[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “BoJack Horseman” Season 6, Part II, including the finale and its ending.]
Even by Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s high referential standards, there are a lot of connections between the ending of “BoJack Horseman” and the beginning. In the first episode, BoJack eats cotton candy at a house party. In the finale, he eats cotton candy at Princess Carolyn’s wedding reception. Mr. Peanutbutter’s first in a long line of Erica jokes pays off in the finale with the sheer implication of Erica’s always-offscreen presence forming the punchline. The episode of “Horsin’ Around” playing when BoJack is discovered facedown in the pool is the same episode playing in the hospital when, during an Episode 1 panic attack, he thinks he’s dying.
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From a thematic standpoint, the series finale also works as an homage to the genre “BoJack” loves and the genre it is; the flash-forward, the seminal event, the reunion of characters, even the cuts to black (as though a commercial is about to play), all embody the form of so many sitcom endings. Bob-Waksberg spoke early and often of his love for ’90s sitcoms, which allowed him to not only reference them with hysterical specificity, but make a great “Horsin’ Around” episode all his own. (See: The 2014 “BoJack Horseman Christmas Special.”) But the silent final moments and subject matter speak to the series’ dramatic foundation. Unlike “Horsin’ Around,” “BoJack Horseman” never promised that “no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything is going to be OK.” The series confronted addiction and depression head-on, often with a clarity and courage few other shows could emulate.
Balance has always been the impossible tightrope “BoJack Horseman” never fell off. Its roots in absurd comedy and dark drama were what caused critics to stutter a bit out of the gate (or, at least, this critic), unable to pin down whether this new show from a new creator on a new “online streaming service” was trying to imitate Adult Swim cartoons, AMC dramas, or actually forge its own path. By the end of Season 1, once it proved the latter to be the case, the discussion shifted into what an animated original aimed at adults could effectively tackle — could a talking horse really be the next Don Draper?
For some, the conversation never evolved past that mental road block. “BoJack Horseman” remains an outlier at the Primetime Emmy Awards, nominated for Best Animated Series for the first time last year, and I can’t tell you how many die-hard TV fans have told me the subject matter is simply too troubling to deal with. In the end, “BoJack Horseman” tries to have it both ways one more time. By pushing the suicidal horse to the brink of death in its penultimate episode, the show broaches a possibility it’s been alluding to since the opening credits first ran. BoJack, after a long, nasty bender, nearly drowns in his swimming pool. But just like Don Draper doesn’t jump off a building at the end of “Mad Men,” BoJack also survives to look to the sky and find a shimmer of hope in the future.
That decision is probably for the best. After all, BoJack said it himself way back in the pilot. After the “Horsin’ Around” episode he’s watching in the hospital ends with The Horse dying — yup, the episode he watches in the pilot and the finale is the “Horsin Around” ending — BoJack says, “We might’ve gone too dark on that series finale.” So instead of getting busy dying, “BoJack” examines what it means to keep living; to keep living with pain, worry, loss, and all the struggles exacerbated for so many individuals with addiction and/or depression.
It’s a tricky, ambitious ending, given that it doesn’t provide the clear, arc-completing closure often bestowed by TV endings. “Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you just keep living,” Diane says, and she’s not just talking about one thing when she says it. Life is a series of endings and beginnings, all connected by your personal experience. BoJack learns this the hard way, again and again, as he tries to start over, forget the past, and become the good person he believes himself to be on the inside. (It’s also worth noting that in the Season 1 finale, Secretariat is shown committing suicide, shortly after telling Baby BoJack, “Don’t you stop running, and don’t you ever look behind you. There’s nothing for you behind you. All that exists is what’s ahead.”)
In Episode 11, “Sunk Cost and All That,” BoJack gets angry when his past is resurrected by the press. “No matter how many starts I get, there’s always the same ending: Everything falls apart, and I end up alone,” he tells Princess Carolyn, Diane, and Todd, as they try to help him figure out what to do next.
Diane’s advice isn’t just for BoJack’s career, but his life: You can’t deny the past existed; you have to acknowledge it happened and then go through it. As BoJack does this, through one successful and another ill-fated TV interview, the season and the series reach a climax. BoJack’s public life, representing his desire to be loved by everyone, smashes into his private life, where he’s depressed, addicted, and angry. The culmination of six seasons spent wrestling with popular perception and self-fulfillment sees our animated antihero laid bare by the publicity machine he can’t escape. Episode 12, “Xerox of a Xerox,” written by Nick Adams and directed by Aaron Long, forces the truth to come out once and for all, in a powerful, honest, and anxiety-inducing half-hour.
The subsequent episodes don’t quite hit that mark. “The Horny Unicorn” (Episode 13) and “Angela” (Episode 14) are solid entries, keenly exploring a private relapse pushed to an all-too-familiar tipping point. But when BoJack rings the doorbell to his mother’s house alongside a young Sarah Lynn, things get a bit wobbly. The series has a long history of excellent boundary-pushing, experimental episodes grounded in an internal reality. From the near-silent “Fish Out of Water” episode to the pained inner monologue driving “Stupid Piece of Shit” (not to mention the under-appreciated masterpiece “Time’s Arrow”), “BoJack” has found imaginative and effective ways to convey very difficult emotional and mental experiences. The animation, led by executive producer and production designer Lisa Hanawalt, finds evocative, eerily familiar designs, templates, and through-lines to bring complicated ideas to life.
The best Season 6 example of this comes in the Diane-focused Episode 10, “Good Damage,” when she struggles to write while on anti-depressants. Overall, it’s a superlative half-hour, among the series’ elite offerings, and it feels like Episode 15, “The View From Halfway Down,” carries a similarly transcendent ambition. I wouldn’t say the show falls off its threadbare tightrope — more like it stumbles into the dismount. In trying to convey the seriousness of BoJack’s life choices via the ghosts of his past, two slips keep this haunting dinner party from reaching its necessary heights.
First, it tips its hand. As soon as BoJack complains about the chlorine in his water (to Zach Braff, who died a most memorable death in Season 4), it’s clear that, back in reality, he’s drowning in his pool. That undercuts a lot of the mystery and tension established by the dream itself, making the viewer crave resolution in the real world over anything that happens in BoJack’s mind. (Also, Herb eliminates the possible religious explanation for this episode’s plot by emphasizing they’re not going through the door together, to another place. So this isn’t “BoJack’s” “International Assassin” entry — it’s just a dream, not a dream that could also be read as another reality.) These decisions also put a lot of pressure on the dinner party conversations to provide either answers or emotional revelations, and while BoJack’s phone call to Diane does prove somewhat important to the finale, the rest is rehashing lessons these characters already shared. They can’t really sustain the full episode. Moments are unnerving, like Secretariat’s title-inspiring poetry reading (“The View From Halfway Down”), but the summation of the episode doesn’t feel like the best use of the series’ little remaining time.
The penultimate episode improves on second viewing, once you know what happens to BoJack, but the way it leads into the comical bait-and-switch(es) of his fate in the finale doesn’t play well in real-time either. It’s as though you’re expected to believe BoJack really did kill himself, and then chuckle in relief both times those fake-outs are exposed. Yes, they’re references to Season 1, yes, they’re in line with BoJack’s cheeky sense of humor, but the viewer ends up feeling like Diane on the other end of the phone, after hearing BoJack’s voicemail: You need to know what really happened to this character you’ve come to care about, in spite of his actions, and no one is giving you a straight answer.
Episode 15 feels like “BoJack Horseman: The Drama” while the start of Episode 16 feels like “BoJack Horseman: The Sitcom,” and (for once) the blend doesn’t come together as part of the series’ potent and inventive new genre. But it still sticks the landing. BoJack gets beautiful final moments with each of the core cast members. His time on the beach with Todd is the idyllic end to their profound and silly friendship, as Todd quotes the “Hokey Pokey” of all things to push BoJack in the right direction. While dancing with Princess Carolyn, they exchange thoughts about the better TV ending for her wedding, and in doing so, remind viewers that love doesn’t have to be dramatic. (Not to mention, that most love stories are told from a man’s perspective.) And finally, BoJack and Diane’s last rooftop chat closes a loop that won’t close. Death is the ultimate end, but neither of them has died. Life rolls forward. She’s in Houston, writing for pleasure, her new husband, Guy, by her side, and he’s, well, he’s taking it one step at a time. “It’s a nice night.” Appreciating that, in the moment, is all they need.
Given the timing, subject matter, and the fact that both shows’ finales feature a door that leads to everlasting nothingness, “BoJack Horseman” is bound to be compared to “The Good Place” in the immediate future. But its ending sounds a bit like “Mad Men,” doesn’t it? Peggy ends up successful and married, while Don survives a mental breakdown to take one more stab at his up-and-down career. Might as well be Diane and BoJack. But where “BoJack Horseman” separates itself from any of its prestige TV peers — sitcoms or dramas — is in its self-aware evolution.
“BoJack” helped solidify the TV-MA era of adult animation, yes, stretching the limits of what a comedy can and should do with the creative license streaming can offer. (Note: Most episodes are 26 minutes, and even when plenty of series finale clock in at feature-length runtimes, “Nice While It Lasted” gives itself just one extra minute.) From the rapid-fire jokes, to the alliterative wordplay strings, to the pun-filled visuals, “BoJack Horseman” is an exquisite comedy. Yet as a drama, it took a character type on its way out the door, acknowledged why so many antiheroes were being misused post-Don Draper, and adapted accordingly. The ending reflects the #MeToo era in a way its predecessors couldn’t, and that took a lot of inner soul-searching and acknowledgment on the part of an extremely thoughtful production team. (Not to mention: The courage Bob-Waksberg shows in censuring his lead character this strongly risks the kind of revolt Jerry Seinfeld faced when he threw his crew in jail to end “Seinfeld.”)
“BoJack Horseman” connected to what came before without relying on the past for a way out. Balancing its tones, ambitions, and deep respect for its characters, the series emerges an unparalleled original. No more horse than a man, no more man than a horse. It’s both.
“BoJack Horseman” is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix.
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