“You haven’t changed at all!”
“Yes, congratulations! You are the last person to get that.”
Throughout all of season five of BoJack Horseman, there’s been the feeling that we’re building to something. Prior seasons have had a sense of progression—BoJack’s memoir, the Secretariat shoot and Oscar campaign, Mr. Peanutbutter’s run for governor—but all of the projects being developed there were eventually sidelined by either some sort of BoJack outburst or the series’ increasing interest in being about more than one character’s storyline. This season, every member of the main ensemble has been united in pursuit of getting Philbert made, as actors, writers, producers, or executives. Even with comparatively low stakes, everyone has committed 100 percent to its pretentious nonsense.
“Head In The Clouds” is the payoff to that commitment, as the pilot of Flip McVicker’s show—I’m sorry, the first “chapter” in his “novel,” because of course that’s how he sees it—receives its Hollywoo premiere. And as usual, the biggest developments are the ones that take place off the stage. At the same time that the show’s been building to this premiere, it’s also been laying the groundwork for something even more impactful, what could be the ugliest fight in the history of a show that has no shortage of them.
The source of that fight stems from an argument that’s been simmering under the whole of Philbert’s production—and an argument that also has strong ramifications for BoJack Horseman itself. Early reviews of Philbert are heaping a surprisingly high level of praise on the show, focusing on the ways it subverts the trope of the antihero. And you can say the same thing about BoJack itself, a show that has a central character who does a fair share of despicable things, and whose redeeming qualities are often secondary to the motivations of those despicable things. “This is not the sad man as suave and cynical antihero, but a barely scabbed-over wound of a person,” Princess Carolyn excitedly quotes to Diane, a quote that could be cribbed from any review of BoJack Horseman from the last few years.
But, as “Head In The Clouds” shrewdly argues in a script by BoJack veteran Peter A. Knight, there is a downside to some of that acknowledgement, the question that showcasing this behavior may normalize it to the point of cheering it on. “We’re all terrible, but we’re all okay, and that’s a pretty powerful message” as BoJack says in a hazy introduction to the pilot, and the toxicity of that message is clearly visible. It’s a version of the argument that comes up in Breaking Bad debates with viewers who think you should root for Walter White 100 percent of the time, or with Rick And Morty fans who think Rick’s agent-of-chaos nihilism is an ideal to shoot for. What’s kept BoJack “likable” is his desire to change, to figure out some way to heal. And if he’s not trying to get better, what’s left to root for?
What BoJack has in its favor though is that unlike Philbert, it understands it’s not okay that its characters are not okay. Diane accepted BoJack’s offer to write for the show on the grounds that she could take it past its objectification and emptiness, and seeing that she’s normalizing awfulness is a full betrayal of everything she stands for. And after a few episodes of darting around the topic, half-truths and confessions delivered via cue card proxy, BoJack and Diane finally have it out about their not-okay qualities in brutal fashion. Bracketed in marvelously symbolic fashion between a Philbert poster that asks “What Did You Do?” and a Mr. Peanutbutter cutout that says “Don’t Tell Her A Thing,” Diane demands answers and BoJack gives them—and then some. It’s a brutal interaction to witness, punctuated by the occasional Yahoo! Finland photographer that does nothing to calm the raging fire.
One of my personal favorite BoJack Horseman episodes is “Best Thing That Ever Happened,” where all of the history between BoJack and Princess Carolyn and all the chemistry between their voice actors collided in a raw and personal fight. “Head In The Clouds” may not hit those same heights as it’s splitting time with the rest of the cast (we’ll get to that later) but it relies on similar elements and delivers a similarly devastating effect. These are two characters who know each other too well, and who have trusted each other to the extent that when they feel betrayed, they feel no quibbles about digging deeply.
BoJack, for his part, is deeply reliant on a mix of self-pity and self-delusion. Having no luck convincing her that it’s okay if he’s flawed, he doubles down on the degree of those flaws, and the argument that the cumulative effect of the shitty things he’s done makes his cumulative guilt far worse than anything individuals might feel. It’s a horrifying excuse made all the worse by the sincerity in Will Arnett’s deliveries, the feeling that to BoJack this is justified. Whatever flickers of trying to fix himself previously existed are subsumed in a sea of guilt and intoxicants, and the sad realization that the good work he’s inched ever so slightly towards in the last few seasons is erased in one giant step back.
On her side, Diane has the facts, having followed the example of writing One Trick Pony and doing the research. She pulls the rare trick of stunning BoJack into silence twice, throwing his deepest failures of Penny and Sarah-Lynn back in his face, connecting enough of the dots on her own that a confession of guilt would be little more than verification. (I always wondered if those Oberlin photos from “That’s Too Much, Man!” were going to come back and bite BoJack, and the answer is a resounding yes.) Alison Brie’s voice is pulled tight as a garrote here, and the scene crackles with the feeling she’s wrapping it around BoJack’s neck. And underneath all of it is also a sense of guilt. Previous lows of their friendship were feeding off each others’ depression, now it’s plummeted from enabling to creating the monster.
