Back in September, Netflix aired a very famous TV show! Season 5 of Bojack Horseman hit the streaming giant on September 14 and it was…well, it was everything you expect of Bojack at this point. Bojack himself had a new project to distract from his guilt. Princess Carolyn tried to keep producing/managing while keeping Bojack in line. Diane tried to rediscover herself following a divorce from Mr. Peanutbutter, who dives back into the dating game. Todd had possibly the most Todd season yet.
At this point we go in knowing it’s going to be good. Really good. The kind of show that deserves all the awards yet never even gets nominated. Season 5 was no different (hopefully except for the award thing, come on, Emmys). This was also a self-aware season questioning the very appeal of its main character. It was funny, powerful, and remarkably creative.
In short, put another terrific season in the bank for Bojack Horseman. We’re Bo and Katie, and we’re here to talk about what stood out to us throughout season 5.
It Went Full Meta
While definitely focused on character-driven storylines and a barrage of jokes packing every frame, Bojack Horseman has never shied away from socially and politically relevant topics. Sometimes they last throughout a season, such as Diane’s fight against Hank Hippoppalous as a representation of the #MeToo movement. Other times they just use it as a gag for one episode as they did with gun control, abortion, child stardom, and many, many other topics. Safe to say that if something is culturally relevant, this show has at least one episode about it.
For season 5, Bojack went meta and tackled itself. Why not? Bojack has become a socially relevant show exemplative of one of the biggest discussions in fandom right now: Rick Sanchez Syndrome.
Even if you haven’t seen Rick and Morty, you probably know who Rick Sanchez is. You likely know he’s a massive jerk. You’ve probably heard from at least one person how he has a heart of gold buried beneath all his asshole behavior, and this rarely glimpsed good side makes you root for him despite all his toxic, abusive, immoral behaviors. He loves his daughter, he loves Morty, sometimes he does the right thing, and you think one day he’ll become a better person.
Uh oh, this sounds familiar.
Bojack the character represents this idea even more than Rick Sanchez ever has. He’s an awful man who consistently violates the most basic guidelines of good ethical and moral behavior. Name a bad thing, Bojack has probably done it. Yet Bojack Horseman shows us enough glimpses of someone better that we still root for him. His childhood had such an abusive shaping of his personality that we sympathize with his faults. He shows a consistent desire to be better.
Since he is the star of the show, we root for him through everything. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg decided to tackle this issue head on and ask whether, like Bojack, we were just using the character’s moral complexity to justify his awful behavior. Or even worse, whether we used him to justify our own behavior.
This question creates the foundation of an impressively meta season 5. Bojack stars in a gritty drama named Philbert starring an awful detective who basically represents him. They even film on a set that is literally Bojack’s house recreated. As an opioid addiction blurs the lines between the show and reality and sends Bojack spiraling out of control yet again, the show bluntly poses an important question:
Should we root for Bojack Horseman?
When do we cross the line between relating to bad men on TV and apologizing for them? At what point is the audience wrong to do so? This question comes up a lot these days, with shows like Atlanta even throwing in comments directly about Bojack Horseman and whether we can feel comfortable rooting for him anymore.
Season 5 was a direct rebuke of the idea that just because someone shows the occasional good side, they must be a good person. It was direct rebuke of Rick Sanchez Syndrome and all the fans who miss the point about characters like him. You’re not supposed to cheer for these characters to stay the same. Bojack Horseman is not okay as he is.
Diane delivers most of this message in what might be our favorite season yet for her character. After Philbert premieres and Bojack takes the very RSS-like message away from the show that it’s okay for the character of Philbert to be terrible because everyone is terrible, Diane bluntly points out, “That’s not the point of ‘Philbert,’ for guys to watch it and feel OK. I don’t want you or anyone else justifying their shitty behavior because of the show.”
Yeah, could it be more obvious how this applies to Bojack Horseman or Rick and Morty?
In the end, she finally convinces Bojack to enter rehab and begin the long road towards true change. Because those moments deserve to be supported. Not the drinking, not the pain pills, not the brutal assaults on his co-stars. Bojack should only be supported when he actually tries to be better. As Diane points out, he never really makes that commitment.
Philbert is used not just as a meta examination of Bojack as a character and show, but also of the abundance of shows and movies that unabashedly encourage the audience to justify and apologize for awful men. Season 5 asks why so many TV watchers seem to side with characters like Rick Sanchez, Walter White, Rust Cohle, and other obviously awful people.
Bojack Horseman also sets itself apart (from the herd? pack? reaches… for… horse pun….) in its consistent refusal to offer easy answers. Its fifth season not only functions as a deconstruction and fundamental questioning of televised antiheroes, but keeps walking forward to address a much harder question: what to do with them. Bojack does bad things, and knows he does bad things, and—on some level at least—he wants to be better. He’s riddled with guilt, trauma, mental illness, and addiction. He has the potential, when he’s able to reach beyond his own issues and deep-seated myopia, to be kind: a “good person.”
But very often… he doesn’t. And that gap between intention and reality forms the backbone of Bojack Horseman. You can care for someone and still hurt them with your actions. You can want to help someone and be unimaginably cruel. You can, in Bojack’s case, love someone and literally enable them to death.
“I spend so much time feeling bad,” Bojack tells Diane in a blowout fight and the (arguable) thematic climax of the season. “I’m the one who has to live with this. I’m the one who has to deal with the guilt every day… I’m the one who has suffered the most, because of the actions of Bojack Horseman.” It’s both an identifiable and repellant bit of self-pity, both true and wildly self-absorbed. And to Bojack Horseman’s credit, it’s interested not simply in Bojack’s own self-deception, but in how the people around him deal with and choose to move (or not move) forwards.
In the season’s final two episodes Bojack finally is shaken out of his self-delusion and subsequently demands punishment. He first attempts to castigate himself in a live, on-air interview and—when his victim prohibits it—he turns to Diane, asking her to excoriate him in a public takedown.
Bojack, of course, simply wants a clean slate. He wants a simple atonement: apology, punishment, forgiveness of sins. Diane—and the show—won’t give him that. He says he simply wants to be held accountable, but Diane calls him out. “No one is going to hold you accountable,” she says, “You need to take responsibility for yourself.”
It Spoke Truth About Hollywood Forgiveness
It wasn’t just characters like Bojack tackled head-on in season 5. The show also went after the very survival of real men like him in Hollywood who continue to thrive and succeed despite their awful behavior. At the least, Bojack Horseman has always poked cynically at the fraud morality allowing men like Mel Gibson to simply vanish for a few years and come back like nothing ever happened. This season they went after them.
This is most obvious in “Bojack the Feminist,” which centers around a character named Vance Waggoner. Plainly put, he is Mel Gibson. He goes on very racist rants based on Mel Gibson’s rants. After disappearing from the public spotlight for a few years, he comes back to star in Philbert as Bojack’s partner. Basically the only conversation he has with anyone revolves not around reformation, but whether enough time has passed for people to forget his past behavior. There’s even an awards show called the “Forgivies” used to all but publicly exonerate Waggoner of his past behavior.
Why does Hollywood allow this? Raphael Bob-Waksberg uses season 5 to ask about this, too. Honestly, what actors do we love that have pasts like Waggoner? How successful has Gibson been throughout his life despite his terribleness? This question relates not just to audience investment in characters like Bojack, but real people like him.
It was fascinating to us watching this show play out in the weeks directly after Louis C.K. made his “comeback” at the Comedy Cellar at the end of August. It reads as a direct statement, and counterpoint, to the concept that crimes and harassment become negated over time by the perpetrator’s own sadness. Bojack is very sad about the things that he’s done! He is suffering for it. But that’s irrelevant to the people that he’s hurt. What about their sadness? What about their trauma?
And it stands as an obvious roadblock to self-betterment, to being that “good person” Bojack always says he wants to be. Everyone’s sad, season five of Bojack Horseman seems to tell it’s star. That’s not a free pass on your actions, or your responsibility for taking the initiative to clean up your own mess.
We also thought this season did a good job calling out the authenticity of the apologies coming from Gibson, Louis C.K., and the countless men like them. It called out the people who excuse stars like Waggoner for bare minimum effort. Just say you’re sorry so we can make money again! It doesn’t matter if you mean it!
It’s all part of a cynical, capitalistic calculation flying in the face of the progressivism Hollywood likes to congratulate itself over. They will jump on the chance to present themselves as champions of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and so forth. The next day they make a thousand excuses why none of those people could be cast, or why they keep signing up stars who have abusive histories against them.
Of course not all of Hollywood is bad or cynical or dishonest. Too much of it is, though, and season 5 of Bojack made a point of calling out them out
It Went After Prestige TV
Alongside using Philbert to examine Bojack’s character and the justification of his behavior, season 5 also used the show to do a seriously funny takedown of prestige dramas. It might be our favorite part of the season? Picking one favorite part of any season of Bojack Horseman proves very difficult.
We say this as two people who watch and enjoy a lot of prestige dramas (Bo has certainly reviewed enough of them for The Fandomentals); they’re often ridiculous. Self-importance seeps into every second of some of these shows. They often try so hard to be deep, edgy, and borderline inaccessible. Like, it Means Something if you understand the show, even if there isn’t nearly as much to understand as the writers think.
Whether it was the whiteboard in Flip McVicker’s office outlining the season as they filmed it, the opening theme that couldn’t possibly mock True Detective more, or the absolutely perfect dialogue and cinematography during the filming scenes, Bojack totally gets prestige drama. They completely nail the indulgent, overly-metaphoric, often gratuitous atmosphere surrounding prestige TV.
Between the sillily dramatic and metaphoric dialogue, plot points involving a dead wife and dead partners and ghosts, and the eventual conclusion of the season with a nuclear attack, Philbert couldn’t be a bigger callout of the often snobby and self-important world of prestige TV. Or its fans, by the way. We can’t pretend we don’t sometimes glorify prestige TV to a fault. Unless, perhaps, you haven’t yet heard the gospel of The Leftovers?
If you’re wondering just what kind of shows Bojack is calling out, consider Princess Carolyn saying Philbert is “confusing, which makes it daring and smart.” Looking at you, Westworld.
Similarly, alongside using the character of Philbert as a meta examination of Bojack Horseman and its titular character, he is also used as a bit of a takedown of the tortured, white, male antihero so often starring in prestige dramas. He checks every box. Of course, he’s basically just Bojack Horseman himself. The drinking, the violence, the hallucinations, the gloomy mood, the inability to speak in anything but metaphors, it all paints a very familiar picture. We know this character all too well. We might even be a bit sick of him.
Add in the constant focus on sex and nudity, the planning out of pretentious montages, the references to Nietzche…yeah, we think we’ve seen Philbert before. We’re pretty sure this was how season 2 of True Detective was written and filmed.
It Was a Bit More Positive
Let’s get this out of the way right now before we delve into this topic: Bojack ends the season badly. He ends it going into rehab after nearly choking a costar to death while filming. He ends it pathetically using Philbert as an excuse for his crappy behavior. Is this his low point? We think it’s debatable, but definitely a contender.
Overall, though? We think this was a better season for a lot of characters. After season 4 dropped a lot of the supporting cast to their inarguable low points, season 5 inspired hope for their futures.
We think the characters who most stood out from a positive standpoint were Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter. Who knew divorce could be such a good thing? Both start off the season miserable. Diane can’t stop crying and takes a trip to Vietnam to discover her ancestral roots. Mr. Peanutbutter ends up rebound-dating a new character, a pug named Pickles (we LOVE Pickles). It’s obvious neither is remotely over each other.
Thing is, for the first time both start truly accepting who they are and where they go wrong in life. Diane, especially, stops tip-toeing around confrontation and starts imposing her own wants and needs on her life. She directs most of her newfound attitude towards Bojack. After 4 seasons of letting Bojack pile his problems onto her as a form of inadequate therapy, she stops accepting him and starts challenging him on it. While perhaps a bit passive-aggressive, we love how she uses what was supposed to be an empty “consultant” position during Philbert’s production to write a scene confronting Bojack about the incident with Charlotte’s daughter, Penny.
