Todd: Is this like the time you invited me to lunch, but then, when I got to the restaurant, you texted me to tell me you weren’t coming because you were at a strip club “eating stripper” for lunch, and also, it was my birthday?
Todd: Then hooray!
“Zoës And Zeldas” is an episode that helps answer one of the early questions hanging over BoJack Horseman: why this was the show Aaron Paul wanted to be a regular on immediately after Breaking Bad. Paul was the outlier when BoJack‘s cast was announced, scoring the last billing credit despite being neither the former star of a cult sitcom or a veteran of the Los Angeles comedy scene. His experience as Jesse Pinkman definitely qualified him to play the stoner comic relief, but given that role grew to eventually earn multiple Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama, he appeared over-qualified to merely dispense Todd’s non sequiturs and occasional pearls of wisdom.
To its credit, BoJack Horseman appears entirely aware of that fact—or at least of the irrelevance of Todd in the show’s grand scheme—and reassures the audience that it’s moving in the right direction. “Zoës And Zeldas” creates the most substantive interactions between BoJack and his unwanted house guest, one that does convey there’s more of a connection between the two than one-side affection and verbal abuse. It also encouragingly follows the darker turns established in “Prickly-Muffin,” giving the impression that this connection may not be good for the younger half of the partnership.
The events of the episode are triggered by BoJack’s latest round of insults at Todd, which finally appear to make an impact at the Comedy Central Roast of Gloria Steinem and trigger a performance of Todd’s rock opera Newtopia Rising: Book One: The Search for a New Utopia. (“Basically, it’s Tommy by way of Cirque du Soleil set in space, with heavy erotic overtones, and the gripping psychodrama of a thriller with plenty of heart and more than a little humor.”) The rock opera is a jumbled mess befitting Todd’s chaotic mind, skewered as a “hundred 9/11s” by BoJack and soon abandoned. Some subsequent prodding from Diane leads BoJack to prove he’s not just keeping Todd around for the sake of having someone around, and the two form a mentor-mentee relationship to clean Newtopia up.
Putting the two characters together in a collaborative fashion is one that works well to define both past what we’ve already seen. For Todd, it’s the chance to prove that he can do more than get mixed up with shady criminal organizations—even though one of his stories does revolve around “a” Russian mafia—and that there’s an interesting person there if he could only get out of his own way. And for BoJack, it proves there’s more than his own interests at play as he’s genuinely engaged in the story of Newtopia and willing to move past the usual misanthropy. Paul and Will Arnett both have fun adding energy to their lines, smoothing out the rough edges over talk of robot armies and the Elixir of Failed Remembrance.
It turns out that the details of Newtopia aren’t the only thing BoJack’s internalizing. Todd’s offhand comment about a video game ruining his life comes up right before an investor looks like he’s willing to buy Todd’s opera, and in short order said game appears in front of Todd in a 10-cent bin. (The reveal of the game as a Tetris-esque matching game rather than some grand RPG battle royale is a particularly amusing detail.) While the episode keeps the reveal of it being BoJack’s fault to the last moments of the episode, there’s an inorganic mood to all his actions that telegraphs something isn’t right. BoJack’s urgings to keep Todd away from the game are too half-hearted and devoid of real action, he pushes a clearly unprepared Todd in front of Van Cleef’s investors even when an excuse can be made, and he immolates any chance Todd may have at a do-over even over his housemate’s objections.
And it should be unsettling, because while this episode exposed new levels of Todd’s personality, it’s also doing the same thing to BoJack. His actions prove Diane’s hypothesis about his need to not be alone, and also something much darker. At any point he could have admitted to Todd he sort of enjoys his company and doesn’t want him to leave. Instead he plays on his supposed friend’s stated addiction, hires character actress Margo Martindale to set things up, walks him into a public humiliation, and at no point takes any responsibility for it. He sets himself up to be the good guy, standing up for his friend and being magnanimous in offering closet space, when we the audience know he’s so clearly not.
The episode’s B-story is less of a success as we’re once again focused on Mr. Peanutbutter’s stabs at maintaining his low-level celebrity. This time it’s as the subject of a BuzzFeed article, being written by Diane’s ex-boyfriend Wayne (Wyatt Cenac). Whatever work the writers are doing with Todd they need to do here ASAP, as in four episodes Mr. Peanutbutter’s failed to display any character beyond insane cheerfulness. Paul F. Tompkins does a lot to sell that cheerfulness, but the context of it—wondering out loud why Diane and Wayne ever broke up, completely missing the point of Wayne’s speech about Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter not being right together—makes him seem like only the joke Wayne’s picking at in his latest list.
In general, Wayne suffers from a feeling of not being necessary to the episode, evoking the Mr. Peanutbutter’s House thought experiment to give the episode its title and then hang around. (BoJack even underlines the character’s lack of necessity by forgetting him after each encounter.) The closing monologue is a move that only highlights the bad thing BoJack did and the disconnect between Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, both of which are things that the episode made apparent on its own. The Zoë vs. Zelda argument is good for some early jokes, but we don’t need the metaphor to know there’s a difference between Todd and BoJack or Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter. Actions can speak louder than words, and there’s plenty of action this episode to underline the character disconnect.
More interesting is what’s left unspoken. In the pilot episode, Todd said of BoJack that despite all his grumblings, there was a good heart underneath it all. That’s the sort of statement that other shows would treat as their mission statement, and the vibe in the first few episodes hinted that despite the darkness it could move in that direction. “Zoës And Zeldas” works sharply against that idea, proving that if there is a good heart it’s buried deep within BoJack and that Todd’s faith in his host may be ill-placed. With the tell-tale receipt literally under Todd’s nose, a potential blowup revelation of that faith is clearly being set up. And if Aaron Paul’s proved anything in his career to date, he does his best work when he learns he’s been betrayed.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Wayne’s a weak enough character that Cenac gets disqualified despite his sturdy deliveries. The honor goes to Paul F. Tompkins, pulling double duty this week as Mr. Peanutbutter and Virgil Van Cleef. If Mr. Peanutbutter utilizes Tompkins’s gift for cheerfulness, Van Cleef utilizes his pomposity, an aristocratic tone that reminds one of his impressions of Werner Herzog or Andrew Lloyd Weber—the latter of whom Van Cleef dismisses as “a real hot penis about everything.”
- The cold open of “Zoës And Zeldas” gives us our first look at the previously mentioned Herb Kazazz, voiced by Stanley Tucci. A flashback reveals him as a fellow comedian from BoJack’s stand-up days, going from heckling the nervous young comedian to offering advice and a drink. A photo of the two in BoJack’s pool room—one right over his shoulder as BoJack denies ever being mentored—reaffirms that friendship lasted at least into the Horsin’ Around days.
- The paparazzi birds try to blackmail BoJack, and he doesn’t even give them the time of day. Not out of arrogance, but out of simply not paying any attention to what they say.
- BoJack is dialing back the cutaway jokes as episodes progress, but the one about baby birds leaving the nest is genuinely inspired and hilariously dark. ”It’s not your fault.” “I thought he was ready. He seemed ready.” “It’s not your fault.”
- Princess Carolyn displays more expert leaping and smooth-talking this episode to secure her position as Todd’s new agent, as well as some double-fisted smartphone action during the first run-through of Newtopia. (Also from Princess Carolyn, lots of dissatisfaction with her ongoing sexual trysts with BoJack. “You’re not even inside me!”)
- “My book will be in libraries for hundreds of years. Your BuzzFeed article will be crammed between an animated GIF of a cat falling asleep and a list of fun facts about Legally Blonde.”
- “Rock opera? More like shock flopera.”
- “I’m writing a nuanced portrait of a complicated man.” “Well, then, we might be doing different things.”
- “There’s a darkness inside you, and you can bury it deep in burritos as big as your head, but someday soon that darkness is gonna come out.”
- Today in Hollywood signs, credits edition:
Horsin’ Around DVD Commentary:
- This episode marks the first appearance of character actress Margo Martindale. Not yet elevated to the status of esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale, but taking a step in the right direction.
- It’s our first flashback to young BoJack here, and the jarring fact that back in his stand-up comedy days he was clean and sober. And also more than a little insecure about his comedy, given Herb’s admonishment to stop asking the audience if they got the joke. “But then how do I know if they got it?”
- Eagle-eyed viewers of “The BoJack Horseman Show” will notice that the hair and outfit of Todd’s ex-girlfriend identifies her as Emily, who’ll reenter his life in “Love And/Or Marriage.”
Tomorrow: The action moves from West to East Coast, and the emotional focus shifts from BoJack to Diane in “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen.”