Monday, February 17, 2020

[Unpopular Opinion] [Spoilers] [Review] My Take on the Season Finale of Bojack Horseman (with Four Alternative Endings)

Bojack Horseman had an unorthodox ending.  It split its final season into two parts, much in the way it constantly splits its viewers hearts into two parts every other episode.

This resulted in a several-month wait of nervous anticipation.  The first half of the 6th season showed Bojack, the troubled titular character, getting his shit together, but ended on a cliffhanger in which everything is about to go terribly, horribly wrong.  The second half of the 6th season, finally released on January 31st, resolved the cliffhanger and gave us an ending.

Was it the ending I wanted?

To be honest, no.


Naturally, I binge-watched the entire 8-episode second half in one sitting, the moment it dropped at 12 a.m. on January 31st.  I assume you did something similar, or you wouldn't be reading this right now.  I assume that you've seen the final season of Bojack Horseman, but if you haven't, go see it.

The second-from-the-last episode scared the shit out of me.  Granted, this was at about 3:30 a.m. so all of my emotions were pretty heightened.  Looking back, I felt like some of the symbolism was a little over-the-top.  It felt a tiny bit forced, the heavy-handed death allegory.  Black tendrils of water, a guy running down a narrow and impossibly long hallway... these images felt tired out.

But I can forgive that for three reasons.

First, this whole episode was alluded to / foreshadowed in the one of the early episodes of the season, when Bojack is talking to the therapy horse Dr. Champ, and Dr. Champ says that Bojack has told him everything, "even that dream where you're at a dinner party."

Second, Secretaridad's poem "The View from Halfway Down" justifies the entire episode.  The whole episode could have been garbage and this single poem (and the voice actor's delivery of it) really, really hammers home the terrible final thought processes of suicidal people.

 Click for full view.

Third, Herb's responses to Bojack.  When Bojack refers to the dream sequence as "this place," Herb says, "There is no place.  It's just your brain going through what it feels like it has to go through."  Later, Bojack says, "See you on the other side," and Herb gently replies, "Oh, Bojack, no.  There is no other side.  This is it."

One of my big complaints about this episode was the implication that you dream when you're dead, that you experience something, that there's some sort of fantastic dreamworld or meaningful experience you have in your final moments.  Herb's grounding the episode took care of that for me.  This episode wasn't for Bojack.  It was for us, the audience.  Bojack was incapable of having such a lucid dream while he was dead, and I felt like Herb's character helped clarify this.

But then we got the last episode.

In the very last episode, Bojack attends Princess Carolyn's wedding, and at the end, goes onto the roof to talk to Diane, who reveals she is also married and now lives in Texas.  Bojack "making it" felt like a little bit of cop-out.

But worse, Bojack's story ends with him going to jail.

First of all, one of the strengths of the show is that it's always been relatable.  Not all of us were stars in '90s sitcoms, but generally, Bojack's experiences are universal.  His need for approval, his fear that he's not good enough, his desperate chasing for friendships that validate him.  It feels very human (even though he's a horse).  Going to jail is not a universal experience.  And it can't even be said to be Bojack's rock-bottom, either.  Bojack is forced to go sober, and let me tell you, not a lot of recovering addicts ever really get "forced."  Most hit a personal rock-bottom and then realize they have to fix themselves or they will end up dead.  In other words, pardon the cliché, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.

They made Bojack drink and I hated that.  Bojack made his own bed and was constantly being forced to deal with the consequences of his own actions and choices.  Being sent to jail isn't the same as holding yourself personally accountable.  It's just being caught being shitty.  It says nothing of personal growth.  The show's relatability fell apart for me in the final episode.  The cheesy marriages of P.C. and Diane, respectively, also felt a little cliché. 

Bojack going to jail reminded me of Robert Downey Jr.'s '90s issues but, for most of the viewing audience who is not Robert Downey Jr., it was totally inaccessible.  Also, please explain to me why Bojack was sent to a maximum security facility for drug and trespassing charges?  Also, please explain to me why they would let him out for the weekend, if it's maximum security?  This episode was formulatic and hackneyed and, worst of all, it failed to deliver the relatability that made the rest of the show so totally phenomenal.  Bojack was a show built on exploring universal experiences, and the final episode felt all wrong to me.

A few things I liked.  I liked the reveal that Bojack had called Diane and left her a shitty, manipulative message wherein he basically held himself hostage.  This is classic suicidal drug abuser behavior and I love this final exploration of Bojack's and Diane's relationship. 

I also really, really liked the resolution with Hollyhock, which is that there wasn't one.  He fucked up and Hollyhock cut him out of her life because he was a toxic person, and even now that he's in recovery, he can't get it back.  That happens in real life and it's devastating and raw and real.  It's an open wound that never quite heals because you don't get the resolution or closure you want, no matter how much you get better.  I felt that.

As usual, I can't bring myself to complain about something without an attempt to fix it, so I thought up four alternative endings that I think would have worked better than Princess Carolyn's wedding, which had the gaudy, sitcommy weight of reassurance to it.  It felt out of place for the show, whose usual tone toes the line between absurd meaninglessness (ie, Dadaism) and unsatisfactory real-life stories that are relatable because of their open-ended rawness.

Alternative Ending #1: Bring Back the Baboon

One of the earliest moments in the series that really, truly resonated with the fan community was at the end of season 2 when the jogging baboon looms over Bojack and gives him some advice about running: "It gets easier… every day it gets a little easier.  But you gotta do it every day — that’s the hard part. But it does get easier."

Imagine if in the final episode, Bojack leaves prison, ends up in a crappy apartment, and drags himself to court-ordered AA meetings.  And... there's the baboon.

