A ruthless BoJack Horseman breaks the life of Princess Carolyn and the heart of its audience

BoJack Horseman, you crafty evil bastard. You got me.

For the bulk of the run time of “Ruthie,” I was caught up in the travails of Princess Carolyn and filled with deep empathy on the worst day of her life. However, I was also distracted by the framing device that the writers had chosen to tell the story, a futurescape where a young descendant of Princess Carolyn was recounting the events of that day for a class project. It had some good details but the whole affair felt distracting and artificial, less well-conceived than any of the other worlds this series constructed: time measured in “the bean system,” students fed “future Adderall.” How did this kid have access to all of this information about people who lived allegedly hundreds of years ago, and—as Mrs. Teachbot stated—why was any of this information necessary?

Having Kristen Bell as the voice of that child should have tipped me off, because BoJack Horseman pulled a twist worthy of The Good Place finale. I was right to feel those incongruities, because what we were seeing wasn’t real. It’s all just the mind palace that Princess Carolyn has constructed to deal with one of the worst days of her life, losing a client, a child, a confidant, a family heirloom, and a boyfriend all in a row. And it is a soul-crushing reveal, the episode-long conviction that everything would turn out all right just another Hollywoo lie laced with robots and drugs.

The fact that it’s all happening to Princess Carolyn make things hurt even more. Of all the characters in season four, Princess Carolyn has been enjoying the longest relative stretch of things going well: running a successful management agency, in a relationship with someone who loves her, and going from the trauma of a miscarriage to an acknowledgement she does want to start a family now. She’s even managed to keep the BoJack circus out of her life, despite BoJack’s total disinterest in hiring another agent and all his offers still coming her way. It looked like she’d found the way to succeed where everyone else struggled, striking the right balance of work and home and moving forward.

“Ruthie” cures you of those delusions quickly, as Princess Carolyn’s support beams keep getting pulled out one by one like Jenga blocks. Courtney Portnoy fires her as her manager due to the twin failures of Ms. Taken and #TortneyChortnoy. She crosses paths with her old boss Charley Witherspoon at a jewelry store—out picking up a necklace for a catfish he met on the Internet—and in casual conversation he lets slip the Vigor offer from last season that Judah never told her about. And most devastatingly, she suffers another miscarriage, which the albino rhino gyno wino (I know) is utterly terrible in breaking to her: “Maybe you just wanted the baby too much. Maybe you didn’t deserve it because you were unkind once. Maybe you ran afoul of a trickster god or wood nymph who is now exacting revenge.”

The straw that breaks the camel’s back (an analogy it’s surprising they haven’t deployed yet in some visual gag) is when the simplest part of her day turns out to be another tragedy. Her trademark necklace, which she was told was an heirloom from the old country, turns out to be nothing but a cheap piece of JC Penney costume jewelry. And that’s what finally breaks her emotionally, sobbing in her car in the most uncontrollably devastated state we’ve seen her the entire series. It’s the weight of knowing that she’s been lied to her entire life, and something she deeply treasured doesn’t mean what she thought it did. And it’s simultaneously paired with the realization that even if it was a lie, she’s lost one of her increasingly rare chances to pass that lie down to someone else.

All of this is wrenching stuff, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Amy Sedaris’s work as Princess Carolyn. “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t” proved BoJack Horseman is the best work of Will Arnett’s career, and “Ruthie” makes a similar case for Sedaris. You can hear the beam in her voice gradually start to chip away over the course of the episode, real confidence replaced with fake as the day keeps heaping on its defeats. And in the moment where she’s on the phone to Ralph, lying through her teeth and confusing a passerby, you can feel how hard it is for her to match his happiness.

And by a certain point, all you can hear is the rage. Princess Carolyn absorbs a lot of pain this episode, and that pain could be enough to inflict on one character, but BoJack Horseman understands something important and destructive about pain. Sometimes when you’re hurting, you think it’ll make you feel better if you spread that hurt around. It’s devastating to see happen, especially given our historical perspective as viewers. To see Princess Carolyn, who reacts to her personal disasters by trying to fix other people, trying to destroy them is a serious shift from everything we know about the character.

The destruction of her relationship with Judah is painful to watch, if understandable. Vim was her business, and Judah trying to make this decision on her behalf was a huge change from what we’ve known about him. There’s a logical argument to why he did it—we saw firsthand how she overtaxed herself in season three keeping the agency open, and he knows her well enough that his prediction of her saying yes was certainly correct—but logic isn’t part of her thought processes here. Instead, it’s using her understanding of her right hand to cut it off, using the insults she knows will work and marrying it with her worst-case scenario: “You don’t fit in with other people. You’re weird, so you’d rather stay here where you have all the power.” Good intentions don’t matter here. All that does is that in keeping details on her physical agency separate, Judah—like everyone else in the world—took away her personal agency.

