This story contains spoilers for Season 5 of BoJack Horseman.
There’s an episode early in the new season of BoJack Horseman that condenses a famous actor’s ugly past with an efficiency so ruthless, the story line would seem cartoonish were it not so familiar. A few minutes of screen time chronicle a decade’s worth of vile behavior: A fictional celebrity named Vance Waggoner bounces from scandal to scandal, whether it’s the news that he beat a prostitute with a bat, or that he called his teenage daughter a slut and threatened to kill her. After each story breaks, Vance does what men accused of such acts often do: He goes on TV to explain himself, to offer an excuse, and to insist that he’s changed.
But Vance’s reputation is exactly what makes him an attractive candidate for a role in a new prestige drama called Philbert, starring BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett). After it’s revealed that Vance once choked his wife, BoJack finds himself tasked with defending the actor on a talk show. But his efforts backfire—simply acknowledging that it was bad for Vance to choke his wife earns BoJack a standing ovation from the show’s all-female audience. So BoJack decides to lean in, declaring, “This is just old BoJack talking, but—how about we don’t choke any women?” To which the crowd starts chanting, “Don’t choke women! Don’t choke women!”
As is typical for BoJack Horseman, the episode is surreal in its presentation but more literal in its message, as it goes on to condemn Hollywood’s perverse eagerness to forgive abusive men. If the show had continued to follow Vance’s return to the spotlight, it might’ve made for a timely arc. But it wouldn’t have been particularly daring. After all, BoJack Horseman is already about a messed-up, middle-aged actor waging a comeback, a man who’s spent much of his adult life using, mistreating, and hurting women. In Season 2, he nearly had sex with his friend’s teenage daughter. In Season 3, he coaxed a young woman, who saw him as a father figure, out of sobriety and into a month-long bender that killed her.
BoJack Horseman, of course, knows all of that. So this year, the show turns its lens on itself, asking what society gains and loses when artists tell relatable stories about men who do terrible things. For years, the show has been a master class in empathetic TV. When the series takes its ensemble, especially BoJack, to morally alienating places, it does so with nuance, seeking the humanity beneath its characters’ acts of selfishness or cruelty. But in Season 5, the show refuses to take for granted that empathy is a good thing. It also knows better than to hinge a story line about redemption on someone that viewers don’t care about. Which is why, seven episodes after leading a crowd in a chant about not choking women, it is BoJack himself who is captured on camera, strangling his co-star and girlfriend in a drug-fueled rage.
BoJack Horseman is as much an incisive satire about Hollywood as it is a colorful, wordplay-obsessed sitcom filled with human-animal hybrids. So it’s unsurprising that much of Season 5 seems to resonate with the biggest story of the entertainment industry in the last year: the sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein and the resulting rise of the #MeToo movement (both of which, coincidentally, unfolded after the new BoJack season had already been plotted out). Hollywood has since seen a slew of powerful men—whether top executives such as Weinstein and CBS’s Les Moonves or performers such as Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K.—lose their jobs or fall out of the spotlight following extensive reports of inappropriate or violent behavior. There’s also been a growing awareness of the way sexism, sexual misconduct, and misogyny is systematically perpetuated at every level of the industry (and, indeed, across industries).
Lately, the broader discussion around the #MeToo movement has converged on the subject of “redemption”: what it looks like, who deserves it, and whether it’s possible. As a theme, redemption has always been central to BoJack Horseman. The show ends each season by asking, implicitly or explicitly, whether there’s hope for its troubled protagonist to change his ways. In the penultimate episode of Season 1, BoJack pleads with his friend Diane (Alison Brie): “I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good.” Crushingly, the scene cuts to black; BoJack gets no easy reassurance (and neither do viewers). It wasn’t until the end of Season 4 that the show offered a genuinely optimistic answer. After confronting his family’s history of mental illness and emotional abuse, BoJack started to form a real bond with his new half-sister, Hollyhock. He also agreed to help his manager and ex-girlfriend, Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), after years of taking her for granted, by agreeing to star in a new TV show she’s producing called Philbert.
A send-up of gritty antihero dramas like True Detective, Philbert is at first a way for BoJack to see his flaws—alcoholism, abrasiveness—reflected back at him. But more broadly, Philbert serves as a vehicle for BoJack’s ambitious meta-critique of how Hollywood consistently glorifies, humanizes, enables, and forgives bad men—fictional or otherwise. This critique operates on a few different levels, and only grows more complex as the season wears on. One level of this assessment is institutional and doesn’t initially focus on BoJack. The episode “BoJack the Feminist” does a remarkable job of illustrating how executives, agents, publicists, and entertainment media mobilize to address a celebrity’s misdeeds and engineer his comeback—if there’s money to be made doing so.
In a clever move, BoJack has two women play key roles in reviving Vance’s career: Princess Carolyn and Ana Spanakopita (Angela Bassett), BoJack’s former publicist and ex-girlfriend. After BoJack’s botched TV appearance, Ana has her client Vance announce that he’ll no longer be part of Philbert, because he’s a feminist and the show is sexist. With her plans to hire Vance ruined, Princess Carolyn uses similar language to wave away questions about trying to cast him in the first place: “I got blinded by my desire to see myself succeed, which, since I’m a woman, is actually very feminist.”
On the one hand, such plot points recognize how feminism has been diluted into a vague PR term, a cheap virtue-signaling tool. On the other, they acknowledge that there are very real incentives for women who want to rise in the industry to protect the status quo, even if it means burnishing the reputations of men like Vance in the process. It’s story choices like these that deepen the show’s critique of Hollywood’s redemption machine: Again and again, well-intentioned, smart characters make decisions that defy simple ethical calculations.
In fact, BoJack underscores the seemingly immutable nature of sexism in the industry by weaving Diane, the closest thing the show has to a moral center, into the Philbert plot line. In one scene, Diane confronts Princess Carolyn about hiring Vance. “We both know the industry is screwed up,” Princess Carolyn sighs. “I’m not talking to the industry, I’m talking to you. Take some responsibility,” Diane says. In another scene, Diane challenges Ana about working for Vance:
Ana: Vance has a troubled past. All he’s asking for is a fresh start.
Diane: No! Why does he get that? Over and over?
Ana: He’s reformed! … Let’s say you can make him do anything you want to make things right. What would you make Vance Waggoner do now?
Diane: (Pauses.) Nothing. I don’t think he can make things right.
“When you as a woman give awful men the cover of your friendship … you are then complicit, no, you’re culpable for the terrible things they do,” Diane continues. Many viewers will come away from these scenes wholeheartedly sympathizing with Diane. She even manages to convince BoJack that Philbert is a sexist mess (“It’s posing as a deconstruction of the edifice of toxic masculinity, but it’s just using that as an excuse to relish in its own excesses”), and so he hires her as a consultant to help make the show better.
But, of course, BoJack doesn’t let Diane keep the moral high ground for long. At the end of the fourth episode, Ana plays for Diane an old tape recording in which BoJack admits that he would’ve had sex with his friend’s teenage daughter if her mother hadn’t walked in. “How do you make something right when you’ve made it so wrong you can never go back?” BoJack says in the tape. As the episode ends, Diane’s words from earlier hang in the air: I don’t think he can make things right. 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.
At the start of its first season, BoJack Horseman was exactly the kind of show it appeared to be. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “It was the hundredth series about a middle-aged man—well, a horse, but still—who did bad things.” But the series soon proved it was more than that, and Nussbaum distilled what elevated the show: “It was sympathetic to BoJack’s depression and the sources of his pain, but it didn’t glamorize his solipsism as a special sensitivity.” BoJack Horseman brought new depths to the story of a pretty terrible man in a way that made for fascinating television.
In other words, it was good art. In other words, it was the kind of show that Diane helps turn Philbert into. After first being told by the show’s creator that she’s just there to make the project look less sexist, Diane takes a more active role in fleshing out Philbert’s character, partly in an attempt to get BoJack to admit to the actions described on the tape. But after Philbert receives rave reviews, Diane comes to a sobering realization. In a speech at the show’s premiere, BoJack tells the crowd that he thinks the message of Philbert is that “we’re all terrible, so therefore we’re all okay.” Afterward, Diane confesses her concerns to the show’s creator. “I made [Philbert] more vulnerable, and that made him more likable, which makes for a better TV show,” she says. “But if Philbert is just a way to make dumb assholes rationalize their own awful behavior, well, I’m sorry, but we can’t put this out there.”
By extension, BoJack puts pressure on the sort of extensive praise it has received as a show: If the goal of creating flawed, relatable protagonists is to tell better, more resonant stories, then might not those stories influence the way empathy is collectively cultivated and demonstrated in real life? Might not all the beloved shows about “difficult” or “bad” men have something to do with the way Hollywood—and even the general public—has become accustomed to forgiving and forgetting despicable and even criminal behavior? Certainly the cycle is more of an ouroboros, with the ugliness of fiction feeding on the ugliness of reality feeding on the ugliness of fiction. (Even BoJack notes how much TV has shaped his own morality: “All I know about being good, I learned from TV.”)
