This article contains spoilers for Netflix's "You" Season 2 and BoJack Horseman seasons 1-6.
BoJack Horseman has mastered the art of the meta-commentary.
From start to finish, it has revolved around a horse-man who seems to embody everything wicked about celebrity culture. He constantly abuses his position of power, falls prey to countless addictions, and perpetually fails and harms the people around him.
Though the show criticizes and satirizes all the forgiveness that BoJack receives, its writers constantly humanize and sympathize with him, delving into his abusive upbringing and exploring all the reasons why he's unable to love himself and others. BoJack is constantly hitting rock bottom and then is given another chance, and though he inevitably disappoints those who forgive him, he is always the star of the show in the end. It's a loop, but is there a way out?
In the trailer for the show's final season, it appears that BoJack is making yet another effort to redeem himself. This time, it's not through rehab or through traveling to New Mexico—he's tried those before—it's through accepting a teaching position at Wesleyan. He's changed, he insists, sporting newly greyed hair, and he's seeking something real. It's hard not to believe him, even though at this point, we should know better.
BoJack Horseman | Season 6 Final Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com
Perhaps part of what makes us want to forgive BoJack is because of the way he speaks. His voice is extremely persuasive, and he sounds level-headed. He speaks like a powerful white dude, which is the demographic that has objectively occupied the majority of positions of power and influence in America, so perhaps that has something to do with why we keep believing what he has to say. When he attempts to persuade people (most frequently women) to forgive him, he is articulate, self-deprecating, and full of vast, limitless, beautiful promises. In other words, he is an expert at the "reconciliation" step on the cycle of abuse.
BoJack's narration style is reminiscent of another show that relies on the unreliable narrative of another dangerous yet unnervingly persuasive man: Joe Goldberg from You. Though BoJack Horseman is far superior in almost every way to You on a technical level, their central characters bear certain similarities, and not only in terms of the slow, methodical, and almost hypnotic way in which they speak.
Lovable Demons: Parallels Between BoJack Horseman and Joe Goldberg
Just as BoJack moves to Wesleyan in order to escape his life in Los Angeles, the second season of You begins with Joe moving away from New York to LA in order to escape the trail of bloodshed he left behind. Joe from You is far more delusional than BoJack, and far more invested in his idealized self-perception. While BoJack tends to rely on self-awareness and self-deprecation to continue making his repetitive, cyclical mistakes, Joe, on the other hand, is obsessed with the idea that he is "good"—and has a level-headed way of explaining his own violent crimes (and persuading himself that they won't happen again) so effectively that sometimes it's easy to find yourself rooting for him, wishing his relationships will work out, that he'll succeed and heal and grow.
Joe is also much more violent and psychotic than BoJack, as he actively traps and murders people. However, BoJack technically does have Sarah Lynn's death on his hands (as he was the one who persuaded her to abandon her sobriety). At one point he implied that what happened in New Mexico with 16-year-old Penny was not an isolated incident. In the last season, he nearly killed his girlfriend during a movie scene.
In short, both BoJack and Joe are completely out of control, but they remain convinced that they in some way deserve—and can achieve—absolution from their sins.
Why can't we look away? Perhaps both characters give viewers some sort of subconscious release. BoJack Horseman undoubtedly humanizes BoJack to help the audience feel better about their own bad behavior (as the show's satirical Philbert storyline clearly remarked), while Joe provides a vehicle for a largely female audience to entertain suppressed fantasies.
These two shows are far from the only media to do this; the list of examples goes on and on. Part of what makes these terrible-yet-sympathetic protagonist archetypes so fascinating is that though we should absolutely reject each of these three characters, it's hard to tear our eyes away from them. Instead, it's easy to become invested, especially as the shows delve into the reasons why each of them commit so much evil and treat others so badly.
Curiosity about the sources of evil is only natural, but the reason could be more deeply rooted in our own psychology. According to V. Reneé, "essentially, giving a villain a reason for being evil does two things: It allows the villain to be as evil as it wants without "villain decay," and it gives the villain enough depth to inspire empathy." This trope is also referred to as the "Freudian Excuse," an apt term as so many of these characters have issues that relate to their mothers.
Mother Wounds: The Roles of Women in BoJack Horseman and You
Each character's crimes undoubtedly stem from some form of deep-rooted inadequacy. For Walter White, his homicidal behavior is about his failure to live up to an ideal of masculine success. For BoJack and Joe from You, it has everything to do with their absent mothers.
BoJack Horseman's mother is a ghoulish, looming presence throughout the show's later seasons. She was cruel and cold to BoJack as a child, constantly criticizing him and leading him to find solace in performance because she (and then he) could not tolerate his real self. Joe's mother also left him with a gaping wound—though in her case, she continued to return to abusive relationships and eventually sent Joe to foster care.
In their adult lives, these characters seek solace and healing in their idealized visions of the female characters around them, constantly looking to remedy the damage that their mothers did. Fortunately, the writers of each of these shows slowly shatter their protagonists' visions of these women, creating strong, complex, damaged female characters that act as mirrors for the main characters' flaws. In BoJack Horseman, Diane—arguably one of the best-written characters on TV today—is initially viewed by BoJack as a smart and empathetic potential solution to his problems. Soon enough, it's revealed that Diane, like BoJack, is burdened by wounds of her own; she is unsatisfied, rejects love, and is burdened by nihilism and fears of her own hypocrisy.
On You, Joe meets his match in Love Quinn. He initially sees her as the embodiment of care, kindness, and empathy, but soon enough it is revealed that she is far more damaged—and more similar to him—than he ever could have dreamed.
Though they are aware of the sins of their respective male counterparts, Diane and Love never come close to cutting off BoJack and Joe. Diane occasionally lashes out at BoJack, but the two remain joined at the hip. Her own low self-esteem and guilt allow her to sympathize with him, and the same goes for Love (though the circumstances are different, and Love winds up being just as insane as Joe, which is a whole other conversation in itself).
But for the most part, these women, like the show's viewers, provide theaters into which the men can broadcast their bullsh*t. That's not to say these women (or we) are inherently wrong, or significantly better than these men. In fact, we might be more similar to them than we think. Many people act wickedly, and most of the time it is because of some reason rooted in childhood or experiences out of their control. But the problem is that not all people are given equal opportunities to achieve redemption.
Bittersweet Sympathy: Race, Violence, and the Empathy Illusion
Even if it is understandable, the type of sympathy that BoJack and Joe receive is rarely, if ever, offered to marginalized people like black men and immigrants, who are often portrayed as monoliths and statistics rather than symptoms of their past and backgrounds. On the other hand, in portrayals of terrorists, young white males are frequently given the same kind of explanations that Joe and BoJack receive. While no neat line can be drawn, it's impossible to address these characters without referring to all the forces that allow them to continue making mistakes while coming out unscathed.
The problem here is not necessarily that we empathize with BoJack and Joe. It's that we empathize with them at the expense of others' lives, and our empathy can distract from other stories that deserve to be told.
Perhaps the point is not that we should suppress every ounce of empathy for BoJack and Joe. Humans need to believe that healing is possible and that forgiveness can be provided if someone actively changes their ways and works to rectify the problems they've created. But too often, some people are allowed to be endlessly forgiven, while others are demonized and written off for slight mishaps due to events outside of their control.
Knowing BoJack, the final season will remark on this in its typically self-aware fashion. It probably won't even offer its titular horse any form of redemption. Instead, it will probably end in shambles, leaving us with more questions than answers.
We'll miss BoJack, but maybe it's time to let him go.