplots are handled with similar grace and care. Mr. Peanutbutter, the aforementioned yellow lab running for governor, and his wife, Diane, struggle with their marriage as political issues from guns to fracking become sounding boards for two characters who are very much in love, but very far apart from each other. Princess Carolyn, BoJack’s former agent, struggles with infertility and to keep her work and personal life together. We can’t help but root for her, even as she faces heartbreaking after heartbreaking setbacks.
Also, after the success of last season’s mostly silent episode “Fish Out of Water”, it’s clear that the creators of BoJack Horseman have become unafraid of experimenting more with narrative and animation styles. Episodes like “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” and “Henrietta” take unflinching looks inside the psyches of BoJack and Beatrice, respectively, while other episodes like “The Old Sugarman Place” seamlessly mix past and present, culminating in a stunning, tender musical duet between BoJack’s grandmother in the past and his newfound friend in the present.
There are other graceful moments and bright spots this season, and they make a good counterbalance to the utter devastation that the season pushes on the viewer. For all the cartoon animals, sight gags, and fantastical elements, this season of BoJack Horseman has the show remaining brutally honest and terribly affective.