I heard Bojack Horseman had its last season recently, so I finally got around to watching it. And it’s really good in its portrayal of a self-destructive, self-absorbed (horse)man who shows just enough promise of getting better that you can still watch him. In season 3 in particular this really dragged, since Bojack wasn’t really in any better a place than he was in season 2, and the show was sustained mainly by having other characters who were really going places while Bojack mainly stayed the same.
That’s an approach that could’ve worked for a while, probably for a full six seasons, with Bojack remaining selfish and short-sighted enough to serve as a constant source of conflict, while real character growth came primarily from the characters in Bojack’s orbit. They’d fall into Bojack’s orbit when they’re in a similar place as him, then they’d bounce back and start to do better, and eventually they’d recognize that Bojack was sabotaging their efforts at doing better because he wants to keep them on his level, so they’d leave him behind, freeing up room in the cast for new characters. You could even do a thing where the show was ultimately built around one, specific relationship from its beginning to its end, with Diane Nguyen dropping into his life in episode 1 and exiting his life in the series finale. We’d see lots of other friendships and coworkerships and significant otherships that were either ongoing when Diane met Bojack or else which ended within the span of one season because the person either wasn’t damaged enough to have that period where they’re comfortable resting where Bojack is or else just wasn’t charmed enough by Bojack to want to stay with him even when their own life was collapsing. Towards the end, Diane would find her happiness, realize Bojack was holding her back from it, cut ties with him, and that would be it. Bojack never really changed, and we see that ultimately he’s going to keep causing drama and chaos until you leave him behind. Maybe all of Bojack’s ongoing relationships wrap themselves up at the same time, or maybe we leave them behind, too, because it turns out Diane was always the series’ stealth main character and once she’s out of Bojack’s life, that’s it.
I say “could” which implies that they didn’t actually do that. This may confuse some people who’ve seen the show, because the series’ final two episodes were almost exactly that. The problem is, the series’ final two episodes came at the end of season six, not season three, and they’re the finale to a show they didn’t end up writing. Because the other place you could go from season two is the place they ended up actually going: Despite season three’s holding pattern, the general trend of the show was for Bojack to become a measurably better person with every new season.
In season one, he’s established as bitter, pathetic, and self-absorbed. He’s damaged and we can see that there’s reasons he’s the way that he is, but also that Todd and Diane and Princess Caroline are better off without him, and that Princess Caroline has been giving him support for over a decade since the end of Horsin’ Around and he still hasn’t improved, so she’d be perfectly justified in cutting ties with him at this point, and Todd and Diane would be justified in following suit just by virtue of seeing how little Princess Caroline’s support made an impact on him.
In season two, his career is revitalized, but he doesn’t make a whole lot of emotional progress, and by the end of the season he’s not only backslid into being flaky and unreliable, he reaches new lows of terrible behavior. Still, he’s back in the saddle and trying to change his situation, even if only for self-absorbed reasons. He is showing some faint signs of improvement, but his friends would still be justified in giving up on him, because at this stage it’s not clear whether that improvement is because he cares about them or just because he’s finally gotten bored with living in stasis.
In season three, there’s the holding pattern I mentioned. Except for season 4, every Bojack season ends with some terrible drug-fueled mistake from Bojack, and this one actually kills someone, but Bojack’s behavior isn’t actually worse. I’m making the assumption here that Bojack, like the audience, assumes that Sarah Lynn is already dead when S3E11 ends (the episode summary on Wikipedia actually claims that Sarah Lynn is already dead at the end of the episode!), which means that the later-season revelation that Bojack waited seventeen minutes to call the paramedics to construct a plausible alibi that she’d called him and he’d come to see her, rather than being directly involved in her death, is a lot less monstrous than if he knew she was still alive, that she was dying not dead, and stopped for seventeen minutes to construct an alibi anyway.
I mentioned before that Bojack doesn’t have any kind of terrible mistake at the end of season 4. Instead, the terrible mistake is made by his mother, partly because she’s senile, although her actions are indefensible even given her understanding of the situation. Season 4 sees Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s marriage falling apart in order to meet its sadness quotas, and then lets Bojack get away mostly unscathed, establishing a healthy new relationship with someone who he’s been a good influence on almost without qualifiers, and who is likewise a good influence on him. We’ve seen Bojack commit to making a real difference in his life, trying to moderate his drinking, and we’ve seen him make some meaningful improvements in his life and how he treats people because of it.
In season 5, Bojack is mostly in a holding pattern again, but this time it’s a holding pattern where he’s made significant improvement to who he is as a person. Over the course of the season, though, his progress slowly crumbles until he ends up making another horrible mistake in another drug-fueled bender. And if the show had its finale here, it still would’ve made sense. I mean, the specific circumstances of the characters leaving his orbit would’ve been different, and in particular Diane hadn’t really had the moment where she found her happiness so it wouldn’t really be a thing where she realizes she has to get away from Bojack to keep it, but still, Bojack’s backslid, his progress in seasons 4 and 5 was pretty minimal (he’s managed a total of one relationship where the other person didn’t come out worse for knowing him, and even that requires us to call Hollyhock better for knowing Bojack despite the fact that knowing him was the direct, though coincidental, cause of her getting drugged). Like, yeah, we can see him trying to get better, making actual changes in his life rather than just saying he’s sorry and promising to try real extra hard to stop going on benders where he hurts the people around him, and the efforts aren’t completely token, but they are half-measures. If people wanted to leave him at that point, it still wouldn’t be unreasonable.
But then in season 6, he goes to rehab and goes sober for nearly a full year, completely changing his life to get away from who he used to be. There’s moments where he almost slips back into old habits, but he digs his heels in and refuses to let it happen. He makes his new job as a university drama professor work, and when a crisis begins developing and he starts coming up with a very old Bojack sort of vindictive response, his friends are able to talk him out of it pretty quickly. He does have one of his benders and end up relapsing, but that’s to be expected from a recovering addict. The progress he’s made in season six gives everyone in his life, everyone who’s put up with his drama and unreliability and abuse for five or ten or twenty years, it gives them real reason to believe that he is changing and that these crises will be less frequent and less severe going forward. It would make sense if someone who just met Bojack while he was doing well in season six then decided to back away after he broke into his old house while someone else was living there and then tried to kill himself. For people for whom this is just the latest in a long line of massive fuck-ups, though? Why? Why was this the straw that broke every camel’s back, leaving Bojack almost totally alone? Yeah, the finale had all his friends being gentle and kind about leaving him forever, but they still all left (except Mr. Peanutbutter). It’s not even in the immediate aftermath of the big huge bender! The season finale actually takes place a year later, after Bojack’s finally faced real consequences and gone to prison for breaking and entering during his suicide attempt, where he’s happy to be close to breaking his sobriety record and scared of falling off the wagon.
Why did they write a finale where Bojack’s friends, even though they still care about him, decide that he’s toxic and never going to change and cut their ties with him, and then append that to a season where Bojack, after a long, hard journey, finally gave everyone some strong evidence that none of that was true?