An analysis divided into 5 parts:
Recovery, Reckoning, Redemption, and Rebirth in Hollywoo Swimming Pools
(feel free to search for each segment using Control F)
By Sarama Keum-Sun
If you want to avoid spoilers for BoJack Horseman because you haven’t watched Season 6 Part 2 (I get it; it’s hard to face the end of such a significant and artistically brilliant show), or because you haven’t yet checked out the series (DO! It’s riveting, intensely humanistic and yet hilariously absurd; a feat of both adult animation and storytelling in general that leaves a writer like me drooling in awe and envy)—
Don’t read another word. (Because what I am about to share is full of major spoilers and analysis.) Starting now.
He didn’t die. Sorry. I try to be gentle with differing opinions, but this one is solid with substantial backing evidence. The Earth is not flat; the Holocaust actually happened; white privilege is real, and BoJack did not die in “The View from Halfway Down.”
Most of the BoJack Horseman fan community knows by now that in an interview with Variety, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg gives a definitive answer on the great debate raging in fan forums and YouTube videos. So I won’t go in depth on all the context clues—how the heart monitor resumes beeping during the E15’s credits; how would BoJack know of Princess Caroline and Judah’s romance if E16 takes place solely in his mind?—but I will admit there is evidence to support the interpretation that he did.
There IS evidence to support that BoJack did die in that pool—as the opening credits foreshadow—and that the series finale is a purgatory, making peace with his living loved ones as he did his dead, while the last sparks of his brain fizzles into darkness. Yes, although Raphael Bob-Waksberg did validate that I’ve been on the right side of this argument all along (insert self-congratulatory gloating here), I believe the “BoJack died” supporting evidence is discernible.
BUT it is demonstrative of a symbolic death, not a physical one.
BoJack’s character arc is one of redemption, and has been from the very beginning. This is why watching the first episodes of Season 1 is off-putting for most people, including myself. They paint a portrait of a one-dimensional asshole—and thus a one-dimensional show—but by S1’s heart-wrenching penultimate episode, it’s clear this man… horse… horseman is so much more. In “Downer Ending,” BoJack begs Diane to tell him he is a good person—at least deep down—to which she can only answer with silence. She later explains: “I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down.’ I kinda think all you are is just the things that you do.”
BoJack then goes on to do a bunch of really shitty not-good-horseperson things. But the whole time he is striving to move forward. What he doesn’t recognize is that this is a two-fold process—not only must he contend with his present actions, he must also contend with his past: the abuse he experienced AND the abuse he heaped on to others. Instead, BoJack has spent his life following the advice of his literally fallen hero, Secretariat:
“BoJack, when you get sad, you run straight ahead, and you keep running forward, no matter what… Don’t you stop running and don’t you ever look behind you. There’s nothing for you, behind you. All that exists is what’s ahead.”S1 E12
This push-pull between BoJack’s past and present is palpable through the entire series, culminating in the final episodes of Season 6.
In season 6 BoJack’s small stuttering steps forward become large strides. He checks into rehab, recognizes his reflection in another resident named Jameson—a young woman who is also lying to herself about her past and present—and decides he wants to be honest. He stops dyeing his hair—a symbol of the shedding of the past he clung so tightly to: his “hay” day on Horsin’ Around. He travels around the country on an apology tour, expressing his genuine care for his loved ones, which is also an announcement of his transformation into sober BoJack. Emotionally mature BoJack. Professor Horseman.
Contending with BoJack’s present actions is just half the process. The first episode of Part 2 Season 6 makes this clear with BoJack’s name accidentally Sharpied on the whiteboard. He is simply all the things he does. His identity can’t be erased—so neither can the actions of his past.
Failure to take accountability is a larger societal issue raised by the fabulous and oh-so-meta Season 5. Our society has a soft spot for problematic men: Don Draper; Walter White; Filbert; BoJack Horseman. The show in question is excellent at sympathetic portrayal; even knowing the terrible things BoJack did (the 17 minutes being S6’s bombshell), I still like him. You probably still like him. The audience wants him to succeed. (Or you don’t, and maybe that’s why you wanted him to die.) In light of what we know about his torturous childhood, we are willing to overlook the problematic sexual encounter/molestation with Penny, the physical assault on Gina, the role he played in Sarah Lynn’s overdose, maybe even the 17 minutes that sounded her death knell.
Damn. Consider that list from the perspective of someone who hasn’t watched the show—they’d probably think the BoJack audience is the worst group of people on Earth to continue to rally behind someone who has done such terrible things. But that damning list excludes BoJack’s moments of kindness and empathy. The situations in which he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His good faith efforts to help that ultimately backfired (i.e, Gina’s singing audition.) His sincere desire to be better.
