It’s difficult to articulate entirely what’s so special about BoJack Horseman as a television show, particularly given the show’s uneven opening movements. As deliberate a choice as it was, starting as a mildly amusing animated offering that slowly transitions into something more personal, intimate and serialised is a somewhat hard sell in a world brimming with immediately gripping television. Still, hopefully those with patience – or adequately persistent friends – will find BoJack Horseman to be a show of sophisticated characterisation, pathos and a well of empathy for the self-destructive characters that lie within.
With all that said, this assumes you’ve watched all of BoJack Horseman up to this point. So if you haven’t, this will both make little sense to you and likely spoil much of the show, which would be a huge disservice as the relentless unravelling of BoJack is one of its strongest achievements. With that all said, let’s talk about season five.
Season five is one of the show’s most fervently creative and ambitious, whilst simultaneously feeling peculiarly rushed and transitional. It’s richly packed with details and character moments that seem to pass by like a breeze but carry significant weight with context. It also features some of the shows most leaden scenes and episodes, which feel crafty in concept but dishonest in execution. At the end of season four, there was both a sense of revitalization and impending closure for show, with introductions of new characters and sombre dissections of secondary ones which gave the season an expansive feeling. It was never joyous, featuring some of the show’s most vividly rendered moments of pathos, but there was much more light mixed in with the darkness. Even the cruellest of time’s arrows made room for tiny seconds of warmth and understanding.
The broader issue with season five is that it feels like something of a regression, which isn’t entirely surprising. Whilst the show has always flashed a justified snide smile at Hollywood, the past year has seen a ferocity of despicable behaviour that inherently forces the tone of the show to change. The storyline makes explicit reference to the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s insipid definitions of ‘redemption’, but it also stirs in the quieter moments too. There’s the lingering notion that BoJack is a few steps away from the predatory elite that have so dominated news headlines the past year, and this is an element the show struggles to rectify. The mechanisms the show uses to force BoJack into another place of degradation don’t fit together properly. The movements feel too easy, too obvious, too out of step with the previous season. BoJack’s younger sister Hollyhock was one of the most invigorating additions to the show, creating a genuinely charming pairing that illuminated the trauma of BoJack’s childhood and gave a sense of weight and responsibility to BoJack, allowing a slight shift and progression of his character that felt authentically motivated.
One of season five’s best episodes features her return, but it’s so fleeting she feels wasted. There’s a running theme that BoJack’s spiral is a product of his inability to seek help or allow himself to rely on others, but the show’s insistence on relegating Hollyhock to a protracted cameo does this a disservice. Where BoJack ends up in the predictably low point (this time both thematically and qualitatively) of episode eleven feels so aggressive because there’s not much precedent. The show plays sly and clever with the details which pave way to the grand finale (the constant wearing of the coat, the mentions of strangling women) but the character work simply isn’t there. BoJack has previously been identified as a person who functions like a whirlpool, his own failings and depression pulling those with similar destructive tendencies towards him, and those who can genuinely help he pushes away for fear they’ll be caught in the spiral. The notion that all it takes is an opioid addiction to turn him into a raving, paranoid mess who strangles his girlfriend is entirely unconvincing. It’s even more disappointing in a show that has previously taken such pains to layer his character, where even at his worst there is a throughline which never justifies him, but at least attempts to understand the harmful choices he makes.
It feels like a complete reset of his character, something the season manages to do even before its final act. Whilst audacious, the lengthy monologue of episode six feels oddly unenlightening, especially given the forensic depth with which season four examined BoJack’s relationship with his mother, and this is a trend that continues throughout the season. Ideas and nuances previously well established seem to melt away for a storyline that’s far too simplistic, and when complications are added, it seems to muddy the messaging. There’s vague handwaves towards the notion that BoJack shouldn’t be a likeable character, but the final episode softens the blow far too much. The lack of commitment is palpable.
There is still plenty to enjoy in season five. Diane’s character is given some more mature shading. Personally speaking, Diane has always been my favourite character, and this season pushes her further than she has been before. Diane is one of the most conflicted characters on the show, with an emotional intelligence that gives her a warmth but also a crippling self-awareness and insecurity, along with a penchant for stubbornness and idealism that belies a hypocrisy underneath. The season makes good on this, smartly deciding to annex the easy plotline of her divorce for something richer, a mostly delicate exploration of her own loneliness, which leads to both the help of one friend and the soft cruelty she shows towards another. Her interactions with BoJack remain some of the most poignant in the show, cutting and deeply sad, with an integrity that only just manages to buoy the last scene of the season, saving it from feeling like a completely flatlining finale.
Princess Carolyn eventually manages to adopt a child, though the process is more laborious and messy than perhaps necessary, with one character reappearing just to feel entirely redundant, and a flashback which feels all too familiar. The dialogue and dynamics are still, moment to moment, exemplary, boosted by pitch perfect performances. At this point Todd barely seems worth mentioning, his one defining moment of character building quickly cut from the show in favour of more comedy.
What’s truly the biggest problem is that this all feels like the setting of places for a more interesting next, and possibly final, season. In some ways this is fine, as there is always value in appropriate build. The issue is that the darkness comes easier than it should, and the previously clean lines of character development become entangled in notions of what the show should say and how it should say them. Every episode feels like it’s trying something new, either structurally or dramatically, but unfortunately this comes at the expense of a season which overall has a hollowness to it, an artificiality to its core that’s dispiriting and disappointing. For the first time in all of BoJack Horseman, you can see the strings.