This story contains spoilers for Season 5 of BoJack Horseman.
On this season of BoJack Horseman, the eponymous protagonist finds himself wrestling with a single weighty question: “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong you can never go back?”
The animated Netflix series, which recently returned for its fifth season, has long magnified the moral inconsistencies of its anthropomorphic lead. BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) is a washed-up former TV star whose anxieties about his own dwindling fame and other inadequacies drive him to drink excessively, disrespect his friends, and treat women like interchangeable accessories at best and insensate sexual playthings at worst. He is also caustic and funny, at times even endearing in his self-effacement. In other words, BoJack is the consummate Complicated Male Protagonist.
But where other series glamorize the dysfunction of their male leads by writing these men’s pain as the nucleus of all other characters’ development, BoJack resists the temptation to neatly absolve its protagonist of his sins. This season, which was plotted out before the news of sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the ensuing rise of #MeToo, locates BoJack’s misbehavior within a larger continuum of reprehensible actions. And there are multiple story lines about men who abuse their power and prestige in the entertainment industry.
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.”
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.
Diane’s complicated reaction to the news of BoJack’s misdeed also feels profoundly empathetic to both characters. The season ends with Diane driving away from a rehab facility where she’s dropped off BoJack, who’s finally agreed to seek treatment for his addiction to alcohol and opioids (the latter being a new addition this season, following back surgery needed after he sustained an injury on the set of Philbert). Before BoJack can muster the courage to walk into the rehab center, he shares his most gnawing existential concerns with Diane. In their conversation, she is once again both stern and kind, undertaking the labor she always does to ensure that her friend can move forward with both the knowledge of his failure and the tools to fix them. The difference now is not Diane’s conviction, but BoJack’s willingness to act on her entreaties:
BoJack: What if I get sober, and I’m still the same awful person I’ve always been, only more sober?
Diane: I think that is a very real possibility.
BoJack: Don’t be shitty.
Diane: I’m not. Rehab is not a cure-all that’s gonna suddenly make you not an asshole.
BoJack: So then why are we doing this? Let’s just turn around and go home.
Diane: You wanna go home? … Look, you have two options: You can go back home and try to do things your way like you’ve been doing all your life, or you can see what these guys have to offer.
BoJack: I don’t understand why you’re being so nice to me, after everything you know about me, all the shit I put you through.
For Bob-Waksberg, visibility and power change the stakes of rehabilitation processes. “I’m very interested in the idea of forgiveness. I think it is important for us as people to forgive the people in our lives, and find ways to allow them to redeem themselves, and for us to be able to forgive ourselves and find ways to be better,” he said in a recent interview with Vulture. “I don’t think that necessarily scales to forgiveness on a public level. Questions about BoJack, and how Diane feels about BoJack, don’t necessarily apply to how I should feel about Louis C.K. or Mel Gibson.”
Similarly, one woman’s willingness to forgive a man’s transgressions does not guarantee another woman will bestow that same courtesy. It’s telling that Season 5 finds BoJack able to earn at least some small measure of Diane’s forgiveness, but takes great care to show that his guilt does not merit absolution from the women he’s hurt most immediately. Season 5 doesn’t formally check back in with Penny, the teenage girl BoJack nearly had sex with back in Season 2 (BoJack attempts to call Charlotte, the girl’s mother, but loses his nerve when her husband answers). There’s no way to know how Penny feels now because BoJack won’t address her directly. But when BoJack, in an opioid-fueled haze, extends a fighting scene with his costar and girlfriend Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz) to the point of actually choking her, Gina is visibly terrified.
Later, Gina and BoJack are slated to give a televised interview to explain that the choking incident, which had been captured on film and gone viral, was just zealous acting. Seven episodes after “BoJack the Feminist,” this scene offers a frighteningly acute rendering of how Hollywood’s redemption machine has now begun to spin in BoJack’s favor yet again—but with far more dangerous stakes. Before the two go on the air to feign some sense of playful camaraderie, BoJack apologizes to Gina and attempts to create space for a possible reconciliation between the two. Gina’s response, sharp and pained, makes plain why that isn’t possible for her:
BoJack: I’m gonna come clean about everything … Everyone needs to know what I did.
Gina: No, don’t do that.
BoJack: Gina, what I did to you—I saw the video, and it looked pretty bad.
Gina: Yeah, I’ll say it was pretty bad. It was assault.
Gina: You physically overpowered me and if there were any justice you would be in jail right now.
BoJack: Okay, so—
Gina: But my career, after so many failed attempts, is finally starting to take off. I am getting offers and fan mail and magazine columns about what a good actor I am. People know me because of my acting, and all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman.
BoJack: I can’t lie about this.
Gina: I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that ever happened to me. I don’t want you to be the question I get asked in interviews for the rest of my life ... You need to do this for me, okay? Because I just want this to be over.
In outlining the ways BoJack’s actions have affected her not just personally but also professionally, Gina articulates concerns shared by so many victims of harassment and assault. Beatriz’s delivery is pointed and strained. In a world that often forces women to perform forgiveness for their abusers’ sakes—and for the public’s peace of mind—it’s comforting to see Gina refuse to placate BoJack by accepting his apology for the heinous act. The fact that she later presents a counterfeit happiness in the interview, and refuses to go public with allegations of assault, doesn’t render her experience less valid. It’s just her preferred route to some facsimile of peace. BoJack lets Gina pick herself.
Gina and Diane’s differing responses to BoJack’s behavior throughout Season 5 are far more revelatory than the protagonist’s self-loathing. Neither woman condones BoJack’s actions, but each arrives at a different conclusion. Both women acknowledge that BoJack can never go back to before he perpetrated the harm. Forgiveness is complicated, the show posits, and it’s never owed. BoJack hasn’t learned that just yet, but perhaps audiences might.