SPOILER ALERT: Warning, this article contains spoilers from the fourth season of Bojack Horseman. Proceed at your own risk.
It’s a weird day when a show about an overweight, alcoholic talking horse in a Mr. Rogers sweater is the most insightful and poignant show on television.
Then again, it’s been quite a weird string of days here in our [darkest?] timeline, so naturally, we find ourselves turning hungrily to shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead for some light-ish escapism.
In 2014, Netflix released Bojack Horseman, a show in which bipedal animals and humans co-exist and commingle in a drama-filled modern-day Hollywood. The show is centered on the titular Bojack, a washed-up former TV sitcom star — also a horse — trying to find his footing back in front of the screen, all while continuously making, messing up and sometimes successfully repairing relationships with those around him. Bojack is not a good guy — er, horse — by any means. His affinity for drugs, alcohol, and just being a crotchety jerk often getting in the way of his better intentions.
I don’t recommend Bojack Horseman for escapism. Not quite, anyway. However, I do recommend the show as one of the smartest, more well-written cartoons of our time. Seasons one through three — all available on Netflix — each boasted somewhat self-contained arcs that were brilliantly executed, with powerful writing bolstered by equally skilled voice acting.
Bojack has ventured into serious topics before, including abortion, gun control, neglectful and sometimes abusive parenting, and asexuality. But it’s the recently-dropped fourth season that delivers perhaps the largest emotional gut punch, with eerily accurate and often extremely uncomfortable portrayals of mental health, spanning depression, anxiety, and even dementia.
“Enough” is Never Enough
Over four seasons, we’ve seen regular character Diane‘s struggle with herself and the road her life has taken, often fighting against and even pulling away from others in as she tries to cope. Diane seems like she has it all — a happy marriage to a superstar who not only loves her more than anything but who never seems to run out of money — but if you’ve paid attention these past three years, there’s one thing Diane can’t seem to get right: her career.
An aspiring writer who never seems to get the chance to do the kind of work she dreams of, Diane takes the jobs available to her, running social media for out-of-control starlets and writing for celebrity gossip and listicles for trashy blogs. We never see Diane ask for anything — until this season when she asks her husband Mr. Peanutbutter to not support fracking as he is running for governor. An unfortunate mishap leads to Mr. Peanutbutter not only supporting fracking but having it done in his own backyard, and we watch Diane struggle to support her husband’s views — constantly at odds with her own — we start to see her crack.
Towards the end of the season, Diane tells Mr. Peanutbutter that she doesn’t need anything, that she’s happy with what she has — but she’s not. We’ve seen her cry and fight to stay true to her values and find her place in the world for four seasons, and in this one, she cracks. “I am the problem!” she tells Bojack at once point. “Am I the problem?”
Diane’s frequent outbursts and slow pulling away from her husband and friends in this season is one of the more accurate portrayals of depression I’ve seen on TV. Even when you have everything, nothing is right, and even when nothing is going wrong, you don’t feel okay. Diane isn’t happy because she isn’t giving herself space to recognize what’s wrong and to seek proper help. Rather than reach for help, she pulls away, and in pulling away she damages her relationship with Mr. Peanutbutter. Like those feelings of emptiness, Diane’s arc may not be in the forefront of this season, but her frequent outbursts are a breadcrumb trail to a larger breakdown in the final episode.
“Stupid Piece of Sh*t”
Prior to season four’s start, Bojack has been through the ringer. Every romantic relationship he has pursued has fallen apart, he’s alienated nearly everyone who cared about him and then some, attempting to sleep with an old flame’s daughter being just one of the more horrific and frankly morally disgusting choices he’s made. Even Sarah Lynn, the one person who seemed to care for him unconditionally and looked to him like a father figure is gone, having died in front of him after years of abusing Bojack’s same vices — undoubtedly his influence. Bojack returns from a year hiding in rural Michigan and attempts to make amends, but it’s readily apparent that despite worrying for his well-being during his long silence, no one is ready to forgive him just yet. Or ever.
The realization of what’s he’s done comes crashing down on Bojack in the episode titled, aptly, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t.” If you’ve experienced anxiety, you’ll identify with this episode’s asides, narrated in Bojack’s head and illustrated with line art starring a scribbly, more cartoony version of the titular horse. In this episode, as things around him continue to deteriorate, Bojack frequently and quietly berates himself, telling himself he can’t do anything right and can’t keep meaningful relationships because he is “a stupid piece of sh*t.” He repeats these words like a prayer, blaming himself for Sarah Lynn’s death, blaming himself for others hating him, creating a narrative to suit his doubt and self-loathing.
This episode was difficult to watch, as someone familiar with anxiety. Bojack’s inner monologue isn’t self-pity; never once does he feel sorry for himself or point his finger at anyone else for the downward spiral his life is taking. Just as his string of angry self-consciousness moves quickly, so does the animation. These small sections of monologue are masterfully voice-acted and executed in that they are disorienting, frequently jump between topics, and are an accurate depiction of what goes on in someone’s head once the cycle of anxiety begins. I’ve never seen it laid out this way before, in any medium, and these short clips are frequent but short, sticking around just long enough to remind you (and Bojack) who is to blame here. It’s a look inside the head of someone who is struggling that most media isn’t brave enough to tackle.
But perhaps the most harrowing and upsetting arc in Bojack Horseman’s fourth season is that of Beatrice, Bojack’s elderly mother. Beatrice has dementia, and for most of the episodes, Bojack thinks she’s faking it. But he (and we) learn too little too late — in the final episode we realize that no, she didn’t know her own son this entire time, and the reality she’s been living in isn’t the one we’re seeing. One episode in particular shows two timelines of Beatrice’s life occurring simultaneously, and we as the audience are also left confused as to what we are watching most of the time. The episode apes what, we can only imagine, how patients with dementia suffer, struggling to put names, faces, dates straight, struggling to just cling to the moment and not get lost in the tide of time.
I watched this episode with my partner whose grandmother has dementia. Every time Beatrice failed to recognize someone, he would flinch; it’s hard seeing someone you’ve known your whole life suddenly not know your name or forget you exist altogether. And while Bojack initially doesn’t care about his mother’s deteriorated state, the moment he realizes he will never get to tell her what he wants to tell her — a not-so-heartwarming “f–k you” — and have her understand that he’s the one saying it, he is devastated.
In the end, the show reminds us, “you don’t have to feel bad for feeling bad,” letting us all know that these feelings of emptiness and confusion aren’t the end. I have to commend the show for giving us this short but powerful message; most of the time mental illness is used as a plot device, or depression is a punchline, anxiety a footnote in a character bio. But Bojack Horseman lays bare the real, unglamorous effects of mental illness not just on those who suffer from it, but those close to them. This show is unafraid to tackle something so delicate and succeeds in many ways by plowing through with brutal, uncomfortable honesty.
Creators, take note: there is something to be learned from this talking horse.