And it’s almost impossible to overstate the impact of their denouement, when BoJack finally comes clean about New Mexico. He tries to deliver the truth in a string of half-statements, doubling back constantly and still managing to make it sound awful. And when he gets to his core defense of that night, that nothing happened, Diane responds with one word that destroys the entire argument:
It’s a moment of the coldest ice, a moment that would be an emotional sledgehammer even if BoJack didn’t grab at Diane’s arm and she had to tell him to let go. It’s BoJack finally letting that admission out, that question of what would have happened if Charlotte hadn’t walked in at that exact moment, and his subconscious giving away the answer in a way Diane recognizes instantly.
In the world of BoJack Horseman, bad decisions aren’t allowed to exist on their own, as both participants reel back in pain from this interaction. BoJack ignores his promise to Hollyhock and gulps down a mouthful of pills, kissing Gina in full view of the press and trying to lose himself in the spotlights—a loss that’s achieved with the progressive blurring of the screen. And if Diane said everything in words with BoJack, the degree to which her face goes through a dozen twitches before inviting Mr. Peanutbutter in says everything. BoJack’s too fried to do anything but grasp at something safe, but Diane knows exactly how bad grasping at this safety net truly is.
The clash between BoJack and Diane and its aftershock is so raw and well-done that most of what’s going on behind the scenes come across as a distraction—but to its credit, it seems to know that. It turns out that Flip’s ever-present Popsicles were a source of more than sugary syrup and brain-freeze, they were the source of at least one corny joke that he appropriated into badass dialogue. Abel Ziegler, half of the Crazy AZs Frozen Funnies team, brings his complaint to Princess Carolyn and Flip, and subsequently immerses them in a 30-year-old feud where punchlines flew in place of punches.
“This episode contains no intentional humor,” Flip admonishes the audience before airing the pilot, a statement that clearly can’t be applied to “Head In The Clouds.” It falls into a similar trap of “INT: SUB,” the idea that the subplots need to be more overtly funny to distract from the emotional abuse of the main storyline, but without the necessary plot adhesion to make their ridiculousness work in context. Abel Ziegler and Ziggy Abler aren’t possible to treat as anything other than comedic relief, from their character designs to the accompanying sound affects—so broad that BoJack Horseman may as well have put Statler and Waldorf at the premiere. To its credit, it does succeed at achieving laughs by virtue of its sheer broadness (“How long do we have to listen to this guy do his Popsicle shtick?” “It’s pronounced stick, idiot”), and casting legendary comedian Richard Lewis as part of the duo certainly doesn’t hurt either.
“Head In The Clouds” gets better results out of the continued insertion of Henry Fondle, thrusting his way deeply into the main story. Unable to consign his sex robot to the dumpster—yet another sign of his empathy and dimness, that he can carry a conversation with a robot that’s only his pre-recorded phases—Todd decides to bring it to work. Here, Henry Fondle achieves Vincent Adultman-level heights of cognitive dissonance, yet another character that is obviously not a real person and that every member of the cast except one treats with the utmost seriousness. The entire corporate structure of What Time Is It Right Now is swayed by his sexual expressions, and if Todd was able to climb the ranks despite all evidence to the contrary, it makes a perverse kind of sense that Henry Fondle would exceed even that.
With Henry Fondle at the head of What Time Is It Right Now, Philbert is poised to go beyond one-season-wonder and give BoJack the first chance at stable work he’s had in years. It’s just a cruel joke that doing that work has made him more unstable than ever. He wasn’t in good shape before the fight with Diane—mistaking Flip for Herb in the intro is the most damning sign of his diminishing capabilities to date—and now he’s grabbing at whatever pill bottle or co-star is going to keep him from the full awareness of what he’s done.
He is terrible, and he’s not okay. And that’s a pretty powerful message.
- Achievement in Voice Acting: Isaiah Whitlock Jr. is the perfect choice for the What Time Is It Right Now CEO, adding the perfect amount of gravitas to counterbalance the sheer lunacy of an executive yielding his position to a sex robot because he inferred the right relationship advice from his pre-recorded messages. Disappointingly, no utterance of his trademark catchphrase, but it would have made the casting guessing game a little too obvious.
- CHARACTER ACTRESS MARGO MARTINDALE!!! She doesn’t get to do much this episode beyond scream BoJack’s name incoherently, but I’m so happy to see her again in this universe. (Even though, without seeing a body, I never believed she was dead.) “I look at your face and think, you could be literally anyone. Are you a federal judge, a Russian spy, a proud Southern matriarch?”
- Philbert reviews also include strong praise for the acting, with BoJack “bringing surprising depth to the eponymous character” and Gina’s “restrained performance crackles with nuance and power.” Gina’s thrilled to get two sentences in a review, while BoJack’s just bitter about the likelihood that “eponymous” is supposed to be a pun.
- Princess Carolyn’s coffee cup reads “Pringles Cartilage,” which made me laugh harder than any of Abel or Ziggy’s crosstalk.
- Exhibit A that Flip is everything wrong with television: Philbert’s pilot is a “tight” hour and eighteen minutes long.
- “Just be charmingly effuse and be yourself!” “I can’t be both of those things at once!”
- “That 39-year-old actress is going places.”
- “You want to be tantamount to this catamount?”
- “Fritz is the hardest I’ve ever acted. Way harder than when I did the ice bucket challenge and it was fake ice.”
- “Wow. And my mother said I’d never last as long as Hung. Well, who’s hung now, Mom?!”
- “You’re hurting me, and I would like you to let go now.”
- Today in Hollywoo signs, legalese edition: