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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

BoJack Horseman's excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss

Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix
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“You ready for the headliner? Please welcome to the stage... the star of Horsin’ Around and The BoJack Horseman Show! Philbert! Secretariat! The upcoming Horny Unicorn! Son of Butterscotch and Beatrice! Husband to no one! Father to none, that we know of! Stand-up comedian, actor, crippling alcoholic! A talented charmer and a stupid piece of shit! It’s... BoJack Horseman!”

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On a television show, death never has to be the end. Unless the actor or actress in question passes away—and even that’s no barrier in today’s world of hologram musicians and CGI Star Wars actors —it’s always possible for a character to make an appearance after they’ve shuffled off their show’s version of the mortal coil. Science fiction and fantasy series can always contrive a way to resurrect a character, conjure a doppelgänger, or overlap a parallel universe into the primary world. Even traditional shows without that element of unreality can always pull out a dream sequence or near-death experience, giving the audience a chance to spend a little more time with a character they love. And even more valuable, it gives the other characters a chance to get some sort of closure or realization, something they were more likely than not denied by their departure from the world.

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That’s probably one of many things that made living a life of television such an attractive thing to a young BoJack Horseman. A world without a sense of finality, a world where there was always a chance to make up for even the worst mistakes, and a world where the unknown was always put off by the ability to go on to the next episode. And as he got older and had to learn the hard way that those rules don’t apply and when people leave the stage they’re not coming back, that unrealistic world became even more of an ideal to strive for, a place to retreat when he couldn’t handle the realistic one.

Now, BoJack has never needed to retreat more. He’s lost his friends, his family, his career, his reputation, his home, and his legacy. He seems to only have one thing left to lose, and with only two episodes left in all of BoJack Horseman, “The View From Halfway Down” gives the feeling he might lose that as well. It’s an episode that drowns the viewer almost as much as it’s drowning BoJack, slotting firmly in the pantheon of A-grade BoJack Horseman penultimate installments. It continues that second-to-last episode trend of impossibly finding a darker place to take the series, and it takes BoJack right with it—taking him to the place where, at least, he may never come back.

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That cold feeling begins immediately in “The View From Halfway Down.” It’s clear from the beginning that this is some sort of dream sequence occurring in the wake of BoJack’s “Angela” bender, given away by the fact BoJack would never voluntarily attend a dinner party at his mother’s house. And as it goes on, the clues aren’t subtle as to what might have transpired: a constant dripping on his head he can’t seem to dodge, his water at dinner tasting like chlorine, his trademark “Portrait Of The Artist (Pool With Two Figures)” painting on the living room wall showing a swimmer no longer swimming. (That last one is more subtle, but BoJack fans pounce on those little details in my experience.) Prior fantasy journeys like “Downer Ending” and “The Stopped Show” traded on an ambiguity between what was real and what wasn’t, but there’s no such blurring here. This is fully a distraction being constructed by BoJack’s brain, hiding from him and us that something very wrong has happened.

Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix
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But if it has and everyone must be distracted, what better way to do so than a séance? BoJack’s sitting down to dinner, and to quote Joseph Sugarman on the old Sugarman place in winter, there’s only ghosts here as his dining companions. Sarah Lynn, who died in a tragic circumstance that he’s spent years running away from. Beatrice Horseman, who let him know every moment of his life that she wished he’d never had one. Herb Kazazz, who told him to his face that any chance of forgiveness was following him right to the grave. Corduroy Jackson-Jackson, who he acted with in Secretariat and later found swinging in his trailer. Crackerjack Sugarman, the uncle who he never met but whose death consumed his grandmother and mother. And even Zach Braff, real-life friend of Donald Faison who tried to unify the terrified masses and wound up food for the Biel-ievers.

As far as a dinner party guest list goes—and a list of BoJack Horseman guest stars goes—that’s pretty hard to beat. It’s a callback to long-lost rhythms of the series, from Herb and BoJack’s comedy routine-as-conversation dynamic, to Bea’s unmatched ability to cut down any of BoJack’s achievements, to the attention-starved vibe of Sarah Lynn as she morphs through every one of her career stages. (Little Sabrina grew up right before our eyes, right, Todd?) Bit players like Corduroy and Crackerjack get a chance to shine, displaying an enthusiasm that’s off-putting given the circumstances of their deaths. BoJack comments that he’s woken up from this before, and there’s definitely a lived-in feel to the interactions, that this game of Best Part/Worst Part has played out in an area where time doesn’t matter.

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And while all the voices are distinctive ones thanks to the masterful voice acting on display, there’s a clear feeling everyone is having the same conversation. It feels right that this episode is in the hands of Alison Tafel, who also wrote season four’s “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t,” because it has an equal grasp on just what’s jumbling around in that not-at-all-suited-for-phones skull of his. Listen to the argument that Herb and Corduroy are having about just how much joy you can take in an action, even charity, before it goes from selfless to selfish. Or hear the twitchy panic in Sarah Lynn’s voice as she demands someone tell her that entertaining people was worth everything she gave. Or pick up on the way Crackerjack’s ebullient tones waver when he tries to come up with anything he did during the war. This isn’t a true haunting, this is BoJack desperately trying to rationalize where his life has ended up, using the dearly departed to make arguments one way or the other.

Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix
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While BoJack implies this is a recurring dream, even he seems taken aback by the last attendee of the party—as is the audience. BoJack’s issues with his mother have been discussed to death in prior seasons, but his relationship with his father remains blocked off as Butterscotch died well before the start of the series. Instead, we’ve been limited to the occasional flashback, and a eulogy tangent in “Free Churro” explaining how he met his ignoble end. A distant figure who sealed himself away in his study, chasing after a novel one pages-long sentence at a time, emerging only for Scotch and the occasional resentful pickup from soccer practice. It’s small wonder that instead of seeing Butterscotch in this moment, BoJack instead has to create a hybrid, a post-race Secretariat who’s speaking in his father’s voice and slips into the same bickering cadence with Bea he heard around the table growing up.

Stepping out for a smoke with this ButterSecretariatch figure, BoJack can’t keep himself from confrontation, and the weight of that interaction is overwhelming for just how much is being covered in the moment. He’s confronting the father that he could never connect with when he was alive. He’s confronting the first hero that television ever gave him and whose tortured legacy he tried and failed to bring to life. And thanks to the early choice to have Will Arnett voice both Butterscotch and BoJack, there’s the added layer that he’s confronting himself. Case in point, BoJack’s dismissal of ButterSecretariatch purporting to care: “You cared about getting drunk and telling everyone how miserable you were.”

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What follows out of ButterSecretariatch isn’t fully an apology, an explanation, or even a regret—it’s some synthesis of all three as he speaks wearily about the degree that he cared and tried so hard not to. And that’s something you can see in BoJack as well. Despite Biscuits Braxby’s accusation that he hurt so many people because he didn’t care, BoJack does care about the people he’s close to and the people that he’s hurt. He’s terrible at showing it and often only does so in hindsight, but his actions aren’t those of a sociopath, they’re those of someone so emotionally stunted that defense mechanisms would always be the default. He’ll never get the answer from his father or his hero that he wanted, because their problems are his problems. How can he get them to admit they love him when he doesn’t love himself?

Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix
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As that conversation takes place, the show must go on. While it’s a showcase for the talents of the deceased, the real star of the show is series composer Jesse Novak. At this point, barring an overly ambitious twist for a series finale, my dream of a BoJack Horseman musical episode is dead. But from the first bars of the Horsin’ Around theme playing over the efforts to get a bird out of the house, “A View From Halfway Down” reminds you just how much Novak’s themes added to the series. The creativity is on display to the end, less refrain than it is remix: taking songs that had a tragic connotation and somehow finding a way to make them even more tragic. Sarah Lynn offers a cover version of “Don’t Stop Dancing,” loading the lyrics with an even more fatalistic direction and putting a “Prickly-Muffin” spin on the second verse. Crackerjack picks up the trumpet to accompany his older younger sister’s dance with a few bars of “I Will Always Think Of You,” and then lets the power of the song keep the trumpet afloat.

And as they perform, one by one, they exit stage left through a door frame that shows nothing on the other side but the purest blackness. A blackness that matches the tar pits of Hollywoo that Charlotte said so long ago would drag BoJack under, and that matches the dripping ichor coming from the ceiling. An ichor that’s growing tendrils and ensnaring anyone who approaches it as the show heads towards the end. There’s always more show until there isn’t, as the saying goes, and Tafel’s script makes it very clear that both this show and BoJack have the end in sight. In the most potent moment of the entire episode, BoJack tries to latch onto some hope for where things are going, and Herb’s final words are a matter-of-fact dismissal that he’ll ever see those he’s lost outside of his oxygen-deprived brain:

“Is it... terrifying?”

“No. I don’t think so. It’s the way it is, you know? Everything must come to an end, the drip finally stops.”

“... See you on the other side.”

“Oh, BoJack, no. There is no other side. This is it.”

Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix
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“This was gonna happen to you one of these days,” Bea tells BoJack in a tone surprisingly devoid of malice. And hasn’t this been teased from the very beginning of the series, right there in the opening credits? Think back to driving his Tesla into the pool during an Oscar nomination party and being in no hurry to get out. Or his long fall with Ed into a cold Michigan lake. Or his memory during Bea’s eulogy of how the Horseman family’s shared misery translated into the feeling of drowning together. Hell, even think back to the fate of not-John Stamos. (“We thought night swimming would be fun, but the current was too strong!”) Foreshadowing has always been part of BoJack Horseman’s reality, and paying this off would make a sad amount of sense.

But to his credit, BoJack fights as hard as he can to escape this reality. I’ve had several conversations about whether or not BoJack Horseman would end with BoJack committing suicide, and I’ve always fallen on the side of never seeing him able to do that. For BoJack to commit suicide would be a betrayal of the show’s ethos regarding mental illness, that giving up is never the answer and that as hard as it may be to get there it is possible to find a way to save yourself. Despite flirting with the possibility and almost letting go on a few occasions—most notably in the final moments of “That Went Well”—BoJack doesn’t want to die. ButterSecretariatch is the avatar of BoJack one last time in that regard, realizing halfway through the titular poem that he wants to take that plunge back, all his bold talk about ending his life on his terms just talk. And BoJack fights every last hint that his death is a foregone conclusion: He tries concocting an explanation for how he couldn’t still be in the pool, he runs as fast as he can from the ichor, and he desperately grabs at a phone to call Diane to come save him.

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Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix

And none of it works. And at last, BoJack decides to stop fighting. It’s a brutal final moment as he asks dream-Diane to just stay on the line a little while longer, turning his head to look out at the full moon as the darkness consumes everything around him. Whatever happened in the past or present becomes irrelevant against the encroaching darkness, that lack of any epiphany or clarity in what is ostensibly his final moment. The chatter stops, the crowd departs, a needle drops, the music starts—only that music is one long beep of a heart monitor that sounds identical to the series finale of Horsin’ Around.

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Then the monitor starts beeping again. It looks like for once, the idea that real life isn’t an episode of television might work in BoJack Horseman’s favor.


Stray observations:

  • Achievement in Voice Acting: You can’t pick any favorites in this murderers’ row. Wendie Malick, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Schaal, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brandon T. Jackson, Zach Braff—every one of those ghosts shows up ready to play and to remind you of just how much they brought to the show in the first place.
  • What dream episode from other series did this one remind you of? Personally, I had serious flashbacks to “The Test Dream,” which was a masterful deployment of past images and passed-on characters and expertly captured the implausible logic of dreams.
  • I cannot say enough about how good this episode looked. These dream/hallucination/internal monologue episodes are always the showcase for BoJack Horseman’s animation team, and everything is masterfully done here: the choreography of Bea and Corduroy’s performances, the flourishes of Sarah Lynn’s show, and the undertow of the black ichor consuming everything.
  • I mentioned the spoiler alert of the drowning horseman in “Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures),” but the house’s art gallery is a reference smorgasbord. The Sugarman family portrait, the Horseman family portrait, Crackerjack’s military headshot, the Horsin’ Around house, and the painting Bea gave BoJack from Joseph Sugarman’s collection are all on the walls. And when he’s fleeing the void, you can see the holes Sarah Lynn’s friends drilled through Joseph’s painting to build their cocaine closet and the chunk Ruthie took out of “Portrait Of An Artist.” Again, no show knows its references like this one.
  • BoJack brings a hydrangea to dinner, and in the first half of the season he spent time growing a hibiscus at Pastiches. Even when it comes to her namesake, Hollyhock is just out of his reach.
  • Appropriate last meals: Bea’s eating hospital/nursing home food, Crackerjack’s eating Army rations, Herb’s eating the peanuts he was deathly allergic to in life, Corduroy has his autoerotic asphyxiation lemon, and Sarah Lynn gets her long-counted carbs. BoJack? His water bottle and a plate full of pills.
  • As potent as the decision was to merge Secretariat and Butterscotch, I do wonder how much of that choice was motivated by John Krasinski’s availability or lack thereof.
  • “With a drop like that, you’d think she was the ratings for Veronica’s Closet when it moved to Mondays.”
  • “Sacrifice is good. It has to be, because I sacrificed a ton, and I was freaking awesome.”
  • “We don’t need to compare apples to Auschwitzes.”
  • “I’m running out of patience with you running your mouth!” “And I’m running out the clock until we both... Well. Here we are.”
  • “You’re being very rude. I was about to do my roller-dance routine!”
  • “This is the hard part. And now, the easy part.”
  • “...Yeah. My day was good.”
  • Today in Hollywoo signs, symbolism edition:
Illustration for article titled iBoJack Horseman/is excellent penultimate episode gazes long into the abyss
Screenshot: Netflix
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Les Chappell is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. He drinks good whiskey and owns too many hats.

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