“Um, I guess my question is, do you... Do you think it’s too late for me? I mean, am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The... The person in that book? It’s not too late for me, is it? It’s... It’s not too late Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late. I... I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane. Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.”
In the pilot episode of BoJack Horseman, BoJack had this to say about his memoirs: “This book is my one shot at preserving my legacy. I’m a joke, and if this book isn’t good, I’m gonna be a joke forever.” At the time, I brushed that statement aside as simple histrionics, the sort of exaggeration for effect that the show would similarly move past as it proved that BoJack’s struggles were a lot less important than he made them out to be. And in the early goings the show played along with that assumption, as once Diane began working on the book its completion felt secondary to the journey BoJack was on. He was learning to open up to another person and became willing to confront some ghosts from his past.
But now “Downer Ending” revisits that statement, and with the benefit of recent decisions and revelations, BoJack saying “This is my last chance to make people love me again” feels a lot more real than it did ten episodes ago. Not because it’s the truth, but because as we’ve gotten to know BoJack more and more—his callousness, his depressions, his self-sabotage—it’s clear that he genuinely believes it. BoJack Horseman may be a show ripe with animal puns and often confounding wordplay, but at the center of it is something raw and sincere. BoJack is a character who’s often in pain, incapable of processing that pain in a healthy way, hurting those around him when he tries the unhealthy ways.
If there were any doubts that BoJack was serious about BoJack’s level of damage, “Downer Ending” chops those doubts up and slides them into neat little white lines. The penultimate episode of this first season is the culmination of all the little doubts and missteps that BoJack has made over the course of the season, filtered through an electric Kool-Aid acid test of visual experimentation. It’s an episode that’s as valuable to the development of the series as “The Telescope,” an installment that proves the depth of imagination and feeling that early episodes only hinted at.
Drugs aren’t necessary for bad behavior in the first scene of the episode, as BoJack’s still steaming over how One Trick Pony paints him as a pastry-obsessed jerk rather than the “heroic horse stud” he envisions himself as. When Diane laughs off the idea he could write a better book in the five days before the new ones goes to the printers, things get viciously personal: “Why don’t I write a book about how you married Mr. Peanutbutter because he’s too dumb to see how much better you think you are?” I’ve made the observation several times over the season that BoJack can be more perceptive than he’s given credit for, and this is the most negative example possible of that. He’s seen Diane at her lowest points and been privy to her insecurities, and while any good friend would keep those things unsaid, he doesn’t even think twice about pulling out those knives when things get confrontational.
But if it was easy to writer a book, he’d have done it himself, and we’re back to the “Chapterrrrrrrrrr... One” stalling of the pilot episode. His efforts to come up with his own book are a delightful sequence of all the things writers will do to avoid writing, from spending four hours playing around with the fonts to buying every vacuum cleaner possible to excise the Toaster Strudel crumbs from his carpet, Lady Macbeth-style. (As someone who’s publishing 24 reviews over the course of 24 days, this sequence had particular resonance for me.) And even when he’s able to start writing and tries to idealize his childhood, it’s failing for the same reasons that Mr. Peanutbutter’s Hollywoo Heist started to derail: no one, not even him, is buying this version of events.
If BoJack was a more well-adjusted character, this is the place where he’d swallow his pride and admit to Diane that he can’t rattle off a book as good as hers, or even John Grisham’s The Firm. But he’s not that well-adjusted person and his pride is stronger than common sense. BoJack’s first impulse is to take the easy solution, and in this case that easy solution is calling up Sarah-Lynn for an endless supply of drugs. It’s good to see Kristen Schaal back after “Prickly-Muffin,” calling back to an earlier reference by introducing Dr. Hu (Ken Jeong) who supplies good drugs and vaudeville puns—right down to the “Third base!” of it all—in equal measure. It sets up a fun triumvirate of BoJack, Todd, and Sarah-Lynn, trading exaggerated stories and typing at the speed of a thousand monkeys, able to push ahead even as time starts to shift and heads start to swap bodies.
But a slightly altered reality isn’t enough. “Downer Ending” understands it only takes one wrong step during a drug trip for the buzz to be harshed, and once again the delivery system for a sea change is Todd. (Todd’s inclusion in this bender feels a bit out of place given where he and BoJack left things at the end of “One Trick Pony,” but he is still living in the house and his character growth hasn’t taken him to the point where he’d turn down a lot of free drugs.) In a desperate broom-gun-related moment, BoJack can’t help himself from once again bringing up the sabotaged Newtopia Rising and trying to confirm that Todd doesn’t hold that against him. And he doesn’t, except not for the reasons you’d think:
“As you know, I was hurt, but then I realized that’s just how you are. You know, and maybe I just need to stop expecting you to be a good person, so that way, I won’t get hurt when you’re not.”
Going back to the pilot again, Todd’s comment that BoJack secretly had a good heart was a line that felt like it could be a mission statement for one version of BoJack Horseman. That’s not the version of the series we’ve gotten. BoJack’s disproven and discredited Todd’s faith in him several times, doing almost nothing altruistic throughout the series that wasn’t just fixing a mistake he’d already made. That one line challenges the conceit he was basing this entire memoir off, and as the drug infusions begin to step up, things begin to fly off the rails.
And what a joy it is to witness, even if it must be terrible to live through. Lisa Hanawalt and her production team have been on point for the entire season, but this is the episode where the restraints come off, flying into multiple different animated twists and turns. There’s a sequence where Diane’s eyeball pops and she morphs into a Cronenbergian beast. There’s an homage to Duck Amuck as BoJack loses his borders and regresses to figure drawing, and a bit of A Christmas Carol when he gets a look at his final tombstone. There’s a gigantic booming Mr. Peanutbutter, where BoJack is barely kept afloat by the V-neck he previously brushed off. And there’s an truly inspired bit where BoJack steps into a Peanuts-style world, Diane taking the role of Lucy Van Pelt to offer advice for five cents and then swept up into the void alongside a Snoopy-style Mr. Peanutbutter.