Baboon:You know what they say.  One day at a time.  I try to live my life by those words, but--
[Bojack is nodding.]
Baboon: --the truth is, it never really gets any easier.
Bojack: Wait a second!  You told me it gets easier.
Baboon: ...what are you talking about?
Bojack: When I was running!  You told me if I did it every day it would get easier!
Baboon: That was about running, man, not life! you mean to tell me you try to ascribe meaning to every casual interaction in your life like it's some kind of sitcom?
Bojack: Well screw me for trying to find meaning!
[Bojack gets up to leave.]

Baboon: Wait.
Bojack: What?
Baboon: Look.  Life isn't like a sitcom, or training for a marathon, because there's no conclusions.  There's no moment where you're suddenly just... done.  That's why we say you gotta take it one day at a time.  And I'm not going to bullshit you.  It doesn't get easier.  But... you get stronger.
[Bojack contemplates this, and then sits back down.]
[In the final scene, the camera pans out, showing Bojack and the baboon talking outside after the meeting.]

What it means: Exactly what it says.  You live each day and try to do your best, and it's hard, but if you keep trying, then hopefully it will get better.  People love that goddamn baboon and he disappeared after season 2, so I think this would have been an amazing reappearance.  Also, the wise old baboon being in AA and being shown to struggle is a powerful message.  Everyone's dealing with something; we should help each other out.

Alternative Ending #2: Callback to the Bag of Mulch

Bojack leaves prison and/or fades into obscurity after the bad press regarding Sarah Lynn.  He moves into a crappy apartment next to the 110 freeway.  At the end of the episode, he goes outside and leans on his car, smoking, and looking up at the skyline, listening to the traffic in quiet contemplation.

Bojack [to himself]: Maybe being on that show for all those years gave me a false impression in neat conclusions.  That everything always wraps up nicely at the end.  That, no matter how messy things get, there's a point to it.  [pausing] I'd like to think there's a point to it.  I don't believe in God but I wish I did.  I wish I could.  ...God?  ...if you're there... give me sign.
[There is a long, quiet pause.  Nothing happens.]
[Bojack sighs.]
[Suddenly, a bag of mulch falls from the overpass and lands into his car.]

[Bojack stares at it in shock, then looks up, then looks back down at it.  His incredulous expression turns to one of annoyance.]
Bojack [yelling]: Well what the hell is that supposed to mean?!
[Cut sharply to the end credits.]

What it means: Life is absurd and we are the ones who give it meaning.  This fits perfectly with the existentialism and dadaism that is a cornerstone of the show's aesthetic.  It's also a punchline to a confusing joke, which is about 90% of the show's plotlines.

Alternative Ending #3: Why the Long Face?

We got some of this in the final episode, in the form of a song that I personally didn't like much.  But for a long time, I had hoped, desperately, that the series finale would involve Bojack going to a bar and getting asked this question.

Ideally, I would have liked Bojack to have been driving and to have reached a crossroads.  (Literally.)  He parks, get out of his car, and goes into a bar.  He sits down.  (Cameo appearance: Dr. Champ in the background, getting shit-faced.)  The bartender comes up to him.

Bartender: What'll it be?
Bojack: Huh?
Bartender: ...what'll it be? need to choose something, you know.
[Bojack stares pitifully at the drinks along the wall, realizing he needs to make a choice.]
Bojack: But... what if I make the wrong choice?
Bartender: Then I guess you order something else?
Bojack: But what if the first choice influences every other choice?  What if I set myself down an irrevocable path of self-destruction and I get in too deep and can't turn back?
Bartender: Um...
Bojack: I shouldn't even be here.  What am I doing?  ...I have to choose something, but it feels like, no matter what I choose, it's wrong.  And not choosing... that's a choice, too, isn't it?
Bartender: I guess?
Bojack: I could choose to get a drink or I could just... go home. But then what?  What's the point?  Be good now, so I can mess up later?  
[A long, awkward pause ensues.]

Bartender [leaning onto the bar]: Wow, man.  That's all really heavy.  Sounds like you're working through some shit.
Bojack: I'm trying to figure things out and I just... don't know how.
Bartender: Need someone to listen?
[Bojack nods.]
Bartender: Alright, go ahead.  Tell me what's up, big guy.  ...why the long face?

What it means:  I love the idea of six seasons of suffering building up to a played-out one-line joke.  It perfectly captures life's absurd pointlessness.  However,  I also like the idea of Bojack being shown making a choice.  Does he relapse?  Does he go home?  What's next?  No idea!  Doesn't matter.  The point is that our lives are made up of a series of choices, and to live meaningfully, we have to acknowledge those choices, as well as their consequences.

Alternative Ending #4: "What's Behind That Door?" 

The iconic opening sequence of the show, each season, has been Bojack floating through life to a funky jazz tune before falling into his swimming pool.  He sees Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter appear above him, looking worried, and then a bright life from a helicopter.  The bright light transitions into him floating on the surface of the pool in shorts and sunglasses on a bright southern California day, and the camera pans out to show his hillside home in the Hollywood hills.

Now imagine this.  The final episode opens with the same opening sequence.  Bojack floats through life: his abusive childhood, his rise to stardom, his downward spiral, his falling into the pool... we see Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter appear and the bright light...

...and then it cuts to darkness.

For twenty-two minutes, we get a black screen.  No images.  No sound.  Just black.  And then it cuts to the credits.

What it means: As Herb already said, there's nothing behind the door.  When you die, you're dead, and your story ends.  This ending would be beyond frustrating for the viewers, but that's the point.  We got to know Bojack, to love him despite his faults, to want to his story to continue.  By killing himself, he robbed us of that.  Death is finality and there's nothing else beyond it.

So make it count.

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