Television

BoJack Horseman Season 4: Tackling Tropes and What It Means to Be Needed

This post contains major spoilers for BoJack Horseman season 4.

Last year, I wrote a post reflecting on the existential themes of BoJack Horseman, the brilliant adult animated show on Netflix created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. The series has been praised by fans and critics alike for its innovative storytelling and hard-hitting subject matter, not to mention the countless background gags, tongue twisters and animal puns. Season 4 came out last September, and it not only moved the series forward on that trajectory but took the characters to new highs and lows to create yet another unforgettable TV-viewing experience.

This season continued with the show’s trend of experimenting with different types of storytelling methods. Season 3, for instance, gave us the highly-acclaimed, nearly dialogue-free episode, “Fish Out of Water.” In season 4, the premiere was devoid of the titular character, while a later episode gave the viewers a firsthand look at his self-deprecating thoughts. Additionally, we got to see shifts in the relationships between the five main characters—BoJack, Princess Carolyn, Mr. Peanutbutter, Diane Nguyen and Todd Chavez—as well as a deepening backstory into a presumably unsympathetic character, BoJack’s mom, Beatrice, along with a new character named Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack.

One of the many ingenious aspects of this series is its ability to mock various television tropes while at the same time creatively use those tropes to tell an engaging story. Take, for example, this season’s second episode, “The Old Sugarman Place,” in which BoJack ventures to his mother’s childhood home in Michigan. He meets a fly named Eddie, who’s haunted by his past and thus refuses to fly. We later learn it’s because flying played a part in the unexpected death of his wife. The idea of a character overcoming a trauma and turning it into a positive experience is a well-known story arc, and the show draws attention to this by having BoJack act dismissively toward Eddie’s anguish as if he’s heard it all before. Yet, flipping the expected outcome on its head, BoJack’s genuinely good-intentioned yet still misguided attempt to get Eddie to fly only ends in disaster when Eddie grows hysterical and tries to kill them both. To that end, we’re left with a prime example of what makes this show stand out. It constantly challenges the traditional happy ending route by denying any true sense of closure since, let’s face it, life is hardly like that.

Touching upon the inventive storytelling again, throughout this arc in the present, the episode masterfully weaves in childhood flashbacks of BoJack’s mother, Beatrice Sugarman. Through this narrative, it becomes painstakingly clear why and how Beatrice grew up to be the cold, resentful and impossible-to-please person BoJack sees her as today. Long story short, after Beatrice’s older brother, Crackerjack, is killed during World War II, their mother, Honey, implores her daughter to never love anyone as much as she loved Crackerjack, a gut-wrenching, pivotal lesson that Beatrice takes to heart.

We get the formal introduction of Hollyhock in the following episode, and while she’s come to Hollywoo with her own agenda to find her birth mother, little does she know that she’ll be the catalyst for the most meaningful growth we’ve seen from BoJack in the series thus far. As the season progresses, we see the two of them form a bond in a way only a father and long-lost biological daughter can. For BoJack, he struggles with wanting to have a healthy relationship with Hollyhock, despite knowing he’s ruined so many relationships in the past, noting Herb, Charlotte, Penny and Sarah Lynn. He fears he’s so broken that any attempt at having a good relationship with Hollyhock is doomed no matter what he does. As for Hollyhock, she makes it clear from the start that she doesn’t need him to be her dad, as she already has eight loving adoptive fathers (hence her eight surnames).

The concept of being needed and what it means to need someone, whether emotionally or for a favor, is an ongoing thread throughout this season. It comes up later with Diane in the episode, “Underground.” Firstly, though, to highlight tropes again, this episode features a classic plot device: characters trapped in a space. In this instance, it’s Mr. Peanutbutter’s house, although it’s taken one step further for BoJack and Diane, who willingly seclude themselves from all the unfurling chaos by staying in the bedroom and getting drunk together. While it may seem like a safe haven, the truth of the matter is that it encapsulates the fatal flaw of their relationship: they serve as each other’s buffer from the real world. Diane confesses to BoJack that she needs him in her life, that he’s the only thing that makes sense to her, but this puts into question what exactly the role is that BoJack plays in her life and vice versa. They enable one another’s cycles of depression and negative thinking, thus creating this symbiotic friendship that’s ultimately harmful to themselves as they merely continue to avoid their problems instead of facing them head-on.

Before I go on, I have to add that after binge-watching the entire season, I ended up having a dream about BoJack and Diane—clearly, you can tell I find their relationship particularly compelling. All I remember is a crucial moment involving the two of them waking up in an abandoned house, presumably after a night of drinking, and a human paramedic and bear nurse arrive to help them. As they groggily walk out into the harsh sunlight, Diane reaches for BoJack’s hand, only for both the nurse and paramedic to reach out and clasp her hand instead. Diane chuckles weakly and drops her hand, but a moment later, she attempts to do the exact same thing again with the same results. Only after giving up the second time does BoJack glance over at Diane when she’s not looking, and the look on his face is one of concealed fear with the realization that she’s become too dependent on him. It’s a catch-22; she needs him in her life, but he facilitates her self-destructive tendencies. Her only way out will be to take a step back and see if she can make it on her own two feet.

One other thing that struck me about “Underground” is the ending. After everyone is rescued, we get the first and only time this season that all five main characters are together on screen without any additional characters. The awkward tension is palpable, based on fractured relationships and damaged egos, though beneath it all is that ever-present glimmer of hope that BoJack Horseman reminds the viewers of every so often. Relationships may change, but there’s always room for growth. In BoJack and Todd’s case, for instance, there’s still a chance to earn back trust and rebuild a friendship.

I’m merely scratching the surface when discussing this season’s major plot points, but to move ahead a bit, I want to touch upon Princess Carolyn’s heartbreaking story arc. Ready to start a family with her boyfriend, a mouse named Ralph Stilton, who’s seemingly perfect for her despite his cat-hating family, she sadly winds up suffering through five miscarriages. However, it seems as if everything will turn out okay in the end, since the episode, “Ruthie,” features a framing device set in the future in which Princess Carolyn’s great-great-great-granddaughter gives a presentation about her ancestry. In the present, with her professional life unraveling and the loss of yet another baby, she breaks up with Ralph, and we finally learn through a conversation with BoJack that when she’s feeling low, she sometimes likes to imagine that scenario with her great-great-great-granddaughter, proving it was never real in the first place—one of the most tragic reveals not only this season but of the entire series. As I discussed in my original post about this show, it’s one of the things BoJack Horseman does best: subvert audience expectations.

Jumping ahead, this season’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” is told through a series of flashbacks. I want to pause and point out that there’s a universal understanding among diehard BoJack Horseman fans that the penultimate episode of each season is generally seen as the most soul-crushing. It serves as the climax of the season-long emotional arc, with the season finale serving as the fall-out in addition to the set up for the next season’s storylines. This season, we get to see the unfortunate destiny of Beatrice’s future when she gets impregnated by an aspiring writer named Butterscotch Horseman and becomes nothing more than a frivolous housewife, playing into her father’s old-fashioned views about a woman’s place in the world which she’d always strived to push against. This is one of the most gripping episodes in terms of its execution as we see the flashbacks unfold through Beatrice’s shaky memories caused by her present-day dementia. Insignificant faces are blank, and backgrounds blur and morph in a starling display that shows off the strength of the show’s animation as a compelling storytelling medium in itself.

The end of that episode reduced me to tears when the elderly Beatrice has a moment of lucidity and finally recognizes BoJack. Instead of telling her off for being a terrible mother as he’d planned on doing, he sits down and allows her to transport to a happy place in her mind: sitting outside with her family, listening to her brother play piano while she eats vanilla ice cream, an indulgence she was never allowed as a child. BoJack could’ve been selfish, but instead, he gives his mother a moment of peace and comfort. It’s not only touching and sweet but a truly noteworthy moment of character growth.

In the season 4 finale, “What Time Is It Right Now,” a desperate Princess Carolyn goes to BoJack to convince him to star in a new television series called Philbert. He easily agrees, and through Princess Carolyn’s relief, she admits how hard it is to need people, once again highlighting one of the underlying themes of this season. Needing someone requires a level of vulnerability, and for someone like Princess Carolyn, who thrives on her independence and is always out to help other people, it’s satisfying to see someone else come through for her for a change. The fact that it’s BoJack of all people makes it all the more meaningful.

The last thing I want to mention is the final shot this season. In the penultimate episode, we learn that Hollyhock isn’t BoJack’s biological daughter after all, but actually his half-sister. It’s a cleverly executed twist, especially when you go back and re-watch the season to see all the hints dropped along the way. In the season finale, Hollyhock is ready to set out to meet her birth mother, the Horsemans’ former maid, Henrietta. She reiterates to BoJack that while she never needed another dad, she never had a brother before. In response, BoJack has the most genuine, heartfelt smile we’ve ever seen from him thus far, a look filled with true and utter happiness. It feels so gratifying and completely well-earned, as it’s a feeling he’s been chasing the entire series, and now, he finally has it at that moment. For Hollyhock, it’s not that she needs him, but rather that she wants him to be in her life, something all the more powerful and pure as this relationship is extremely important to BoJack. I can honestly say that while I was emotional watching that ending, it also left me feeling uplifted. I’m excited to see how their relationship will progress next season and where each of the characters will go from here.

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