Monday, July 22, 2024

In the End, Did Bojack Horseman Balance Criticism and Sympathy?

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Throughout its six seasons on Netflix, Bojack Horseman has always asked a hard question with no easy answers about the nature of redemption. Bojack is a bad man. His life is a series of immoral, selfish, criminal behavior that he escaped due to his celebrity. He struggles with recovery, only to consistently relapse or even turn out worse than ever. He takes advantage of people and breaks friendships. At his worst, he assaults someone and is even directly responsible for the death of someone else.

Yet going into the final season, most of the Bojack audience wanted something good for him. We sympathize with how his childhood abuse has left him incapable of forming healthy trust and love for someone else. We see how his inability to find and trust happiness makes him sabotage the good in his life. Ultimately, we want him to heal, to find peace with his past and truly atone for it.

And yet, where is the limit between Bojack facing consequences and finding happiness? At what point does one undermine the other? Could Bojack Horseman deliver a hopeful ending that doesn’t undermine and dismiss his victims? If they go too far in punishing him, does it undermine the message of hope, that a bad person can recover from their traumas and become a better person?

If the show ends with Bojack happy with his new job teaching an acting class, it goes too far one way. If it kills him off at a low point, it goes too far the other way.

With the sixth and final season now over, did Bojack manage the balance?

The ending of season 6’s first half made clear that Bojack’s’ idyllic professor’s life would not last. With two reporters digging into Sarah Lynn’s death and connecting the dots to him, and Penny coming back into play, there was no way Bojack could avoid one last gauntlet of consequences for his actions that would send him spiraling again. Basically everything comes back into play in some way.

He is reminded of almost everything, even if Todd or Princess Carolyn have to write it down for him. Sarah Lynn, Penny, her friend, Emily, the fan club president Bojack slept with, the years messing with Princess Carolyn, the way he made Diane his savior, on and on and on. Really the only thing that doesn’t come into play is Gina, and she featured season 6’s first half, still clearly struggling with the trauma of Bojack strangling her.

Even better, these characters were themselves given time and space to take action themselves. It would have been so easy to only bring the Penny incident into play without her personally being involved. To have her show up and make the decision to air her story means something more than if the story was just found out and used in the narrative without her.

This half-season goes very hard on Bojack, with the eventual media narrative painting him as a malicious abuser who groomed young women to take advantage of them. He loses everything in the process. Hollyhock cuts all ties. Princess Carolyn leaves him to face the consequences. Diane lives her happier life in Chicago with her new boyfriend, Guy. Todd does the same with his girlfriend, Maude. Bojack ends up more alone than ever. He even loses Horsin’ Around, after signing a contract allowing them to remove him from previous episodes.

He faces arguably the lowest point of his life with none of the support from previous seasons.

You can feel how Bojack Horseman wanted to make a point about its titular character with this descent. It was one last reminder to use about the person Bojack has been. It’s hard for fans to look at Bojack and think that he really deserves what happens in these episodes, but it’s true. He is a bad person who has done truly terrible things to many people. If he was anyone besides Bojack Horseman, he would have ended up prison years earlier. His story is as much a study of privilege as it is of redemption. Bojack represents the many (mostly male and white) stars who have gotten away with heinous acts because of their stardom.

Yet, ending the show with a successful suicide attempt would have been too much. It would have tipped too far towards consequences, into the kind of grimdark sorrow that I’ve personally never felt Bojack was meant to be.

You also can’t go too far towards forgiveness and empathy, otherwise, you start excusing behavior that shouldn’t be excused. This has always been a delicate balance for Bojack Horseman. How do you keep sending Bojack sympathetic throughout his low points without apologizing for him at the expense of his victims? He didn’t do anything with Penny, but he still took advantage of a dynamic that gave him power and ultimately was responsible for giving her friend too much alcohol.

The second interview that blows everything up for Bojack does a great job of establishing why Bojack’s unawareness of his pattern of misbehavior doesn’t mean the pattern does not exist. It’s still there, and the damage is still done. Maybe Bojack didn’t mean to take advantage of Sarah Lynn’s issues, but he still was responsible for her first drink, he still led her down a dark path, and he still took advantage of that years later.

So where is the line? How do end this story in a way that doesn’t apologize insensitively for Bojack without also refusing the idea of a bad person changing for the better?

I’m torn about Bojack’s success in straddling this line.

I think an important way in which the show succeeded was with the supporting characters around Bojack. This question applied to them in many ways, too. As Bojack’s friends, they enabled his terrible behavior for a long time, while also having their own serious issues to work through. Seeing basically all of them end up somewhere healthier and happier means a lot. It especially means a lot that they realized their role in enabling Bojack along the way, and how he dragged them down with him.

