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“Time’s Arrow” marches forward on BoJack Horseman, and its aim is true

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“It seems to me that you need a lot of courage, or a lot of something, to enter into others, into other people. We all think that everyone else lives in fortresses, in fastnesses: behind moats, behind sheer walls studded with spikes and broken glass. But in fact we inhabit much punier structures. We are, as it turns out, all jerry-built. Or not even. You can just stick your head under the flap of the tent and crawl right in.” - Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow

There’s no episode of television to simultaneously anticipate and dread more in the year than the penultimate episode of BoJack Horseman. If Game Of Thrones takes that opportunity to bring out its game-changing moves and elaborate battle scenes, BoJack Horseman takes it to crack your heart like an egg and whisk your emotions apart. “Downer Ending,” “Escape From L.A.,” and “That’s Too Much, Man!” are simultaneously some of the best episodes of the series and the hardest to ever revisit. They’re the episodes where BoJack goes deepest into the worst parts of himself, and the episodes where things happen that can never be taken back, splinters in the brain that only wedge deeper the more you try to pull them out.


“Time’s Arrow” flies on a similar emotional path, though the target it’s aiming at is one that wasn’t expected. While the previous penultimate episodes have come largely out of nowhere, season four has built some expectations for the final blow ever since “The Old Sugarman Place” shifted the focus to Beatrice Horseman, née Sugarman. With Hollyhock’s introduction putting family at the forefront of the BoJack story, and the subsequent re-entry of Bea into BoJack’s daily life, the expectation built to Bea’s death serving as the defining moment of the season. The issue of the damage his mother did to him, whether or not he’d be able to reconcile it, and whether or not he’s passing it onto his daughter or breaking the chain—all of that looked to be building to a moment where Bea wasn’t there anymore.


But Bea’s death isn’t the focal point of “Time’s Arrow,” but the march of her life. That arrow points in the opposite direction and we’re borne back ceaselessly into the past. We’re given answers to questions that have hung over the entire season and series, some of which are expected and some of which come out of nowhere. It’s a slow-motion abstract tragedy, one that earns its place in the BoJack Horseman penultimate pantheon and sets itself apart in a major way.

To play out the story of Bea, “Time’s Arrow” takes us into Bea’s dementia-rattled mind. And if the inside of BoJack’s depression-rattled mind in “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t” was unsettling to view, director Aaron Long makes this even more so, the structure of things somehow both more welded together and less structurally sound. All the faces that were only in the background of Bea’s life are wiped clean. The letters on the signs in the background shift places regularly, and the wallpaper shakes with slammed doors. Colors get brighter in the positive moments, and major speeches take on resonant echoes. Paintings like the Horseman and Sugarman family portraits keep phasing in and out in the same place. And in the most unsettling detail, all we see of Honey is a black outline with a thin white scar that never fully takes the foreground. In reality and memory, she’s reduced to a shadow of her former self.

Amidst all of these shades and scribbles, there’s one path of time’s arrow that’s clearly visible: the one that led Butterscotch Horseman and Beatrice Sugarman into their lives together. For the entire series all we’ve ever gotten are hints about BoJack’s early life, flashbacks of resentful interactions and savage putdowns. Now we’re getting the story from the horse’s mouth, seeing the first meeting between at the latter’s debutante ball. And it’s easy to see why the two gravitated together, both young minds looking to redefine themselves. Butterscotch was a handsome bad-boy colt with aspirations of joining the Beat writers. Bea was the Barnard-educated young filly who chafed at her father’s outdated views. They exchange some verbal sparring, one thing leads to another, and before you know it Bea’s throwing up on one of her suitors and showing up on Butterscotch’s stoop.


