Good Damage

This past Friday, the final episodes of BoJack Horseman were released onto Netflix. It’s a cartoon about talking animals and their lives in a fictional Hollywood/Hollywoo/Hollywoob, California. It’s also one of the most intensely perfect shows ever written, with a unique ability to tackle heavy subjects like depression, anxiety, addiction, sociopolitical issues, and death.

I was resistant to BoJack when it first started airing. A cartoon about a talking horse? Even if it was never intended as a kid’s cartoon, it felt like something that I just wouldn’t “get”. When the fourth season came out, a friend of mine on Twitter was live-tweeting the show. And he was expressing how serious the show was and how hard it was hitting him. And, because I am the way that I am, I wanted to check it out and did.

I was instantly hooked. The characters are deep, complex and the writing is rich. It’s one of the most well-written shows I’ve ever seen, striking the perfect balance between hilarious and heartbreaking. I literally found myself laughing through tears at points.

For six seasons, BoJack has told the story of its main characters, mostly animals, and their struggle through life. There are a handful of main characters, all with their own positives, negatives, and pitfalls. And while the show is one of a kind, there are some patterns and tropes that exist as well.

Each season, for the first four seasons, was mostly fun and light. Then, they would drop a hammer on you in episode eleven and have a fallout in the twelfth episode. That was the way the story was told. But in season four, the eleventh episode, Time’s Arrow, depicts BoJack’s mother’s dementia. It is a tragic image of the possibility of how life could be experienced by a person with the disease. It also could have been the signal for a shift in the show.

Season five starts off similar to the last but starting with episode five, it’s gut-punch after groin shot, every episode landing its blow (or sometimes several). And from that point on, it never really lets up. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, but I don’t recall a truly lighthearted episode from that point on from start to finish, including season six.

And that’s the thing about BoJack: even if you’ve never experienced the heavy things that they explore, you somehow can’t stand and also feel empathy for almost every character, sometimes at the same time. It’s part of why the writing is so brilliant. They can take characters who do absolutely despicable things, like encouraging a sober addict to go on one last bender and make you feel sorry for them.

However, it’s not just the writing that makes me love this show. It’s also helped me confront a lot of my own traumas and, honestly, learn how NOT to handle them. The stories are so wrought with mistakes and there are so many times where you can see a character headed back down a path that you know will end poorly. And holding that mirror up and asking yourself “Right, so is that the path you’re going to go down too?” is an honest moment with myself that I needed.

As I sit here, having just finished the season, I think back to those moments. The moments where I related to the alcoholic horse. Or the moments where I related to his depressed best friend, Diane. Other characters had their moments too, but those two, I waffled between relating to the most. I’m ultimately more similar to Diane: a stubborn, self-righteous writer who can’t get out of their own way and struggles mightily with self-confidence. But I also relate to BoJack’s struggle with self-control, his false bravado and his knack for making things worse when they start to go a little bit bad. At least, that’s what my mind does.

It’s really that relationship that drives the show, BoJack, and Diane. They recognize the brokenness in each other and, rather than try to fix it, or even make it better, they accept it. They push each other away; they comfort when they know the other is the only one who won’t judge. Diane is even the one who eventually takes BoJack to rehab, at his request.

BoJack and Diane have, in my eyes, a perfect relationship. Maybe not perfect, actually, but symbiotic. While they are never romantic, there are moments of tension. But it’s because they call each other on their shit, that they are in unison. A perfect example is the ending to episode 11, season 1. BoJack goes to a Q&A for Diane’s biography that she wrote about him. There is an extended dialogue, but this is the main part. BoJack asks:

Season 1

And, because the writers are better than I will ever be, she does not oblige. She stammers and finally rests in silence, knowing it would be a lie for her to say it. And there’s a beauty to being so close with someone, that you can’t lie to them, even when it’s the only thing they’re asking you to do.

There are a series of other quotes through the show that ties every season to the others. These canaries in the coalmine light the way for the audience to connect these threads over the course of six years. For Diane, it’s about processing the trauma she has experienced in her life.

Season 3

And from season 6:

“If I don’t write my book of essays now, I never will. I have to! If I don’t, that means all the damage I got isn’t good damage, it’s just damage.”

Similarly, BoJack is focused on his own trauma as well, but he is manifested in a different way: in feelings of loneliness and wanting to feel “good”.

Season 1

And from season 6:

“No matter how many (fresh) starts I get, there’s always the same ending. Everything falls apart and I end up alone.”

I share these quotes not to scare anyone unfamiliar with the series off. In actuality, I believe those to perfectly depict the brilliant storytelling of the show. While each of those quotes is separated by many episodes, the characters change so dramatically over those time frames, while still struggling with their inner demons.

I also appreciate the yin and yang nature of BoJack and Diane’s relationship. Diane is someone who has, largely, always been alone and is comfortable in that feeling. But she craves real connection. BoJack, on the other hand, is surrounded by people and is totally uncomfortable with being alone. In a way, Diane is trying to figure out how to be happy with someone else, while BoJack is trying to figure out how to be happy alone.

Having now finished the series, but without spoiling anything, I now know that they are twin flames. I’m not sure if that’s what the writers intended, but it’s how I interpreted it. Twin flames are two people who, when they meet, their lives change. They can be, and often are, people you fall in love with, but they are a catalyst to change in your life.

BoJack and Diane fundamentally change each other through the course of the show, and by the end, it can be debated how much each truly changed. But they definitely had an effect on each other. And just like real-life twin flames, they enter and exit each other’s story at various stages, dispensing the much-needed honesty when those around them refuse to give it. Sometimes, they are very necessary to the other’s story, and sometimes they don’t talk for months. But they find their way back to each other inevitably.

I end on one final quote, one that I believe sums up BoJack and Diane perfectly. Ironic as it is, the line is from season one. They’re sitting on a rooftop, as they do, and Diane says:

Season 1

I believe that this show gave us, maybe not what we wanted, but what we needed.

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