Why do our parents matter so much?
For a long time, I’ll admit that I thought the concept was overstated. I was an independent kid, but that just means I had transcended the limitations of my crappy childhood! Yeah, no. That’s not how it works. We always inherit a whole range of crappy behaviors. I overvalued what one parent thought was good. I didn’t embrace something else a parent thought was bad. Basically, I created a system of problematic adaptations. But we always do. Our parents, parental figures, or even lack thereof, matter because they forge our idea of how the world works, often by accident. But they create our sense of how to attach to people, how to navigate, and how to love. And there is no opting out of this dynamic … no matter how much BoJack tries.
With our opening, we flashback to a moment with BoJack’s father, Butterscotch, who is picking him up incredibly late from soccer practice. His mother couldn’t make it, so he had to come! And it ruined a day of writing! BoJack sits terrified as his father launches into a lengthy, misogyny-laden tirade, “It’s one thing for a woman to weep, but it’s another when they do it at a volume where you can hear it through the door. That’s when you know they’re doing it for the attention!” He continues to be the worst person as he yells at his silent child, as if orating angrily to his captive audience. He ends with a moment of what he thinks is kindness, telling young BoJack he is lucky because “no one else is going to take care of you.” And for BoJack, it will be true.
Cut to grown-up BoJack, talking about how when people ask him how his day is, he usually can’t admit it’s crappy because he doesn’t have a good reason. But today there’s a reason. His mom’s dead! And that’s when we realize BoJack is giving his mother’s eulogy … And that’s the entire episode. BoJack Horseman, delivering his mother’s eulogy, all to his own captive audience. There are no cutaways or narrative tricks. We simply watch one man take us through the grim portrait of his relationship with his parents, as if it were a one-man show.
Which also means that this episode is incredibly hard to summarize. It basically amounts to a stream-of-consciousness rant, albeit a deftly woven one. So rather than try to sum up the chronology of his speech, I’m going to talk about the eight core ideas that can be tracked throughout his eulogy.
1. On Freedom — Upon his failure to give his mother the open casket she wanted, BoJack says, “She’s dead now, so who cares what she wanted.” This is important because it reveals that BoJack is no longer constrained by the idea of consequences because deep down he’s still that terrified boy in the car. Now he can finally talk back to his parents. Because even though this is mother’s eulogy, it’s still just as much about his father …
2. On Butterscotch — Behold the man who is the pinnacle of intellectual insecurity! He’s spent his whole life writing an unpublished novel that went nowhere. He berates with verbosity. Even his conversations are novelistic, as they are soliloquies where no one else is allowed to speak (a pointed comparison to BoJack’s eulogy, which is very much on purpose). But his bullying is the sign of the thinnest skin. We learn he died in a duel with a critic who slammed his book, proclaiming, “He didn’t know what it meant to be a man” (again, the easily fragile masculinity on display). But of course he turned back halfway through the duel just to ask if the critic really read his book, and fell on a rock. A perfect death because in the end he just wanted the book to vindicate his life, his genius, his very existence. Like everyone, he wanted to be seen (which is an idea we’ll come back to).
3. On Beatrice — The opening tease gives us a picture of his mother’s true psychology before the cynicism. Like the Ibsen play, she wanted to escape the confines of her abusive partner. Nor did she want to cry all day in the throes of depression. BoJack makes it clear, “Mother knew what it was like to spend your whole life feeling like you’re drowning,” and then more heartbreakingly, he speaks of the moment when she was happiest: when she was dancing, one of the “rare moments where you can remember that you can swim.” But that only helps remind him that the two of them never had a moment like this. He echoes the same words she said at his father’s funeral, “Everything is worse now. Because now I know I will never have a mother who looks across a room and says, ‘BoJack Horseman, I see you.’”
4. On the Son They Created — At one point BoJack remarks he always thought orphans were lucky because they could imagine their parents to be anyone they wanted. Instead, he was a boy who was unloved, but served as his parents’ punching bag. All he could do was adapt to a corrupted system. He tells us, “All three of us were drowning, and we didn’t know how to save each other. But there was an understanding that we were all drowning together.” So BoJack learned to find solace in the commiseration of misery. It was his only hope, really. But from this system, how could he ever learn to transcend it? To look out for someone and love in return?
5. On Television’s Hope — “In TV, flawed characters are constantly showing people they care with these surprising grand gestures,” BoJack says, which conditioned his brain to not just normalize the abusive behavior of his parents, but to hold out hope that they’ll one day show him the grand gesture. It’s all part of the abusive cycle, how we always believe a person can get better. But with his mother’s death, he’s faced with a hard truth about the TV that gave him hope: “You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms, because if everyone’s happy, then the show would be over.” To him, that observation finds the realest truth about sitcoms. BoJack ends up going on with the metaphor, settling on how he watched every episode of Becker, how it had all the right pieces, but never got better. And that’s life to him. He’s bummed out ‘cause he knew it could be so much better … if only he were someone else.
6. On Existence — When BoJack thinks about his mother’s final words of “I see you,” he remarks that it is the “simple recognition of another person in a room.” Which is all he ever wanted. To be seen. To exist. To have his pain validated. Just as his mom wanted to be comforted when she cried. Just as his father wanted his novel to be read. So of course BoJack watched TV and wanted to be famous. He wanted to have a life like it was on TV. Which is why he’s still so driven by that part of his life. Because can he really exist without it? What happens if he died and he never really got it? BoJack remarks on how the shortness of life makes us small and stupid and petty. In his own moment where life flashed before his eyes, he thought, Won’t they be sorry! Which is petty, but it also taps into what he wants. For someone to be sorry he died and to be sorry he had this horrible fate in life. But more painful is the idea that his life could have been different …
7. On Empathy — Earlier, BoJack observes that two people can experience the same moment in entirely different ways. For him, that moment was usually terrifying because he was usually the abusee of an abuser. But in this, the story of his mother’s death, the most important person was a random cashier at the Jack in the Box drive-through who, upon hearing the news of his mom’s death, cried and ended up giving him free dessert. BoJack jokes later, “My mom died and all I got was this free churro!” But in that space, he acknowledges that this one moment from a stranger was more compassion than he ever got from his own mother. This notion wounds him like no other. In the moment where he comes closest to crying, he even lets it slip, “All I had was you!” A grim acknowledgement that she was the only one who could have protected him from his dad. She could have saved him. But they could never save each other, because they could never learn to have empathy for each other. Which is how we truly end up alone.
8. On the Ending Gag — The last beat may seem like a joke (and it’s a good one), but BoJack being in the wrong funeral room is not just about being too self-involved not to notice the gecko crowd. Nor is it just about confirming his solipsistic myopia. It is the acknowledgement that BoJack’s speech wasn’t really for anyone else in the first place. Because eulogies aren’t really for the dead. We write them for ourselves.
• I can’t help but feel like BoJack getting left at soccer practice is a nod to the same moment from The Simpsons. But the comparison is important because Bart’s dad actually tried to apologize and brought him ice cream.
• “One time she smoked an entire cigarette in one long inhale. I watched her do it!”
• “… And ethnically insensitive vaudeville routines.”
• “I’m an actor … I do my own stunts.”
• This Week’s Actual Mean-Joke Targets: Lit Majors / Becker, in a way?
• Moment That Made Me the Happiest: When BoJack talked about everyone coming to see his mom dance. And the sobering acknowledgement that goodness isn’t a grand gesture, “You need to do it every day, which is so hard.”