In total, the fifth season of Netflix's animated series juggles as many dark laughs out of the difficulty of breaking out of toxic behaviors, cementing its place as one of the most emotionally complicated shows on television.
Minor spoilers ahead for the rest of season 5; check out our season 5 preview here.
Every season of BoJack Horseman has one standout episode that reminds you that this show isn’t fucking around. It really does mean to ply you with laughter before punching you dead in the gut, leaving you on the ground gasping and thinking about every bad thing you’ve done in your life.
In season 5 it’s “Free Churro,” an episode dedicated entirely to BoJack (Will Arnett) giving his mother’s eulogy. There are two key moments during the eulogy that lead to BoJack’s inevitable spiral – one is realizing he misunderstood his mother’s dying words “I see you” as being an acknowledgment of his existence (when really, she was simply reading the letters “I.C.U.”), and the other is discovering that he’s at the wrong funeral.
It’s a bit of broad comedy, but laughs don’t come easy, because we know that BoJack’s mother having the last word even from beyond the grave is going to send him over that same edge he’s gone over many other times in his life. And it does, driven by an all new addiction (this time to painkillers) and fear that his past is going to come back to haunt him – which it does, more or less. Though he’s more broken than ever by the end of the season, BoJack makes a small crumb of progress, just in admitting that, if he can fix himself at all, he certainly can’t do it alone.
Season 5 leans harder than ever into absurd humor, including one episode where the characters are portrayed as different versions of themselves (even the opening credits sequence is changed to “Bobo the Angsty Zebra”), and another in which Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and Flip McVicker (Rami Malek), head writer for BoJack’s new show, are accused of stealing jokes from popsicle sticks. There’s also “Henry Fondle,” the sex robot Todd (Aaron Paul) crudely constructs out of scrap metal and dildos, that everyone else accepts as a human being without question, even when they’re sprayed with liquid. They’re an almost disorienting contrast to BoJack’s descent into paranoia, which results in a shocking assault on one of his co-stars, and Princess Carolyn having her dream of adopting a child snatched away from her not once, but twice.
And if we want to talk disorienting, let’s talk episode 10’s direct callout to the audience that, as with Rick and Morty, Fight Club, and other pop culture with an oblivious fanbase, doesn’t seem to get that BoJack is a character to be pitied, not emulated or – god forbid – aspirational. “That’s not the point of Philbert, for guys to watch it and feel okay,” Diane tells BoJack, during a furious argument that seems like it will put an end to their strange, co-dependent friendship. It takes some guts to hold your audience accountable for failing to understand what you’re trying to say, and that’s one of the reasons why BoJack Horseman is one of the smartest, most insightful shows on television, even with “Tuna Danza” sight gags.
It also tells the stark truth about humans: we really don’t change, not that much at least. Oh, we want to change, but real change requires things many of us are incapable of doing. Admitting when we’re wrong, taking responsibility for our mistakes, and, most difficult at all, relying on other people for help. Rather than do all that—because it’s really hard, man—we just stay in a holding pattern, falling back on old, learned behaviors because it feels safer. It takes 25 years and three failed marriages for Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) to realize that he’s the common denominator in his relationship problems. And then, in the last episode, he makes the exact same mistake he usually does.
BoJack wants desperately to find some sense of family in half-sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), but his refusal to admit his weaknesses continues to keep her at arm’s length. Though Princess Carolyn does finally get her baby, she names it “Untitled Princess Carolyn Project.” It’s a funny, even kind of sweet line given Princess Carolyn’s job, but there’s an unnerving second meaning behind it suggesting that her motivations for wanting to be a mother are muddled and self-centered.
Diane (Allison Brie) is so far the only character who’s significantly changed since the beginning of the series. Arguably the soul and backbone of the show, she’s revealing herself to be a complex, not particularly nice person. She wants her friends to open up to her, but is resentful and judgmental when they do. She doesn’t appreciate her own success, or anyone else’s for that matter. She’s subtly manipulative. Episode 7 ends with Diane doing something to BoJack that is both so clever and cruel that I gasped out loud, and wondered how their friendship could ever possibly come back from it.
Nevertheless, one thing she has that everyone else on the show is woefully lacking in is self-awareness. She reins in her own need to lash out just long enough to talk BoJack into entering rehab, which is where the season concludes. “Why do you care so much?” BoJack asks, and Diane answers “Because I’m an idiot.” That might be the harshest takeaway from BoJack Horseman yet: there’s no good reason for why we give people infinite chances, why we stay in situations that aren’t good for us, why we keep refusing to do the work to make real changes in our lives. Because change is scary. Because asking for help shows weakness. Because we’re idiots.