In a show full of complicated characters, Diane Nguyen is the prime candidate for BoJack Horseman’s most complicated. Even going past the whitewashing aspect of her casting—something BoJack Horseman has grappled with since the beginning and faced head-on back in season five—few characters seem to divide the viewership the way she does. It’s as easy to find an article making a case for Diane as it is on making a case against her, a YouTube video arguing she’s the soul of the show versus a legion of Reddit comments arguing she’s the worst part of the series.
Those complications, I would argue, also add up to make her the most important character on BoJack Horseman after BoJack himself. More than anyone else on the series, Diane has had to struggle deeply to figure out who she is. It’s a struggle that was baked into her character from the beginning: introduced as the ostensible straight woman and potential love interest for BoJack, that conception was quickly abandoned as her moral compass and emotional scars became more apparent and more relevant to the story. And unlike other characters who can hide behind their quirks—BoJack’s ability to verbally cut down anyone, Princess Carolyn’s tongue-twisting studio gamesmanship, Mr. Peanutbutter’s cheerful pop culture analogies, Todd’s gift for falling into wacky schemes—Diane lacks a basic defense mechanism for the controversies she so often winds up on the front lines of.
All of this adds up to making Diane’s journey as important to the outcome of BoJack Horseman as that of BoJack himself. Diane’s gone through a lot over the course of six seasons, and there’s a reasonable feeling that it should all be for something and not just a series of shitty things that happened because that’s how life is. “Good Damage” tackles that assumption head-on, a showcase for all of Diane’s hopes and doubts with a solution that makes the perfect amount of sense. And it also shoots some of the experimental energy back into the final season, after a first half that was lighter on it.
That first half of the season wound up teasing plenty of change for Diane, as her last scene in “The Face Of Depression” showed us a brand-new character design. She’s gained weight from her antidepressants (and I would guess also her regularly featured “Chicago-style” diet), but the show doesn’t make a point of it once beyond an aside on how her boobs are heavier: this is just how Diane looks now. And the side effects also show the primary effects are working, because the dark clouds have finally lifted from her latest nadir in the first half of the season. A delightful Mary Tyler Moore Show-style opening sequence gets the point across, getting her “happy shoes” on and finding a variety of animal-based ways to get around annoyances that would previously grind her to a self-righteous halt. Ironically, despite the freezing cold temperatures and a diet of coronary-inducing sandwiches, Diane’s in the healthiest place she’s been for some time. Perfect place to write a book of personal essays, right?
Except the writing isn’t taking place. Structurally, “Good Damage” is the companion piece to season four’s brilliant “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t,” where we saw the cruel manic scribbles and endless insults that play out inside BoJack’s head on a daily basis. Here, we get to see Diane’s head as she wars against the insidious enemy that is the blank page, trying to find a way to tell her story in a deep and meaningful way. It’s a minimalist design that owes much to Don Hertzfeldt and his legendary short film “Rejected,” the various ghosts and goblins of Diane’s past reduced to pen sketches whose place in her life she’s trying to explain. And in the absence of fitting into a neat box, they fill the space with random asides about her frustrations, inadequacies, and for some reason the Japanese art of kintsugi.
The change in animation is great to watch, but what makes it work so well is the spine of Diane’s writer’s block and self-doubt conjuring up all these demons. “Good Damage” is credited to Joanna Calo, who wrote last season’s “The Dog Days Are Over” and has arguably the firmest grasp on Diane’s internal monologue. Paired with Alison Brie’s always terrific work voicing the character, it continues BoJack Horseman’s tradition of being unflinching in showing Diane’s downward spirals, and its awareness that there’s no easy fix to them. It’s reminiscent of “The Shot” and the gut-punch of her internal monologue cutting off mid-sentence, her fear that she’s incapable of telling a story that matters. Everything that we’re seeing Diane grapple with this episode rings true to what we know about the character, her internalized sense of how big her problems are wilting in comparison with her awareness of how many bigger problems are out there.
By that logic, the decision to go off her meds is one that’s tragic but also entirely expected, that she’d latch onto an excuse for not being able to write and hang the consequences. The tone of the animations changes considerably, her directionless thoughts now being replaced with much sharper edges and more ruthless put-downs. If BoJack Horseman ever wanted to release an ad for antidepressants, comparing the on versus off animations would be the right place to start, especially as we see avatars of our main characters stepping in to tear her apart. (Mr. Peanutbutter’s cuts the deepest, as well as letting out so ex-husband frustrations: “Are you one of those stupid pop culture analogies I’m always doing? Because you’re charming at first, but eventually enough already!”)
Salvation, when it comes, comes from an interesting place: a random writing tangent that came out of her attempts to write at the mall. She took overhearing one annoying shop girl and assimilated it into a random writing tangent about a food court detective, suddenly casting her internal monologue in a Dora The Explorer color palette. In an effort to buy Diane some time with Princess Carolyn, Guy sent the pages to her, and—surprise, surprise—she loves them and is already spinning a new YA franchise. While not as villainous as Diane’s internal monologue would portray, “Good Damage” doesn’t cast Princess Carolyn in the best light, going off on an unconnected sales pitch on at least one call with Diane, and pivoting with almost no hesitation between the pitch “sad is the new fun” and being glad the final book isn’t about her “boring life.”
