*Spoilers for BoJack Horseman seasons 1-4 below*
Time’s arrow marches on, as Beatrice is fond of reminding us during season 4 of BoJack Horseman. Like so many words of wisdom uttered through the course of the show, this phrase has been passed down from the family–along with emotional baggage, trauma, and deeply rooted bitterness. Though time’s arrow marches on, our characters regularly dwell on a past dominated by physical and verbal abuse, mental health crises, and feelings of powerlessness even as they long to return to the good old days.
Oh, right. And this is a comedy.
Though we begin the season with the titular BoJack MIA somewhere in the desert, our characters remaining in Hollywoo must keep calm and carry on. Or at least carry on.
Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter start things out on a sour note with his campaign for Governor of California. Both of Mr. Peanutbutter’s ex-wives, Jessica Biel and Katrina, are helping with the campaign, fueling Diane’s insecurity and amplifying her guilt over not supporting his political career. Writing pieces in opposition to Mr. Peanutbutter’s political stances gets clicks for the blog Diane now writes for but creates tension at home. Is there enough left of their marriage to keep them together?
While BoJack doesn’t appear at all in episode 1, he does of course return to Hollywoo eventually. After fixing up (and subsequently destroying) the summer home where BoJack vacationed with his parents, he returns to discover his long-lost (and previously unknown) daughter Hollyhock has tracked him down. His relationship with Hollyhock is complicated by the arrival of Beatrice, who moves in when she is no longer allowed to stay in her assisted living facility. BoJack’s determination to be a better person (horse) and avoid letting his daughter down is strong…but so is his desire to seek petty vengeance against his mother (now suffering from dementia). Let’s return to this one later because it is bleak. Bleak.
Meanwhile, Todd is up to his usual misadventures while learning to live with and accept his asexuality. After agreeing to a sham Hollywoo engagement and briefly becoming a fashion icon, Todd teams up with Mr. Peanutbutter for yet another ill-advised business proposal. Their latest venture is the horrifying marriage of clowning and dentistry, which is eventually shut down by the BBB. However, since it’s Todd, this failed business leads to another (equally horrifying) opportunity. This is a pretty good season for Todd, who even gets an episode paying tribute to his generous nature. Is this a turning point for Todd or will others take advantage of his good nature yet again?
Princess Carolyn, on the other hand, starts the season strong, but it becomes one of the worst for her on both a personal and professional level. Her relationship with Ralph Stilton begins to crack when his mouse family fails to offer her a warm welcome (and even sings a song about hating cats). Things unravel rather quickly in an episode in which a broken necklace is deeply symbolic (and even the framing device for this episode is meant to deceive you and destroy you emotionally). All of Princess Carolyn’s dreams crumble before her eyes as her greatest strength (her ability to always land on her feet) becomes an obstacle preventing her from starting a family and achieving her professional goals.
Don’t worry, though, I’ve saved the saddest storyline for last—Beatrice Horseman. Up until this season, she has been perhaps the most unsympathetic, horrific character on the show as one of the main reasons BoJack is so fucked up. I still remember the emotional impact of season 2’s opening episode, in which all of BoJack’s resolve to change his life and adopt a brand new attitude is crushed by one short phone call with his mother. Beatrice does still say and do terrible things in this season, but it’s hard to say as an elderly, ailing woman she deserves the treatment BoJack gives her. We see more insight into her childhood and married life than ever before, which explains a great deal of her psychological and emotional trauma.
While BoJack’s life clearly demonstrates the impact of bad mothers, we also see what happens when fathers are terrible: both BoJack’s father and grandfather. We see the soul-crushing messages Beatrice receives as a child about her intelligence (she has too much) and body (also too much). In her adult life, Beatrice holds the family together, gets her husband a job, and smooths over his (major) mistakes with no choice but to live bitterly with her regrets. Perhaps most devastatingly, BoJack will never know the full story, and he and his mother continue to bring out the worst in each other.
As usual, this season consistently brings smart social and political commentary (see the entirety of Mr. Peanutbutter’s celebrity political campaign, as well as episodes about fracking and gun violence). However, it’s at its strongest in the emotionally distressing way we’ve come to expect from BoJack during the latter half of the season. It divides almost evenly, taking a dark(er) turn with episode 6, “Stupid Piece of Shit.” We get insight into BoJack’s inner monologue, in which he constantly hurls verbal abuse at himself (his favorite insult being “you stupid piece of shit”). This is much too real for me and culminates in Hollyhock asking if the voice in your head ever goes away. (If only.)
It’s not an easy season to watch—as the series has progressed, we as the audience have maintained a great deal of sympathy for BoJack. However, there have been an increasing number of times when it’s become more challenging to make excuses for his damaging behavior—to Sarah Lynn, Penny, Herb, and his mother. Whether this pattern will continue with Hollyhock is a major question this season asks.
Possibly my only complaint this season is the relentless setting up of positive moments explicitly to knock them down. It works for the most part because of the nature of this show, but after seeing the 4th (and 5th and 6th and 7th) character experience a moment of happiness only to see it shredded to pieces a scene later, it becomes a bit played out. I started having an almost Pavlovian response to the sound of laughter or genuinely uplifting moments.
Always in the back of my mind during this season was how it will end (especially in light of season 3’s downer ending). This is one of the show’s saddest endings but its final moment is tinged with hope (spoiler: BoJack is SMILING [and it’s not for a scene]). The lives of our characters have certainly changed a great deal from the beginning of the season to the end, and several of them even grow to some degree. However, can these characters really change or will they fall back into repeating the same patterns? Will they ever feel complete or continue to be broken? Can they stop hurting themselves and the others around them? If you figure it out, let me know.
While I love every moment of watching BoJack, I have worried that watching these characters continue to make the same mistakes would grow stale. My fears were put to rest this season, which manages the same level of emotional devastation as usual without becoming monotonous. Though I am now an empty husk, I really loved this season as much as any of the others…you know, in that masochistic BoJack kind of way that demands a whiskey chaser, 7 pizzas, and too many apple fritters.