There Are No Happy Endings in ‘Bojack Horseman,’ and That’s OK

The stellar final episodes of Netflix’s meditative and hilarious “Sad Horse Show” hold its flawed protagonist accountable.
Chicago, US
January 31, 2020, 1:00pm

More than most shows, Bojack Horseman has benefited from a slow burn. The animated dark comedy, which premiered on Netflix in 2014, has masterfully spent six seasons navigating the dark and damaged psyche of its titular character, an alcoholic and emotionally stunted former 90s sitcom star who is also a talking cartoon horse. But as the show progressed, its focus broadened from just Bojack Horseman (Will Arnett) and his frequently ill-fated attempts to be a better person. Instead, it created humanely rendered portrayals of his support system: the depressed writer Diane (Alison Brie); his on-again, off-again girlfriend, manager, and agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris); the overly optimistic actor Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins); and his asexual slacker friend Todd (Aaron Paul).


No man—or horse—is an island, and one of the series' greatest strengths is its deeply realistic depiction of how a friend group grapples with each member's respective self-destructive and self-defeating tendencies, all while doing their best to help each other. The often-painful journey to be good and happy is the heart of Bojack Horseman, which has consistently been one of the most ambitious things on streaming since its debut. It nimbly balances on a tightrope of being a surreal animal comedy, a beautiful meditation on depression and generational trauma, a biting satire of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and a relationship dramedy. Showrunner Raphael Bob Waksberg and his writing room have excelled at all of those things, hitting the sweet spot between devastating, cathartic, and hilarious.

On Friday, Netflix is releasing the remaining eight episodes of the sixth and final season, and they begin with Bojack the happiest he's been over the show's entire run. He's mostly spent the series depressed and frequently on benders, trying to do the right thing but relapsing back into old habits at every turn. His behavior has often devastated the lives of those around him, but by the second half of season six, he's really trying to do the work. He's finally sober after spending six months in rehab and is teaching an acting class at Wesleyan University, where his step-sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla) is studying. Horseman tries earnestly to maintain his personal progress: He attends Hollyhock's rugby games (and even reads books about the sport from the library to be more involved) and takes an active interest in his students' and friends' lives even if they're not wholly receptive to him.

But this being Bojack Horseman, the good times are fleeting. Without the escape of drugs and alcohol, he is forced to acknowledge the consequences of his dangerously lived life of burned bridges, his historically poor treatment of women, and his many addictions. While his guilt has been an ever-present factor, this season finds him dealing with a public reckoning after a reporter digs into Bojack's past. His transgressions from previous seasons—like his culpability in the drug-fueled death of his Horsin' Around co-star Sarah Lynn, and the time he almost slept with a friend’s underage daughter—finally come to light. "They can’t get me on old shit, I’m a different person now,” he exclaims defeatedly in one episode. Where every season of the show found its protagonist difficult to root for but never irredeemable, the final episodes document his long-overdue accountability.

Can Bojack can be saved? And if so, is he even worth saving? It's something his closest friends wonder as the final season concludes. Life has moved on for them without Bojack there to mess things up. Diane, now living in Chicago with her boyfriend, is struggling with depression and writer's block. Princess Carolyn is still to find a balance between her demanding job, motherhood, and her need to be loved, while Todd has been desperately trying to figure out his direction in life and mend the relationship with his parents. At times, the show's (anti-)hero has never seemed more alone. If Bojack is to get better, he understands he must do the heavy lifting himself. Toward the end of the series, he's told, "All we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff. But you're never going to be good because you're not bad.”

The satirical entertainment industry criticism that oozes throughout Bojack Horseman is especially scathing, considering Hollywood's post-Harvey Weinstein fallout. In a particularly prescient episode, it tackles how public apologies for toxic behavior can be more public relations than actual atonement. After a televised confessional interview, Bojack even brags about his performance, “I feel like I killed that. I felt like I could see The Matrix!” It's a dark and deeply funny line reading that evokes what's probably unspoken with every celebrity's half-assed Notes app apology. The show's other hilarious strength, its meta-visual gags, are also on point and so clever that it's worth pausing to fully take them in. During one episode, a cat is being saved from a tree by a group of firefighters and says, "I'm really sorry this keeps happening." The three-second bit is indicative of how Bojack Horseman expertly combines silliness with its emotional excavating.

Bojack Horseman doesn't end on a happy note, but it's not all that bleak either, with the characters believing that there still is a small sliver of hope left for them. Change is hard, and the show needed its six seasons to fully flesh that out. The show doesn't have any easy answers or prescriptive redemption paths in the destructive wake of depression, selfishness, and substance abuse. But instead, it reveals the tangible powers of genuine, non-enabling relationships and taking control of your own life. It's hard and not guaranteed to work, but it's worth trying anyway.