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BoJack Horseman ties up its third season and runs toward an uncertain future

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Is there a happy ending for BoJack Horseman?

I’ve been chewing on that question ever since I finished “That Went Well,” because at this stage I honestly don’t know. After a season that’s dragged our main character to his lowest point, leaving a trail of broken relationships behind him and the body of his surrogate daughter growing cold against his shoulder, he ends it at a point of odd hope, watching a herd of horses run across the plains. His face twists into an uncertain expression, watching them run with a purpose BoJack’s never had in his life. It feels like a turning point, the direction to move forward that Secretariat gave a young BoJack and that the nameless jogger offered in “Out To Sea” as he gasped for breath finally sinking in.

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Those comparisons however also make that last beat hard to process, given that this is the latest in a long string of supposed epiphanies for BoJack Horseman. Last year’s assurance of “It gets easier” from the jogger was one of the most inspiring moments of television for me in 2015, one that made you think that it was setting the stage for a BoJack playing through the pain and looking for a way to break the cycle of pain and loathing. That is not what happened in season three of BoJack Horseman. While it moved its characters into new businesses and projects, it still put them through the same emotional wringers, and if anything the wringers became even more emotionally drastic. BoJack observed that connections are the only thing we have, and the third act snapped his connections off one by one, culminating in Sarah Lynn’s heartbreaking death.

In terms of repeating patterns, “That Went Well” is a typical finale for BoJack Horseman following in the footsteps of “Later” and “Out To Sea.” It doesn’t introduce any major cliffhangers—save one or two tantalizing ones we’ll get to—and is more about clearing up the season’s old business to make room for the next one. It’s a comedown after the emotional boxing match of the last three episodes, and by design doesn’t pack the same punch as those episodes, but it does the job it’s setting out to do and paints an interesting picture for season four.

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Of course, the biggest unanswered question hanging over season three is just what’s going to come of Mr. Peanutbutter’s spaghetti strainer stockpile. “That Went Well” takes not only his questionable purchase but every side development this year—Cabracabra’s fleet of orca drivers, the reflective Secretariat ads, Character Actress Margo Martindale stealing BoJack’s boat, Sandro leaving Elefante, the existence of Pacific Ocean City—and combines them all into a development of complete and total insanity. A combination of sea madness, a Cartindale Cargo (oof) vessel, and some badly timed sunlight produces a sinking spaghetti monster that’s going to eradicate the aquatic metropolis unless someone can bail it out. In terms of comedic payoff, the entire sequence is a winner, throwing out more pasta puns than an episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and deploying a terrific homage to Mad Max: Fury Road.

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In terms of narrative payoff though, I’m less convinced it was worth all the buildup. We already know that BoJack Horseman loves to set things up and do something with them later, but the purchase of the spaghetti strainers was so aggressive in telegraphing that it would pay off that it sours a portion of the pleasant surprise most of those payoffs deliver. The newscasters don’t help that feeling by exaggerating just how unlikely it is that circumstances will converge in a way that all of this is going to be saved, and then “That Went Well” further prolongs it by having Mr. Peanutbutter in the theater at the exact time he’s needed. The little details made for a great payoff, we didn’t need the season-long lampshade on the biggest one.

What’s most interesting about the payoff to this BoJack Horseman story is that BoJack Horseman is nowhere to be seen around it. In one of his typically excellent Steven Universe reviews, Eric Thurm made the observation that this season of BoJack Horseman “at times seems to straight-up ignore BoJack himself in favor of exploring the side characters.” That assessment is reflective of the show’s continual drift toward being a more outright ensemble piece and also a consequence of where the narrative has moved. BoJack’s been progressively isolated in bubbles metaphorical (and literal) thanks to the Oscar campaign, and when he does touch base with the other characters his main reaction is to push them away. The show doesn’t contrive reasons for BoJack to cross paths with his one-time friends when it doesn’t make sense to, and at this point the characters don’t need him to carry their narratives.

