In one episode, an actor named Vance Waggoner (Bobby Cannavale) disgraces himself with an unending slew of sexist, xenophobic remarks à la Mel Gibson. Waggoner attempts an apology tour, even winning a lifetime-achievement prize at the We Forgive You Awards. Later, the actor is brought onto Philbert, BoJack’s new show. When BoJack inadvertently takes a stand against Waggoner’s transgressions, eventually going so far as to make the bold proclamation that is “Don’t choke women,” the public celebrates the cantankerous horse as a venerable feminist icon.
The episode, “BoJack the Feminist,” skewers both Hollywood’s co-opting of social-justice language and the industry’s willingness to reinstate disgraced men. But crucially, BoJack complicates the question of restitution by differentiating between private forgiveness and public redemption. “It’s very easy to say, ‘I will not forgive that person,’ because why should you, frankly?” the show’s creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, said of celebrity offenders in an interview with The Ringer. “But when it is somebody that you deeply care about, it’s a stickier thing.”
Though there’s no shortage of inappropriate behavior to excoriate among famous men, Season 5 pivots from indicting the industry writ large to zeroing in on the actions of BoJack himself. The latter half of the season delves most impressively into the consequences of two specific instances of BoJack’s misconduct. True to form, BoJack explores the trickiness of responding to a loved one’s wrongdoings through the ambivalence of its most conflicted character, the disconsolate feminist writer Diane Nguyen (voiced, somewhat controversially, by Alison Brie). Diane is shocked when she hears a tape on which her friend BoJack admits that he nearly had sex with a teenage girl. The tape ends with that haunting question: “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong you can never go back?” But it’s Diane’s words from earlier in the story arc, which had at the time referred to Waggoner, that close out the episode: “I don’t think he can make things right.”
As my colleague Lenika Cruz wrote, “It’s here that what began as a clinical dissection of Hollywood’s amoral tendency to launder the misdeeds of awful men morphs into something far trickier and more personal. The show segues into a self-aware exploration of the myriad reasons that otherwise good people might have for not holding perpetrators accountable for their actions—and the role art might play in that process.”
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The range of emotions Diane experiences after finding out this information about one of her closest friends, a man whom she knows to be flawed but likely never considered predatory, is jarring in its familiarity. She radiates anger, betrayal, fear, and embarrassment. She worries her proximity to BoJack will make her look like a hypocrite. She wonders how to confront him, and whether spending any more time trying to “fix” a man seemingly committed to his own dysfunction is worth the effort it will require. Eventually, Diane writes BoJack’s confession from the tape directly into his lines on Philbert; the resulting performance BoJack gives on set is striking, and the vindication Diane conveys while watching him is at once satisfying and heartbreaking to witness. She later eviscerates him for his actions, and for his insistence that he is the real victim. It’s difficult, cathartic television. It feels personal.