As former BoJack Horseman reviewer Caroline Framke pointed out in her review of last season’s “Hank After Dark,” the combination of Netflix dropping every episode at once and the show’s own addictive nature puts those of us who review on a regular schedule at a disadvantage. It’s the nature of the beast, the people who binge the series are going to get to the good stuff first and invariably tweet about it before it comes up in the review rotation. Consequently, my Twitter feed was full of people praising the fourth episode of this season as its zenith, while at the same time fellow critics were praising it with such unambiguous statements as calling it one of the best episodes of television in 2016.
That’s the sort of inescapable praise that builds up unreasonable expectations for any episode of television, but “Fish Out Of Water” lives up to all of them and then some. This episode is nothing short of a masterpiece, a culmination of both BoJack Horseman’s unique animation style and its views on isolation and connection. Taken as part of the whole it could very well be the best episode that the show has ever done, and taken on its own it’s a hauntingly beautiful story of being a stranger in a strange land. It finds the lowest possible geographic point to take its main character, and from that place it ascends to the highest point the series has ever reached.
The reason for that visit is the next step in the Secretariat campaign, as BoJack needs to accompany the film to a major festival. Since he’s alienated the French with his views on Sartre/the French sucking and alienated Robert Redford with his views on The Horse Whisperer, his only recourse is the Pacific Ocean Film Fest. The existence of an underwater society was hinted at in “Out To Sea” when the Giggle Ship had two separate boarding ramps, and this takes us into the deep end with an entire underwater metropolis. It’s an entirely foreign land for BoJack, where he doesn’t speak the language or even speak at all, his head trapped behind a soundproof helmet that mutes everything he says.
With language removed from the equation BoJack Horseman loses one of its most important elements in rapid-fire dialogue, and it’s a true testament to the episode that it functions even better without. Everything works in perfect harmony on this episode—Elijah Aron and Jordan Young’s script, Mike Hollingsworth’s direction, Lisa Hanawalt’s art, and Jesse Novak’s score—with the end product a world that’s different in every way, shape, and form from the Hollywoo we’ve been accustomed to. There’s new character types from octopi to pufferfish to flounders, and in every instance there’s some little detail or joke that takes them beyond slapping a new design on the background characters. Novak’s electronica score is soothing yet eerie, and the show’s palette undergoes a notable shift thanks to the constant presence of bubbles and a bluish tint. It’s a beautiful construction that’s entirely unique, but littered with enough of the little details (i.e. a shop called Dugong Donuts) that it’s still part of the BoJack larger world.
The language barrier and the inherent strangeness isolates and alienates BoJack—some might say he’s Lost In Translation—but it’s interestingly compounded by the way that it takes every one of BoJack’s usual defenses away from him. He can’t drink because the liquor floats away as soon as he opens his flask, he can’t smoke because the cigarettes can’t get through his dome, and his usual abuse targets are all 20,000 leagues above the sea—his only familiar touchstone being Mr. Peanutbutter appearing in commercials for Seaborn seahorse milk. It’s the most unshielded BoJack has ever been, yet also it’s weirdly the healthiest position for him. Without the ability to speak, he can’t put his hoof in his mouth the way he does on an hourly basis on land.
That turns out to be a simultaneous blessing and a curse, as at the festival he crosses paths once again with Kelsey Jannings, former director of Secretariat now back to making critically acclaimed yet obscure titles like Billie Jean King Is Not My Lover. True to form, BoJack avoids her at the start—as he would with anyone who reminds him of his failures—and when he decides to “speak” to her, he can’t get past his usual platitudes in a cruel parallel to his inability not to ham it up on set. (“You’re the Kelseyist! Smell you later, BJ.”) It’s as painful as expected to watch him try to reach Kelsey, only to be thwarted at every turn by the constant bustling of a world he can’t deal with and eventually swept away in a literal and metaphorical sense.
BoJack falls asleep on the bus and wakes up in a completely unfamiliar part of town—like you do—and finds himself caught in a freak series of circumstances that leads to the delivery of a seahorse litter and being stranded far from the premiere. One of those litter winds up stranded with him, a development that produces some surprising emotional connections. BoJack can be an absolute bastard, but even he isn’t going to abandon a newborn by the side of the road. And when he can’t talk at all, someone who’s in a similar position goes from an albatross to welcome company, a companion to keep an eye on and keep his mind off his constantly flickering doubts.
