At this point in its life, BoJack Horseman’s tendency to experiment within the confines of television is well-established. To name only a few examples, there’s the big swing of “Fish Out Of Water,” the structural shuffling of “Stop The Presses” and “After The Party,” the futuristic fakeout of “Ruthie,” the drug and dementia trips of “Downer Ending” and “Time’s Arrow.” BoJack plays so fast and loose with what an episode is supposed to be that it’s almost easy to take it for granted, to assume that the show’s so reliant on gimmicks that you can see them coming a mile away. In another world you’d read the description on Netflix, tilt your head back, and say “What is this, a concept episode?”
That would be the case, if it wasn’t for how fucking good BoJack Horseman is at playing those reveals. In the case of “Free Churro,” the opening reveal that Beatrice Horseman has finally succumbed to old age and dementia and BoJack is speaking at her funeral sets you up for a conventional funeral episode framework, one the show followed a few years ago in “Still Broken.” The stage would be set for a fair share of gallows humor, a celebrity mourner or two, and BoJack’s friends trying to see exactly how he was taking the loss after he delivers a brief eulogy for the woman who he resented more than anyone.
And then he turns right back to the podium, and he keeps talking. And keeps talking, and keeps talking, and keeps talking. And the camera never stops following him. The perspective breaks from time to time as his angle on the coffin shifts—and at one point escapes into a brief shadowy memory of his mother showing a moment of grace—but it never once pans over to face the rest of the audience. Not once does anyone step up and try to cut him off, and not once does he move to bring anyone else up on stage. “Free Churro” is The BoJack Horseman Show (no, not that one), and it is a complete masterstroke.
As anyone could assume from BoJack after spending more than five minutes in his company, it takes even less time than that for him to make the whole eulogy about himself. This is about as captive of an audience as BoJack’s had since his days warming up the crowd for Horsin’ Around, and as to be expected, he’s treating it the same way he’d treat one of his comedy routines. He begins with an aside about going to Jack In The Box right before the funeral, griping George Carlin-style about the obligation a simple greeting puts on him: “If I say I’m doing shitty, they say ‘what’s wrong’ and I have to be like ‘I dunno, all of it.’” There’s a few corny jokes about his mother and death, complete with the organist able to offer a rimshot now and then. (Like the jokes, they too are poorly timed.)
The roast component of the evening can only last for so long though. Season four truly pulled back the curtain on how much damage Bea did to BoJack growing up, with her near-constant insults and judgments forged out of her own unfortunate upbringing. Now, he’s replaced his desire to truly convey how much he hates her with the freedom that she can’t respond to anything he says, getting increasingly nasty with the closed casket: “Knock once if you’re proud of me.” “Knock once if you think I should shut up.” “Knock once if you love me.” It’s gallows humor that would be horrific without the context of this relationship, and even with that context it’s a deeply discomforting thing to witness.
But it’s not all digs at someone who can’t defend themselves, as the void Bea has left pushes BoJack to a form of introspection. Looking back on a lifetime of verbal abuse and depression, BoJack can identify that “born broken” truth that Bea told him about long ago, the realization clear in the blurriness of “Time’s Arrow” that none of their unhappiness existed in a vacuum. Going back to those Supper Club parties where his mother made him perform alongside the Lollipop Song, he recalls the one moment of grace when Bea would take flight in a dance—and where Butterscotch, emerging from his study with liquor in hand, might recall that first night he saw her. It’s the same realization that “Time’s Arrow” left the audience with, that feeling that Butterscotch and Bea were horrid to the young BoJack but that their own horrid lives left them without the tools to save either him or themselves.
Speaking of Butterscotch, the eulogy also lets BoJack offer his thoughts on the other parent who’s no longer there, and whose death happened off-screen in “Thoughts And Prayers.” It turns out that said death was more abrupt than expected. He offered an open challenge to duel anyone who didn’t like his book, some kook in Montana took him up on it, and in the middle of the ten paces he tripped and cracked his skull after a moment of clarity that the kook probably never read it. (Neither has BoJack. In his words: “Why would I give him that?”) Beyond the perfect bleakness of it—in keeping with a horseman who had romantic aspirations for his life that never came to anything—it’s a smart structural move to provide closure to that mystery. Season four spent plenty of time on BoJack’s complicated maternal relationships, they don’t need to reinvent that wheel in a future season.
It’d be easy to see an episode like this as an excuse to simply give Will Arnett a showcase episode for an Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance Emmy. And if that was the case, mission accomplished, because “Free Churro” goes right alongside “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t” as proof that this is the role of his career. In a season where the conscious grittiness of Philbert has him relying largely on his Batman voice, Arnett makes a meal out of BoJack’s emotional roller coaster. You can hear every last bit of forced levity, resentment, and genuine pain as BoJack tries to find some way to come to terms with Bea’s death, and his feelings or lack thereof about the matter.
“Free Churro” isn’t that simple though. With a script credited to showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg, BoJack’s eulogy feels as much like a mission statement for BoJack Horseman itself as it does a eulogy—right down to a point where he quotes his own theme song. BoJack waxes poetic on the fact that in his household television was the only thing that didn’t terrify him, and that he’s internalized so much of it that it’s a placeholder for the relationships he’s been unable to build. He uses a story from Maude in place of a story he wished he had about his mother, and equates hoping their relationship would get better to the reason he watched the full series run of Becker. And he draws a straight line to the ability of television to make everything right with one grand gesture, and how that doesn’t apply to any of his own situations: “You can’t just screw up and then take a boat out into the ocean to save your best friend, or solve a mystery and fly to Kansas. You need to do it ever day. Which is so hard.”
It’s part and parcel for what we know about BoJack, the sheer glee the series takes in deconstructing sitcom tropes and turning them around for tragicomic purposes. But it’s also a clear message to anyone watching the show (those who haven’t picked up on it already, that is), that in its subversion of those tropes it’s further distancing itself from the possibility of this story ending well. BoJack’s become more self-aware as the show’s gone on, and that self-awareness is only making the gulf between his television-centric view and reality wider and wider: “You never get a happy ending. Because there’s always more show. Until there isn’t.” Season finale after season finale, I’ve asked the question if BoJack can make the steps to happiness, and the message Bob-Waksberg seems to be giving is “no.”
At least it’s a better message than the one Bea left BoJack with, in a truly merciless twist. Throughout his eulogy, BoJack is grappling with the meaning of Bea’s final words to him, looking over his shoulder to say “I see you.” It’s the sort of mystery that would haunt anyone until their dying days, so it’s a simultaneous blessing and curse that he solves it for himself. It’s just one last moment where Bea failed to acknowledge her son, a moment that he can’t even blame her for because dementia was wrapped so tightly around her brain. Yet it’s also a moment that contains a grace as simple as the one the Horseman family would share in Bea’s dance, the other major point of BoJack Horseman’s message statement: in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections we make.
Then, the horrific punchline of opening the casket, doing a double-take, and checking the funeral program. There’s no level that this joke doesn’t work on, simultaneously sabotaging and amplifying every one of “Free Churro’s” preceding 24 minutes. None of BoJack’s resentments got answered, no completion of the grieving process or the “Fuck you, mom!” he’d stored up for his entire life. Only a group of stunned gecko mourners who didn’t dare to interrupt him, whom he was too self-centered to realize before that point couldn’t possibly be there for his mother. It’s the darkest of codas to an episode that’s already a dark coda, a move that only further proves that in terms of subverting expectations and pushing the envelope, nothing on television can touch BoJack Horseman.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Give Will Arnett an Emmy, please and thank you.
- Thumbs up to Jesse Novak for that organ version of the BoJack theme song.
- The cold open sets the tone for BoJack’s abandonment—and for the Will Arnett one-man showcase—as we borrow a flashback from BoJack’s awful childhood glimpsed in “Downer Ending” and expand it to Butterscotch pulling a “Brother From Another Planet” by abandoning his son after a soccer game. So much emphasis was spent on Bea’s corrosion, but it’s clear in between griping about his wife and his lost progress in writing (“I had this one really interesting sentence that kept going for pages”) how much damage Butterscotch wrought as well.
- BoJack throws back some of those pain pills he was prescribed last week and washes them down with his ever-present flask. He’s supposed to take them in the morning, but as “Planned Obsolescence” told us, endless night shoots mean he’s losing a grip on when morning is. I’m sure this won’t come back to cause any problems.
- The mention of Butterscotch’s novel, which we saw in Bea’s possessions in “What Time Is It Right Now,” is an opportunity for an addendum to that review. Thanks to BoJack’s Hidden Jokes for pointing out that the cover The Horse That Couldn’t Be Broken is a clear reference to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. And given that BoJack admitted to never reading the book, Bob-Waksberg maintains its future plot potential.
- “One time she smoked an entire cigarette in one long inhale! I watched her do it. Truly a remarkable woman.”
- “She was really good at dispensing life lessons that always seemed to come back around to everything being my fault.”
- “Only my mother would be lousy enough to swipe me with a moment of connection on your way out.”
- “The last thing that my stupid brain could come up with before I died was was ‘Won’t they be sorry.’ Cool thought, brain.”
- “But I guess it’s good to know. It’s good to know that there is no one looking out for me. That there never was, and there never will be. It is good to know I am the only one I can depend on. It’s good that I know that. So it’s good my mother’s dead.”
- Today in Hollywoo signs: ICU.