BoJack Horseman makes the abstract question about the relationship between fiction and reality more concrete in the penultimate episode. By then, BoJack’s addiction to painkillers (which began as a way to treat a back injury) has left him unable to distinguish between his own life and Philbert. His paranoia builds to a nauseating incident where he goes too far in a scene with his co-star and romantic partner, Gina Cazador, and actually chokes her. It’s with the character of Gina (played beautifully by Stephanie Beatriz) that BoJack reaffirms its commitment to never be a show solely about the woes of bad people.
In truth, the Philbert arc is less about BoJack’s career than it is about Gina’s. “I do one of these shows every year,” she tells BoJack at the start of Season 5. “And I keep getting hired because I show up, do the work, and keep my head down.” She accepts shallow roles like her Philbert character (who “hates bras, loves cold rooms”), because she knows women in the industry must play a longer game. “Maybe, if I’m lucky, when I’m 60 I can get a juicy season arc on the right cable show where everyone goes, ‘Who’s this 60-year-old woman? She came out of nowhere,’” Gina explains to BoJack. But to her surprise, her work in Philbert finally earns her the love of critics and viewers alike.
If BoJack Horseman understands that the path to forgiveness (and sustained employment) in Hollywood is often a foregone conclusion for abusive men, it also knows their victims can’t expect that their careers will be similarly spared. Which is why Gina opts to not press charges for the assault and to keep working with BoJack, who doesn’t remember the attack and only learns of it when Princess Carolyn shows him a video later. As the two actors prepare to go on TV to say that footage of the choking isn’t real, Gina tells BoJack why he needs to go along with the story:
If there were any justice, you’d be in jail right now … People know me because of my acting, and all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman … I don’t want you to be the most notable thing that ever happened to me.
It’s a devastating monologue, one that allows Gina a degree of dignity and agency: It amply illustrates how people, particularly early in their career, stay silent about abuse or assault because there’s a penalty in Hollywood for speaking out. But Gina’s words are also painful because they deny both BoJack—and the audience—the catharsis of seeing him pay for his actions.
And so while both Gina and producers like Princess Carolyn want to prevent a scandal, BoJack is desperate to come clean. He asks Diane to write a takedown of him, but Diane refuses. “I’m asking to be held accountable,” BoJack begs. “No one is going to hold you accountable. You need to take responsibility for yourself,” Diane answers. The two then have an exchange they’ve had many times before: about whether BoJack is a good guy and whether he can change. “There’s no such thing as bad guys or good guys … All we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff,” Diane says. It’s a notably different sort of conversation than the one she had with Ana—one more tolerant of the idea that someone like BoJack can ever “make things right.”
And so Season 5 ends with a sequence that’s both completely logical and a little underwhelming: Diane drives BoJack to rehab. She tells him that, even if she hates him and can’t forgive him, she’s helping because he’s her friend. She waves goodbye with a smile, but once he’s gone, a strange expression crosses her face. It’s an inscrutable look that could mean anything: that she truly believes BoJack can change but is afraid he won’t. That she doesn’t believe he can change, but that she’s obligated to help him anyway. Or that she’s only taking him to rehab because part of her knows that, much like Gina, being associated with a known abuser could damage her own career. It’s a look that makes plain how one man’s sins have stained everyone around him.
In some ways, BoJack Horseman concludes that there are limits to how Hollywood generally conceives of “redemption”: as something that has to be negotiated primarily in the public eye, that has to satisfy the moral demands of a crowd of onlookers. Redemption, as practiced by men like Vance Waggoner, can be an empty exercise—an opportunity for performative self-flagellation, or for self-pardon, that centers the ego of the wrongdoer. But this approach also tends to sideline the more difficult, unexciting, and private work of making amends to the people you’ve hurt, of being honest with yourself, and of trying to be consistently good.
The show knows that letting BoJack take this quieter route could lead to dramatically inert territory. “You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms, not really,” BoJack says at one point. “Because if everyone’s happy, the show would be over, and above all else, the show has to keep going.” But perhaps the next season will try to imagine what the space between perpetual self-immolation and happiness might look like for BoJack Horseman. Perhaps the show will, as BoJack must, find another way to deal with the pain.