For five seasons, BoJack Horseman has been one of the most accurate depictions of mental illness and addiction on television. Not bad for a show about a talking horse and his cat ex-girlfriend and yellow lab frenemy. But while the primary cast only regularly features two humans, BoJack explores humanity in ways we’ve never seen before, using innovative narrative devices that never cease to impress.
The previous four seasons have followed our title character BoJack, as well as Todd Chavez, Princess Carolyn, Diane Nguyen, and Mr. Peanutbutter, as they navigate different, but at times wildly similar, senses of aimlessness, shame, and uncertainty. And while each character’s journey has seen manic spikes, each has desperately attempted to hold it together, cracks forming and spilling out with greater and greater frequency. If Seasons 1-4 saw these fissures grow increasingly unmanageable, Season 5 is where they burst.
BoJack is still reeling from the Season 3 finale, where he kissed his ex-girlfriend’s teen daughter. That combined with the death of Sarah Lynne in Season 2 and the discovery of a sister in Season 4, his life has become a series of younger women whose trust — and lives — he’s destroyed, and that is getting harder and harder to suppress. Alcohol and drugs have helped in the past, but an on-set accident and a subsequent opioid prescription create a perfect storm, giving BoJack the exact tools he needs for a swift and crushing implosion.
The show manages to create a slow burn with BoJack’s drug dependence. We the audience know there’s only one possibility when this character is mixed with prescription painkillers, and where the show makes it surprising is exactly how long it takes before his situation becomes untenable. BoJack is a broken mess and has been as long as we’ve known him, but he remains functional with some level of success, in that way men are allowed to fail up — something the show knows and calls out to our utterly rage-fraught glee. But while he’s brushed against, even slammed into “too far,” he’s never faced real consequences. By virtue of wealth, fame, and simply being male and lucky, he’s avoided repercussions for his actions, his shame his only true punishment. But in Episode 11, “The Showstopper,” he loses his grip in a way the show has only hinted at in the past, plunging to a level of darkness we knew the character was capable of but hadn’t seen. And it’s horrifying.
While the season is most focused on BoJack’s spiral out of control, his isn’t the only one. Freshly divorced from Mr. Peanutbutter, Diane is still trying to find herself and her purpose, and learning she’s no closer to an answer than she was before. Divorcing her husband didn’t release her from that confusion, and in fact created more as she is forced to live in a small, broken-down apartment (her walls are literally and figuratively coming down around her) and she takes yet another job she realizes was a mistake. Diane continues to put herself in positions where she is the responsible female cleaning up male messes, but like most of us in that situation, Diane is no less damaged than the men in her life, armed only with a sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority. The more she tries to deal with them, the more she loses her own already unsteady footing.
Meanwhile, Princess Carolyn is trying to adopt the child she desperately wants, but as a busy woman with an overwhelming job and the neediest clientele imaginable, her efforts to “have it all” are crumbling.
Going through a divorce myself, Diane’s story hit me hard, but as a working mother, Princess Carolyn’s near wrecked me. We as women have learned that the “have it all” concept is an unfair expectation solely placed upon one gender, but we still want it. We want it so much, to the point where anything less seems impossible. When work and children are your two great loves and desires, how can you have anything but “it all”? But efforts to make that work can be brutal. I felt palpitations every time Princess Carolyn’s phone rang while she attempted to impress the potential birth mother of a child she wants to adopt, my heart sinking with her realization that her dream is out of her reach, that it’s her fault simply because she is a woman with a career she cares about and needs to nurture.
Since its inception, BoJack Horseman has made us face the various ways we as humans try and fail to hold in our pain, shame, and darker instincts. Life is messy and overwhelming, and we’re all just trying to keep it together. But nothing held together with pills, swallowed pain, and frayed rope can last, and eventually life blows up. It’s ugly and hard, but it’s real. And that kind of real is something only BoJack Horseman can give us, and for that, we are achingly grateful.