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Said narratives are going in familiar directions, but there’s some interesting twists that BoJack Horseman introduces. Todd suddenly becoming a millionaire off the sale of Cabracadra and then losing it is a predictable beat, given that he all but telegraphs it once he gets his check—the only surprise is in how quickly it happens. What’s infinitely more interesting is his admittance to Emily that he doesn’t think he’s “anything” sexually. An asexual character on television is a rare thing even in this era of unprecedented (if still largely imperfect) diversity on television, and an interesting development to a character so often used as a punchline. Reversal of fortunes proves that Todd will always be Todd, but this is a move that makes us want to know more about what multitudes Todd contains.

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Princess Carolyn’s move to get back to work is a more complicated return to form. “That Went Well” establishes quickly that the difference between her being a manager and an agent isn’t clear to any layperson, and her quick return to running an agency it could be construed as the show trying to get back to its comfort zone. However, it’s also a development that makes perfect sense on a character basis, given everything we know about Princess Carolyn. She’s never wanted only work or home life, she wants both of them, and she’s not made for a life of only dinners with friends and vacations to Egypt. The difference between then and now is that instead of striving for a personal life, now she’s got one that she’ll have to work to keep. It’s an open question if that’s a possible balance to strike but given that having both means Raúl Esparza and Diedrich Bader get to stick around for the foreseeable future, it’s an effort that should be worth watching. (Interesting note: for all the finale’s narrative payoffs, Judah’s clandestine meeting with Admiral Charley Witherspoon remains in the show’s back pocket.)

The biggest potential move comes with Mr. Peanutbutter’s new status as a hero, and the return of his wife Katrina—first introduced in “Hank After Dark” and voiced by a perfectly nasty Lake Bell—with an offer to run for governor of California. This is the arc that’s most exciting for season four of BoJack Horseman to focus on, given how successful the Oscar campaign arc of this season was. Manipulation, artifice, and excess were on grand display this year, and if anything a political campaign will expand on those ten-fold. To enter Mr. Peanutbutter into this fray, so distractable and so good-natured, it has the potential to be the biggest circus in California politics since the rise of the two-Terminator.

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And what of the potential First Lady of California? Awesomeness of “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” aside, Diane had the least to do this season, licking her wounds from the season two depressive fugue, and her time this finale is similarly spent. Her confession to BoJack about how she used to watch Horsin’ Around is the one part of the finale that doesn’t ring true to me, there because they need a trigger for BoJack to validate his experiences and agree to make Ethan Around. Like Mr. Peanutbutter’s line last year about seeing someone at Elefante who looked just like Diane, it’s unclear—even after repeat viewings—if she was telling the truth or saying what BoJack needed to hear in that moment. Moving her to a position with GirlCroosh puts her in a better place, a move to challenge just how strong her beliefs and her love are.

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Whether or not you find Diane’s story truthful, it does push BoJack to return to his Horsin’ Around days for reasons you might not expect. In a season that regularly toyed with BoJack’s ambivalence toward his former show, it’s not surprising to see him return to his comfort zone. It even gives the impression that he may have learned something and wants to do this the right way on the next go-around, deferring to Ethan as the star of the show and being as supportive as he can of Chloe. Focusing on that would be an entirely plausible way to spend the fourth season, seeing if it’s possible to go home again and finding something new in this new faux family.

Except Chloe tells BoJack she wants to be famous like him, and just like that the illusion is gone. BoJack can’t repeat the past: not because it’s impossible, but because he knows all the darkness and pain that came along with that past. The tagline of Secretariat is “He’s tired of running in circles,” and it’s clear that between his depressive collapse to Diane and the shock he receives here, he doesn’t believe this go-around will be any different. His drive to nowhere and taking his hands off the wheel is as much about breaking the cycle as it is taking away his pain—so seeing these horses run means he’s seeing something beyond said cycle.

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In that moment, silent save for Nina Simone’s haunting vocals, the words that most come to mind are Cuddlywhiskers’ advice from “BoJack Kills” on how he escaped his own depressive spiral: “It takes a long time to realize how truly miserable you are, even longer to see it doesn’t have to be that way. Only after you give up everything can you begin to find a way to be happy.” And after this season, it doesn’t seem like BoJack has anything left to give up. He’s lost the career arc that defined the first three seasons, hit biography to dream movie to Academy Award. He’s lost his agent, his roommate, his friends, and his TV daughter. He’s admitted out loud that he views his life as a waste and his actions as poison that touch everyone around him. He’s taken his hands off the wheel, literally and figuratively, and only one last-minute glance at something undefinable pulled him back from the brink.

Has he given up everything? Can he find a way to be happy? Will he let himself find it? Will BoJack Horseman let him find it? Of all the big questions for season four, the last one rings out the loudest.

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Stray observations:

  • We’ve reached the end of season three coverage, and only three weeks after the majority of you already finished the season! Thanks to everyone who’s read and commented on these reviews, avoiding (for the most part) spoiling it for those of us non-bingers. This is one of my favorite shows on television and was an absolute joy to talk about—intensive schedule aside—and I appreciate all the kind words and lively conversation. Hopefully I’ll see you for season four!
  • Achievement in Voice Acting: Continuing the Netflix corporate synergy, Orange Is The New Black’s Kimiko Glenn is a promising addition to the cast as Stefani Stilton, Ralph’s sister and Diane’s new boss. Her hyper-trendy yet oddly disconnected way of discussing GirlCroosh’s potential, her praise of Diane’s crusade against Hank Hippopopalous (“It wasn’t even on fleek. Fleek was on it”) and her potential ruthlessness toward Mr. Peanutbutter produce a great first impression and a lot of potential for season four.
  • So, this happened:
  • BoJack Horseman, on behalf of The A.V. Club, thank you for the shoutout. We will add that to our trophy case alongside that time we were on The Simpsons. (The inventory referenced does not exist, but we do have an inventory on the best working character actors and actresses, which inexplicably doesn’t have Margo Martindale on it. Consider her the honorary 20th entry. I’ll petition the editors to write an update.)
  • If you haven’t checked them out already, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s interviews with both HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall and Vox’s Caroline Framke make for terrific reading about how the season came together.
  • Well. A teenage horse is trying to get in touch with BoJack, and she bears more than a passing resemblance to our favorite horseman. Looks like there’s another throwaway detail paying off: BoJack’s comment from “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” that he hopes all the women whose abortions he paid for actually went through with it. BoJack as a father would make for some interesting ground in season four, particularly after the twin disasters of Penny and Sarah Lynn would most likely leave him feeling too toxic to ever be a paternal figure.
  • Would the sinking spaghetti monster be considered the anti-Christ of the Pastafarian religion?
  • I’m slightly disappointed that they’re running Mr. Peanutbutter as governor of California and not mayor of Hollywoo, if only because it would be great to see him compete for that position against former game show host and devoted Satanist Chip Gardner. Related note: BoJack Horseman, get Andy Daly on this show next year.
  • “When you sang that one high note and shot fireworks out of your boobs, that was such a stirring tribute to gays in the military.”
  • “Those limp dicks are about to find out what savvy film and television viewers have known for years: Character Actress Margo Martindale ain’t afraid of nothin’!” This could ostensibly be the last stand of Character Actress Margo Martindale, but if we don’t see a body, I’m not betting against her.
  • Mr. Peanutbutter’s House the show, or ‘Mr. Peanutbutter’s house’ the house?”
  • “You help out at one disaster area and suddenly everybody loves you! Unless you’re Sean Penn.”
  • “Katrina! You’re not pizza.” “Ugh, this fight again.”
  • Today in Hollywoo signs:
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