The fantasies of their life together are vivid, but those snapshots don’t hold up to reality. And in playing all this out, “Time’s Arrow” makes it clear exactly what turned Butterscotch and Bea into the figures who caused BoJack so much damage. Butterscotch was never a good enough writer to be accepted by the Beat generation, and he hid that personal rejection by adopting prejudiced views about “commie, liberal, Jew-loving rejects.” And as much as Bea romanticized the idea of getting away from the patrician life, she’d grown accustomed to the comforts of that life and chafed at their absence. Both of them were forced to knuckle under and crawl back to the Sugarman teat, and neither of them could dismiss the fact that they couldn’t live up to their youthful principles. And as a consequence, they took it out on their son, who was to them a living reminder of those compromises. You don’t forgive them for it, but you do get some understanding of what made them who they were.


Time then speeds up through their joyless life together—more creature comforts installed, BoJack getting out of the house and getting famous—making it clear that so much of that has already faded out of Bea’s mind, thoughts blown away in a cloud of cigarette smoke and blocks of time marked as literal turns of the page. Her clearest memory of BoJack is one only made clear by its proximity to her father’s death, otherwise it’s just one of a thousand bitter spats. It produces the unsettled feeling that whatever survived the ravages of time’s arrow must be very important or very painful, and both are true as we meet the real Henrietta, the family maid. Her face is also gone, but not just the blank slate of the partygoers. In another smart animation choice it’s been scratched over violently in constant scribbling motions, making it clear why Bea can’t tell that BoJack isn’t really her.

Why this level of subconscious excision? Because it turns out that Butterscotch was helping the maid do a lot more than study for nursing school, and now she’s in the family way. He comes to Bea hat in hand—literally thanks to a great mental glitch—and begs her to talk some sense into Henrietta. While having Will Arnett voice both BoJack and Butterscotch may have been a choice of convenience in the early going, it’s worth it for the cracked tones in which he utters “I know you hate me, Bea,” all the rage and resentment in him finally worn down to a nub. As he once described of the Great American Novel he never produced, it’s the twilight frontier of the life that was promised him.


If Butterscotch has lost the fight inside of him, there’s still some smoldering inside of Bea. It’s not empathy for Henrietta’s position, it’s seeing the parallels to her own, right down to the same resemblance to a long-faded picture of Butterscotch’s mother. And she sees a chance for someone else to make a different decision, which must of course be the right one, given how she’s seen her decision turned out in the end. Wendie Malick delivers a deep passion through the bitterness, speaking of Butterscotch as “poison” and saying without saying that Henrietta has the chance to find her own Corbin Creamerman. Henrietta says yes, and months later Bea takes the child to its new life. And Bea’s “Oh, it’s you” on the first sighting of Hollyhock suddenly makes a lot more sense: it wasn’t the first time. She was there when this newborn foal entered the world.


And the worst part of all of this? You can understand exactly why Bea did what she did, and why she still does what she does. Even drugging Hollyhock, at first glance unforgivable, is hazy reactions to the constant digs at her weight from Joseph and Clemelia Bloodsworth. Her life is full of near-constant trauma—a brother cut down in war, a mother lobotomized for her grief, a father who saw nothing wrong with putting down her emotions and her thoughts. (Particularly the latter: it’s hard to think of a worse monster on television in 2017 than Joseph Sugarman.) Fear and loss led her to make choices, those choices led to anger and regret. Bea once told BoJack that he came by his ugliness honestly, and “Time’s Arrow” is the purest verification of that. BoJack may be what she made him, but Beatrice is what her life has made her.


That life now blurs together into the most potent sequence of the episode, the worst and the best memories of Bea’s life intertwined so heavily that it becomes tragic and profound at the same time, both of Butterscotch’s children being delivered in parallel. You can see in perfect clarity how one pain begat the other, how one of time’s arrows split another one in the same spot like Robin Hood’s archery contest. Joseph burned her doll in front of her and waved off her feelings, that melting plastic producing an image so deeply ingrained in her head it led her to keep BoJack. And the frustrations and disappointments of that decision led her to enforce the opposite decision on Henrietta, taking the child far away without even letting the new mother hold her.

It’s not so much a pleasant memory as a flash of clarity, as we finally catch up to the last moment of “lovin that cali lifestyle!!” With the word “BoJack?” all the breaths are held in. Every penultimate episode before this one, there’s nothing holding BoJack back from making the worst possible decisions. He gives into his darkest impulses and his selfish desires, fucking up in a way you can’t come back from. There’s any number of things that he could do here that would be in keeping with his patterns. Say nothing and walk out. Tell her she’s mistaken and he’s not her son. Take advantage of this moment of lucidity to fight those old battles, the final opportunity to deliver the “Fuck you, Mom” he wanted so badly in “Thoughts And Prayers.”


And something miraculous happens: he doesn’t. Instead, he sits down with her and he paints a picture her foggy eyes can’t see, the Sugarman lake house restored to its prime. The fireflies are shining, the crickets are chirping, CrackerJack playing that piano the way he did before the war took him away and set this family on its path of immeasurable sadness. And he gives her the one thing her father would never give that lonely and confused little child, the taste of vanilla ice cream. It settles on that last benign moment, a retreat from all the pain and confusion into a non-existent idyll.


It would be a rare kindness from BoJack in any circumstance, but in the context of “Time’s Arrow”—a truly devastating episode that shows how few kindnesses were ever shown on Bea in her ultimately tragic existence—it’s like giving her a diamond. And in an episode full of the ramifications of destructive patterns, his breaking from his usual pattern is the most hopeful move possible. Time’s arrow may indeed march on, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. But that doesn’t mean you have to follow the well-worn paths it sets.

Stray observations:

  • Achievement in Voice Acting: We’ve seen the frostiness of Wendie Malick many times before in BoJack Horseman, but she’s running the gamut here and doing so excellently. The proud and confident young college graduate, the cynical debutante, the “ruined woman” still daring to believe in a fairy tale romance, the increasingly embittered housewife, the hardened yet pragmatic cuckquean (not in the fetish sense, just to clarify), and the dementia-rattled shell who can’t keep any of those personas straight anymore.
  • The reveal of Hollyhock’s true parentage kills the theory I’ve been sitting on for half the season, that Henrietta was actually Butterscotch’s daughter. I misread Bea’s earlier curse about Henrietta being a “worthless waste of my husband’s jism” and thought her dementia meant she couldn’t tell Butterscotch’s children apart. And thankfully it also kills my related terrifying theory that BoJack had sex with Henrietta without knowing who she was, which would have taken us to Chinatown “My sister, my daughter” territory. It’s a testament to BoJack’s fearlessness that I never once thought they’d consider this territory off limits.
  • Bravo on the use of the book titles to demonstrate the passage of time, and the detail of all those books tossed in the fire in the final flashback.
  • Bea’s debutante ball is a literal horse show, complete with an announcer. No wonder Joseph kept needling her about her weight: to him, all that matters is her form.
  • Butterscotch gave Bea the number to a pizza parlor in Brownsburg instead of his own, and he coldly dismisses BoJack’s support as a headline: “Idiot Son Thinks Dad’s Book Is ‘Great,’ Comma, Son is Idiot.” Like father, like son.
  • The painting that Bea gives to BoJack will come to an ignoble end in “Prickly-Muffin” when Sarah-Lynn lets her friends drill through it to build a cocaine booth/sex closet. Though it’s about what any reminder of Joseph Sugarman deserves.
  • “I swear, if I’d known this is how you’d be when we severed the connections to your prefrontal cortex, I’d hardly have bothered.”
  • “I am familiar with the Beats, thank you. I like Ginsberg all right, but if you ask me, that Squirrelinghetti is nuts.”
  • “I don’t find you boring. Only the things you choose to talk about, and the way in which you talk about them.”
  • “And isn’t that how the story goes?”
  • “You want me to work for your father, and get paid for it, like some sort of slave?” “That is the opposite of slavery!”
  • “But darling, you have to. Your sickness infects everything. It all must be destroyed for your own good.”
  • Yesterday in Hollywoo signs: