'BoJack Horseman' gets the ending it deserves

ByAriel LeBeau

For six seasons, the Netflix original series Bojack Horseman has progressively upped the ante with its titular character’s emotional collapse. The scale and impact of Bojack’s actions ripple far beyond the stretches of satirical Hollywoo, a vector for the entertainment industry, replete with a host of animal-people (and human people). But rarely has the show ever settled on any definitive moral ground. Its final season is no different, although the weight has grown substantially heavier and harder for jokes to alleviate. The first eight episodes, released in October, revisits a number of people BoJack has hurt in one way or another, and shows how those traumas swell beyond their initial points of impact. In the final eight episodes, released last week, the tide comes in and BoJack has nowhere left to run.

Throughout the series, BoJack escapes consequences by the grace or departure of those he’s hurt, by his own self-denial, or by the protective barrier of his celebrity. A transgression with his friend’s teenage daughter in Season 2 plagues BoJack but stays buried due to the family’s disinclination to confront him publicly, up until a pair of fastidious reporters happen to uncover the truth years later while investigating BoJack’s culpability in Sarah Lynn’s death back in Season 3 — another truth he kept hidden until now. As his darkest secrets finally come to light, this is what the story has always been ramping up to: what does Bojack — symbolizing harmful, powerful men as an entity — deserve? What does he ultimately get? Although the show doesn’t aspire to moral authority, it doesn’t sidestep the gravity of what it puts into motion. BoJack honors the messiness of humanity (or, uh, horse-manity) as a necessary, if unconquerable, grapple.

The end of the show leaves its audience with the same bristling agency that it dotes upon BoJack. No longer can he delude himself into the belief that redemption lies in other people, rehab, or death. His task, may he finally accept it, is to assume responsibility for himself, and crucially, to keep on living. Ours too, as viewers, is to marinate in the grey area and locate our own truths therein.

It’s interesting to consider how this messaging affects the portion of BoJack’s audience that aligns themselves with the equine anti-hero. In the wake of prestige TV’s mythological obsession with so-called “difficult men” (e.g. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos) who were absolved of the opportunity/responsibility to redeem themselves, BoJack began as what seemed like a reiteration of an all-too-familiar archetype of toxic masculinity, combined with the raunchiness of popular adult animated series like Rick & Morty, Archer, and Family Guy. Within a few episodes, however, it revealed itself to be a Trojan horse (sorry!) carrying heavy existential issues and impressively complex supporting characters.

BoJack did more than subvert an old narrative, it deconstructed it through nuanced examinations of the cultural and psychological circumstances that enable men who abuse their power. Whereas a fan of Walter White or Don Draper can theoretically glom onto the glamour of how those characters’ stories played out, a BoJack apologist should have a hard time feeling that way by the end of the show’s final season. Beyond the emotional prison of losing every significant relationship in his life, BoJack is also hit with a sentence to actual prison. Although the punishment doesn’t specifically address BoJack’s larger ethical failures — he gets locked up for a breaking and entering incident — it is meaningful to see him face legitimate repercussions. BoJack’s creators have always acknowledged that storytelling inevitably normalizes the behavior it portrays; BoJack’s retribution honors that responsibility.

It’s more interesting to consider what BoJack’s messaging says to viewers who relate to the characters victimized by BoJack. Who have encountered any of his countless real-life analogs. Some of the most painful moments of the final season are seeing BoJack’s ex-girlfriend and former co-star Gina Cazador struggle to psychologically and professionally bounce back from the physical brutality she endured at BoJack’s hand in Season 5, or watching Hollyhock, BoJack’s much younger half-sister, become aware of his indiscretions through word of mouth and subsequently distance herself from him. BoJack respects that the experience of recovering from dealing with a toxic man is no less consequential or difficult than the rehabilitation of the man himself.

Princess Carolyn and Diane Nguyen, BoJack’s central women characters, have both spent the years struggling to reconcile their values while caring for their malignant narcissist friend. By the end, both story arcs land in places that feel right. Princess Carolyn, who quips in Season 2 that “My life is a mess right now and I compulsively take care of other people when I don’t know how to take care of myself,” finds happiness with a partner who knows how to support her without impeding her sense of agency. Diane, who was consistently an anchor for BoJack even when it threw her belief system off its axis, finally unburdens herself from the guilt of feeling responsible for him. Where there once was a compulsion to seek chaos, rooted in a mistrust of her own happiness, Diane begins to nurture a desire for stability. She tells her ex-husband Mr. Peanutbutter towards the end of the series that she is ready to break away from the friction. “You spend so long with that feeling that that feeling becomes your home,” she says. “It can be jarring when you discover one day that you suddenly don't feel that way anymore. At first you don't trust it, but then gradually, you do.”

In the show’s final moments, Diane says a chilly goodbye to BoJack, who hasn’t figured out until right then that he’s driven their friendship to the end of the road. She is both indignant and generous: “I think there are people that help you become the person that you end up being, and you can be grateful for them,” she tells him. “Even if they were never meant to be in your life forever.” That the women of BoJack Horseman continuously show empathy in the face of betrayal stings with truth. It’s deeply gratifying that for Diane and P.C. to break their self-destructive cycles and unlock peace they aren’t required to stamp out their compassion, they need only redirect it inward.

If there’s one truth BoJack Horseman boils down to with certainty, after six years of watching the eponymous horse try to wriggle a way around it, it’s that a slate can never be wiped clean, it can only be written over. Cruelty, trauma, alienation, and injustice are inevitable parts of life because that’s the nature of the animals that we all are. BoJack Horseman suggests that the courage is in knowing this, and choosing to put in the work anyway. Despite BoJack’s aversion to tidiness and spoon-fed catharsis, the show ultimately allows itself an optimistic offering in its seemingly bleak conclusion. An ending where everyone gets what they’ve earned.