Even so, we can’t let those actions slide, BoJack Horseman declares—the show, not the titular character, although BoJack himself periodically begs to be punished. As the audience, as a society, we should demand accountability. BoJack does not get to hurt people then afterwards claim hero status when he recovers from his severe case of asshole-itis. BoJack’s List of Damning Past Actions should not be swept under the rug, known to only a few individuals, while his recovery is celebrated in the public sphere.
Penance requires an honest accounting and is not a series of I’m-sorry-but’s—“I’m sorry, but I was an addict. I’m sorry, but I grew up in an extremely abusive home. I’m sorry, but I am a better person now”—the apology BoJack offers in his first interview with Biscuits is insufficient. Penance requires, “I did do these terrible things. No matter my reasons, there is no excuse. I have harmed people, and I am sorry. I apologize, knowing that those I have harmed owe me nothing in return, including forgiveness.”
Despite all his gains in self-improvement, BoJack is not yet ready to offer that. Until after the second interview, when BoJack’s List of Damning Past Actions is laid bare, with no mediating context, no accompanying list of his kindnesses and vulnerabilities, and no empathy (which is what Diane afforded him in her book and what Biscuits did not in her exposé.) BoJack is stripped of all his “but’s.” They no longer hold power. He has lost his protection from self-reflection.
Then, in E13 commences the reckoning in full battle mode.
He loses public favor and the armor afforded by his celebrity-status. He loses his house; he loses his relationship with Hollyhock; he loses Todd’s social support and is denied entrance into his party. He even loses his hard won sobriety. BoJack is stripped bare, his garnishments and trappings of power ripped from him mercilessly like an ousted king. This continues in E14, when he signs away his rights to his happiest memories, the show Horsin’ Around. Not only is this the taking of BoJack’s final refuge, this is a retroactive restoration of agency to Sarah Lynn.
“Doesn’t [she] deserve to be remembered as more than the girl [BoJack] killed?” Angela, the studio executive asks, in reply to BoJack’s assertion that there is nothing that can be done for Sarah Lynn’s legacy now.
The thing is, BoJack, something can be done. You can walk away from your own legacy.
All of this loss, all of this stripping bare of BoJack is his symbolic death. It is a brutal process necessary for his redemption—and one the even BoJack professes to want in S6 E7. In post-rehab AA, he admits to the group:
“I still can’t get comfortable in my house. It’s huge and perfect, but it feels like the worst place on Earth… My house reminds me of the horse I was before. I don’t want to be him again. But it’s the same house, the same city—just, nothing’s changed, so how am I supposed to?”S6 E7
In the writing world, you would call this apotheosis. But everyone is probably more familiar with the trope of the Phoenix: the concept that you must die to be reborn. Or, from a Bible as Literature standpoint, you gotta be speared then buried in a cave for 3 days before you can be resurrected as a zombie god.
“There will be no mention of Jesus in my house!” Beatrice declares in “The View from Halfway Down.”
Sorry Beatrice. I guess back then they didn’t know to take the head.
Hollywoo Swimming Pools
Water is a repeating motif throughout the series, notable appearances marking a significant change, or a point of no return. Or, y’know, my thesis of this entire essay: a symbolic death.
This symbolism is most obvious in “A View from Halfway Down.” The house of dead Beatrice is, well, a house of the dead. We see that in not only in the dead occupants, but also in the cardinal that everyone is trying to chase out the window—which BoJack succeeds in doing. (Kind of, at least. The cardinal reappears as the tar takes over.) The appearance of cardinals is widely believed to signal the presence of deceased loved one.
Water makes a front and center appearance in this house of the dead—but in such a subtle way, you’re not likely to catch it without a Google search. And I don’t mean BoJack drowning in the pool as all this happens inside his mind. I mean the flowers. As BoJack approaches Death’s doorstep, he is carrying pink hydrangeas. The etymology of this flower’s name dates back to 1753, coined in Modern Latin from the Greek hydro, meaning water, and angeion, meaning vessel. BoJack has come bearing a water-vessel.
On the wall is the painting from BoJack’s office—the one in which a fully-dressed BoJack stands poolside, gazing down on his nearly nude—and thus more vulnerable—self floating in the water. This is a BoJack Horseman re-creation of David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist.” According to Daily Art Magazine, Hockney is said to have painted this portrait in L.A., during a period of “loneliness and detachment.” (Check out the article for an in-depth catalog of the art depicted in the series.)
In S6 E7 “The Face of Depression,” Princess Carolyn interprets the painting as a reference to the myth of Narcissus. (In this episode, Ruthie also tears the painting and renders it worthless—interpret that.) I argue the painting also represents BoJack’s need for honest and vulnerable self-reflection. Either way, on Beatrice’s wall, the nearly-nude BoJack in the pool is dead.
Water is significantly featured in another artwork; this one hangs above Sarah Lynn’s bed, marking her point of no return. In the opening scene of “That’s Too Much, Man!” (S3 E11), Sarah Lynn is painted as Ophelia’s drowned body floating in a stream. This is BoJack Horseman‘s rendition of “Ophelia,” Sir John Everett Millais’ famous 1852 portrait. For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare, Ophelia was a young noblewoman under consideration for wifedom to Hamlet—until, at least, he drove her to madness, after which she falls from a tree into a river and drowns.
Water appears in a flashback scene in S2 E3 as the pool on the Love Boat film set. Their sitcom Horsin’ Around had been declared an official win for the network, and in celebration, BoJack and Herb jump into the pool, expecting something much deeper than what they got—both in the way the sitcom’s success affected their lives, as well as the pool’s depth, which turns out to be only a couple inches. This moment marks the sunset on Herb and BoJack’s friendship—signified by the painted sunset on the wall behind the pool. From here on out, their relationship will irrevocably decline.
In favor of chasing the Horsin’ Around sunset, BoJack never pursues the life of domestic bliss he fantasizes about having with Charlotte. (Who can blame him? I would have pursued my artistic dreams, too.) But once the life of celebrity proves as unfulfilling as the film set’s shallow pool, he travels to New Mexico in an attempt to realize the path not taken—and ultimately discovers that he can’t. In his fantasy daydream of what never was, he swims in a pond with his and Charlotte’s imaginary daughter, Harper.
Harper’s Landing is also the name of the Michigan town where the Old Sugarman House is located. In the Season 4 episode “The Old Sugarman Place,” BoJack’s near-death plummet into the pond inspires him to demolish the house (another instance of running from his past rather than accepting it), and call a “series wrap” on his friendship with the neighbor Eddy.
In Season 3 Episode 10, BoJack learns that he did not actually garner an Oscar nomination for his performance as Secretariat—a bursting of his lifelong dream to not only be the hero he worshiped as a child, but also to win recognition for his acting prowess. Or retroactive approval from Beatrice, who never considered what he did on Horsin’ Around as worthwhile, or as real acting. And when this dream crashes around him, BoJack responds by crashing the Tesla into his pool.
And the last, but the most significant, appearance of water is in “The View”, when he drinks and pills himself into intoxicated suicidal swim. While he physically survives each of these events (“BoJack-died” conspiracy theorists, please refer to the beginning of the essay) he can never return to the life he was living before. They are symbolic deaths.
His near-death drowning in the pool, however, is the only symbolic death that brings him to redemption and allows him to be something different than the horse he was before. Here he confronts his past and his scale is weighed.
BoJack enters his dead mother’s house—death’s door—with a young Sarah Lynn, reminiscent of how he led this younger, more impressionable lady on an epic bender of fatal proportions—as well as his failures as a role model in general. Sarah Lynn’s swan song is “Don’t Stop Dancing,” first performed by Gina S5 E11. Sarah Lynn’s rendition is much different, and includes the line, “A song you taught me when I was small/Don’t stop dancing”—a reference to their early days on Horsin’ Around: a young Sarah Lynn crouches underneath the kitchen table, and in an interim between scenes, BoJack tells her that stardom is all she has, and to never stop.
BoJack encounters his father in the form of Secretariat, a symbol of both his father’s hero status—at which he badly failed—and Secretariat’s position as a male role model—at which he also did a less than stellar job.
The dead dinner participants discuss sacrifice and thus the nature of morality. (Uh, here is definitely where you philosophy scholars should jump in—I know there’s a lot I’m missing out on.) From my lens, this is a larger discussion about whether, deep down, BoJack is actually a good person. Did he devote a lot of his life to helping others? Were his intentions good when he did help others, or were they motivated by self gain? If he derived pleasure from acts of kindness, that does pleasure render the acts selfish and automatically negate the good that was achieved? Is a life sacrificed for a noble cause more meaningful, or moral, than a life given to the entertainment of others?
Is BoJack worthy of redemption?
These are questions I dare not answer and will let you decide for yourself. It seems, however, the show decided the answer is yes.
During the end credits of E15, the flat-lined heart monitor resumes beeping. BoJack lives. He has faced his ghosts of Christmas Past and is granted another opportunity to face his Ghosts of Christmas Present.
In the series wrap, BoJack is granted furlough from his 14-month sentence in purgatory—otherwise known as the Supermax—to attend Princess Carolyn’s wedding. Her reception is a mirrored reflection of E15’s Last Supper—and another instance of tension between BoJack’s past and present. While in “The View from Halfway Down” the dead gathered to celebrate endings, in “Nice While it Lasted” the living gather to celebrate a new beginning.
