Life is a never-ending show, my friend
A twisting turning ever-burning show
The audience is everyone you know, my friend
Leave them with a smile when you go
You can bet that you’re a star
So don’t forget how fun you are
Get out there and give it your all
And don’t stop dancing, don’t stop dancing til the curtains fall
In one section of the excellent new book BoJack Horseman: The Art Before The Horse, the show’s writers discuss the idea of BoJack Horseman’s “bad behavior” and thinking of the consequences of his actions as if he was a real person. Joe Lawson, of “Escape From L.A.” fame, touched on the long process of walking through that episode’s climax and what it would mean for the show going forward. “Mainly the conversation was ‘Can we make BoJack irredeemable?’ And the answer is no. But we wanted to get right up to that line: ‘Are we going to be able to come back from this?’”
For the longest time, the answer manages to be “yes.” Look at all the shitty things BoJack has done over the years: to Herb, to Wanda, to Charlotte and Penny, to Sarah-Lynn, to Hollyhock, to Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd and Princess Carolyn and Diane. There’s no reason why anyone who knows BoJack should keep forgiving him for this, and no reason why the audience should continue to watch the show and think of him as even an antihero. Yet because of the remorse he demonstrates and the seemingly genuine desire to be better than his worst impulses, the audience is largely willing to take him back. It’s worked to a surprising extent, but it’s also raised a question: “If this works because he’s trying to be better, what happens when he stops?”
And in “The Showstopper,” we get that answer. One of my hopes for this season was that at some point we’d get an episode of BoJack that was in fact an episode of Philbert, one of those classic show-within-a-show installments that gives us a different perspective on the show we’re watching versus the one they’re making. “The Showstopper” isn’t that, but it’s something even better: the culmination of a season’s worth of increasingly blurred lines, the always shaky borders between BoJack’s televised life and the real life that never lives up to those standards. In the first episode Princess Carolyn suggested he maintain a clear division between work and home. Now, it’s not only clear he’s failed to do that, he was never even capable of it in the first place.
The reason for that incapability is one that’s been building slowly over the course of the season, as BoJack’s popping pills like they’re a sheet of bubble wrap. The word “addict” has never been clearly associated with BoJack before: yes, he’s clearly got issues with intoxicants of all shapes and sizes, but his antiheroic intake is less a dependency than a coping mechanism for his undiagnosed mental issues. This season though, as he’s brushed off the idea of substantive change, he’s turned around and gone even deeper into blocking out the follow-up questions of that decision. He’s become even nastier with people he’s allegedly close to, going after them in ways that feel designed to hurt them specifically. His dig at Princess Carolyn’s ability to be a mother in particular hurts, given the clear sincerity of his well-wishes in the season three finale.
The nastiness has led to greater isolation and paranoia, which is hitting him at the least convenient time possible. There was no break between seasons of Philbert due to Henry Fondle’s enthusiasm for “MORE,” leading to a second season of night shoots and loaded dialogue—dialogue now even worse for Diane’s absence. And the negative energy is building on BoJack, believing that success like this can’t be without some sort of cost. When a flyer appears under his door, accusing him of doing a bad thing and promising to tell everyone, his paranoia takes flight: “Who sent this? What do they know? Do they know things? Let’s find out.” A dichotomy forms, as Philbert’s trying to identify who’s strangling people in a post-nuclear Hollywoo, and BoJack’s working his way through his enemies’ list and trying to figure out who knows enough to take him down.
The standards for a BoJack Horseman penultimate episode are the highest ones of the season, and “The Showstopper” is in the best of hands. Director Aaron Long was responsible for last year’s “Time’s Arrow,” and writer Elijah Aron was half of the writing team behind “That’s Too Much, Man!” This capable combination measures the pace of BoJack’s downward spiral, not pushing him off the deep end right away but working out a gradual shift. It weaves together all of the subtle details that have hinted some form of breakdown’s coming: the growing confusion between what’s the room and what’s the set, the fact that BoJack stopped removing his costume when he stopped shooting, and the fact that the narrative threads of Philbert are so convoluted that it’s hard to tell what’s going on in any given scene.
As paced, the collapse plays out as slow-moving tragedy. BoJack loses sight of whether or not he’s following a script, at the same time the audience loses sight at which script is being followed. (Though the use of “literally” is often a dead giveaway, Flip’s fetish for the word now unchecked.) His decisions become increasingly less rational to rule out suspects, including a potentially catastrophic call to Charlotte that’s only saved by her husband Kyle’s chipper approach to Sean Connery conducting a cable survey. He even reaches the inevitable conclusion of any conspiracy, deciding that this has to go all the way to the top and and forcing his way into Todd’s office. A conclusion reached by way of an elaborate theory on hands and faces, which is a fun callback to Emperor Fingerface and Todd’s own conspiracy thought process back in “Horse Majeure.”
You are a rotten little cog, mon frere
Spun by forces you don’t understand
Living is a bitter nasty slog, mein herr
Why not sell your sadness as a brand?
Paint your face and brush your mane
And find some place to cut your pain
To portions we can buy at the mall
And don’t stop dancing, no you can’t stop dancing til the curtains fall
And then it breaks into song. I renew my request that BoJack Horseman find a way to do a full musical episode, because this may be my favorite sequence in the entire run of the series. Gina, decked out in the style of Judy Garland—from her performance of “Get Happy,” a delicious layer of subtext—enters his black subconscious and takes BoJack on a musical tour through his follies and failures. All the settings of BoJack’s life are shown to be nothing but sets, flimsy plywood that tips over in a minute. A woman dressed as Sarah-Lynn is pushed away from his grasp under the planetarium backdrop, and a dancer dressed as Bea imitates that moment of grace before one final spin into a coffin. And in the show-stopping moment, his name is thrown up in lights that pop in jagged succession, his grief and pain thrown back in his face against a background of Popsicle dancers.
BoJack reliving his past through a fractured lens is no new territory for the series, covered extensively in places like “Downer Ending” and “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t.” Yet despite the familiarity, it still works because of the sense of imagination in the way it scatters the set pieces. So much of what we see BoJack go through is necessarily bleak and depressing that it’s a treat to see the joy of the creative team in what they’re doing, going from etched grief and aching regret to flashy song and dance. There’s a deceptively upbeat air to it, pulling you in to mask the darkness that’s front and center in the lyrics: “Grief consumes you but you just keep grinning/The ache becomes you and it’s just beginning.” And the meta approach the BoJack Horseman team takes to their creation runs through the song as well, because what is the series if not sadness as a brand, cut into portions of 30 minutes or less?
The sequence is so forceful that it’s not a surprise that it’s the thing that finally shatters BoJack’s ability to distinguish between the real world, and two confrontations shift into each other with next to no borders between them. Sassy confronts Philbert about the fact that he never had a partner at any point in his career, and Gina confronts BoJack with the umpteen pill stashes he set up in the wake of “Ancient History.” And it’s not surprising how raw it is in both moments, Philbert showing a fierce protectiveness for Sassy and BoJack appearing to be truly genuine in wanting to save Gina’s newfound success. BoJack let someone in at the same time he played a character letting someone in, and now both of those relationships ended the same way they always do: they got to know who he really was.
But who he is now is a blur, which makes his reaction in those moments even scarier to consider. After everything we’ve seen BoJack do this season, as little control as he’s exercised, no reaction seems out of bounds. You wonder which reaction is going to turn out worse as they echo each other, to the point that there’s a sigh of relief when Flip calls “cut” on a choking scene and Gina darts out of BoJack’s house in real life, and it boils down to the only person BoJack’s punishing is himself.
But then we go back to the set, and the “cut” didn’t take. Going back to the question of BoJack being irredeemable, remember a few episodes ago when BoJack made himself into an unintentional feminist icon by saying that choking women is bad? Well, if the bar couldn’t be set any lower for the difference between good and bad person, BoJack still finds a way to cross it. It’s horrifying to see the slow dawning of reality off-stage, Long’s direction forcing your heart into your throat as he keeps you from seeing how far BoJack—and BoJack—is willing to take this. Sarah Lynn’s death was about as permanent as you could get, but she was as much a participant in it as BoJack was. Everyone wonders, in that moment, if the time has finally come to put blood on his hands.
That is saved for another day, as the crew manages to pull him off before he goes too far—but in that moment, he goes away. A golden staircase that appeared periodically during his blackouts appears yet again, and this time he doesn’t hesitate to walk right up to it. And the light at the end of the tunnel is the Philbert float that’s been glimpsed constantly in his delirium floating over Hollywoo, staring at him with blank eyes that are only a fraction more lifeless than his own. It’s unclear what’s happening in that moment: Is it an overdose or withdrawal symptom from the pills? Has his emotional turmoil finally led to a full psychotic break where he’s as far removed from reality as Bea? Or did he just lose himself for a moment, to snap right out of it and be the same broken asshole he always was?
Those questions will have to wait for the finale to be answered, but there’s an even bigger one that “The Showstopper” poses. It’s the old reliable that BoJack Horseman’s creative team asks after every dark place, the question “Are we going to be able to come back from this?” And after everything we’ve seen, it feels harder than ever for the answer to be yes.
Today’s the day, you’ve got the spark
You’ll find the way to make your mark
And get your tiny name on that wall
So don’t stop dancing baby, don’t stop spinning
Don’t stop belting buddy, now we’re winning
Grief consumes you but you just keep grinning
The ache becomes you and it’s just beginning
Don’t stop dancing, nothing’s certain but the curtain—
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Stephanie Beatriz has been turning in great work all season, but she’s on fire in this episode. The clear joy she’s having with Sassy’s inappropriate one-liners, the concern turning to anger to horror as BoJack’s addiction consequences become clear, and of course that magnificent song-and-dance number at the end countering “Planned Obsolescence” and proving she can sing. (Not that there wasn’t already evidence of that.) And for the fifth time in a row, the actor who gets BoJack’s one seasonal use of the word “fuck” delivers it with the force it deserves.
- The Philbert opening credits are a spot-on take on True Detective and its ilk, especially with the Leonard Cohen-esque theme. First lyric: “Well I’ve been down to the girly club with a hot glue gun full of beans.” Again, please write us a full musical episode next year, Jesse Novak.
- Flip’s notes for Philbert season two: “Bukowski.” “Can ghosts go underwater?” “Gritty ghost striptease.”
- BoJack’s in-progress enemies list: Diane, Kelsey Jennings, Lenny Turtletaub, Bradley Hitler-Smith, Tom Jumbo-Grumbo, Abe, and Crispin Glover. “Apparently I spilled coffee on his shirt in a dream he had.”
- There’s a delightful moment midway through the episode where What Time Is It Right Now cuts to an ad (BoJack Horseman evidently ahead of the game in seeing its parent network’s controversial business move) and we learn that, unsurprisingly, Todd is bad at his job. Having not sold any ads prior to premiere, he’s now selling out the show’s image for every kind of board game, lunchbox, and campaign with a national taco chain. “The Philburrito. So zesty you’ll forget your murdered wife.”
- The actor playing Secretariat in BoJack’s fantasy sequence bears a strong resemblance to John Krasinski, who is Secretariat’s voice actor. Well played.
- Interesting: last episode BoJack mentioned doing something with Sharona, the makeup lady on Horsin’ Around, and she’s alongside Charlotte and stealing Bea’s baby doll. What did he do to her that belongs in that hall of infamy?
- Thanks to @beccagrawl on Twitter for pointing out the Judy Garland reference of Gina’s costume.
- “Those were bad guys! They stole the mayor’s submarine!”
- “Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned guy. Or maybe I like things that are plugged into the wall. Something to grab onto if I start floating away.”
- “I must be singing a song called ‘Crazy,’ because everyone’s treating me like a Patsy.”
- “This case is just like the movie Love Actually. No leads.”
- “The Olive Garden won’t deliver. Sure. When you’re there, you’re family.”
- “Am I any network with a show starring Kyle Bornheimer? Because I have to cancel.”
- “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
- Today in Hollywoo contacts: