"This story is getting pretty dark."
Since its first season in 2014, the animated Netflix original Bojack Horseman has only gotten better. Featuring a combination of anthropomorphic animals and humans, all of whom are relatively unlikable, the show found its stride near the end of Season 1 and hasn’t looked back since.
When Season 3 left off, Bojack was wandering alone, Mr. Peanutbutter was running for governor, Diane was searching for purpose, Princess Caroline was maintaining a steady relationship, and Todd was— very briefly, anyway— a millionaire. Season 4 picks up a year after this, and finds each of the main characters still dealing with their respective challenges in some way.
The show is just as funny as it has always been. All the favorite joke formats return. Signs with the message as well as the instructions written on them, news ticker headlines, rapid-fire animal jokes in between scenes, unbelievably complex alliteration gags and puns: it’s all there and it’s all hilarious. The pure quantity of visual jokes in this season almost demands a re-watch of every episode. Season 4 also offers political humor in the form of Mr. Peanutbutter’s run for governor, but the creative team never reveal their political leanings too overtly, opting to offer commentary on the absurdity of the recent election cycle and Hollywood’s role in it rather than jokes about any real-life candidate. It’s surprisingly refreshing to have post-election comedy that is more about how crazy the race was than the result.
The show’s cast does fantastic work again as well. From quiet moments to screaming matches and teary-eyed emotional breakdowns, this season had plenty of moments where nuanced performances were needed, and each lead actor stepped up to the plate every time. This season also had its fair share of guest voices, such as Matthew Broderick and Jane Krakowski, who deliver stellar performances and do nothing but add to their respective episodes.
All that said, hilarity has never been Bojack’s primary goal, and many fans of the show don’t love it as much as they do simply because it’s funny. The relentless yet relatable sadness that permeates almost every aspect and character of the show is what draws so many people in, and despite having plenty of lighter episodes, Season 4 embraces this aspect of the show more than ever before.
One of the most interesting things about this season is that it’s not really about Bojack. Yes, he’s always present in some way in every episode, but the show is no longer only about his problems interfering with everyone else’s lives. Instead, most of the main characters have an episode dedicated almost entirely to their owns set of challenges, often with no interference from Bojack at all. Todd learns how to say no to things and begins to explore his asexuality in the third episode, aptly titled “Hooray! A Todd Episode!”. Episode 9, “Ruthie,” is focused on a particularly horrible day in the life of Princess Caroline, and highlights her struggles with her work, family, and relationships. Not every side story in every episode is a hit, and there were plenty of times where I would have rather seen what was going on with Bojack instead of Todd or Diane, but this refocus away from Bojack is a smart and natural move for the show. As these characters grow and change, they face new and different challenges, and there were only so many ways we could see Bojack push people away before it read as stale rather than poignant.
This isn’t to say that Bojack doesn’t have problems of his own this season: Hollyhock, an apparent estranged daughter of Bojack’s with eight adoptive fathers and eight last names, shows up at his doorstep near the beginning of the season. After their DNA is found to be a match, Bojack reluctantly agrees to help Hollyhock search for her mother, even if it includes an embarrassing visit to all of Bojack’s sexual partners from 1999. Hollyhock lives with Bojack for a while, and seeing as Todd has moved out, it’s obvious he’s happy for the company. But, as Hollyhock reminds Bojack many times, she isn’t looking for another dad, she’s looking for her mother and for answers. This smart and believable storyline is one of the season’s strongest; the relationship between the two is well-executed, as Bojack is completely preoccupied with making sure his issues and vices don’t manifest themselves in Hollyhock. This dynamic leads to the season’s best episode: “Stupid Piece of Sh*t.”
Taking place halfway through the season, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” takes us into Bojack’s head in a way we’ve never been before. as his internal monologue plays for the entire episode. For the first time, we hear his depressive and self-defeating thoughts instead of just seeing them expressed in his actions. Bojack goes the whole episode ridiculing and second guessing himself, and as his thoughts spiral, the animation changes and shows in an almost flimsy, sketchbook style, all the horrible possibilities running through his mind. The episode ends with Hollyhock asking about this voice, and Bojack’s answer to her is one of the most gut-wrenching moments the show has ever had.
This season uses audio and visual cues to represent mental illness in a way that has rarely, if ever, been done before. Bojack’s depressive internal monologue, the high-pitched, muted sounds of a panic attack, and the bright lights and jolted movement of a drug overdose are just a few examples of this. It’s off-putting how real the show makes these problems feel, and the viewer, in some small way, experiences these struggles alongside the characters.
Throughout the season, Bojack’s mother, Beatrice, also lives with him and Hollyhock due to her recently diagnosed dementia. Beatrice doesn’t recognize Bojack for nearly the entire season, calling him instead by the name of Henrietta, a former housekeeper of the Horseman family. The penultimate episode,“Time’s Arrow,” takes place almost exclusively inside of Beatrice’s head and memories. The scenes fragment and shift, faces are blank or obscured, and objects appear and disappear from the scenes as she remembers or forgets them. Occasionally, Beatrice is pulled back into the current time. It is a chilling and real exploration of memory loss among the elderly, through a character that, like so many on this show, has plenty of established faults. Bojack himself is in no hurry to forgive his mother for the trauma she passed on to him, but as we watch memory begin to slip away, it’s hard not to sympathize with her.
What makes Bojack Horseman stand above other shows that address real, heavy issues like this is that it never offers a solution. Not once do the writers claim to have it figured out. They deliver thoughtful and agonizing one or two sentence lines that are hard to forget, but the show isn’t about fixing anyone. It’s about learning to live with yourself and trying your best to not be miserable while you’re doing it. That’s all any of the characters are trying to do. They’ve come a long way from Season 1, and none of them are fixed or even particularly healthy, but they’re growing, learning, and changing. The season even ends on a happy note— something that, after a handful of episodes that explore deep human sadness, is a great relief.
Nothing quite captures the truth and reality of mental health like Bojack Horseman. It turns impossible-to-explain emotions into words and images that not only make it feel as if someone actually understands, but manages to do so while putting a smile on your face every once in a while too. Season 4 doubles down on the almost oppressive melancholy the show has always carried with it, but supports it with jokes just as good if not better than previous seasons. With another season of the highest quality, Bojack Horseman has cemented itself not only as one of the best animated comedies and Netflix shows around, but as one of the best series currently on television.