Review: Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’ Season 5 Stops Running From Itself
My first brush with online armies of fans of fictional characters was not with those of DC movies or Star Wars. It was with fans of the Breaking Bad character Walter White, who admonished his wife, Skyler White, for interfering in Walter’s dirty business, even though she was right. White was not the beginning of the anti-hero trope in television— The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano had a head start on all of them, but alongside Mad Men’s Don Draper, Dexter’s Dexter and House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, it was the beginning of an online horde of men trying to justify these characters’ bad behaviour, while also at the same time, assuming that it validated their own.
Before season 3 of BoJack Horseman released, promotional material by Netflix billed BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) on a poster alongside Soprano, Draper and Underwood.
The show till then had followed washed-up former sitcom star from the ‘90s, BoJack Horseman, who whiled away all his time watching DVDs of his old show while indulging in sex, alcohol and drugs. Perfect anti-hero material. In the first three seasons, BoJack had gone through many upheavals in his struggle to be a better person, but had reached a new low at the end of the third season.
In season 5, he seems to have recovered, at least a little. He’s making attempts to stay in touch with his newfound half-sister, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), as well as rationing his alcohol intake. He also seems to genuinely care about his new castmate, Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz). However, as his old friend Diane (Alison Brie) goes on to uncover by the end of the season, BoJack has not changed at all.
The arc for season 5 has the gang shooting for the new anti-hero crime drama Philbert, created by Flip McVicker (Rami Malek) about the titular detective who may or may not have murdered his wife and may or may not be haunted by his ex-cop partner.
As the shoot for Philbert goes on, BoJack finds that his circumstances in the show bear multiple similarities to his real life. Once producer Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), tries to cast notorious Hollywoo* actor Vance Waggoner (guest star Bobby Cannavale), who has articulated racial slurs against Jews (a la Mel Gibson) and has verbally abused his own daughter (a la Alec Baldwin), on the show, it sets into motion an unravelling for BoJack, with figures from his past coming back to haunt him.
(*The BoJack Horseman universe’s version of Hollywood is called Hollywoo after an incident in season 1 where the D is stolen from the Hollywood sign. The show’s dedication to continuity and background jokes means that even in episode 2 of this new season, when Diane visits her native hometown, Hanoi, in Vietnam, the local film industry is called Hanoiwoo.)
BoJack Horseman, over the past few years, has gained a huge following on social media, and while most fans are not as hateful as fans of other anti-hero shows, it is very visible and discomforting to notice the amount of pleasure viewers take in identifying with BoJack’s character. This season, however, the show wants BoJack, and by extension the viewer, to take some responsibility for themselves.
To cover up Flip’s sexist leanings in his script for Philbert, BoJack asks Diane to take up a writer’s job on the show. In a moment of rage, Diane scripts a too-close-to-real-life scene for BoJack, which ends up getting filmed. She is angry at BoJack justifying his own despicable behaviour because a fictional character on television is doing it, just as BoJack Horseman’s show-runners hope to induce some reflection in the show’s audience.
That line may as well be the spine of the show. Like another good show on television, The Good Place, BoJack Horseman posits that most humans (and animals) want to get better but it is difficult to do so and sometimes, people regress. But the only way to get better is to be accountable and to get help.
And accountable is what the others on BoJack Horseman try to be in this season as well.
Todd is perhaps the most well-adjusted of all the group, and this season he continues to explore his asexuality, building a sex robot named Henry Fondle in the process. This is part of a Todd storyline, so, of course, the lewd-phrase spouting Henry Fondle ends up becoming the CEO of whattimeisitrightnow.com, the company producing Philbert.
As usual, BoJack Horseman does all the heavy lifting while consistently making us laugh and pause the screen to view the background gags (and also poke fun at us while at it). It still amazes me after five seasons that the show manages to maintain that balance between laugh-out-loud moments followed immediately by a sorrowful scene.
Episode 6, Free Churro, is the best example of the above and is this season’s best written and acted episode (I’m rioting if Arnett doesn’t net an Emmy for this episode). BoJack monologues at his mother’s funeral, where he is delivering a eulogy, and he presents it like a stand-up set (punctuated by effective drum rolls) while simultaneously working through his feelings about his mother.
It’s a half-an-hour of just Will Arnett talking, even funnier after this meta moment in episode 5. Of course, in true BoJack Horseman fashion, the episode ends with a cruelly hilarious humdinger.
The season starts off with St Vincent’s Los Ageless, which contains the lyrics, “But I can keep running. No, I can keep running.” Running has been a constant motif throughout the run of the series (see what I did there?).
The season ends with the initial strains of The War on Drugs’ Under The Pressure. “Well the comedown here was easy, like the arrival of a new day,” go the first lines, looking forward to a hopeful future, not just for BoJack, but for the viewers too.
BoJack Horseman Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.