I don’t want to speak as though there is a universal experience with regards to abuse or depression, because there isn’t. That caveat in place, there is something in BoJack Horseman’s narrative that does resonate with something both myself and other people I have talked to who suffer from depression recognize. There is a deep, primal fear that comes with that territory, and that never goes away even when you accept that your feelings are valid or that the abuse you suffered was not your fault. That fear is the fear that its not enough. That you deserve to feel bad, or deserve to have suffered. That no matter what causes your bad feelings, it will never be enough of an excuse. That your feelings, even if valid, are keeping you from being happy or from doing what you really want to (or “should”) be doing. That even after taking into account the larger context of your life, you would still be a bad person. These are the fears that abusive people and abusive systems are very good at manipulating, but they are also depressingly valid questions we must occasionally ask ourselves to avoid narcissism. No one who has experienced harm wants to be the cause of harm to someone else, after all. BoJack is a character who, despite his mental illness and his history of suffering abuse, IS a bad person. BoJack does not have an excuse, and he knows this. We can feel sorry for him, we can know he is capable of being better, but that won’t change how, in the end, he chose not to be.
For those unfamiliar with the show, which recently released its 2nd season on Netflix, the premise is that in a world of human and human-animal hybrids, BoJack (Will Arnett) is a washed up sitcom actor from the 90s who has done absolutely nothing with his life since. He is bitter, drunk and depressed, and is also convinced that returning to stardom will fix his problems. Season 1 tells the story of his return to relevance as he writes his memoirs with ghost-writer Diane (Alison Brie) and stumbles through his strained relationships with his housemate Todd (Aaron Paul), agent and ex-girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and former sitcom rival Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). The first few episodes are fairly generic post-Adult Swim/South Park “edgy cartoon” fare, and only hint at how deep and darkly funny the series will become. As the series goes on though, we start to see the roots of BoJack’s depression and narcissism, and how its cause and its potential treatment actually have fuck all to do with BoJack’s stardom itself. The broad characters become focused and surprising, in particular the way the show handles what at first seems to be a by-the-numbers love triangle between BoJack, Diane and Mr Peanutbutter. By the end of Season 1, the show has become a character study on living with depression in a system that cannot acknowledge it, and how different kinds of relationship can both be both supportive and toxic. Moreover, it refuses to give easy answers about what BoJack should be forgiven for in regards to his actions within the context of a toxic Hollywoo system.
BoJack was abused by his parents. His mother in particular (played by Wendie Malick, whose voice lends the character a certain weight that sells otherwise over-the-top evil lines) fills him with constant self-loathing and a desperation for anything resembling affection. Adult BoJack can’t tell the difference between different kinds of attention, simultaneously mistaking genuine affection and kindness for painful pity and feeling a perverse safety with being hated. He wants people to love him, but of course believes that no one who actually knows him could. He creates multiple personas to disguise who he is, because the plausible deniability of “I might be a failure, but the REAL me hasn’t tried yet so I might still be good” helps him survive. Tellingly, the only time since childhood that he cries is after an emotionally exhausting movie take where he learns that his director (played amazingly by Maria Bamford, have I mentioned that the cast of this show is phenomenal?) not only sees his acting as good, but knew that skill was there, along with the bad, behind the “safety” of his personas.
That childhood abuse isn’t everything wrong with BoJack. His depression is pretty severe. Depression isn’t just being “sad,” as most people assume. It is being numb. It is not feeling able to do anything other than tune out the world. BoJack retreats into creative obscurity following the end of his sitcom not because he doesn’t have the talent, but because he feels nothing anymore. He cannot do anything other than sit, eat and drink until some combination of chemicals motivates him into action (which he will inevitably regret). Hollywoo is a system that doesn’t offer him many ways out. He SHOULD be happy! Even with his career currently dead, he’s rich, he lives in beautiful LA, and he is famous, what else does the world owe him? How dare he not be happy? The system would much rather he be a selfish villain than be honest about his depression, and so inadvertently creates situations that reward BoJack for being an asshole…. to a point. BoJack is told and taught that it is better to be “hated” than to be honest, and he internalizes that as meaning his true feelings are what is wrong with him. In a certain sense, BoJack’s assholery is like Anna Karenina’s sexual behavior, their society promotes and rewards it, then abandons them when convenient to use their “failure.” That disconnect between what BoJack wants, how he acts, and how society then treats him is the main source of the show’s humor, aside from the wonderfully horrible animal jokes.
