BoJack Horseman Fades to Black

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Obvious warning: This article about the BoJack Horseman finale contains spoilers about the ending of BoJack Horseman.

The penultimate episode of BoJack Horseman easily could have been its series finale. A surreal trip into BoJack’s mind post-overdose, it is an eerie, sad glimpse of what appear to be his final moments of consciousness, moments that culminate in blackness and the sound of a heart monitor flatlining. BoJack is dead, one can fairly assume from that conclusion. (Well, one can assume it unless one’s savvy enough to watch all of the credits, during which the drone of the flatline starts to beep again, a signal he may not be fully gone after all.)

On initial viewing, the episode implies that BoJack’s depression, addiction, and worst impulses finally killed him in the most Hollywoo of ways, leaving him face down in the pool behind the mansion he used to own, imagery reminiscent of a floating, murdered Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.

But BoJack Horseman doesn’t end this way. There’s a whole other final episode that explains that BoJack is eventually discovered in the pool, recovers in the hospital, goes on trial, winds up serving jail time for breaking and entering, then gets a one-night release so he can attend Princess Carolyn’s wedding. At first, as morbid as this is to say, I was a little disappointed that BoJack didn’t actually die, partly because that struck me as the more daring narrative choice.

This series has always been aware of its status as a TV show that satirizes serious antihero dramas about ethically compromised men. All of season five, in which BoJack was starring in the True Detective-esque Philbert, explored that idea, from underlying theme to actual plot. And the ending of the series’ next-to-last episode, “The View From Halfway Down,” completes that mission statement by alluding to some of the most famous Difficult Men shows, and doing things they didn’t.

Like The Sopranos finale, “The View From Halfway Down” ends in blackness, but in a way that lands with more gravity because it doesn’t seem ambiguous (even if it does end up being a bit of a fake-out). The episode even more strongly echoes Mad Men. Remember the theory that the falling businessman in the Mad Men opening titles actually served as foreshadowing for what would happen at the end of that series, i.e. that Don Draper would die? In BoJack Horseman, that kinda happens: The show’s opening titles have swapped out some of their imagery over the years — the final season, for example, provides a This Is Your Life-style photo montage through major turning points in BoJack’s life — but they always involve BoJack falling and landing in a swimming pool, then looking up at the concerned faces of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, staring down at him from outside the water. You could even call that moment a view from halfway down.

In the final act of BoJack, the former Horsin’ Around star  really does wind up in a pool. It’s even Diane he reaches out to (via telephone) before he falls unconscious. We should have seen this coming all along because the opening has been telling us this would happen for six seasons! But here’s the thing: BoJack Horseman is about something broader than BoJack’s problems and his less-than-ideal way of dealing with them.  Which is why I think the final episode, a quiet denouement compared to the installment that precedes it, is necessary and gets even closer to the core of what BoJack Horseman is about. It’s true that the series has always been about deconstructing the toxic male antihero. But it’s also been about more than that.

Before I delve into that, let’s reflect on what a masterpiece “The View From Halfway Down” is. The term tour de force is overused and pretentious but when it fits, it fits. And it absolutely fits in the case of that episode, an audacious and disturbing immersion into BoJack’s unconscious and subconscious mind that also keeps viewers guessing about whether he’s still breathing.

The episode’s writer, Alison Tafel, director Amy Winfrey, and the rest of the BoJack team drop all kinds of hints that the firing synapses in BoJack’s mind are creating this odd dreamscape dinner with his late friends and relatives while, in reality, he’s clinging to life. The drips of black ooze, evocative of the water that’s undoubtedly filling his lungs, speak to that. So does the glass of water served by butler Zach Braff, water that, to BoJack, tastes like chlorine. Everyone at this dark dinner party — Beatrice Horseman, Sarah Lynn, Herb Kazzazz, Corduroy Jackson Jackson, and even Braff himself — has died on this show before, and each spends their time around the table ruminating on the meaning of life while strongly implying that BoJack is deceased. In an especially macabre but clever touch, the meals everyone is eating reflect their actual last meals and/or demises. Herb, who survived cancer only to succumb to a peanut allergy, is munching on nuts. Beatrice has been served what appears to be nursing home food, complete with Jell-O for dessert. As for BoJack, his plate is stacked with a huge pile of pills.

Even BoJack’s father, Butterscotch, makes an appearance, except he doesn’t look like Butterscotch. Instead he is Secretariat, the horse that, all the way back in the very first episode, BoJack called his personal hero. The conversation that BoJack has with his father in this pseudo-afterlife, which takes place on a bridge, is an allusion to the way that Secretariat died within the fictional BoJack universe: by jumping off a bridge.

I also interpreted the scene to mean that Butterscotch didn’t die in a Golden Gate Park duel related to a bad book review, as BoJack stated in season five’s “Free Churro” and as he was told by his mother per the flashbacks in that same season’s “Mr. Peanutbutter’s Boos” — Butterscotch died by suicide. When I mentioned this during a recent conversation with series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, this take came as a surprise to him, though he did say he liked it. To me, it makes perfect sense that BoJack’s mom would have lied to him and that BoJack would have either accepted the lie, or perhaps realized the real truth and always denied it. Dying in a duel sounds heroic. Jumping off a bridge does not.

