Review 5.2: Bojack Horseman Season 5

Bojack Horseman is by far my favorite show on Netflix and by extension probably my favorite show on television. The animated story of a washed-up celebrity voiced by Will Arnett in horseface started off dark and has only gotten moreso as the seasons have gone on. I loved the show all the way back in Season One, more than most. Season two really changed things, though, particularly with its episode “Hank After Dark,” centered on a Cosby-like character in an alternate reality where a woman tries to bring him down instead of a man. And, well, she fails where Hannibal Burress in the real world succeeded. That marked a turning point for the show’s cultural relevance – the moment where the show went from a darn great show to a vital one.

I watched the entirety of Bojack Horseman Season 5 in less than seven hours. Skipping the opening and closing credits – which Netflix makes very easy to do – puts the runtime at about five. In those extra hours, I was, well, this, mostly; recording Monday’s episode about Islands of Adventure. Also, eating dinner. I did watch while I was cooking, though.

An oft-documented problem with the dropping-every-episode-at-once paradigm is that in the full year or so that comes between seasons (or more, as in the case of Stranger Things), it’s easy to forget what’s going on. When shows air over months, the first episode of a new season is comparatively pretty soon after the finale of its previous one. Unless it’s, like, Game of Thrones. Because it’s been a year since I last watched Bojack Horseman, something that will now probably become an actual reference point for the passage of time in my life, I had honestly forgotten the narrative threads left off at the end of Season 4. Instead, I remember its most effective and powerful moments, or even entire episodes that are dedicated more to character than to plot. Episodes like Stupid Piece of Sh*t and Time’s Arrow are genuinely incredible and have left indelible marks. But I couldn’t tell you what happened in the last few minutes of the season, so it took me half an episode to actually get my bearings.

The show continues to focus on four-plus-one characters. There’s Bojack, washed up sad horse trying to make a comeback; Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s ex-girlfriend and still agent and now producer of this season’s show within a show; Todd, asexual comic relief formerly crashing long term on Bojack’s couch and now doing so on Princess Carolyn’s; and Diane, Bojack’s closest friend and biographer turned blogger.

Diane’s now ex-husband and all-around good dog Mr. Peanutbutter weaves his way in and out of everyone else’s storylines and gets some of his own screentime this season, but even that is ultimately in service of developments relating to those other characters, mostly his ex-wife.

In that way, Bojack Horseman season 5 isn’t necessarily welcoming to newcomers. As before, the timelines are fluid, with flashbacks fleshing out backstories that only returning viewers will see and be like, “Ohhh! So that’s how that happened.”

But most of those moments are over as soon as they begin. No one would accuse Bojack Horseman of meandering along the way so many Netflix shows do. It’s thing after thing after thing. The exception may be the incredible sixth episode, which I think is formally one of the most daring the show has done yet for its commitment to minimalism as little more (and yet so much more) than a 20 minute monologue, but even that covers a whole lot of character ground and features probably the best performance Will Arnett has ever done. If ever a man deserved a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance, it would be for this.

But even in that, the show retains its constant stream of jokes and/or other emotions. There is so much going on in Bojack Horseman at any given moment, with half a dozen visual gags in the background of every establishing shot, and dialogue that you barely register before it’s onto the next thing. It lends itself well to the things that Netflix is good for: binging and rewatching.

By binging the show, you commit yourself to its descent into madness. Each episode goes deeper into the psyches of its broken characters while simultaneously serving as a scathing indictment of society in general and the entertainment industry in particular. It’s often uncomfortable, frequently hard to watch, and always impossible to look away from.

This time around, Bojack Horseman takes on, among so many other terrible things, sexual harassment and the widespread forgiveness of abusers. And… it’s rough. The main harassment plot line is fairly light at face value but has depressing implications.

Henry Fondle, a sex robot built by Todd as a would-be gift that says, well, wildly inappropriate sex… things, says those things to people until it makes him literally the head of the company producing Philbert, the aforementioned show-within-a-show that everyone else is tangled up in. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the bizarre Vincent Adultman arc from the first season, where what was very children on top of each other’s shoulders nonetheless had a relationship(?) with Princess Carolyn, because no one could see the obvious except for Bojack.

But while the idea of a robot sex-talking its way to the top of the food chain is ridiculous, remove the robot from the equation, then take the overtly sexual language and mask it just a little bit, and suddenly you’re faced with something that feels very real. That people accept it as part of the company culture because they think that that’s just how business is done. It’s by sheer force of talent that, even once you realize that deep down none of this is funny, you can’t stop laughing.

The prevalence of forgiveness is much more straight faced, resulting in a much more complicated series of emotions. The existence of an award ceremony called the Forgivies that a Mel Gibson-a-like wins is something that people can laugh at and feel superior about because it’s so obviously terrible, at least as long as they didn’t see Hacksaw Ridge. Which I did not.

(You’re so brave!)

But the whole show is built around a character who does not deserve forgiveness – oh and does he not deserve forgiveness – but it’s so easy to put that out of your mind when he isn’t actively being a monster. You feel for him. You maybe even want to forgive him.

I mean, he’s trying to change! Slowly. Inconsistently. Maybe circumstances won’t let him, but how much does that matter? Maybe it’s circumstances that won’t let him, though… does that even matter? “I would like to be judged solely by my intentions this time,” he says early in the season. But the road to hell, right?

Bojack Horseman never lets its title character off the hook, per se, but the show is now grappling with its potential to normalize the behavior that it has made so much effort to not glamorize. And in dialogue, largely given to Diane and co-star of Philbert, Gina, Bojack Horseman talks to itself just as much as its protagonist about that very fact. The conflict there is obvious. The audience, too, is implicated in all of this. But what can you even do?

Whether you see that implication as an accusation or a good faith attempt to open a dialogue says little about the show and a whole lot about you.

I still don’t know what it says about me.

Nine point two out of ten