It can be hard to write a comedy victim. The trope of “irredeemable narcissist who had a bad upbringing” is extremely common, and can wear thin quickly. Even shows that do it right can run into a different kind of trouble. Sterling Archer, for example, is a terrible human being who also suffered childhood abuse, but as the series goes on it becomes pretty clear that he’s really no more terrible than anyone else he works with. Everyone in the show is a terrible (but funny!) person so it doesn’t feel fair to dump on Archer more than anyone else. Archer is a great show, but it will never be mistaken for a serious study of abuse and depression. Meanwhile, BoJack surrounds himself with some pretty terrible people too, but none of them are as terrible as he is. No matter how annoying Todd is, how oblivious Mr Peanutbutter is or how surprisingly BoJackesque Diane can be, none of them end up making choices as bad as BoJack does. Diane comes close towards the end of season 2, because like BoJack she has severe undiagnosed and untreated depression and they end up feeding into each other, but even she manages to pull through at the last second. BoJack is a creature living in a comedy world, where everyone can be a little shitty if it will help sell a joke, but even by those standards he does something unforgivable.
The final line BoJack crosses is so devastating because it comes after what first appeared to be a bottoming out. BoJack comes out of his Season 1 malaise to find a resurging career, a good relationship with the beautiful and intelligent Wanda (played hilariously deadpan by Lisa Kudrow), and the titular role in his long-time dream project. As noted above though, depression isn’t as simple as “happy” or not, and so he’s still not feeling like he “should.” Diana, as usual, is the only one willing to actually talk with BoJack about his actual feelings, and brings up something BoJack hadn’t considered. Would doing his dream movie make him happy? For a little while. Would any project or relationship make him happy? For a little while. Depression isn’t something you end, it will always be there. You will never always be “happy” and all of us with depression know the importance of cultivating those creative projects that help us function, as well as the crushing moment of despair that comes once we finish with one and know we have to find another. Its a moment where BoJack might finally confront the fact that he’ll never not be depressed, and that it is ok to be that way, and that as long as he knows that he can work each day to get a little better and learn to live with himself as he is.
Then Diane, in the wonderfully tragic way the show does, transitions from supportive to toxic in a single sentence. If nothing will make him permanently happy, then why bother? Doing movies and projects he likes won’t fix him. Being in a healthy relationship won’t fix him. So why bother? Why not just feel nothing? Why not join her on the couch, watching shitty tv and being numb to the fact that life exists? BoJack does, and it kills his relationship to Wanda, and it feeds into the “I will never be fixed, so I will never be good, so no one could ever actually like the real me, so its ok to drive people away” myth that drags him down.
BoJack ends up running away. He escapes from LA in the hope that it is just this place and this system that is dragging him down. He runs off to New Mexico to find Charlotte (Olivia Wilde), a friend from 20s or 30s who cared for the real him and who he always imagined “what if?” about. Of course, she hasn’t been pining for him, that was 30 years ago. She’s happy to see him, but she has a family, kids, and a life. Of course, this ends up being a moment that might save BoJack too. Away from LA, surrounded by real people who have no expectations of him, and the prospect of friends who really can like the real him, he has the chance to define his life based on what he really wants it to be, rather than the various Hollywoo myths he is told to want. He makes a decent go of it as well, staying in New Mexico for months, but then he finally demonstrates that its not LA that is the tar pit, it is himself. He takes advantage of a teenage girl in order to make himself feel better, and it will never be ok that he did that. The show makes it clear in no uncertain terms, this is not funny, this is not a little mistake, and this is not something BoJack can explain away. BoJack’s past and what he has suffered through excuses a lot, but they will NEVER excuse this, and more to the point they are not the reason he did this. Depression did not make him act badly. He did this shitty thing because he chose to, because he did not care about anything other than his immediate concerns, and he knows it is not something he can blame on his illness. It is the ultimate realization of that fear I mentioned earlier. BoJack has become who everyone with depression fears their illness really is, and it is one of the most devastating moments in recent television.
Following this, Season 2 ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. Every character takes steps towards learning to really love and forgive themselves. BoJack himself finally learns that depression is not something you fix, but rather something you deal with every day. Every day that you deal with it, every day you try, it can get a little easier, but you have to learn to live with it every day. It is a lesson that BoJack had to learn to begin to be happy being himself, but it is not a lesson that required him to take advantage of a teenager to learn it. BoJack may, in fact, be on his way to becoming a better person both in terms of his health and his actions, but that will never undo the shitty things he’s done. Amazingly, this is a show smart enough to make sure its characters and its audience don’t forget that fact. A show that tackles the realities of living with depression and the realities of making bad choices, without confusing the two as synonymous.