The Evolution of BoJack Horseman: What are You Doing Here?

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What Are You Doing Here?

When BoJack Horseman burst onto the scene of animated series in 2014, most reviews praised its humour and over-the-top presence, but noted it lacked the gravitas to make it stand out from the crowd. This was partly because most reviews were based on the first few episodes and not the entire first season. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg gave the show time to develop a voice and a tone that is not dominant in the first six episodes of season one. The world of BoJack Horseman is populated by visual and spoken animal puns, absurdist humour, and a substantial amount of alliteration- and assonance-based wordplay (“Stealing a meal from Neal McBeal the Navy SEAL” or “Courtney Portnoy portrayed the formerly portly consort in the seaport resort”) but it quickly developed into one of the most important shows of this period of television’s golden era. Through LA’s lush and toxic landscape, BoJack Horseman tackles social issues like abortion, gun violence, and feminist issues by taking them to their extremes and scrutinising them in a refreshing voice that almost always hits the target, but its central themes are philosophically rooted. Depression, addiction, self-loathing, fame, and a realistically-approached quest for happiness find their way into the main characters’ daily lives and develop as case studies in an attempt to present a larger picture of the multitudes that these topics manifest. As the fifth season just dropped on Netflix, let’s see how BoJack Horseman explores themes of depression and happiness across its run so far.

The show sets up a familiar starting point with a protagonist whose hedonism and disregard for the people around him are fronts for emotional instability, trust issues, and an inability to commit to relationships. As the show presses on with exploring mundane aspects of BoJack’s nihilism and existential paralysis, it manages to break into novel territory when it develops and analyses the other characters. It was important for the show to widen the focus from BoJack to include Todd, Diane, Princess Carolyn, but also Mr. Peanutbutter and Sarah Lynn.

The first season is trying to find the show’s footing in its approach to the issues it wants to talk about. At the end of episode 5, “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen”, where Diane’s father dies, BoJack expresses his appreciation for her. In doing so, he exposes for the first time a part of his life philosophy that will dictate a lot of the show’s run as he deals with the pitfalls of his lifestyle.

Closure is a made-up thing by Steven Spielberg to sell movie tickets. It, like true love and the Munich Olympics, doesn’t exist in the real world. The only thing to do now is just to keep living forward.
— BoJack, “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen”

As shown in a future episode, moving forward and never looking back is something that was instilled in a very young BoJack by his hero, Secretariat, and proves to be a harmful tactic for him. BoJack will need to confront his past eventually, but let’s not put the cart before the horse (this pun is the hill I will die on). What is set up to look like a romantic interest for BoJack in the pilot, Diane takes on a much more interesting role in BoJack’s life. After being hired to ghostwrite his memoir, she manages to make him open up about his upbringing and the deeper issues that a run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir wouldn’t care to go into. This type of closeness is unusual for BoJack, who says in subsequent episodes that Diane knows him better than anyone else, and who takes it to mean that he is in love with her. This is thankfully resolved, at least for the audience, in episode 6, “Our A-Story is a ‘D’ Story”, where he leaves her a voicemail saying “I’m sorry if I’ve been difficult in any way during this process. It’s really hard to have somebody know you, I guess. And you do know me, Diane.” Dodging the cliche love interest route was a crucial step for the show and it allowed it freedom to explore the BoJack-Diane dynamic on interesting new levels in later seasons.

In the following episode, “Say Anything”, BoJack goes on a drinking binge to get over the fact that Diane is engaged to Mr. Peanutbutter and tries to get back together with Princess Carolyn. At the end of the episode he gets a phonecall from Herb, who is an unknown element at this point in the show, and reality comes rushing back. It’s clear that BoJack pursued Diane because he felt a connection between them. This connection intensified in his perception because of its rarity, and when it didn’t pan out, he went back to Princess Carolyn thinking he was in love with her, but at that moment realises his actions weren’t driven by desire or love:

Princess Carolyn, what are we doing? This was a mistake. You were right, I don’t love you. You don’t love me. We’re just two lonely people trying to hate ourselves a little less. Maybe that’s all we’re ever gonna be. Maybe that’s all we ever were.
— BoJack, “Say Anything”

This is the turning point in the show. It’s easy to see how a different, more conventional route at this point in the story would’ve led to a sitcom that, while excellent in its comedic voice, cannot transcend the sitcom paradigm. At the end of the first season, BoJack goes on a mystery-drug-fuelled self-exploration trip while trying to write his memoir. His projection of Diane tells him that it is never too late to be the person he wants to be. This is the fundamental thesis the show is trying to prove (or disprove). After he comes to, he asks the real Diane that same question.

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I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I'm a good person.

I need you to tell me that I'm good.

At this point he has achieved the ultimate goal of his career – he is cast to play Secretariat in the eponymous biopic. After seeing how influential Secretariat was on BoJack’s outlook on life via a simple piece of advice, it’s no wonder BoJack excels at the audition – not through his acting skills but by displaying his genuine flawed self. The first episode of the second season, “Brand New Couch”, is perhaps the most formulaic of the show in its sitcom narrative, save for the twist at the end. In the classic BoJack Horseman voice that will come to define the show, its self-mockery helps it push through to the next level. In this episode, Todd is given the uber-simple B-plotline of trying to sleep. He tries BoJack’s car, the couch in BoJack’s trailer, but he finally realises he should go sleep in his usual place, the couch in BoJack’s house, exclaiming: “Hooray! Happy ending for Todd!” BoJack’s episode arc is not as simple, though there are parallels. At the beginning of the season he is committed to being a new, positive person. This, however, makes him unable to portray a depressed Secretariat. It is not until the end of the episode, when his mother calls to tell him that he will always be miserable that  he can let go of that commitment. This is not to say he can never be happy, or the person he wants to be, but it does bring home the point that the process will not be easy. It will be hard and painful and will require constant commitment – a point that is hit more directly in the season finale, “Out to Sea”, by the jogging baboon.

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You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now its all gone. And I'll never get it back in me. It's too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn't it?

During this season, BoJack’s existential quest is extended to the other main characters’ arcs. Diane is given the chance to go help a billionaire philanthropist in a war-torn country, to which she assigns the value of a useful, righteous aim in life – a meaning. In her daily life she is increasingly dissatisfied and is unable to locate the source of this state, which results in her marriage going through a rough patch. Her husband, Mr. Peanutbutter, is, along with Todd, one of the characters who seem unpreoccupied  by existential angst and find a way to be happy, or at least content, without much trouble. However, Mr. Peanutbutter does show that he is not devoid of philosophy, but that, rather, his is a simple one, that provides him with the means to be happy without constantly thinking about it:

The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t to search for meaning. It’s to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense and, eventually, you’ll be dead.
— Mr. Peanutbutter, “Later”

This philosophy clashes with Diane’s, whose search for meaning and eventual unrest when she fails to find it take up most of her second season arc. Princess Carolyn, on the other hand, is struggling with the fact that a complete dedication to her career has left her dissatisfied in her personal life. Not only do her projects seem to always fall apart, but her arch-rival Vanessa Gekko obnoxiously points out that she is both a mother and a career woman, and her being a mother not only doesn’t hinder her career but actually helped her steal a major client from Princess Carolyn. The latter enters a relationship with Vincent Adultman, who is actually three small boys on top of each other inside a trenchcoat, a fact that is constantly pointed out by BoJack but always ignored by Princess Carolyn in herblind desperation to cling to the idea that her job is not her entire life and she is not alone. Her relationship with Vincent doesn’t work out and her new business endeavour with colleague Rutabaga proves to be premature, if not an outright mistake, leaving her back to square one.

BoJack starts the season trying to convince himself that doing the Secretariat biopic is the key to his happiness. He attempts a romantic fresh start with an owl named Wanda, who just woke up from a 30-year come, but his increasing pessimism and depression create an unbearingly negative atmosphere for her and she leaves him. After a conversation with Diane, he abandons everything to go see his old friend Charlotte in New Mexico.

Diane: That play in New York. Would that really have made you happy?

BoJack: Yeah. I mean...for a little bit.

Diane: And if Kelsey didn’t get fired and you got to make the Secretariat movie you wanted to make, would that have made you happy?

BoJack: For a little bit. But then…probably…

Diane: So what does it matter?

BoJack: But there has to be more.

Diane: Well when’s the last time you were happy?
— “Yes And”

BoJack finds in Charlotte’s home a temporary haven of bliss, spending time with her and her husband and children, but it’s bound to come to an unpleasant end as he is in love with her and has been all these years – or so he claims. Add to that the fact that Charlotte’s daughter Penny develops a bit of a crush on BoJack and Charlotte catches her in his room, and this whole trip to New Mexico turns into a catastrophe. But we get the sense, amplified by later seasons, that BoJack is not as much in love with Charlotte as he is trying to find an answer to his sadness and loneliness, like in the Diane-Princess Carolyn situation from season one. Charlotte, on the other hand, lives a happy, content life with her family and doesn’t regard BoJack as anything more than an unexplored possibility from her twenties. The season ends with BoJack trying to jog, and the aforementioned jogging baboon, who can be seen in most episodes running up the hill by BoJack’s house each morning – reminiscent of Camus’ Sisyphus – telling a struggling BoJack:

It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.
— Jogging Baboon, “Out to Sea”
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In the third season, BoJack is on his Oscar campaign with his academy influencer/publicist, Ana Spanakopita. He soon loses steam in the usual BoJack fashion, doubting the meaning behind awards. To this, Ana replies with one of the many alternative answers the show provides to its central question about happiness and meaning:

This has been your dream for the last 30 years. You made it happen. An Oscar won’t make you happy forever. It won’t solve all your problems. You win that Oscar, the next day you go back to being you. But that night is a really good night. I think you deserve a really good night, and I know how to get you there.
— Ana Spanakopita, “Start Spreading the News”

This is taken further by Cuddlywhiskers, with whom BoJack co-created a failed TV show in 2007. BoJack goes to visit him for the first time since then, to find out that Cuddlywhiskers has found a way to be happy despite it meaning he had to cut ties with people close to him. He thought he found the answer in helping people, when he started helping drug addicts recover. But not being able to save all of them left him empty – something similar to what Diane went through in the previous season in Cordovia. What does make Cuddlywhiskers happy now seems to be his reclusivity and detachment from the world.

I remember when I won my Oscar, standing up on that stage, looking at the statue, and I thought, ‘This is supposed to be the happiest moment of my life and I never felt more miserable. [...] Sometimes you need to take responsibility for your own happiness. [...] I’m happy for the first time in my life, and I’m not gonna feel bad about it. It takes a long time to realise how truly miserable you are, and even longer to see that it doesn’t have to be that way. Only after you give up everything can you begin to find a way to be happy.
— Cuddlywhiskers, “BoJack Kills”

In this season BoJack is mostly concerned with his career, and more specifically, getting an Oscar and deciding on his next project. His options are: a financially lucrative mainstream film series, an arthouse film directed by Kelsey (who lost her Secretariat job because of BoJack), and a spinoff series of Horsin’ Around. The latter is an initiative of Bradley, who played BoJack’s adopted son on Horsin’ Around. He needs BoJack to get the show funded, but even after putting everything on the line on BoJack’s word, is let down when BoJack backs out of the project because of dreams of a more serious career. However, because of Princess Carolyn’s ambition, he ends up losing his other two opportunities and eventually finds out he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. This ends his relationship with Ana, which was based on his success status, and brings him down, fuelling a booze-and-drugs bender with Sarah Lynn. Their bender features a lot of blackouts and ends up lasting months, up until the Oscars ceremony. Watching the awards show on TV together, in a dirty motel room somewhere, they learn that Sarah Lynn won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Her reaction to the news and their trip to the Planetarium following it comprise two of the most heartbreaking minutes of the entire show.

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When I was a kid, if you told me I’d win an Oscar I’d never believe it. And now I’ve done it and… BoJack, I don’t like anything about me. None of this is me. These boobs aren’t me, this house isn’t me… The only reason why I wear this shirt is because some company paid me $8,000 to wear it. And I don’t even need the money, I just liked that someone still wanted me to wear their shirt. [...] What am I supposed to do? I don’t know what to do. Am I doomed? Are you doomed? Are we all doomed?
— Sarah Lynn, “That’s Too Much, Man!”

After the bender and this extreme psychological low, Sarah Lyn goes to the Planetarium with BoJack, looks at the stars, admires the building, expresses her wish to become and architect, and dies. There’s a lot to unpack in her last words, and it all taps into the core concerns of the show and into BoJack’s own unrest, but most importantly, it exposes the heart of a character that was initially presented as a troubled former child star and came to embody the particular psychological damage of growing up in show business and celebrity culture. Her existential despair is directly cause by a superficial world of entertainment where meaning itself is not only disregarded but actively avoided. Sarah Lynn is the extreme Hollywoo side of BoJack and her arc is a sped-up version of his own, unless he manages to find a way to help it.

After Sarah Lynn’s death, BoJack goes back to Bradley with another promise to make the spinoff show happen, but quits in the middle of shooting because one of the child actors reminds him of Sarah lynn and he cannot bear watching the cycle repeat itself. Despite this understandable reaction to the situation, this scene in the season finale highlights more than anything BoJack’s egocentrism (and consequently, his hypocrisy when he claims he needs people to feel close to) in his treating those around him as disposable.

Season four takes on the theme of family, as BoJack disappears in his family’s summer house in Michigan for a year, trying to cope with (or rather, to escape coping with) Sarah Lynn’s death. During this time, we get a glimpse at his mother’s upbringing and her own family demons. He returns to LA to find Hollyhock at his house, a new character who wants to find out if BoJack is her biological father. After she gets a positive DNA match, BoJack starts helping her find her biological mother, a process that leads to him taking his own mother in his home. Suffering from severe dementia, Beatrice Horseman does not recognise her son, and BoJack finds himself in an entirely new paradigm where his identity is defined by his relationship with a mother whom he lost her but who does not acknowledge him, and a teenage daughter who is just getting to know him.

In the family theme, Princess Carolyn is in a more stable and happy relationship, but her increasing frustration and disappointment at her failed attempts to get pregnant eventually cause the relationship to fall apart. She seems to have found the solution to her professional crisis – she decides that her calling is not being an agent but a manager. However, as everyone keeps asking her what the difference is between an agent and a manager, this is the show’s way of noting that her self-proclaimed epiphany did not change anything, and is a delusion reminiscent of Vincent Adultman.

Todd’s relationship with BoJack is still strained because BoJack slept with Emily, Todd’s close friend, leading to Todd’s famous “It’s you!” moment. But the two are finally in a place where they can build an honest friendship. His most important development is coming out as asexual, which is in itself a major event for television. This and him reconnecting with Emily, despite his orientation being an obstacle in their relationship, help Todd understand hims of more and figure out where he belongs.

Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are mostly involved in the gubernatorial elections in California, which seems to be uneventful in depth but hides a lot of tension underneath the surface. The pressure of the future, which always weighed heavy on Diane, reaches its highest point when they decide to buy a house together. That pressure is released in the final moments of the fourth season when it seems like they are heading for a divorce after years of struggling to maintain the same frequency in their marriage.

Which brings us to the yesterday’s release of the fifth season. The following will include some spoilers for the whole season, with a notice of when spoilers end.


Spoiler alert for Season 5

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The new season of BoJack Horseman is worthy of an in-depth analysis of its own, particularly the multi-layered genius of “Free Churro.” But the one stand-out aspect of that  episode was BoJack trying to understand his mother’s final words to him, “I see you.” While she did not recognise him during the fourth season and he found himself in a position where he wasn’t even being acknowledged at all by her and could not tell her all the things he always wanted to tell her, he is given this last nod by her and it haunts him, not knowing what it meant.

Let me tell ya, it’s a weird thing to feel at 54 years old that for the first time in your life your mother sees you. It’s an odd realisation that that’s the thing you’ve been missing, the only thing that you wanted all along: to be seen.
— BoJack, “Free Churro”

While the episode finally allows him to say all the things he wanted to say, his assertion that being seen by his mother is the only thing he ever needed is suspicious at best. We’ve seen BoJack cling details like this one throughout the show, and it is always revealed to be just a piece of the puzzle. Simply being in a relationship or simply having that one symbolic gesture from his mother will not fix everything, no matter how desperately he wants a quick fix for his condition. The proof of it is in BoJack’s downwards spiral following his mother’s funeral – a spiral that more than anything else resembles Don Draper’s alcohol-ridden period after season three of Mad Men. BoJack’s drug addiction is dealt with more seriousness and attention as he starts abusing pain medication and gets into an accident on purpose to get the pills. He starts mixing up his real life with that of his character in the TV show he’s starring in, he experiences paranoia and blackouts, and it all culminates in his attempt to strangle his co-star and girlfriend, Gina.

During this time he is distanced from Diane, because he knows if she knew the state he was in she would see through him and he is afraid of how well she knows him. When the two of them have the confrontation at the end of “Head in the Clouds”, his state of anger and frustration comes clashing with Diane’s own coping with her divorce, seeing Mr. Peanutbutter be happy with his new girlfriend, having no purpose in life, and no way to get out of it. She resents BoJack because she sees a lot of herself in him and hates him for not trying to be a better person, which she is trying to do despite her apparent failure.

BoJack: I’m not gonna change.
I don’t need your help for changing, so you can stop trying to make me your project. When I met you, I was depressed because I didn’t like myself. And when you wrote that book and sold a bejillion copies, you taught me that as screwed up as I am, that’s okay. You did that. And now I’m okay.

Diane: I don’t believe that’s true. And I don’t think you believe it’s true. I think you want me to tell you that you can be better. And even though you’re being a total asshole right now, I still believe it. If all you’ve gotten out of this friendship is the idea that you should be okay with yourself as you are, then I don’t think this is a good relationship for either of us.
— “Head in the Clouds”

At the end of the season, after he has hit rock bottom with the pills and the realisation that every thing and every way he has tried to use to get better and to be a better person, a person he likes, has failed him, she drives to rehab. If this doesn’t work, what will the next step be?

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What if I get sober and I'm still the same awful person I've always been, only more sober?

End of Season 5 Spoilers


The last thing you hear before Netflix autoplays the next episode is that familiar F#m chord and the line “Back in the 90s I was in a very famous TV show.” This happens in most episodes, even those that end with some of the show’s most harrowing scenes or lines. Beyond the meta level that reminds you you are watching a show, there’s an extra level that ties into BoJack’s frequently expressed frustration that life is not like a sitcom where everything is solved to a happy ending after 30 minutes (think back to “Brand New Couch”). This is most memorably shown at the end of “Prickly Muffin” in season one, which is in turn referenced again in the “symbolic gesture” bit in “Free Churro”, and refrained more concisely in “What Time Is It Right Now”, the season four finale, by Princess Carolyn:

I got into this business because I love stories. They comfort us, they inspire us, they create a context for how we experience the world. But also you have to be careful cause if you spend a lot of time with stories you start to believe that life is just stories. And it’s not. Life is life. And that’s so sad cause there’s so little time and… what are we doing with it?
— Princess Carolyn, “What Time Is It Right Now”

When BoJack was trying to be positive while filming Secretariat, that attitude impeded him from delivering his line. The line was “What are you doing here?” In all subsequent seasons that line is repeated by most main characters in the casual way it is usually asked. But in the BoJack universe, it has acquired a new, almost hidden meaning. Because of the way it was brought to the audience’s attention in “Brand New Couch”, it carries the existential undertones of “What are you doing here? What is your purpose? Should you be here or maybe somewhere else? What are you doing with your life? What exactly is it you’re doing here?”

You can hear it in each character’s voice when they ask that. For a show that is particularly fond of meta-jokes, this may be its most ingenious yet, blending deep existential doubt with absurdist humour in true BoJack Horseman style. Like the dichotomy between Bojack and Mr. Peanutbutter, where the former cannot get out of the loop of being tormented by questions about his life’s purpose and meaning and the latter ignores the same concerns while engaging in “unimportant nonsense”, the line “What are you doing here?” is easily ignored until its importance is pointed out. After that happens, you can’t unhear it.


 
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PLATON POULAS

BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.

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