When we talk about what makes BoJack Horseman great, we often talk about its ability to bounce between the silliness of tongue-twisting puns and horrid moments of darkness. We also talk about its emotional clarity: the way it understands not only its characters, but the psychology of human beings in general. And yet somehow, the thing we keep forgetting to talk about with BoJack Horseman is the sheer skill of its storytelling. There is no show that more deftly brings in new story information, elegantly layers its threads, and unveils its big reveals with such utter purpose and power. And this episode exemplifies that.
Diane is having a rough time. Fresh off of her agreement with Mr. Peanutbutter to get a divorce, she’s dealing with the ramifications of her breakup both head-on and through active psychological displacement, which inspires a sudden trip to Vietnam. This story is told completely out of chronological order, but not in a way that obfuscates the plot. Ingeniously, it allows the episode to address what’s going on inside Diane’s head, topic by topic, through a series of articles she has to write to justify her vacation: “10 Reasons to Visit Vietnam.” And as Diane struggles to write, she narrates her story with a pleasant shine on the positive choices she’s trying to make on this trip.
At first, Diane wants to explore the all-too-common reality of being Asian-American and lacking a connection to the nation of her heritage. (For many of my friends, details about their parents or grandparents living abroad are rarely if ever discussed). And while it’s nice to see her last name everywhere, along with people who look like her, her attempts to connect, to fit in and communicate, prove difficult. As she expresses, the clothes just end up feeling like a costume, and she tells herself: “You’re a tourist, here.” So she must shift; she tries to be a tourist! To relax, be on a vacation, and leave it all behind. But this ends up being useless because Diane’s left too much baggage at home.
And so Diane’s “reasons to visit Vietnam” keep becoming more and more about the admission of her problems. Her shitty new apartment. Her inability to concentrate on work. Her drinking. Her feeling awkward with BoJack and navigating the idea of being single. In one sequence, an American tourist mistakes her for a Vietnamese local and she decides to just go along with it. She says nothing back, letting herself be “free to be this person he thinks you are,” but of course it all blows up. All of her “reasons” blow up. And Diane knows enough to know that she’s just repeating negative patterns. After nine displacing reasons, Diane finally admits the real reason “to go to Vietnam,” and that’s when the episode’s ending crux is unveiled. Sometimes there’s nothing you can really add to the poeticism of someone else’s words, so I’ll quote her ending speech now in totality:
The real reason you go to Vietnam is because you accidentally see your soon-to-be-ex-husband kiss someone else. At first you think, oh, it’s a fling. Whatever. They’re drunk. It’s a party. But then he puts his hand on the small of her back exactly the way he used to do to you. It means, “I got you.” And when he did it to you, it made you feel safe. And you realize he will never do that to you again. And it breaks your heart again. After you thought your heart was so broken that it could never get any more broken. You thought it was safe. But it somehow finds a new way to break. Because even though you’re the one who asked for this, now that you’ve got it you are completely adrift. With no compass, or map, or sense of where to go or what … so you go to Vietnam. You think you might find community, a sense of connection to something bigger, but you don’t. In fact, you feel more alone than you did before you left … But you survive. You learn that you can survive being alone.
The words are accompanied by a montage of Diane living through the narrated scenes: standing sheepishly as she did as a young girl, hands folded in front, knees bent inward, introspective and unsure. It is the expression of being alone and adrift all at once. I imagine it’s a feeling many have felt in some ways over the course of their lives. But the colossal weight of such feelings in your adulthood, with divorce and separations and sorrow and pains that go beyond pain … well, when you empathize with those experiences, your sorrows can’t help but erupt from you like vomit. Because the show is painfully true. But it’s not just that the show can express this truth in and of itself; it’s the story’s deft expression of it, its ability to guide us to this cathartic moment using every preceding scene to deepen our understanding of it. And to do it so seamlessly that the strings of creating such a moment seem invisible?
Best Jokes & Other Notes
• “That screen is my supervisor.”
• “I’m sorry this is turning into a Todd story.”
• “Okay, you get two more divorce means, but then that’s it. I’m cutting you off.”
• Hanoiwoo Studios: The commitment to the woo gags are nothing if not … committed.
• “Love what you did to your neck!”
• The episode’s little mention of the down payment on the strip club set we know is likely another great interconnected structural set-up to something that will come later (given that, in the episode prior, we know they ended up not filming that scene and going with the personal nudity). Just another reason I love this show.
• This episode can’t help but bring up the ongoing issue of what happens when white voice actors end up voicing non-white parts. It’s an issue where the industry’s conventional wisdom has really shifted since the show’s inception. And while I know the production has been hyper-cognizant of it since, it’s often easy to ignore because the character’s race doesn’t often come into play. But then the issue becomes all the more apparent when Alison Brie starts talking about her connection to her Vietnamese heritage. But there’s not quite a real way to divorce it, especially how she is Diane. But I even question my own belief in such an assumption. After all, I’m all for Hank Azaria transferring over the role of Apu, so why not here? Why not now? The questions can’t help but linger.
• Best Bit-Part Animal: gotta go with Hipster Party Yak, in overalls.