‘BoJack Horseman’ asks what redemption means in 1st half of final season

A promotional poster for "BoJack Horseman" (2014–20) is pictured. via IMDB

Entering the sixth and final season of Netflix’s animated flagshipBoJack Horseman(2014–20), creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and crew knew it was time to shift from questions to answers. It’s a scary departure, knowing that for five seasons “BoJack Horseman” handled the former so well. From rock bottoms to rockier bottoms, BoJack (Will Arnett) and the rest of the main cast explored the depths of the human experience more thoroughly than perhaps any other television show in modern history.

But, after a half-decade of rises and falls from the characters as they sifted through life in Hollywoo, “BoJack Horseman” had the unique challenge of forging a definitive path forward in its final season. But in a life full of never-ending cycles, how can anyone break out of orbit? The answer, at least in the first half of “BoJack’s” final frame, is to start anew.

As indicated by the end of season five, that new start for BoJack is in Pastiches, a rehabilitation facility in Malibu. After a painkiller addiction brought BoJack to the darkest and most distorted reality we’ve seen from him on screen, it was clear that half-measures were not the solution beholden to season six.

In true BoJack fashion, he doesn’t take to the treatment earnestly at first. The season’s opener, “A Horse Walks into a Rehab,mostly revolves around this struggle, as well as an examination of the source of his addiction. The episode begins in the immediate aftermath of the emotional apex of the series, with Sarah Lynn’s (Kristen Schaal) heroin overdose in season three’sThat’s Too Much, Man!” Giving us a flashback to the most fatal consequence of BoJack’s actions is a grim reminder of what he’s left behind due to his addiction, and perhaps a grimmer reminder of what could come if he doesn’t change.

Cutting back to Pastiches, BoJack doesn’t take well to the therapy experience… until noticing a picture of Sarah Lynn a former patient on the wall. This moment of clarity seems to drive BoJack to take therapy more seriously, and soon he’s a model student. In the episode’s final act, BoJack is faced with a familiar situation to the one he was faced with years ago with Sarah Lynn: Jameson H. (Kiersey Clemons), a teenage girl with multiple rehab stints, breaks out to confront her boyfriend at a party. BoJack follows, and despite having his first chance at a drop of alcohol in months, he just helps Jameson get back safely (and sober).

Meanwhile, a few flashbacks are interspersed throughout the episode, showing the various “first times” that BoJack drank. In these moments we see BoJack’s most pervasive addiction enabling another: attention. Whether it be to loosen his nerves and carry more charisma on stage, open himself up enough to land jokes at a high school party or to try and understand his parents’ drunken fights, we see that alcohol and his desire to be seen are inherently woven into his psyche. These various realizations, coupled with the burning memory of Sarah Lynn, give BoJack (and the audience) real hope — hope that this time, he can really change.

Season six isn’t just a fresh start for BoJack, though. His time in rehab takes a backseat plot-wise for the next few episodes, focusing on new beginnings for the rest of the cast. “The New Client,” the season’s second episode, highlights Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) newest project: her (to-be-named) daughter. PC’s mantra since the beginning of the show has been that she can do it all, but when tasked with hosting an event championing working moms while taking care of her own newborn, we finally see her at capacity.

Proper credit is owed to Lisa Hanawalt and her production team for animating this sense of exhaustion into existence. As Princess Carolyn’s attention becomes divided further and further, timelines split off and we see PC literally doing it all on-screen, taking several different forms and doing several different tasks between her job and her child. Eventually, her attention is split too thin, and her overworked and needle-pricked body (adopting a porcupine is a much bigger day-to-day burden than you’d think) finds its way to Pastiches, where her intention to visit BoJack turns into a brief stay herself.

While Princess Carolyn rests, everything else works itself out off-screen, and by the time she wakes up, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) had accidentally secured her a new project with a television network and her working mom how-do-ya-do had already taken place. PC didn’t do it all, but she learned something better: she doesn’t have to do it all. In a touching moment with her long-time rival Vanessa Gekko (Kristin Chenoweth), PC confides a deep fear that her passion for her baby isn’t clicking like her passion for work. Gekko admits that raising a child is a ruthless project, but one that she’ll learn to take care of, just like all of her other projects. Coming full circle, Princess Carolyn now finally has a name for her daughter Ruthie which is a nod to both her ruthlessness and “Ruthie,” a season four classic.

Diane (Alison Brie) takes the biggest leap geographically of any of the main five in season six, as “Feel-Good Episode” shows her traveling across the country with her cameraman and new boyfriend Guy (LaKeith Stanfield), covering stories for GirlCroosh’s new video section. We’ve seen stark life and physical change from Diane over the past two seasons, and season six is another in a long line of attempts for her to find happiness.

And, with Guy, she actually finds it. The episode mostly revolves around a fight to take down Jeremiah Whitewhale (Stephen Root), your everyday evil capitalist billionaire who buys out anything that challenges him. An investigation into an “accidental” death at one of his factories brings us Diane at peak obsession, desperate to make a meaningful piece of journalism. We see Guy prop her up in these moments, understanding (or at least accepting) her quirks in a way Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) never quite could.

In the end, Diane and Guy confront Whitewhale about the accident, only for him to chuckle it away: “That was no accident — I murdered him!” Yes, season six brings us a new offering of tragically comical critiques of American capitalism, as Congress passes a law that allows billionaires to murder anyone, ending their investigation. While their work was meaningless, the bond that Diane and Guy formed was real. Diane didn’t trust this happiness, though, and went back to Los Angeles. Some cycles are harder to break than others.

Surprise” is a highlight of the season, bringing the cast together for a surprise wedding for Mr. Peanutbutter and Pickles (Julia Chan) at their house — a classic Todd Chavez caper. But, PB’s guilt about cheating on Pickles with Diane reached its apex at the exact same time, and he admits his act right before everyone yells surprise. The next 20 minutes are an exercise in absolute absurdity, with guests of the party hiding from the couple as they work out the issue.

But while the fun of the episode is in the details of each interaction between the concealed characters, the message comes through at the end when Pickles and Mr. Peanutbutter work out an… interesting solution to their problem: Pickles will simply sleep with someone else, and then they’ll be even. Just when we thought we’d finally see PB take responsibility for his actions and be held accountable, he duct tapes the problem together with the maturity of someone in their twenties. The cycles continue.

The latter half of the season centers back to BoJack and the end of his time in rehab, but there is a quick pit stop for a side story with Todd. His newest wacky adventure involves reconciliation with his stepfather and a fight to get his kidney (he had just sold it to buy hand puppets the previous week) to his comatose mother. There’s a clear contrast between the logical nature of Jorge (Jaime Camil) and the zany nature of his stepson, but the two are able to work together long enough to succeed in their mission and steal the kidney from Jeremiah Whitewhale, who’s stockpiling organs “cuz he’s a rich old dude who wants to live forever“.

During the surgery, Jorge seems to show an acceptance of who his son is, acknowledging that he shouldn’t have worried so much about instilling discipline — Todd is white, after all. Noting that Todd’s frivolous misadventures are often a result of white privilege was a considerate but expected move from a show as self-aware as “BoJack Horseman,” though its place at the end of their final conversation leaves room for more development in the latter half of the season.

Outside of Pastiches during the latter half of these episodes, we see an assistant’s strike that culminates in the return of fan-favorite character Judah (Diedrich Bader), Diane’s return to Chicago (she learned to herself trust it) and Picklesfailed attempts to sleep with someone in as emotionally betraying of a manner as Mr. Peanutbutter did. They all serve well as B-plots for the final few episodes and set up interesting narratives for the second half of season six, but BoJack’s last interactions with Doctor Champ (Sam Richardson), his therapy horse, steal the show.

Doctor Champ accidentally drinks a bottle of contraband vodka brought in by BoJack, turning him quickly into a drunk mess. While BoJack originally surmises the situation as another one of the endless screw-ups he’s made, he soon realizes that Champ’s problems lie deeper. Doctor Champ is still a drunk himself, and BoJack’s vodka pushes him toward an alcohol bender.

In a conversation of catharsis at a bar Doctor Champ stumbled into, BoJack finally verbalizes the source of his addiction: his parents gave him an internalized self-hatred of horses, which led to a pattern of misbehavior within himself in disgust of his own horse body. Instead of coping with these feelings, he drinks. This pattern reinforces itself, leading BoJack to believe that he’s powerless to change. It’s a realization that audiences have put together themselves throughout “BoJack Horseman’s” catalog of episodes, but there was a deep relief in hearing BoJack admit it.

BoJack admits Doctor Champ into Partridges, the rehab facility next door to Pastiches. Champ claims that BoJack has ruined him, just as he ruins everyone who dares to care about him. The words sting, but Bojack knows that this is the right path forward. He’s looking directly into a mirror when looking at Doctor Champ, and he finally sees why being sober is so important to his growth.

Now home again, BoJack has to deal with another demon from his past. At his first AA meeting after rehab, he finds himself in the company of an old friend, Sharona (Amy Sedaris), a hairdresser from his ‘90s show “Horsin’ Around.” Sharona represents the beginning of the consequences of BoJack’s drinking, as Sarah Lynn drank vodka that he had brought onto set. Avoiding a PR fiasco, BoJack pins the vodka on Sharona, his drinking buddy, claiming that the show would be over if he gets the blame. Sharona gets fired, and Sarah Lynn takes the first step down the road that eventually kills her. It is a haunting memory to bring up, but BoJack must face it.

The two eventually talk, and Sharona gives him one last haircut as an act of closure. We’re reminded of BoJack’s age as we find out that he’s been dying his hair black for some time now. Sharona stylizes it back to its original gray, and we see a horse that maybe has truly changed, both inside and out.

Continuing his journey of forgiveness, he flies to Chicago to thank Diane for encouraging him to go to rehab and accept the help he needed. It is a beautiful, tender moment between the two broken characters, with BoJack realizing what Diane has always known about him: He is capable of getting better. He isn’t doomed to ruin anyone who cares about him.

The rest of the tour includes a stop in Connecticut, where he visits his younger sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla) at Wesleyan University. He secures a job as a drama professor, the final act that completely separates himself from the version he was in Los Angeles. When he flies in for the new semester, though, inclement weather calls for a brief pitstop in Washington, D.C. Waiting for his newly scheduled flight, he sees a pamphlet for an old horse town, a place of historical reenactment.

In the town, he attends an old horse church service, and we see another breakthrough: the idea of redemption. As BoJack listens to the pastor, you see a physical impact to his words. Isaiah 1:18 is referenced as the pastor says “though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” For someone who thought for so long that they were irreparably damaged, these words came as a revelation to BoJack. The pastor, noticing the effect the service had on him, invites him to stick around because “in 30 minutes, we start over.”

As we see in the final 30 minutes of the first half of the season, the pastor was really talking to the audience. While the second-to-last episode showed a possibility for BoJack to redeem himself on a personal level, the final episode shows that regardless of personal redemption, the consequences of your past actions don’t simply go away. “A Quick One, While He’s Away” highlights the carnage of BoJack’s life — the people he’s hurt along the way.

From Kelsey Jannings (Maria Bamford) being unable to find director work after getting fired from BoJack’s “Secretariat” to Gina (Stephanie Beatriz) experiencing PTSD from being choked by BoJack in a pill-induced haze, we see that in more ways than one, the suffering he caused doesn’t change just because BoJack changed. For a (horse)man who has committed so many harmful acts, it’s critical that we see how personal growth doesn’t absolve past actions. He’s still responsible for the horrible things he did in the past, and if star reporter Paige Sinclair (Paget Brewster) has anything to say about it, he’ll be receiving justice for one of them: the death of Sarah Lynn.

Sarah Lynn’s mother doesn’t believe that her daughter overdosed of her own accord — a fact that the audience knows to be false. As the first half of the season comes to a close, Sinclair and her sidekick reporter Maximillian Banks (Max Greenfield) close in on the story, leading them to New Mexico, where another one of BoJack’s biggest mistakes lie: Penny Carson (Ilana Glazer), a 17-year-old he almost slept with after a prom night where BoJack led her best friend to alcohol poisoning. Yeah, when you put it all together in one sentence, it’s really bad.

The final scene of the first half of the season shows Hollyhock at a party, anxious because she’s never had alcohol before. And, in another incredible coincidence of this episode, Pete (Jermaine Fowler) finds her and calms her down. He talks her through her anxiety attack, giving his own story of why alcohol is so scary to him. And… yes. By this time, the audience realizes that this is the Pete from that fateful night: the date of Penny’s alcohol-poisoned best friend. Hollyhock is disgusted by his tale, but the bigger shock isn’t shown: Pete mentions that the old creep in the story is actually a famous person. Hollyhock, nervous and concerned, asks who it is, though she seems to already know. The episode cuts to black before the reveal.

And thus the cycle continues.


Summary

The first half of "BoJack Horseman's" final frame sets up an existential question: can we ever truly redeem ourselves? We don't have an answer yet, but the question was asked masterfully.

5 stars
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