This stands out most of all with Diane. She was always the one Bojack most understood, and vice versa. She struggled with many of the same traumas and insecurities. At times it felt like Bojack and Diane were inexorably tied together. For Diane to escape that downward spiral and find happiness was crucial. It allows these episodes to really go hard on Bojack without feeling too depressing. It allows us to place the blame solely on Bojack, not on the show for portraying all trauma as helpless, as if you can’t recover and be happier. Diane did, and if Bojack can’t manage it, he must face his own role in his unhappiness. He must take responsibility for the person he is.

The same applies to Princess Carolyn, who has found her peace and even a new love. More than anyone, she has been there for Bojack through everything. It was more important for her than for anyone else to realize who Bojack is and cut that toxicity from her life. She tries her best for him, but for her own sake, she needed to end the mutually harmful relationship which continuously made their lives worse.

By having the people around Bojack commit to changing for the better, it helped drag the show out of any potential nihilistic downpour that leaves the audience feeling empty about the ending.

Avoiding this mistake especially means something when I feel so mixed about Bojack himself.

I still am and will be sorting my feelings on Bojack’s ending for quite some time. There is no doubt he pays a heavy price for his many decisions over the years. After signing away his place in Horsin’ Around, he is lured into another drug and booze bender that sees him break into his former home and nearly drown to death. He ends up sentenced to prison for breaking and entering, where he is still serving time when the series ends.

Bojack spends his entire life craving validation and love from the public that his parents never gave him. His celebrity was always a fake love, a temporary, superficial high he was left chasing time and time again. The hope by the end of the series was that Bojack would come to realize the superficiality of this love and instead find the validation he craved in those close to him. In a way, he does. His conversations at Princess Carolyn’s wedding to Judah suggest he has at least begun to understand the meaning those relationships have compared to his celebrity relationship with the public.

Yet he also made a juvenile comedy called “The Horny Unicorn” with another disgraced male actor, Vance Waggoner, who shows no real remorse for his past actions.

And so we’re left not with any definitive answer for Bojack’s future. We have no idea if he has bridged the gap or made it over the hump. He may change permanently for the better. He may relapse right back to how he was due to Waggoner’s influence. We have no idea if he truly changed or if he will still crave the love of the public more than ever, especially with so many of his support structures vanishing. PC is still “there” but not there like usual. Diane may never see him again. Todd has his own life with his new girlfriend.

A big part of recovery and rehabilitation is support, and Bojack has never been strong enough to do this on his own.

Despite it all, Bojack does pay a relatively low price for everything he has done. The world has already forgotten what he’s done, with “The Horny Unicorn” set to be a huge hit making him tons of money. He goes to prison for nothing related to his crimes with Sarah Lynn or anything else in the past. In the end, despite everything he’s done, he is no worse off in his career than he was when the series began. He may be better off.

While certainly reflective of the truth of Hollywood (Hollywoo? Hollywoob?) stardom, it does leave you with something of an empty feeling regarding Bojack, or at least a lack of closure. It doesn’t really lean one way or the other or make any decision. I get it, it’s a complicated question. No easy answer exists.

With the way season 6 directly interjected itself into the very relevant issue of power and privilege in the entertainment industry, it feels like a bit of a cop-out to make no judgment. Painting Bojack as a prime example of how men like him abuse their power over women and then also asking us to know such an example is false is a weird dichotomy. It asks us to do one of two things; either believe the story is demonizing Bojack, or believe the story wants us to defend Bojack, as if the things he did were not that bad. After all, he was ignorant, right? Well, that’s the problem. Bojack still, even in the end, never quite takes responsibility for his role in the things he did wrong. He never assumes agency over his decisions, even moving forward in life.

By trying to balance criticism of Bojack’s behavior and sympathy for his traumas, they created an ending largely up to audience interpretation. We can decide for ourselves whether this was punishment enough for Bojack. We can decide for ourselves whether the narrative took a strong enough stance (or too strong) against Bojack’s past. Whether he deserved better, whether he is a good person who has changed, whether he is a bad person inevitably due to relapse.

Bojack Horseman very much stayed true to itself in this manner. And again, it softened the blow when everyone else received a happy ending. I’m curious to see how the conversation around Bojack’s ending develops in the coming weeks. I’m curious to see how my own opinion develops.

Is this the mark of a truly great ending, when it leaves fans with so much to chew on and debate? If nothing else, it was the mark of Bojack Horseman. Why should our own arguments end any easier than Bojack’s own struggles?

Images Courtesy of Netflix

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