What makes the degree of hallucinations work is that none of it is weird for the sake of being weird. This is a full-bore dive into BoJack Horseman’s mental state, a state that we’ve seen plenty of evidence is not in the best of shape. Countless plot points—his TV Guide award, Decapathon VII, fake newspaper headlines, every D-related object—are floating around inside his synapses, bouncing off them to produce the worst memories. Be it Herb feeding him the line “This is all I am and all I’ll ever be” on a bizarro Horsin’ Around soundstage, Bea hissing a hateful “Nobody gives a damn what you feel” as he’s under the table in a role reversal of the “Prickly-Muffin” cold open, or the Lucy/Diane hybrid telling him “You can’t force love,” these aren’t loosely connected thoughts and feelings. These are personal demons finally let out of their cage and running roughshod over whatever defenses he’s constructed around his fragile ego.
The sheer intensity of imagination on display, and the degree to which the episode appears determined to snap our minds, only makes the last leg of the trip all the more upsetting. Peppered throughout the madness are quieter moments—Sarah-Lynn and Todd suggesting Maine as the ending to his story, glimpses of Charlotte walking through plywood trees or offering to pull him out of the tar pit of his career—that hint deep within all the pain and delusion, fame isn’t what will make him happy. It’s the lure of a road less traveled, the question of what would have happened if he’d made a different choice and followed Charlotte out of Los Angeles instead of sticking with Herb.
And in that world it’s a BoJack we’ve never seen before, a BoJack that’s actually happy. He’s casually mocking Ed’s comment about “having weather” in a manner devoid of any of the caustic dismissal he usually directs to normal people. He’s gingerly affectionate with both Charlotte and the daughter he’ll come to have with her—so much so his “application submitted and pending board approval” speech he gave Todd back in “Prickly-Muffin” takes on a whole new connotation. He’s even calm enough not to get worked up over teenaged Harper dating, laughing off the new boyfriend’s Vespa. So much time has been spent seeing BoJack unhappy over the course of the series, that this entire sequence is viciously bittersweet: the possibility that he could course-correct, and then the final flash when he realizes that he didn’t.
That flash leads to a public repentance—or at least as public as a convention with less than ten attendees can be—as he admits to Diane her book is about as honest a look at him as anyone’s ever going to get. Diane saw the real BoJack, and after his failed attempts to whitewash or technicolor dream his past into something better, he’s seen it too. He begs for some validation, some chance that maybe there’s something more to him than all of this... and all he gets is silence and the same empty recognition about being “The Horse from Horsin’ Around” that’s haunted him for twenty years. Downer ending, indeed.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Olivia Wilde left an impression in her first appearance back in “The Telescope” flashbacks, and she’s similarly great as the idealized version of Charlotte in BoJack’s memories. And the wistfulness in her last line is as sobering for the audience as it must be for BoJack.
- BoJack’s final manuscript: “20 pages of Doctor Who erotic fan fiction, a recipe for soup, five different theories about how 9/11 happened, and a bunch of embedded YouTube videos that can’t possibly be printed in book form.”
- BoJack’s desktop background is the same painting he had hanging in his dressing room back in the Horsin’ Around days. His screen icons include: BOJACK FAN CLUB, HORSIN’ AROUND FAN CLUB, NOT_PORN, DEFINITELY NOT_PORN, NOT_PORN_2, LETTER TO EDITOR, LETTER TO EDITOR 02, LETTER TO MORON WHO WON’T PUBLISH MY LETTERS.
- The “What did I do?” when BoJack throws out his idealized version of events is a wonderfully tragicomic moment. Poor young BoJack.
- Even though she’s not real, Harper asks a lot of questions about this universe, and not just where the stars go. Can two separate species interbreed or is that just BoJack’s wishful thinking? If two separate species have children together, are those children hybrids, or is it a coin-flip which species they’re born as?
- The ghost writer panelists includes a dead ringer for Truman Capote, long rumored to be the ghost writer for To Kill A Mockingbird.
- “Look, all publicity is good publicity. That guy who killed all those teachers and ate their fingers? He just got married in jail, and when this book comes out, you could be that guy.”
- “You know, if we all had guns, then no one would need a gun, and we would all be safe.”
- “I’m just a crazy drug hallucination. I’ll say whatever you want me to.”
- “Again, Tori Spelling is not here, as I already explained.”
- Today in Hollywoo tombstones:
Horsin’ Around DVD Commentary:
- This magic carpet ride was so successful for BoJack Horseman that they’ll return to the well at least once a season, with episodes like “Love And/Or Marriage” and “That’s Too Much, Man!” sending characters on cosmic benders. And in the latter case, ending in similarly devastating ways.
- Speaking of, Sarah-Lynn raises a valid point in the Kill BoJack argument: “If the little girl you raised on television killed you in real life, people would eat that shit up.” It’s an open question if people will eat up that BoJack was (in)directly responsible for that same little girl’s death.
- Charlotte makes a real-world appearance in “Still Broken,” and much as she did in the hallucination she dismisses BoJack’s Maine fantasy, a short-lived vacation before she moved to New Mexico to start a real life. A life that BoJack will try to insert himself into in “Escape From L.A.” with disastrous results. (Though her real kids will answer some of the questions about interspecies breeding that Harper introduces.)
Tomorrow: Our journey through season one of BoJack Horseman concludes with “Later,” as BoJack starts to run after his dream project.