Unfortunately, in the world of “Bojack Horseman,” centered around the titular anthropomorphized horse and ’90s sitcom star (voiced by Will Arnett), a free churro is never just a free churro. It can symbolize the simplicity of basic kindness, or the pain of a lifelong relationship devoid of it, or the bizarre human need to compensate for our discomfort with the grief of others. Or, of course, it can be all of them at once, before returning with mock seriousness to being “just a churro” in some moody, self-effacing final monologue.
Thankfully, if “Bojack Horseman” knows how to do anything, it is balance its incongruities. More than any of its predecessors, its fifth season nails a mixture of twisted realism and unpredictable comedy to take Bojack’s spiraling life down a path that is harsh but deeply satisfying. Bojack has spent the majority of the show hovering on the brink of the unforgivable. This time, he will finally cross the line.
The season opens on a deceptively positive note, with Bojack in the middle of shooting a promising new TV show and in a pseudo-relationship with his tough-girl co-star Gina (Stephanie Beatriz). After Bojack’s turn as a movie star in the self-referential "The Secretariat Story,” it’s hard to see how another “Bojack plays himself” storyline could differentiate itself from its predecessor. But this time, “Philbert the troubled detective” (the character’s literal epithet), isn’t likeably vulnerable, but a tortured, self-indulgent, glaringly obvious glamorization of male violence.
It would have been enough for “Bojack” to rest on the accomplishment of having created a humanoid cartoon horse that captures the complexities of chronic depression in a way that has resonated with so many different kinds of people. It would have been enough for it to continue churning out moments of pure animated genius, like the entire episode it devoted to the combination eulogy and stand up comedy routine that was Bojack’s mom’s funeral.
But in this season, the show goes farther than that, determined to reckon with the problems Bojack the character, and “Bojack,” the show itself, have created. It highlights the toxicity of its own inevitable glamorization of Bojack’s lifestyle (and depression in general), and the way that tortured antiheroes can cause irreparable damage to those around them that the can’t make up for by how smart or complicated they are. It critiques our cultural obsession with the same “thoughtful” pessimism it has always thrived on through weirdly positive characters like Bojack’s roommate Todd (Aaron Paul) and co-star Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul Tompkins) that we are, perhaps begrudgingly at first, forced to see value in. And, most poignantly, it demonstrates that the toxic masculinity of a liberal, witty, Hollywood asshole is not so different from that of anyone else.
“Bojack” hasn’t shied away from talking about Hollywood sexism in the past, but this season’s clear parallels to the Time’s Up movement feel tangibly heavier. Sure, one of its storylines may revolve around a hilarious sex robot — a Todd scheme that feels perfectly positioned in the space between the ridiculous humor of the early seasons and the gravity of Todd’s new, more complicated understanding of his identity as asexual. But as the season unfolds, it’s not just Todd’s sex robot becoming the CEO of a major company, or Bojack’s misogynistic, Scandinavian-hating co-star getting a “We Forgive You” award that we have to worry about. Rather, it’s the underlying sexism and violence in Bojack himself.
So what does it take to finally bring down a character as reckless, self-absorbed and continuously forgiven as Bojack Horseman? The show deserves props for using its excellent cast of female characters to give Bojack’s ugly side the reckoning it deserves. In a TV landscape where shows still struggle to barely pass the Bechdel test, it is thrilling to see how well the show fleshes out the individual ways Bojack’s manager Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), ex-publicist Ana (Angela Basset), and ghostwriter Diane (Alison Brie) process and draw attention to Bojack’s unforgivable actions and the general misogyny around them. Whether they choose to distance themselves from Bojack at the cost of their own success, or let him off the hook yet again and live with the consequences, each woman’s story reveals a facet of Hollywood sexism’s human cost.
Despite a few moments when it tried to give its women “backstory” (for Princess Carolyn in particular) that felt a bit out of left field, the majority of the season was marked by standout moments of growth and development for these female characters. In particular, key conversations between Princess Carolyn and Diane — whose respective ends-justify-the-means morality and feminist self-righteousness play off each other so well — and Diane and Ana, serve to highlight not only the cleverness of the show, but the legitimacy of its claim to care about women. It is when we are listening to Hollywood sexism not solely filtered through “a Ryan Seacrest type,” but rather through the eyes of a violently optimistic North Carolina career woman and the equally interesting Buzzfeed feminist she’s supposed to hate, that the show reminds you what “feminism” is really about — the validation of women’s voices, no litmus test necessary.
In the midst of the amplification of the stories of all of these interesting, fleshed-out female characters, “Bojack” also knows when to return to its signature wise, oscillating, self-deprecating Diane. Season Five Diane was far from perfect — there were moments when she wandered so deep into a fruitless, myopic sense of self-pity that it was hard to reconcile this jaded divorcee blogger in a pixie-cut with the kind, nervous idealist of Season One. But in the show’s searing final moments, when the old Diane that still hadn’t quite given up on the world — or on Bojack — returned, it was all the more powerful. From the first episode, the question of whether Bojack could ever be saved has grown louder and louder, each new failure raising the stakes for some earth-shattering low or entirely unpredictable solution. But the end of Season Five, wisely, chooses to revel in the simple, sacred, mystifying connection it has created between two broken people, a choice that feels deeply satisfying.
Since the show’s beginning, Diane has been the only voice of hope that Bojack really listens to, and it was her phone call that pulled him back from the edge of giving up at the end of Season Two. And so, fittingly, it’s her voice when he needs it the most that gets Bojack to say the three little words it may have seemed this bitter, self-deluding addict was incapable of: “I need help.”
“Bojack” has chosen at last not to wallow in its own misery. Those three words were the conclusion this poignant, satisfying season deserved.