Last Friday 8 September, the fourth series of Netflix original Bojack Horseman was released in its entirety. For those following the show, its trajectory has been fairly unprecedented for a cartoon.
The show follows the exploits of the titular character, a washed-up actor living in LA who has barely worked since his sit-com Horsin' Around was cancelled in the 90s. When the show starts, he's spent the last 20 years of his life drinking and making a series of bad decisions which lead him further and further down a rabbit hole of depression and self-loathing.
One of the show's primary concerns has always been the mental health of its protagonist. At it's heart, it is still a comedy. It encompasses a wide array of Simpsons-esque visual gags, absurdity and satire about Hollywood life.
But as the show moved through its first three seasons, the comedy seemed more and more to take a back seat to its discourse on mental health. This most recent series, like its preceding season, is still full of laugh out loud humour, but continues to confront the audience with challenging scenes and a refreshingly three-dimensional depiction of mental-health issues.
Where season three saw Bojack at his most isolated, family is certainly the focus of this most recent season. Bojack's illegitimate daughter returns to L.A. to look for him. After she arrives, the two of them take his dementia-suffering mother out of her care home. The three then proceed to live together in Bojack's Hollywoo(d) home.
The mother-son relationship between Bojack and Beatrice is the central plotline of this series. Where previously Beatrice could quite easily be held accountable for Bojack's depression, season four unpacks her own psychological demons, tracing the thread of Bojack's unhappiness even further back down his family line.
This serves to fulfil a couple of different ends. For one, it leaves the audience somewhat conflicted in their allegiances. Until this point, it was fairly easy to see Bojack's mother as the bad guy. Every poor decision he made seemed to directly mirror some abusive piece of parenting which his mother lavished on him as a child.
But by delving into the psychological difficulties which Beatrice herself faced as a child, this distinction is not so clear cut. This is clearly established in the second episode of the season. A traumatic set of flashbacks reveal that Bojack's grandfather lobotomised his grandmother to quell her "hysteria" at her son Crackerjack being killed in WWII. This leaves her placid and dead behind the eyes, with heavily impaired cognitive abilities.
In this stupor, she says to a then-young Beatrice: "Love does things to a person: terrible things. Promise me you'll never love someone as much as I loved Crackerjack." While this doesn't necessarily excuse the actions of Beatrice, it serves as an explanation of her treatment of Bojack, just as flashbacks to Bojack's own childhood explain his actions in later life.
What all this also does is add weight to the existential nihilism which Bojack frequently complains of. With a mother so riddled with psychological damage, it contributes to the idea that his depression was predestined from birth. As his mother says to him in an earlier episode: "You're Bojack Horseman, there's no cure for that."
This is taken further still with Bojack's recently discovered illegitimate daughter, Hollyhock. During the time she spends with Bojack at his L.A. house, she tentatively voices some of the same worries that plague Bojack himself. "Do you ever get the feeling that to know you more is to love you less?", she asks Bojack, looking down bashfully at her feet. This worry is perhaps Bojack's most defining phobia, and seeing it crop up in yet another generation of his family really drives home the point that the Horseman family may just be fated to live unhappy lives.
Despite all this, the series does end on a more optimistic note. A twist involving Hollyhock leaves Bojack smiling as the final credits roll.
At the time of writing, a fifth season hasn't been confirmed. But if Netflix does renew see fit to renew Bojack Horseman, a more uplifting season may be on the horizon.
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