She tries a bit harder to keep an even keel with Ralph, but that brave face doesn’t last long when the universe seems to be conspiring against you. (Excepting the final rug pull, the gag of Sandro welcoming Carrie Underwood, Carey Mulligan, and Mariah Carey into the restaurant is the best and darkest joke of the whole episode.) Eventually, in the apartment she kept—and that Todd’s now turned into the big tent for his clown dentistry project—she admits both this miscarriage and others to Ralph. He tries to be supportive, to share the weight of this problem, and she’s not having any of it.

This is probably the hardest breakup to witness in the entire run of BoJack Horseman. Every line hurts here, from “You need to live in this” to the final “Goodbye, Princess Carolyn.” We’ve seen Ralph be nothing but understanding with Princess Carolyn since the very beginning, giving her time and space to figure out what she needs and always looking for the compromise. Yet this is the one thing that she can’t find it in herself to compromise, believing that she’s capable of doing this regardless of how many times she might fail. And she can’t take Ralph looking at her like she’s not the person who can do those things, the one for whom things aren’t easy. She can’t admit to Ralph she might need help here because then she’d have to admit it to herself, and she’d rather push him out of her life than do that.

It’s bitterly ironic that Ruthie turns out to not exist, because this is a ruthless episode of BoJack Horseman. After a season that’s been spent lighting flickers of hope for Princess Carolyn, there’s not a single one left at the end of it. Listening to BoJack rant about the eyebrows of the teen that works at Menchie’s is the most normal thing that’s happened to her today, and using a paper clip to hold her necklace together is her biggest victory. She relies on thoughts of the future to make her feel better, but as the final reveal of the fantasy proves, sometimes looking ahead is just a way not to look at right now.

Stray observations:

  • Achievement in Voice Acting: Kristen Bell is terrific as Ruthie, bringing out all the sunniness and intelligence that Princess Carolyn would invent for her descendant. And having Kristin Chenoweth voice Miss Teachbot only makes the illusion more obvious in retrospect. What would be more of a perfect fantasy for Princess Carolyn than being able to shut Vanessa Gekko up at every possible opportunity?
  • Closing track: Tank and the Bangas, “Oh Heart.”
  • I do hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Judah and Ralph, and not just because they’re so good for Princess Carolyn. Diedrich Bader and Raúl Esparza have done great work with these characters in the last two seasons, easily in the top tier of the secondary cast.
  • On the other side, I have to admit I wouldn’t be heartbroken if this was the last we saw of Courtney Portnoy. Sharon Horgan delivered some great haughtiness and the pun work was often brilliant, but the joke on her name went on long enough that it started to feel self-congratulatory. “Corpse Me If You Can-Can, the 1940s Cannes, France-set story of a can-can dancer who contracts cancer but continues to can-can as a canny cadaver who plays the accordion with Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Kline, Chris Klein, Chris Pine and Chris Kattan.”
  • The BoJack and Diane stuff is largely forgettable, as they get tied up in the “rancid internment camp” of public government bureaucracy as BoJack tries to find Hollyhock’s birth certificate. It’s mostly worth it to give us time of BoJack and Diane together, and to establish that to some people Diane’s more famous than BoJack is.
  • BoJack Horseman has fully leaned into the fact that there’s almost no difference between Princess Carolyn’s existing career and her current one. “Both look to find projects for their clients but only managers can produce.” “… What?”
  • At this point I want to know more about Princess Carolyn’s family, and not just for more of those paper cutout fables. Hard-scrabble mother who was willing to lie about an heirloom and eleven siblings that she was the “runt” of? There’s a story there.
  • You can see a poster for Flight Of The Pegasus in Gekko-Rabbitowitz’s offices, bearing more than a passing resemblance to BoJack season two promotional art.
  • Charley Witherspoon is wearing two collared shirts. Who do you think you are Charley, Nolan from Revenge?
  • “I just know you’re gonna be the next Joey K. Easter, the guy who invented Arbor Day.”
  • “She had a lot of former lovers. She was a fluid sexual being, not a machine.”
  • “Perhaps it would behoove us to entice BoJack Horseman back into our stable. I’m sorry, ma’am. ‘Stable’ and ‘behoove’ were poor word choices. I was not trying to engage in punnery during business hours.”
  • “Can’t wait to get back in front of the camera, but right now, I have to help my former political rival defeat my two ex-wives. One of whom is in the pocket of powerful lobbyists and the other of whom murdered popular actor and soundtrack artisan, Zach Braff, and ate his burnt flesh! Politics as usual, right?”
  • “Instead of buying Vim, I bought the Utah Jazz!”
  • “This is like when George Clooney married that less famous lady! “Wait. Don’t you mean Jurj Clooners?” “Who cares?”
  • “Look, if you didn’t want me to turn your apartment into a base of operations for my new clown dentist venture, you should have specified that when I moved in.”
  • “But it’s fake.” “Yeah, well… it makes me feel better.”
  • Today in Hollywoo signs:

Join the discussion...