I recently binge-watched all five seasons of the Netflix show Bojack Horseman in a week. There was just something about this animated comedy-drama that had me hooked from the very first episode. To say I resonated with its titular character would be a stretch, as Bojack is an anthropomorphic horse/middle-aged 90s sitcom star who is slowly fading into irrelevance in Hollywood (the show’s parodic version of Hollywood). But I found that aspects of Bojack’s character felt familiar and cathartic to watch develop on screen.
Mental illness is extensively discussed throughout Bojack Horseman. Bojack struggles with depression and substance abuse, stemming from trauma caused by his narcissistic and negligent parents which is revealed through various flashbacks to his youth. But beyond the very important discussions of mental illness and intergenerational trauma, Bojack Horseman also talks about the importance of self-accountability and personal development.
Throughout all five seasons, Bojack is constantly asking himself: ‘Am I a good or bad person?’ Bojack does engage in a lot of immoral and shitty behaviour: he is constantly screwing over his partners and friends for his own personal gain. He is unreliable, untrustworthy and overall a downright selfish jerk. There are times when it seems comical for Bojack to even be asking that question, like when we see him early in the first season intentionally sabotaging his good friend Todd’s dreams of becoming a successful rock opera writer. But when it is asked why he would do that to his long-term couch-surfing roommate, it gets a lot more complicated than Bojack simply being an evil person (or horse).
While Bojack is helping Todd on his rock opera, he realises that Todd’s apparently inevitable success means he would soon leave his couch-surfing days behind him. This triggers Bojack’s deep-rooted issues with abandonment and causes him to sabotage his closest friend. Although there is no palatable excuse to defend Bojack’s behaviour, the show dives into the psychological traumas that are at the root of his actions, blurring the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’: the space where Bojack seems to hang around fairly often. You couldn’t with a straight face suggest that Bojack is a ‘good person’ but as the series progresses, it becomes much harder to pin him down as a bad one.
The ambiguity of morals is also explored through the character of Diane Nguyen, Bojack’s memoirist and moral opposite. Diane is a writer who is passionate about social justice causes – a stark contrast to the egocentric Bojack. Despite their differences, Bojack forms a relationship with Diane and, though he mocks her for her self-righteousness, is seen to secretly envy her self-accountability. Instead of learning from Diane, however, Bojack uses her as a form of self-validation by constantly asking if she thinks he is a good person. But Diane is also struggling with the same question as she finds her unrelenting standards and unwavering ethics getting in the way of her work and relationships. Also, while living in a status-oriented city such as L.A, she is finding it increasingly hard to live up to her own standards of ‘good’. Through Diane’s struggles with a series of ethical dilemmas, she arrives at an answer to Bojack’s question: there is no such a thing as ‘good people’ or ‘bad people’, just good and bad behaviour. There is no ‘good person’ deep down in Bojack: his actions speak for who he is as a person. Bojack doesn’t like this answer because it means there is no real shortcut to be a ‘good’ person; it forces him to confront the reality that all his bad decisions and judgments reflect back on him.
As the show develops, it is no longer a question of whether Bojack is bad or good but rather if he is redeemable or not. Can he ever outgrow his self-destructive and selfish behaviour? He blames his parents for his upbringing and avoids contact with people viewing himself as ‘poison’, but his self-isolation only further hurts people around him.
Through a series of dramatic life events, he begins to realise that accepting himself as person who tends to do bad is not helpful either. Whether he likes it or not, he has people in his life he is responsible for. As he watches a loved one die full of pent-up anger and resentment, he realises the futility of holding on to his negative feelings. So now, going into season 6, the question has changed again. It is no longer about whether Bojack is redeemable, but if he has the courage to forgive himself and make the conscious choice to do good.
Bojack Horseman has helped solve my dilemma about whether I am inherently good or bad. It has also made me rethink how I continue to justify the presence of certain people in my own life. We are what we do. It’s a self-accountability thing.
The sixth season of Bojack Horseman is incoming.