Butterscotch/Secretariat discusses this with BoJack and also, for the first time, admits he really cared about his son. In that moment, the fact that Butterscotch has taken on the form of Secretariat makes perfect, heartbreaking sense. Even when he’s barely breathing, BoJack still can’t imagine Butterscotch, in his own skin, admitting that he truly loved his son. The closest BoJack’s brain can get is to call up the idea of his father, cloaked in the guise of the most famous horse who ever lived. Even when his toes are inches away from kicking the proverbial bucket, BoJack likes being adjacent to celebrity.

The climax, preceded by Butterscotch’s/Secretariat’s reading of the regretful poem that gives this episode its name, comes when it finally becomes clear to BoJack that he’s about to fully follow in Secretariat’s — and, if you believe my theory, his dad’s — hoof steps. Once BoJack finally figures out that he is near death, he both fights it and tries to find a silver lining. “See you on the other side,” he says to Herb somewhat hopefully before he walks through the door that leads to the same abyss into which his other loved ones have already plunged. “Oh, BoJack, no,” Herb responds. “There is no other side. This is it.”

A Netflix series has just announced that there is no heaven or hell or God, that BoJack, and those of us who exist outside of a streaming animated dramedy, get one shot at existence and then: blackness. This is heavy, heavy stuff. While watching it, even if you reject that definition of death, you can feel that heaviness sit square on your heart.

The finale, “Nice While It Lasted,” removes some of that weight and gives us a last opportunity, via Princess Carolyn’s wedding to Judah (!), to see BoJack have meaningful one-on-one encounters with the show’s most central supporting players: Mr. Peanutbutter, Todd, and Princess Carolyn. More importantly, it allows for a last conversation between BoJack and the woman who has become BoJack Horseman’s co-protagonist: Diane Nguyen. Some may see this episode as a cop-out, a way to give the series a softer landing that it would have gotten if BoJack had never opened his eyes again. But upon further reflection, it works for me. If BoJack Horseman has been about anything, it’s the notion that life is about trying, screwing up, then trying again to get it right.

Todd summarizes that idea when he explains, in typical convoluted Todd fashion, that “The Hokey Pokey” isn’t actually about doing the Hokey Pokey. It’s about turning yourself around, again and again. That’s what life is all about, he says, in one last instance of Todd playing the dim-witted Linus to BoJack’s Charlie Brown.

As I thought about the very end of the episode, which focuses on the reunion between Diane and BoJack, who haven’t seen each other since he called her the night he nearly died, I actually was reminded of a totally different song. This is corny but also true: I only recently noticed the connection between BoJack and Diane and John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” even though the characters’ names are basically screaming to be connected to that song. BoJack and Diane aren’t exactly like the people in ’80s hit. They are not teenagers. They are not in love, although, for the record, Diane does do her share of sucking on chili dogs while living in Chicago. But there’s a lyric in that song that perfectly captures the spirit of BoJack Horseman and, in particular, the way it ends: “Oh yeah, life goes on. Long after the thrill of living is gone.”

Life goes on for both BoJack and Diane. But within that life, there is a significant death, and it’s the death of their friendship.

“I think there are people that help you become the person that you end up being,” Diane tells BoJack, “and you can be grateful for them even if they were never meant to be in your life forever.” She adds that she’s glad she knew him.

“Hey,” BoJack says a couple of seconds later, “wouldn’t it be funny if this night was the last time we ever talked to each other?” Diane already knows that’s exactly what it is. BoJack, as usual, is a step behind, still figuring that out.

BoJack and Diane connected in the very first episode of BoJack Horseman when he hired her to ghostwrite his memoir. Back then, BoJack saw her as a means to casting his life in the most positive light possible and she saw herself as a literal ghost. After six seasons, Diane is her own person, a writer in her own right, and strong enough to no longer need to exist in BoJack’s shadow. She might not have become those things if she hadn’t known him. BoJack is better, but still nervous that he’ll screw things up on some level once he gets out of prison. Which, let’s be honest: he probably will. But he now holds himself to a higher standard, and that’s entirely Diane’s doing. She didn’t just record some fake version of what his life has been for the sake of selling books and making BoJack relevant again. She helped him see what his life could potentially be. BoJack Horseman is over because their work is done here.

“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” BoJack jokes in the final moments of BoJack Horseman, which is, on an extremely reductive level,  the message that could be taken from “The View From Halfway Down.”

“Sometimes,” Diane responds. “Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep living.” That’s also one way to interpret “Nice While It Lasted.” But there’s something even lovelier in it than that, and it comes in the last shot, as the camera pans upward to the stars that Diane and BoJack are watching.

That moment is a callback to the night that BoJack and Sarah Lynn spent in the planetarium, where Sarah Lynn overdosed and BoJack panicked and made choices that have given him a lifetime tinged by guilt. But unlike the stars in the planetarium, the stars BoJack and Diane are gazing at are real. Unlike the relationship between BoJack and Sarah Lynn, which was born out of sitcom fantasy, this friendship is real, too, even though it’s not going to endure.

Sometimes life goes on, which is what it does for Diane.

Sometimes life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone. That’s where we leave BoJack Horseman.

BoJack Horseman Fades to Black