For BoJack, this wedding is also an opportunity to say his goodbyes to his old life.
Many fans will argue that Mr. Peanutbutter is the one friend he doesn’t relinquish ties to, and while I agree this is never overtly stated or hinted at, I think BoJack’s strong distress to the media attention at the “Hollywoob” unveiling press conference is a strong indicator that this is a lifestyle BoJack can no longer live. Mr. Peanutbutter cannot and does not understand that. While he did offer BoJack his home for life after prison, there are doubts that this living arrangement will be sustainable.
I think stardom might be a legacy BoJack will have to walk away from. BoJack, however, is still undecided, and gives serious consideration to Princess Carolyn’s suggestion to return to acting. If he does so, however, she makes clear it will not be under her management. During their dance, the two of them bid each other goodbye, the cat woman he could never let go of—and who could also never let go of him—during their several years of on-off-again dating.
“Turns out her best years are now!” Mr. Peanutbutter says, in response to BoJack’s statement that he thought Princess Carolyn would never get married, since he wasted all her best years.
“Joke’s on me. I couldn’t even waste the right years.”
He says goodbye to Todd, a man who has finally grown up, well, in his Todd way of growing up. Todd spent much of the show wandering from couch to couch and from one harebrained scheme to another. But, as Todd says in S6 E6 “Keep the Kidney,” he would like to prove that he is more than just a “wacky screw-up who engages primarily in goofy whimsical mess-arounds.” Now, he has moved on from mess-arounds to goals that bring him fulfillment, and an ability to plan and commit to achieving these goals.
The two of them watch the fireworks from the beach, a scene that begins with Todd sitting on BoJack’s shoulders, which symbolizes the 5 years he spent in a symbiotic—but also often parasitic—relationship on BoJack’s couch. When BoJack realizes how absurd it is to be carrying Todd, he sets him down. They walk side by side for a little bit as equals—until the beach washes away their footsteps, leaving fresh sand marked only by the passing of waves. (Look! More water imagery at a point of no return!)
And then, finally, BoJack does the same for Diane. Theirs, I believe, is the most significant relationship of the series. It was fitting and intensely bittersweet that the show should end on this particular goodbye. Diane was the catalyst for BoJack’s growth, and his entire redemption arc, and thus the show itself. Her honest portrayal of BoJack in “One Trick Pony” was an opportunity for honest self-reflection. And she gave him this opportunity with empathy: the portrait she painted was not that of a monster, but of a flawed and vulnerable horseman.
Diane continued to support BoJack with empathetic emotional labor throughout the rest of their relationship. While this is a healthy feature of loving, supportive friendships, he came to depend on Diane as his fix-it girl, his personal therapist to help him process his emotions. BoJack did reciprocate, but in smaller doses, and this dynamic eventually became toxic.
When he reached out to her before his intoxicated suicidal swim, and said, “Call me back if you don’t want me to go swimming. Otherwise I’m just gonna assume you don’t care,” BoJack was making Diane responsible for whether he chose to live or die. It was no longer a friendship, as BoJack admitted; it was, as he so ably put it, a hostage situation.
But “Just one more before I go?” BoJack asks, and shares with Diane a touching and lighthearted story about prison movie night, in which the inmates end up watching Pieces of April. I have never seen this film (and I don’t plan to) but a quick Wikipedia skim reveals the movie to be about April and her family celebrating what will be her dying mother’s last Thanksgiving. Sounds pretty much like the Thanksgiving version of The Family Stone (which I DID see, and thought was just meh.) In Pieces of April holiday dinner is disrupted by kitchen mishaps and the inevitable arguing over past family baggage, that culminates in the family members parting to eat their own store bought dinner.
April decides to eat the dinner she prepared with her friends, and wah-lah!—the family members have a change of heart and decide to reunite, coming to dinner after all. Everyone laughs together while they eat turkey; end scene.
Knowing this adds a whole new level of bittersweet to the starry indigo star hanging over BoJack and Diane as Catherine Feeny’s haunting song “Mr. Blue” plays in the background. As I watched Diane and BoJack sit on the rooftop in their awkward, yet comfortable silence, I felt a deep sensation of loss, studded by wondrous shining stars. While there was regret that there will be no more “BoJack Horseman,” there was deep appreciation to have been able to witness this marvel of storytelling at all.
Afterwards, I shut my laptop and sat outside under a black starless sky, smoking a cigarette and pretending my porch was a rooftop.
Mr. Blue, I have to go now/Darling, don’t be angry.Catherine Feeny, “Mr. Blue;” 2006
(Unlike Diane, however, I don’t have to go. Come to my Facebook and/or WordPress site and continue the discussion.)