(Spoilers ahead for Netflix series Bojack Horseman, up to and including episode two of Season Four)
It’s been a long time since we last saw Bojack Horseman. After the finale of season three left him in ruins, we were left for the first time with uncertainty as to where we would turn next. Until now, every character has had a very clear arc to follow into the next season. While our ensemble of supporting characters have that, Bojack burned most of his bridges in LA, and seemed to have nowhere else to turn. This ambiguity left me dying to see what would happen next, and after eighteen months, season four finally opens to… a flashback to Mr. Peanutbutter’s House.
In fact, Bojack is missing from the majority of the first episode, instead focusing largely on Mr. Peanutbutter’s ridiculous run for governor against Woodchuck Coodchuck Berkowitz (played by deadpan Brooklyn 99 alumni Andre Braugher). We also catch glimpses of our other old favourites; Princess Carolyn, who is still balancing work life with her relationship with Ralph, though it’s made clear that we’ll be focusing a little more on her love life. Todd is still up to his whacky schemes, spending most of the episode in a ‘drone throne’ which sweeps him up into the sky. And Diane is struggling to support her husband’s scheme to be governor (particularly troubled by the overbearing presence of his ex-wife Katrina to orchestrate the affair), and lamenting her meaningless new job for socialite blog girl-croosh.
The humour is clearly the main focus in this first episode, which serves as a good palate cleanser after the previous season wrang our emotions dry. Humour is on fine form, with the shows typical word play going all out (‘This D’Onofrio, has had ENOUGHRIO!’). In previous seasons, episodes that focus on the humour often felt a little dry, but there’s an emotional undercurrent keeping things stable. It’s made clear things are awkward between Todd and Emily, and a dark speech from Mr Peanutbutter’s ex-wife suggests he’s gotten as far as he can on luck and charisma alone. But the central emotional thrust is Diane, who narrates much of the episode in a series of increasingly desperate voicemails for Bojack. The two have always been the show’s most grounded characters, caught out amongst the insanity of Hollywood. Diane was the only friend that didn’t come to entirely resent Bojack in season three, and it’s clear she’s hurt by his absence.
So, where is Bojack? In Michigan, having decided to visit his family’s old summer home. It’s not really clear what he hoped to achieve here (Bojack probably didn’t know either), but he finds a purpose in rebuilding this family home with the help of his dragonfly neighbour Eddie. This is a very interesting turn for the series; on the surface, it’s another of Bojack’s flights of fancy, a distraction from the real problem. But for the first time in the season, this is a project he actually sees through to the end, and even begrudgingly accepts Eddie’s help to do so. What’s more, he almost seems to be enjoying himself, which has also never happened. For any other show, this would be the epiphany that changes everything, but Bojack Horseman is a show that knows how shallow that is. It proves as much when Bojack’s attempt to give Eddie his own shallow epiphany, and it almost gets both of them killed. Previously, this bleak denial would have been enough, but an epiphany does arrive; Bojack has the summer home demolished, realising that these monuments to the past aren’t going to fix anything. What’s new and exciting is that this feels like a lesson that might actually stick.
Interwoven in Bojack’s plotline are flashbacks to a young Beatrice Sugarman (Bojack’s mother), and her own mother Jane’s spiral into depression and alcoholism in the summer house following the loss of uncle Crackerjack to World War Two. These scenes are stylishly interwoven into the main plot, as the ghosts play out their stories alongside Bojack and Eddie’s struggle to rebuild the summer home, in one of the show’s many great stylistic experiments. But this story’s climax is a harrowing one, as a lobotomized Jane warns Beatrice against love. It’s a weird moment to emphasise, which suggests we might be seeing more of Bojack’s mother later in the season.
Neither episode feels like an end in itself, rather a promise of further developments to come. The darkness is still there, but it seems like the focus is on something else (for the time being at least). That’s not to say anything is bad; the show is on excellent form, but it’s clear that we’re running on different gears this year. Maybe this is the start of a new chapter, both for Bojack and for Bojack.