The pitch of “BoJack and a baby seahorse wander through the ocean” is one of the most overtly cartoonish premises the show has engaged in that doesn’t involve Todd, and the action reflects that. From fleeing the shark convenience store clerk to bouncing around anemones to dodging the more dangerous aspects of the taffy plant machinery, the vibe is less typical BoJack and more is in keeping with an early Mickey Mouse cartoon or a Charlie Chaplin film. Unlike those black-and-white offerings, “Fish Out Of Water” has the benefit of some glorious colors, from the luminous phosphorous of the anemones to the grand bursts of pink taffy as BoJack further disrupts the factory’s operations. It’s joyful in a way that all the melancholy of BoJack doesn’t often permit, furthering the sense we’re in a world far different from our usual one. The ending, where BoJack suddenly realizes being underwater means plummeting isn’t the end, in particular is a wonderful anti-Wile E. Coyote moment of triumph.
But in true BoJack manner, the eventual victory feels decidedly hollow. The father treats the return of his lost offspring as nothing but a changed number on the banner, and when his kids gather around the table it becomes impossible to pick BoJack’s traveling companion out of the litter. There’s no heartfelt goodbye, just a transactional nature that in its way is even sadder than if he and the seahorse had parted with tears in their eyes. To BoJack this was a potentially life-changing adventure, and no one else involved—save the taffy workers that have to clean up the mess—are likely to even register it in their memories.
What this adventure does do is give him the right words to express to Kelsey. BoJack is capable of epiphanies, but those typically come when he realizes how miserable he is, and leads him to direct his self-loathing further inward. This is something else, his forged and broken connection with the baby putting into context what he lost by letting Kelsey fade away. Kelsey saw something in him, was willing to go to bat for him in “The Shot” (also written by Young and Aron), and he repaid her with nothing. He can’t get her back to the movie—hell, he’s in the movie as much as she is right now—but he can acknowledge that there was more to their relationship than the professional, in one of the most heartfelt statements of purpose the show has ever produced:
It would be the perfect apology, given what we know about these two. That is, it would if the ink didn’t smear, turning the unsaid to the unwritten, and somehow leaving BoJack even more alone in an episode that’s extended that state.
But that’s not enough of a brutal tragicomic end, as a fellow landlubber runs into BoJack and snaps at him for cutting in line at the taxi stop. Yes, snaps—using a handy vocalizer button on the side of his helmet. BoJack pushes the same button, realizes that he had the power of speech available to him this whole time, and rears up to curse a deep blue streak as the credits and Oberhofer’s “Sea Of Dreams” take over. That’s a ruthless punchline to deploy at the end, the sort of thing that only a show as brilliant and twisted as this show could construct. It’s the perfect closure to “Fish Out Of Water,” a bold, tremendous, and beautiful achievement in both animation and storytelling.
- The unspoken words of “Fish Out Of Water” are its greatest strength, but there’s still some excellent banter between BoJack and Ana in the cold open as she presents the case for POFF (“I can’t just go to Cannes?” “You Cannes not”), once again steps over his independence while reinforcing it (“Real horses don’t do whatever someone says!” “And that’s why you need to go to this festival.” “If you say so”) and giving us another sad tidbit of BoJack’s past (“I haven’t been underwater since my mother tried to drown me in the bathtub when I was 22”).
- It’s fortunate that there’s so many details to enjoy in the underwater world, because it asks almost as many questions. We know how surfacers can breathe underwater, but how do they keep from being crushed by the pressure? Why don’t any of the fish creatures seen above ground need similar systems? Does being underwater for so long destroy their clothes, and do you need to visit special underwater tailors? Are there hotels specifically sealed off for land-dwellers? Are there differences between breathing fresh water and salt water? (Speaking of, the fact that the candy is “Freshwater Taffy” is a great detail. ) This is one of those instances where Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra is vital.
- While the construct of the episode means that we weren’t going to get any lines from Kelsey, it’s disappointing that we get an episode with the character and none of Maria Bamford’s fantastic performance. On the other hand, it does allow for the return of Abe, a character I expected to see retired following Garry Marshall’s passing. He at least is prepared to be social to BoJack now that the film is done and getting good press.
- The use of thumbs up is a peak running gag, BoJack’s early comment to Ana about knowing what it means making it clear what’s to come. The script doles this out well with various horrified/angry reactions by fish people, and creates yet another scandal playing out in the episode’s background. The scroll on Tom Jumbo-Grumbo’s news report on said scandal contains the highlight in a brilliant blink-and-you-miss-it joke: “Michael Richards: This is way worse than what I did.”
- Today in Hollywoo signs, underwater edition: