Oof. You always know BoJack can go dark, but geez.
We’ll get to that in a bit. The episode starts with the mystery of “what happened to BoJack?” and jumps straight to the end of season three. He watches the wild horses from the road, but he can’t join because he’s thinking of answering Diane’s call. He looks up and they’re gone, another lost moment he tried to escape into (and away from himself). From there, BoJack sputters along the road with aimless abandon, driving from town to town across the country (complete with jokes about how upper Midwest towns have been forgotten as air travel allows people to visit more interesting places). He eventually stumbles upon a Sugarman packet — a physical reminder of his old family legacy — so he decides to return to an old family cabin in Michigan to make some kind of place for himself. But it’s also a place where unseen visions of Horseman family past go about him like ghosts.
BoJack Horseman has always been aware of parental influence and the echoes of time. We’ve already got a picture of BoJack’s childhood and his mother, Beatrice, who has always been nothing short of awful to him. It seemed like a stock portrait of Waspy cruelty, a far too simple answer for a show about full-on psychological understanding. Of course, it wasn’t the full answer. And so, as BoJack gets closer to himself, we must go back to see where his scars really came from.
Once upon a time, the Sugarman family was actually quite happy. Before the war, Beatrice and her brother Crackerjack had childhoods of relative normalcy. Yes, their parents enforced a great deal of antiquated sexism, but theirs was largely a happy home — the kind with a dustless piano in the corner and a song in their hearts. Alas, Crackerjack didn’t come home from war, leaving Beatrice’s mother altogether broken by the death of her son. But Beatrice’s father is totally incapable of providing the support she needs: “As a modern American man, I am woefully unprepared to manage a woman’s emotions,” he says. “I was never taught, and I will not learn.”
Simultaneously to these ghostly scenes, BoJack lives like a hobo in the ruins of the old Horseman summer cabin. While there, what starts as verbal sparring with his fly neighbor quickly turns into a “fixing your house, fixing your life” metaphor. (The fly seems to have ghosts of his own; we later learn he accidentally killed his wife.) Just why is BoJack doing all of this? He later tells us with his trademark denial: “You think I just want to mope around in a shrine to the past, getting off on my own guilt while the rest of my life passes me by. Pathetic, much?” Sarcasm aside, BoJack is in love with his own story of getting away. For a guy so quick to see through phonies, he has infinite layers of pretension. But even as he says these words, the visions of the past still keep flickering around him. For him, for the fly, for even his mother, there are only ghosts here.
The two timelines culminate in a public duet, wherein the neighboring fly and Beatrice’s mother sing a tearful duet on the piano, just generations apart. (The song seems to be written just for the show, perhaps by guest star Lin-Manuel Miranda?) They both croon, “But memories, they last,” and the pain is too much for Beatrice’s mother. She simply can’t let go of her son. Beatrice watches this all unfold with her innocent eyes, as her mom drinks to forget. She ends up trying to kiss her son’s friend, desperate for a connection, ultimately culminating in a night where she drunkenly crashes the car, leaving both herself and Beatrice bloody and broken. Of course, to Beatrice’s father, this won’t do at all. Even her mother doesn’t know what to do with her mental pain in this backward world, so she pleads, “I can’t be with people and I can’t be alone. Please fix me!” And with that line, the feeling of doom sets in. Just a few scenes later, Beatrice’s father walks onto the porch to deliver the news, and that’s when we get to see the scars.
BoJack’s grandmother was given a lobotomy because of grief.
If the practice sounds outlandish, it wasn’t. After a neurologist named António Moniz won a Nobel Prize in 1949 for inventing the procedure, a surgeon named Walter Freeman popularized it to a ludicrous degree. Grandpa Sugarman even tells us as much, in glowing terms: “What’s broken in the heart can never be repaired, but the brain, well, we have all sorts of science for the brain!” It’s a procedure designed not to treat the problem, but the problems that the problem causes for others. That’s why we turned perfectly normal people who were experiencing very human things (like grief) into docile vegetables. With that, BoJack’s family scar, both literal and figurative, is exposed: It echoes forward with reckless abandon, painting the picture of a trauma that ekes through time. Tearfully, Beatrice cries into her mother’s arms and asks, “What did they do to you?” This is the kind of show where you can get away with verbalizing the thematic point, so her mother responds: “Promise me you’ll never love anyone as much as I loved Crackerjack.”
That’s the thing about the darkness of BoJack Horseman: It is so dark and devastating precisely because it has no interest in shock value. The sad, normal realities of life are grim enough. We see the way this event has echoed through time and infused itself into BoJack like a sickness. This trauma meant his foundation was not a happy home, but a whole childhood unloved and unfelt. The inability to talk. The inability to deal. The inability to love something and miss someone so much that every day without them makes you feel like you could die. And so, there was no big traumatic turn for BoJack. Just the simple, horrible, daily realities and mini-traumas that build up and suffocate our hearts into not working right. Just like his grandfather before him, BoJack does not have the tools to cope with it.
He even echoes the same words — “time’s arrow marches on” — as he lays waste to the cabin that he and the fly worked so hard to rebuild. But we already know that BoJack has rebuilt nothing. He remains ignorant of the arc of his life, ignorant of his deep ancestral pain, ignorant of the ruins and ghosts that walk by him every day. And until he’s ready to really face them, he’ll just be another wrecking ball.
• Photographer: “Okay, folks, this is for posterity — so don’t forget to look far-away sad!”
• BoJack: “No, we are both equally not fat!”
• Diane: “That’s the thing about Los Angeles. Everyone belongs here. There’s, like, no barrier for entry.”
• BoJack: “What kind of sandwich has cherries on it?” Fly: “A shitty one! How ‘bout fixing your door, instead of my metaphor!?”
• Fly: “Kit Kat bars aren’t already broken, that’s the whole point!”
• Episodes like the underwater one get a lot of rightful kudos for their tangible, interesting qualities, but I really think this kind of episode speaks to the quiet, haunting genius of the series.
• The actual mean-joke target: “You’re like a Josh Groban who also doesn’t think he’s funny.”
• The moments that made me happiest: Jane Krakowski’s nuanced performance as Beatrice’s mother, and the bear in a tube on the lake.