BoJack Horseman is back on Netflix with the fourth season that’s just as good as the previous ones. From beginning to end, this series turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a drama disguised as a comedy.
And every time we start watching an episode we know it’ll be a laugh (and indeed it is), but at the same time we know it's going to it hit us right in the heart.
BoJack Horseman perfectly handles both acerbic dialogues and stories, and show us characters full of defaults, emotional scars and anguish. BoJack deals badly with the emptiness of his own life, but never quite succeeds in getting rid of it.
He wants to be a hero but also delights in self-depreciation. He boasts about being a self-made man but blames the universe for his inability to be happy. Depression and melancholy haven’t often been approached this way and in this tone.
A tragic past
In this fourth season, BoJack Horseman once again plays in the same register and gives us a glimpse of the origins of this existential angst: our hero is the product of an unhealthy education and of a loveless environment, in which expressing certain emotions were almost taboo.
In episode 11, entitled "Time's Arrow," we learn that his mother, Beatrice, was raised on the same principles, pernicious and devoid of affection. The backstory started in episode 2, "The Old Sugarman Place." BoJack Horseman occasionally tries to see things from a different perspective and this episode is a case in point (last season also had its moment of cinematic bravery with "Fish Out of Water," S03E04).
BoJack, who's got his own fish to fry (he might just be young Hollyhock's biological father), can no longer bear the presence of his mother, for whom he feeds a lot of rancour. He decides to abandon her in a shabby retirement home. Beatrice Horseman is senile and her madness in taking over her memories.
The story then turns into a kind of dream, a journey into the past, with many of the details erased. We discover that little Beatrice was a lively child, but 'too emotional' in her father's eyes. She grew up in a bourgeois milieu, where demonstrations of affection were seen as inappropriate and which made her own mother an emotional zombie.
For you see, at that time, a depressed woman was immediately diagnosed as being "hysterical," a pathology that revealed just how misogynistic the era and the medical establishment were (the word "hysteria" comes from the Greek term "hùsteros," meaning entrails, or the womb).
Beatrice's father had his wife sectioned in a mental institution where she was lobotomized and, from that moment forward, she never was really herself ever again.
The complexities of the mind
The episode takes us back in time from Beatrice's point of view, exploring fragments of memories whose details have faded. People's faces remain unclear, the scenery uncertain and the neon signs become confused, such as the emergency exit that becomes "XITE" instead of "EXIT," or the "GRAND HOTEL" turning into "GRNAD HETOL."
These are so many signs of memory going awry, but also of a spirit that is losing its grip on reality. Flashbacks are one of the most commonly used ploys in works of fiction to establish a character's backstory or reveal plot elements so far hidden from the viewer. In series or in cinema, it’s usually the sequence that’s all blurry or in sepia tones, visual tricks supposed to mark the passing of time.
Yet what BoJack Horseman does with this episode is unheard of, and said visual tricks are full of subtle meaning. We are put in mind of Michel Gondry’s work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that obviously inspired the creator of BoJack Horseman, Raphael Bob-Waksberg. He told Vulture: "Eternal Sunshine was definitely something we talked about as far as, visually, what does it look like to be inside a brain that is forgetting things?"
Memories slowly decay
Take Henrietta, for example, and how we get a different reading of her character. Like the mass of anonymous people floating in Beatrice's memories, her maid has no face. But her face is not fuzzy however, it is scribbled over: it shows the contempt BoJack's mother felt for someone who seemed a bit simple at first but who’s in fact kind and vulnerable.
This scribble is the same one that Beatrice associates with the butlers who burn all her toys a little later. It’s a traumatic memory for the little girl, punished for having "feelings."
We discover that Henrietta got pregnant by the Master who, being quite the spineless coward, asked his wife to deal with the problem. This scribble now becomes a way to express the kind of anger a child would feel. Beatrice then took her maid to the hospital and gave her baby away for adoption.
This is about the tragedy of a mother being separated from her baby, but also about the anger of a little girl from whom everything has been taken away, and who has learned a lesson: she’ll never empathize with anybody anymore, ever.
Beatrice's dad had her mother's lobotomized (according to him, he wasn’t equipped to deal with women’s moods). Her husband cheated on her and then asked her to deal with the aftermath. It's no wonder she feels a deep resentment towards men including, unfortunately, by association, towards her own son.
BoJack, who has no idea what is going on in his mother's head, is not aware of all this backstory, but we are.
Although he is still exasperated when he abandons his mother at the hospice, apparently without any regrets, at the very end of the episode, something has changed. He realizes how vulnerable she is and that her real prison is not this sordid retirement home, but her memories (featuring many a traumatic experience). He decides to use her madness to steer her somewhere else, a place in her head where she’s happy. Beatrice smiles, her mind is at rest.
BoJack Horseman continues to explore narrative contents, distort our perception of what an animated series can be, break with visual conventions, in short, to revolutionize the animated comedy genre. It is not every day that a cartoon is so successful at representing memories fading and decaying and the emotional confusion brought by senility.
BoJack Horseman is technically, visually and conceptually impressive and knows how to stir its audience, an audience that cannot remain insensitive before so much grace and precision.