Princess Carolyn does redeem herself with Diane in the closing moments of the episode, dovetailing with the third act of the previous “Intermediate Scene Study w/BoJack Horseman.” Princess Carolyn admits that her affection for the book isn’t just mercenary, it’s that she could see Ruthie enjoying a story like that—and more importantly she could see that Diane was enjoying writing a story like that. And Diane’s response is to let her internal monologue become external, finally getting to the root cause of her writers’ block: that she needs this book to mean something because it would make all her unhappiness mean something. It’s a beautiful interaction, a reminder that while they’re not best friends they do understand each other on a level most won’t get.
And it takes Princess Carolyn’s suggestion that maybe she doesn’t have to tell her story to tell an inspiring story to finally crack Diane’s hesitations. Seeing her face in that moment, I flashed back to the look on her face at the end of “BoJack Kills,” after Cuddlywhiskers offered the zen perspective that giving up everything was the secret to how to be happy. BoJack was blinded by his Oscar campaign, but that advice seemed to take root in Diane, even if she didn’t have the courage at the time to follow it. Diane’s cast off so much of her old life at this point: her marriage, her Hollywoo residency, even her old character design. Why not cut bait on a book that makes you spend time with bad memories, whose title you couldn’t get to under 30 words, and that you really don’t want to do anyway?
Diane’s journey is so potent that it’s almost possible to forget that “Good Damage” has something equally potent going on, which does give the episode a weak point. Even at the second episode of the final batch of episodes, it’s profoundly clear that BoJack Horseman is running out of time to tell its story, and consequently Diane’s journey needs to share space with the Hollywoo Reporter in New Mexico getting closer and closer to BoJack’s hidden truths. It manages to make it work thanks to the passage of time—deploying Diane’s journey and their research at exactly the same time as BoJack’s first semester at Wesleyan—but there’s a lack of consistency given Diane and the reporters never once cross paths.
Despite those rough edges, the events in Tesque manage to work for two key reasons. First of all, there’s the clear fun that everyone continues to have with the framing device of an old-fashioned screwball comedy framing, Paige and Max going full His Girl Friday as they try to chase down their leads. Calo clearly relishes writing dialogue that’s less conversation than competition, and Paget Brewster and Max Greenfield have an easy rapport as they lean into their transatlantic tones. An early exemplar: “You’re starting to make more sense than a change machine.” “Speaking of cents, what happened to Penny?” “Oh poop! Our scoop’s flown the coop!” “Go go go! Stay in the loop!”
The other reason that it works is because the zaniness is a counterbalance to just how deep BoJack Horseman is reaching into its emotional wells. BoJack’s actions with Penny and Sarah Lynn are the worst things he’s ever done, things he’s spent years trying to dull the memories of and things that no viewer of the show should be able to excuse. And the weight of that history is carried devastatingly by Olivia Wilde and Ilana Glazer as they return to their “Escape From L.A.” roles. Glazer’s Penny in particular now has an uncomfortable waver to her voice, dismissing the idea that her scene in “That’s Too Much, Man!” indicated she’d moved on from her experience. (In hindsight, the Red Bull she was drinking at Oberlin and Peter’s comments from “A Quick One, While He’s Away” mean a lot more than they did at the time.) Interestingly, they’re between Diane on their emotional journey: Penny’s still convinced that saying something will make it all mean something, Charlotte’s coming from a place of experience where she knows it often means nothing.
And once again, Charlotte puts the burden of responsibility exactly where it belongs, forcing BoJack to deal with these reporters. It’s no less devastating to witness than it was one episode ago—and maybe even more so because we know Diane’s conversation with Princess Carolyn is taking place not a hundred feet away. BoJack’s almost out of choices at this point, right at the moment Diane’s being given what should be an incredibly clear one. We’ll have to see if either can figure it out.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Maya Erskine of Pen15 gives a wonderful energy to Ivy Tran as her plucky attitude turns out to be the one thing to start getting through Diane’s writers’ block. And getting to face her creator manages to smooth out her angst, giving her a window to spend time away from a world where no change or happiness seems to come easily. “Yeah, I know. But wouldn’t it be nice if it was?”
- Diane’s coffee cup at the mall reads BLARN, because nobody does a recurring gag like BoJack Horseman.
- Big news: Birthday Dad is a hit! Or at least a hit by network TV standards, premiering to a 0.006. Those are numbers not seen since the Shark Tank episode where the inventor of blood-scented perfume got her arm bitten off.
- While pitching a film adaptation of Diane’s book, Princess Carolyn and Judah also hit on the idea of a Robin Hood film from Maid Marian’s perspective, directed by Sofia Coppola. Unfortunately, Rebecca Ferguson is booked because she’s doing a limited series about the ticket-taker at the cinema where Batman’s parents got shot. I’d watch both of those.
- I would also watch an entire series about colonial Bostonians acting like modern-day Bostonian stereotypes. “Taxation without representation is wicked unjust, brah!” “Bro, check it out, I’m teabagging the harbor!” “Also, go Pats! Unrelated.”
- “Great! I’ve made my romantic offer. I’ve officially been a good boyfriend. I will now retreat to our living room to play video games all day.” Guy is my spirit buffalo.
- “Hey, Chicago, 49 degrees is not spring! It’s the non-Lachey half of a boy band.”
- “I’ll tell you what I always tell my good friend Eileen. Eileen, come on.”
- “Two refrigerators? Give my regards to the Rockerfellers!”
- “I made a ‘My girlfriend is a depressed, vomiting mess, and someone needs to make a decision’ decision.”
- “Birthday Dad just got trapped in a leap year! How’s he gonna wriggle out of this one?”
- “I like thinking that my daughter could grow up in a world with books like that. Or, if my daughter’s not a reader, a lucrative film adaptation.”
- Today in Chicago signs: