Episodes of BoJack Horseman have taken on social issues before. Last season’s gun control episode stands out as a shining example, and the show has always had the ability to cut to the bone. Like most good satire, the show will often state the darkest, most plain-faced version of the truth with a big, bright smile. And here, BoJack Horseman sets it sights on the pervasiveness of assault and horrible behavior from male stars. This time, it’s mostly explored through the introduction of a new character, Vance Waggoner, who basically works as an amalgamation of every horrible star in show business (but mostly Mel Gibson). But of course, the episode is about how quickly this behavior is just swept over by Hollywood’s business-as-usual mantra. As I write this recap, Louis CK’s return to stand-up and Matt Lauer’s purported eventual return to TV are in the news.
Needless to say, this is an evergreen issue, particularly stars getting to play off their problematic personas. Thus, Princess Carolyn comforts Vance — “The apology tour can be a hassle!” — as she tries to woo him into joining the cast of Philbert, which puts everyone else in a horrible position. Carolyn has no problem with hiring Vance because she defines her feminism by her own individual success. And when challenged on that notion by Diane, she says just chalks it up to the messed-up nature of the industry. But Diane won’t go easy — “I’m not talking to the industry, I’m talking to you” — because she knows such practices live and die by the choices we make and she simply won’t accept passing the buck on this. She’s going to call out the problems. Which, of course, immediately becomes her thankless job when, with one weird smell of a cheese, BoJack stumbles into finding himself as a feminist ally in this particular fight against Vance’s hiring.
BoJack, of course, immediately begins buying his own bullshit — “I’m a male feminist, you’re welcome society!” — which obviously taps into the ugly Catch-22 of the importance of men’s speaking out: other men will actually listen to him. As BoJack triumphantly declares, “It turns out the problem with feminism all along was that it wasn’t men doing it!” But, of course, he doesn’t understand the real issues. Diane has to explain the concept of how media depictions can normalize behavior. There are good ways, “like how dancing Ellen makes Middle America less afraid of gay people.” And there are bad ways, like “what Jack Bauer did for torture and what Jimmy Fallon did for lip-syncing.”
But Diane’s just exhausted by all of it. She’s tired of having to explain. She’s tired of people getting away with it. She’s tired of people letting other people off the hook. She’s tired of being put through the ringer and being called horrible things online. When BoJack has to do a big interview because Vance calls out his show for being problematic, she becomes especially tired of his myopia. BoJack shouts, “I’ll look like a hypocrite, which will be really bad for women everywhere!” But Diane presses back, “This is not fun for me! Being a woman is not a hobby. Or a pet interest of mine.” It’s her day-to-day life, fraught with daily horrors and abuse. And so BoJack has to go at his complicated interview alone.
But that’s when BoJack has a change of heart. As he starts to defend the show, he finds himself talking about how you’re not supposed to agree with it, that it’s just art and not condoning bad behavior. He’s using all the talking points we hear so often. But then he realizes he’s maybe normalizing a behavior he doesn’t want to normalize. Diane’s words ring in his ear … so he suddenly leaves the interview and goes back to Diane, telling her she has to come help make the show better as a supervising producer. Diane tries to say no, “I can’t change anything!” But in a rare moment of earned catharsis, BoJack declares, “You changed me.” And in that moment, it’s true. So she agrees. But it’s true in a way that doesn’t lead to more catharsis. Diane’s position becomes largely a token gesture, “so people can see a woman worked on this show.” And the sadness of the cosmic joke goes on.
There’s a meta subtext to all of this that is absolutely worth noting, and that is how the show is examining its own issues. After all, this is a show whose primary source of humor is the selfish, drunk, lascivious behavior of its protagonist. But to BoJack Horseman’s credit, it has always brought the pathos of BoJack’s worst behavior to the main stage without minimizing it. And this episode turns out to be no different. In the last scene, we learn that Ana Spanakopita somehow has a recording of BoJack and Diane dicsussing the second-season event in which he almost had sex with the underage daughter of his old flame. With the last haunting words of the recording, we hear him ask, “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong you can never go back?”
It’s the driving question of the episode, which doesn’t provide any answer. There is only the pained paralysis of Diane’s face. There is only the truth: These problems are inexorable. Not just because our mistakes are written in ink — there’s only what we write next — but because these issues are woven into our lives on the most fundamental level. I know how many men insist on distinguishing between good men and bad men, but we have to examine our own complicity, culpability, and participation at every moment. I think about it constantly, because there is no opting out. We all learn from the same systems of toxic masculinity. It’s in the air. And thus, there is only the endless reflection of and on the dark hearts of men.
And that will be true for BoJack most of all.
Best Jokes & Other Notes
• “That’s the kind of story I would share without reading, which for our business purposes is better than actually reading.”
• “Do you mean NCIS?”
• I love everything about Mr. Peanutbutter trying to be tough.
• “Once again, hero BoJack will clean up everyone else’s mess!” Which is interesting, because it’s actually more true this season than it normally is?
• “I thought you would never ask, because I had no idea this was happening to you.”
• I love the running gag of Diane’s painting falling.
• Best Bit-Part Animal: the Rhino Smoker and his sweet, sweet kiss.
• This Week’s Actual Mean-Joke Targets: the ever-deserving target of Mark Wahlberg, who, in case you were unaware, committed literal hate crimes and violently blinded a Vietnamese man in a racially motivated attack. And there’s the typical, more innocent kind of ribbing common to the show: “I’m gonna go watch a Wes Anderson movie and see if I can perceive any depth in it!”
• Moment That Made Me The Happiest: Mr. Peanutbutter’s leather ensemble.