Netflix Original Bojack Horseman is one of the most beloved shows the streaming platform has ever created. Across five years and as many seasons, the animated drama/comedy has made a name for itself by daring to explore mental illness, addiction and bad relationships in excruciating detail (and, quite frankly, it’s been doing a much better job of it than 13 Reasons Why).
The titular character’s struggle with depression has been brutal to witness, but more brutal still has been watching Bojack hurt all of the people he loves when he fails to win that struggle.
His depression is never allowed to be an excuse for his behaviour, though. He’s lost his friends and partners over and over again because he refuses to keep himself together. Ana Spanakopita put it best in season three; there are some people you just can’t save from drowning, they’ll thrash so hard that they take you down with them.
Season five pushes that further and turns its critical eye inward. We begin with Bojack on set for a show called Philbert, about a troubled man who has done bad things and hopes he can be better than he is. Sound familiar? The similarity to Bojack himself isn’t lost on Bojack, who starts to realize that this isn’t the person he wants to be anymore.
That’s been the central tenet of Bojack Horseman the whole way through: Bojack wants to be someone else, someone happier, better adjusted and less cruel. This season asks a tough question; is that enough? Is wanting to be better the same thing as trying to be better? The answer, to put it simply, is no. In episode four ‘Bojack the Feminist’, Diane (Alison Brie) starts picking Philbert apart for its depiction of its problematic main character. Sure, Bojack can do as many interviews as he wants and talk about how you’re not supposed to like Philbert, but that doesn’t stop people from seeing themselves in him.
The episode, which is a perfect metacommentary on the show itself, begins one of the most difficult arcs the show has ever put together. Bojack’s past comes back to haunt him and, for the first time, he is forced to truly take responsibility for himself.
Like many troubled male protagonists before him, Bojack likes to wallow in his self pity. The show never uses that to excuse Bojack’s actions, but until now, it had been a crutch that made Bojack maybe a little too relatable. Season five makes the smart decision of shifting the focus away from Bojack’s depression to his addictions. There’s no self-effacing monologue about how much better he wishes he could be. There’s no ‘woe is me’ nonsense or attempts (by either the character or the show) to excuse what he does. Only the ugly, harsh reality of the impact of his actions. It’s not the saddest season of the show but it’s certainly the darkest, because it doesn’t play on your sympathy for Bojack. He is a bad person; it’s about time Bojack truly faced up to that and it’s a great step forward that the show itself has faced up to that too.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. This season stands out as having some of the best subplots running alongside Bojack’s arc. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Stephanie Beatriz has a wonderful recurring role this year, funny when it needs to be, but perfectly captures the pain of dealing with Bojack.
There’s a number of episodes here that almost stand alone, offering a welcome reprieve from the darkness of Bojack’s main story. Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) attempts to adopt a child take us back to her hometown in the wonderful ‘The Amelia Earhart Story’. Diane’s divorce from Mister Peanutbutter (Paul F Tompkins) gives us both ‘The Dog Days Are Over’ (in which Diane struggles to find her identity) and ‘Mister Peanutbutter’s Boos’, a hilarious and insightful dissection of Mister Peanutbutter’s romantic troubles.
Todd (Aaron Paul) gets an especially great run this season. I won’t spoil the magic, but the usual level of silliness is ramped up to eleven, but instead of getting in the way, it has an organic impact on the overall story. Season five does a great job of this in general. Season four’s various arcs felt like they were in a vacuum, every character’s actions have an impact on one another this time around.
The stand out episode here though is ‘Free Churro’. I don’t want to give it away, but I’ll say this: if Wil Arnett isn’t nominated for all of the awards for this episode, I will riot.
Bottom line: this show has proven itself time and time again to be one of the most important on television. Season five insists of itself to do even better and it succeeds in doing so. This is an intelligent and deeply provocative dissection, not only of mental illness, but how we talk about it and the impact that has. Even so, it’s also a colourful cartoon full of animal puns and ludicrous wordplay. It pretty much has everything.