Diane also uses Philbert as a way to strike back at a lot of really sexist ideas and make a show directly confronting men like Bojack. Damn it, we’re going meta again.
Mr. Peanutbutter, while falling into familiar patterns that will likely blow up in his face next season, also begins recognizing his mistakes in the past. Yes, he and Pickles move way too fast. Yes, Mr. Peanutbutter obviously still loves Diane, to the point of cheating on Pickles with her. His engagement with Pickles is almost definitely an awful idea.
Can we at least give him credit for recognizing how he ruined past relationships? We think so. You can’t change for the better until you recognize what needs changing. Mr. Peanutbutter, at the very least, begins this process throughout season 5. He even has an episode dedicated to an annual Halloween party at Bojack’s and the annual blow-ups he has at said party with his new girlfriends.
Incremental progress is still progress. We want to root for the poor guy.
Princess Carolyn and Todd continue the theme of self-reflection aimed towards improvement, as both struggle throughout the season with deciding just what they want out of life. Princess Carolyn, especially, arguably has her best season yet. Though to be honest, we tend to feel that way every season? More on this topic later. We think everyone can agree that they end the season better than they were going in.
At the very least they are clearly better off than they were in previous seasons. Even Bojack’s awfulness was a different awfulness than before. He seemed genuinely interested in helping Gina’s career, for example.
We often wonder what the end point of Bojack will be, and whether these characters are heading towards true healing. We felt optimistic about them when season 4 ended. We think we feel even better about them after season 5.
It’s Still Getting Better
So, back to the topic of Princess Carolyn and whether this was her best season. A question begging the bigger question about all of season 5 compared to the previous 4. If we’re honest, this is something we talked about during and after the season. Is Bojack Horseman really getting better every season? Or is it just a consistent quality continuously building atop itself as we grow more and more invested in it?
Of course, we can debate the various subplots and main plots from season to season and how well they mesh. Sometimes characters enter and exit each others’ orbits in cleaner fashion than other seasons. Fans criticized Mr. Peanutbutter’s run for governor for feeling detached from Bojack, for example. Overall, though, we always walk away from each season feeling it was better than the one before. Why is that?
We’d like to posit a third possibility: that Bojack Horseman becomes better each season because of the intensity of the show’s own memory. As much as any show we can think of, Bojack Horseman’s characters carry their past around with them, and choices from three to four seasons ago still reverberate through the present.
A terrible choice that Bojack made near the end of season two at first seemed simply designed to provide the impetus for a last-minute, season finale reconciliation. But it bubbled up again at the close of season three, and functioned as a central core of the conflict throughout the entirety of season five. Bojack’s relationship with his parents is similar: absent for long stretches but always percolating beneath the surface, ready to burst up again with the smallest poke from the contemporary events in his life.
This goes back to fact that Bojack Horseman is goofy and silly, filled to brim with animal puns and CEO sex robots. It would be so easy for its mishmash of tones to feel jarring, especially as it moves from those things into the sudden intrusion of something deep and personal and sad. But despite that, maybe because of that, Bojack Horseman feels like such a human show (about animal people). The silly and the serious sit side-by-side, becoming increasingly more intermixed. The longer you live the more complicated you get, and Bojack Horseman lives by this principle. Everything about a person matters, the good and bad, the solemn and the funny.
It is this deeply human foundation that allows episodes like “Free Churro” to not only exist, but work on every level it tries for. This blending of the absurd and the real defines all our lives. Bojack maintains this fundamental understanding of humanity on all levels.
Diane says it best in this season’s final episode: there aren’t “good” and “bad” people, just people who do lots of good and bad things, and they… add up. Her show’s embrace of this idea is ambitious and deeply rewarding, creating a show that only gets stronger with time. There is no real separation from season to season. Nothing happens solely for one season and then goes forgotten. It’s all part of the same long journey. It makes every season feel like a genuine treat, every bit as good or even better than the one before.
So…when does season 6 get here?