After BoJack Horseman’s season three finale, I had a lot of questions about where things were going to go. BoJack had, at the final moment of “That Went Well,” lost everything that he cared about. His biography was an expose of his awfulness, his movie was a digitally altered reinvention of the story he cared about, and his Oscar hopes were shattered. He had next to no friends and next to no family. He tried to repeat the past, only to see the same mistakes right there waiting for him. He even seemed to give up on life itself, letting go of his Tesla’s wheel and letting the road take him until catching a glimpse of a herd of wild horses. Where was he going to go from here? Could he be happy? Would this world—this show—let him be happy? Or was his mother’s prophecy about the ugliness inside him true, and a broken horse can’t be put back together?
“The Old Sugarman Place” doesn’t answer any of those questions. But rather than leaving the impression BoJack Horseman doesn’t know how to answer them, it makes it clear that BoJack himself doesn’t know how to answer them. And after a season premiere where BoJack’s absence was less noticeable than expected, “The Old Sugarman Place” proves he’s still the broken heart of this series, his efforts to change or run away from change as hard to witness as ever before.
The episode picks up immediately at that aforementioned final moment, BoJack staring at the string of wild horses with an indecipherable expression. My original prediction had been that BoJack would run to join them, and the season would eventually see a new more-Zen BoJack return to Los Angeles to make amends. And it almost goes that way, with one step forward... until Diane calls him, and the agony on his face is palpable. He can’t let go of the one connection he has left, yet he can’t bring himself to reach out to it again. And in the interim, the herd moves on—another missed opportunity in a life full of them, alongside not joining Olivia in Maine and not sticking up for Herb.
With no idea where to go next, he just keeps going, in a gorgeous opening sequence set to Patrick Carney and Michelle Branch’s equally gorgeous cover of “Horse With No Name.” It’s not surprising that the production team that gave us “Fish Out Of Water” can make so much out of silence, but even without that comparison it remains beautiful to witness, BoJack’s mane blowing in the breeze or the stars shining above him much as they did in the planetarium that fateful night. (And also with room for humor as BoJack has to refuel his Tesla for the first time).
The final direction comes out of nowhere at a random diner, as BoJack pauses when picking up the sugar for his coffee. It’s a long-forgotten bit of BoJack’s history, his disclosure to Diane way back in “BoJack Hates The Troops” that his mother Bea was the heiress to the Sugarman sugar cube fortune. That piece of trivia finally comes around as he turns the car towards Michigan, stopping at a decrepit lake house with that name painted on the mailbox. Much as he did with Charlotte and her family, he’s run back into his past, ignoring Secretariat’s advice to keep looking forward.
This produces an obvious narrative to start out, big-city BoJack coming to terms with small town life. After the last few episodes of season three ruined BoJack’s ability to interact with other people, “The Old Sugarman Place” takes a few steps toward putting that back together, and the results are predictably BoJack. As much as BoJack’s trying to hide his identity as “Hambone Fakenamington,” he can’t help but rise to the unintentional bait of the hardware store girls (Grace Parra and Gabourey Sidibe) when his weight becomes a topic of conversation, redirecting conversation in the worst possible ways. He’s living in a decrepit house that he’s got no way of knowing how to fix (rendered in charming slapstick) and a cross-section of residents who are guaranteed to piss him off. Both of which collide when his crotchety neighbor Ed (Colman Domingo) volunteers himself to help put the house back together.
Here’s where things get relevatory, as writer Kate Purdy shows us what that house looked like before it needed that restoration. BoJack’s never spoken about his family past his mother and father, even in the glimpses of his book or sessions with Diane, and “The Old Sugarman Place” shows us the Sugarman family in their prime. Even by BoJack Horseman standards it’s an embarrassment of riches in the casting: Matthew Broderick as genial microaggression-spouting patriarch Joseph Sugarman, Jane Krakowski as his vivacious song-in-her-heart wife Honey, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as their proud soldier son CrackerJack off to go fight the Nazis. And then there’s little Bea, buzzing around her family without the bitterness that saturates the character in every glimpse we’ve gotten of her to date.
But the happy family in those scenes isn’t long for this world. CrackerJack never comes home from the war and the family is never the same afterwards. Joseph runs away from any sort of emotional realness (“As a modern American man, I am woefully unprepared to manage a woman’s emotions. I was never taught, and I will not learn”), and that realness is powerfully real for the people left behind in the empty house. Bea once told her son that he came by the ugliness inside him honestly, and the seeds of the family curse are all over Honey’s reactions. Her fits of crying, her grabs at pitchers of beer and young Army veterans, her pressing the pedal on the gas to feel more alive—those are all the hallmarks of the depression that’s chased BoJack for three seasons and counting.
What makes these scenes even exponentially more tragic is the way they play out. Lead animator Anne Walker Farrell directs her first episode of the series, framing the flashbacks so they happen concurrently with present-day and intertwine with BoJack’s own actions in the house. None of what’s happening in these flashbacks is something BoJack has any way of knowing about, events that took place decades before he was even born, so any understanding or recognition is limited to the audience. The parallels become increasingly beautiful and increasingly heartbreaking: Ed and Honey share a duet of “I Will Always Think of You,” break down in tears to a confused crowd, and then drive down the same road home at top speed. The one real-time overlap is the gas station’s scar from Honey’s crash is still there, proving the BoJack Horseman ethos that broken things stay broken.
It also proves that breaking things isn’t much of a solution. BoJack tries to repay Ed for his kindness in his own shitty ass-backwards way, trying to force Ed to take flight by falling off a ladder. It backfires spectacularly—albeit beautifully as he drags to the highest point of the sky and then the deepest point of the lake. As much as our early glimpses of Ed’s house and BoJack’s own lampshade narration indicate something bad happened, there’s a real shock in that moment.
And similarly, nothing prepares you for the end result of what happens to BoJack’s grandmother. If BoJack has no idea how to fix his own pain and would rather find the shortcuts, Joseph is even more likely to rely on shortcuts—shortcuts that become horrifyingly apparent the longer he talks. Every step of this final scene gets worse and worse. It was upsetting to see Honey’s zest for life replaced with manic depression, it’s even more upsetting to hear Krakowski take on the dull monotone of the lobotomized, and it’s chilling to hear those tones urge Bea to never love anyone so deeply and set the stage for her grandson to undergo decades of emotional abuse. And if you were wondering how long it would take BoJack Horseman to rip your heart out of your chest in season four, kudos to Purdy for getting it done two episodes in. The moment where Honey says “Why, I have half a mind...” instantly enters the emotional devastation pantheon.
In all the pain and sadness that exists in “The Old Sugarman Place,” all the ghosts of the past trying to pull everyone under, something oddly hopeful breaks the surface: BoJack doesn’t want to die. He talked about surrendering to the water in “Downer Ending,” and almost let it take him in “It’s You.” Yet here he fights to stay alive and even fights to keep Ed alive, pulling back from the abyss. And when he finally reaches out to Diane again, and she gives him a speech that’s the exact same notes as the one he gave her in “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen,” he jumps at her message. He doesn’t want to drown at the bottom of the lake, nor does he want to live out his days with ghosts—his or his family’s—for company.
His final gesture to destroy the lake house is one that’s excessive, but also very BoJack, who never met a bridge he couldn’t burn. Ed dumbfoundedly asks “So what was all this for?” “I don’t know. I guess it was just a big waste of time,” BoJack shrugs, before getting into his Tesla and driving out of town. And while “The Old Sugarman Place” is a detour in the main action of the show, it was not a waste of time at all: a moving and painfully well done journey into the past of BoJack Horseman. BoJack may be on his way back to Hollywoo, but what we’ve learned and seen here is going to stick with everyone.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Even by the standards of BoJack Horseman, this one’s near impossible to sift through, everyone putting so much into their performances. I’m going to call a tie between Jane Krakowski’s Honey and Colman Domingo’s Ed, as both pour so much into their performances across the emotional spectrum you can’t help but empathize.
- Friendly reminder: no spoilers in the comments.
- Interesting note: BoJack’s imaginary daughter from “Downer Ending” was named Harper, the exact same name as the town where his family’s cottage is located. Those childhood memories of the lake house must be deeply written onto his subconscious in a way he’s not even aware of.
- BoJack’s one connection with the world of Hollywoo in his self-imposed exile is watching American Dead Girl: Sarah-Lynn on his phone, with Paul Giamatti stepping into his sweater and red Converse to tearfully sing the Horsin’ Around theme. Who wore it better, readers: Wallace Shawn or Paul Giamatti? (Also re: American Dead Girl, evidently Giamatti had to eat a lot of muffins and fritters to “get in shape.”)
- Kate Purdy also wrote “Best Thing That Ever Happened” and “Downer Ending,” which mean’s she’s responsible for a Triple Crown of BoJack’s best episodes.
- According to the sugar cube label, the “family” currently owning Sugarman Sugar is the Fukasaka Family of International Conglomerates.
- Hawk Caulk! Caulk of the Walk!
- The squirrel neighbor buries his nuts in the backyard during the winter and digs them up in the spring, which I found delightful.
- “People poop their pants when they die.” “Is that true? Because I just read Romeo & Juliet and that totally changes things.”
- “This is for posterity, so don’t forget to look far-away sad.”
- “The broken door is the cherry on top of the shit sandwich.”
- “Oh darling, it’ll always be here. Just like polio and blackface.”
- “Do you even know how to... anything?”
- “Why, I’ve got half a mind to paint things redder than the beaches at Normandy! … What? Too soon?”
- “He described it as HBO’s Girls, but from a guy’s perspective.” “And he’s just giving this away for free in a coffee shop?!”
- Today in Michigan signs: