Ed Note: This piece talks about the end of Netflix's BoJack Horseman; consider this your SPOILER WARNING.
The penultimate episode of BoJack Horseman, which returned to Netflix for the second half of its sixth and final season this week, finds the titular man-horse confronted with the literal ghosts of his past. Surrounded by his parents, Horsin' Around creator Herb Kazzaz (who beat rectal cancer only to succumb to a peanut allergy), and the former child star Sarah Lynn, BoJack (Will Arnett) faces a legacy tarnished by humiliation, guilt and loss. Is this a dream? Purgatory? Everyone in the room is gone. In the case of Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), BoJack is partially responsible; it was his heroin that killed her. Considering that we're talking about an animated Netflix show set in a world populated with bipedal animals, things are looking exceptionally bleak. At one point, Sarah Lynn breaks into song: "Life is a never-ending show, old sport," she sings, "except the minor detail that it ends."
When BoJack Horseman premiered on Netflix in 2014, the show teetered between two eras of entertainment: the difficult men of the Golden Age of TV, and the explosion of quirky, something-for-everyone content that would come to define the streaming economy. In many ways, BoJack had more in common with the former period and its rapacious male protagonists: Draper, Soprano, White. Like them, BoJack was an antihero who sought to become a better person even as he scorches the lives of everyone around him. But by the time BoJack aired, these existentially battered narcissists—men whose personal growth was hampered by vice, whose actions were calibrated for maximum titillation and schadenfreude—were ending their reign as the dominant TV archetype. BoJack Horseman seemed like an occasionally poignant, often goofy Hollywoo sendoff for a genre on its way out.
But then came the show's gut-wrenching second season, during which showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg took BoJack to places as sordid as anything Matthew Weiner or David Chase had served up. The broad strokes of BoJack's (arguably) lowest low go like this: On a misguided trip to Tesuque, New Mexico to visit his friend Charlotte, a warm-hearted doe from his past, BoJack winds up trying to have sex with Charlotte's daughter, Penny, an emotionally vulnerable highschool student. Like most of BoJack's transgressions, the event starts with good intentions that are soon warped by BoJack's selfishness and addictions. It was a betrayal that transformed the show's dippy premise and set the tone for what was to come the next four seasons. Before cancel culture, Bob-Waksberg forced his audience to ask themselves if spending time with a guy like BoJack was worth it.
When the credits roll on its final episode, it's clear that BoJack Horseman, even as the show relished its Margo Martindale cameos and Todd's elaborate schemes, had all the while focused on this one oblique question: What's the use of becoming a better person if you can never undo the damage you've done? To that end, many of the series’ final episodes are spent with BoJack forced to face his shameful past and a future where his friends have found meaning outside of his orbit. The final season's plot is driven by two reporters looking into BoJack's history, which forces him to revisit his deepest regrets: Sarah Lynn's death, New Mexico, and his failure to connect with his half-sister, Hollyhock. (The journalists speak in twisty alliteration, a wonderful reminder of Bob-Waksberg's love of language and no-pun-is-too-silly ethos.) After the story runs, BoJack gives a public apology, which allows the show an opportunity to slickly skewer PR-workshopped #MeToo mea culpas. But for the people around BoJack this is all too little too late, the last straw, or, most depressingly, sort of beside the point.
Given that BoJack shares much of his DNA with TV's most famous bad men, I'm reminded of Don Draper's phone call to Peggy in Mad Men's finale during which he presents a laundry list of offenses ("I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”) But even Draper's disordered behavior barely approaches BoJacks misdeeds. Mad Men's ending works because it is both uplifting and crushingly cynical. For Don, enlightenment was recognizing that he is really good at making ads, but not much else. For BoJack, there's no such epiphany. The last scene, with BoJack and Diane once again on Mr. Peanutbutter's roof, is a far cry from Don Draper in Big Sur, transcendentally emerging from his stupor with the capstone of his career in the form of a Coca-cola commercial. Instead of a moment of clarity, BoJack simply has the dawning realization that he can't fix the people he's damaged. "I'm not gonna give you closure," Herb told BoJack back in Season 5. "You don't get that. You have to live with the shitty thing you did for the rest of your life. You have to know that it's never, ever going to be okay."
Of course, BoJack Horseman has always been about much more than BoJack Horseman. Over the course of six seasons, we've seen Todd embrace his asexuality, Princess Carolyn have a child on her own terms, Diane (Alison Brie) find love and battle depression, and Mr. Peanutbutter ingeniously (if obliviously) skewer Hollywood with one accidental success after another, the latest being Birthday Dad. And we've seen it all paired with some of the most inventive animation and writing on television. Episodes like "Free Churro," with its crushing, endless eulogy, and "Fish Out of Water," a wordless adventure set in an undersea phantasmagoria, are two of the best half hours of television in recent memory, to say nothing of form-bending installments like “Time’s Arrow” or “Stupid Piece of Shit.”
For Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), Todd (Aaron Paul), Diane, and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), life has kept advancing with or without BoJack. The show's final episodes explore the quietly radical idea that maybe the men who can't change aren't as interesting or special as they first seemed. While BoJack has circled the drain, repeating the same mistakes again and again, his victims have healed, friends and family have drifted away, and his self-destructive journey toward self-discovery has started to look just, well, selfish. Bob-Waksberg suggested he had another couple of seasons in him, should Netflix have renewed the show. It would have been fascinating to have more mind-melting bottle episodes or seen BoJack find a new, less volatile status quo. But maybe BoJack's journey is better left as an ellipse.
In Season 1's "Good Person," BoJack pleaded with Diane to reassure him that he could get better. "Do you think it's too late for me?" BoJack asks. "I need you to tell me that I'm a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I'm a good person, and I need you to tell me that I'm good." BoJack never got an answer then. Six seasons later, it's clear that he never will.
But back atop Mr. Peanutbutter's house, Diane offers what amounts to a way forward. "Life's a bitch and then you die, right?" says BoJack. "Sometimes," Diane responds. "Sometimes life's a bitch and then you keep living."