Review: BoJack Horseman (Season 4)
Title: BoJack Horseman (Season 4)
Genre: Adult Animated Comedy-Drama
Director(s): Amy Winfrey, Anne Walker Farrell, Aaron Long, Matt Garofalo, Otto Murga, Tim Rauch
Stars: Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul, Andre Braugher, Jane Krakowski, Aparna Nancherla, J.K. Simmons, Wendie Malick, Diedrich Bader, Jessica Biel, Kristen Bell, Matthew Broderick
Bias: I loved the first three seasons of BoJack, so I fully expected to love season 4 as well.
In a Nutshell:
BoJack Horseman is a has-been tv star who is (somewhat) experiencing his first career upswing since he first gained popularity in a cheesy 90's sitcom called Horsin' Around. (If it isn't clear at this point, BoJack is a horse. The show takes place in a world where anthropomorphic, bipedal animals exist alongside humans.)
The season starts with a depressed BoJack leaving L.A. for his abandoned family lake house in Michigan. While BoJack is gone, his friends Todd, Mr. Peanutbutter, Diane, and Princess Carolyn have their own adventures. Mr. Peanutbutter runs for governor, Todd starts a crazy clown-dentist business (that unsurprisingly takes a turn for the terrifying), Princess Carolyn struggles with infertility and career problems, Diane barely stays sane among all the chaos, and at one point literally everyone gets trapped underground when fracking causes a cave in at Mr. Peanutbutter's mansion.
When BoJack realizes that wallowing in sadness at the old lake house isn't doing him any favors, he makes his way back to L.A. where he is met by a young girl named Hollyhock claiming to be [SPOILER] his long lost daughter. Hollyhock guilts BoJack into letting his mother, Beatrice, move in with them and most of the rest of the season revolves around the tensions between BoJack and Beatrice and the search for Hollyhock's real mother. The story of Beatrice and Butterscotch (BoJack's parents), and Beatrice's parents (BoJack's grandparents) are shown in flashback, further fleshing out the intricacies of the Horseman family tree, showing the rot way down in its roots.
Since I don't have the time to get into every detail of this season, I'll give my overall thoughts and then focus on one particularly moving episode. In total, I think Season 4 was as strong as the previous seasons, if not even stronger. One of the great strengths of this show is that as soon as you finish a season finale, you immediately feel an urge to start the season again to watch more closely for foreshadowing, hints, clues, references, running gags, and so on. And that's exactly what I did when I finished Episode 12. [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON]
Upon rewatching, I noticed lots of hints that Hollyhock was being dosed with amphetamines (Beatrice adds them to the young girl's coffee with the misguided assumption that they'll help her lose weight). There are also plenty of hints that Beatrice is hiding something about Hollyhock's true parentage and that BoJack is actually not her father (in a twist ending it is revealed that they are half-siblings and that Hollyhock was the result of an extramarital affair between BoJack's father and their family's maid). Not only are these plot points gradually developed and revealed across several episodes, but slight formal changes to the animation style are incorporated this way as well. The blurred backgrounds that indicate Beatrice's drunkenness (or dementia, or both) in one episode lead into the completely blank faces in the next episode's flashbacks. These formal choices highlight both the impermanence of memory and the ways that trauma causes us to forget the things that hurt us.
This leads me to my favorite episode of the season, "Time's Arrow" (Episode 11), in which we finally get to see pieces of Beatrice's childhood and her relationship with Butterscotch. This episode, an extended flashback sequence, shows background extras with completely blank faces (as in, no facial features whatsoever). The only characters with faces are Beatrice, her father, her potential lovers (Corbin Creamerman, who her father has chosen for her, and Butterscotch Horseman, who she ends up with), and her childhood bullies. The fact that Beatrice can only remember the faces of her tormentors (her dad and the conceited girls from school) and her lovers speaks volumes. And when the story moves forward to the revelation that Butterscotch has impregnated Henrietta, their maid, Henrietta's face is consistently covered by a wavering black squiggle, as if it has been deliberately defaced from Beatrice's memory.
Although the revelations about Beatrice's traumatic and painful childhood do add depth and nuance to her character, the audience still feels compassion and understanding for BoJack, who is understandably very bitter about his mother's neglect and cruelty. Despite all that, the episode ends on a sadly sweet note, with BoJack and Beatrice sitting in a rundown nursing home. Her dementia has progressed to the point that she doesn't know where she is, so BoJack convinces her that they are young again, back at the lake house in Michigan, eating ice cream and enjoying the hot summer night.
This episode is a perfect encapsulation of why BoJack Horseman is such a gift. I've lived with an elderly family member who suffered from Alzheimer's disease and slowly lost his memories, his identity, his sense of place in the world. And like BoJack and Beatrice, I had a complicated and traumatic relationship with that person. That moment of sweetness among all the cruelty and bitterness rang so true to me. Because even when you've been hurt by someone, it is so hard to not look into their aged, lost eyes and feel like you owe them some small amount of peace. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried watching this episode, and I'm crying writing this now. For a show that is seemingly about a caustic, abusive cartoon horse, goddamn if BoJack Horseman hasn't been the most cathartic, enraging, endearing, wonderful, heartbreaking series I've watched in years.
Season 5 of BoJack Horseman will be available exclusively on Netflix on Friday, September 14th. Watch it and thank me later.