TRIGGER WARNING: This essay contains references to suicide that may be triggering to some.
Within the deservedly acclaimed finale of BoJack Horseman, there’s one scene in particular that encapsulates the show’s portrayal of the existential struggle to rectify the inequities of one’s life in an attempt to set a new course for fulfillment.
BoJack, the anthropomorphic equine protagonist, contemplates the potential success of his prolonged battle with addiction alongside his best friend, Todd. The two walk along a beach shore as Todd attempts to explain the ethereal meaning behind the lyrics of the “Hokey Pokey” song.
“You do the Hokey Pokey, and you turn yourself around. You turn yourself around,” he tells BoJack. “That’s what it’s all about.”
At the heart of a show that, on its surface, follows the almost hackneyed trope of a celebrity overtaken by the pitfalls of fame and fortune who then descends into the throes of addiction, BoJack Horseman is a deeply intimate character study. It’s not without a touch of irony that in a golden age of television that has produced some of the zeitgeist’s most ubiquitous cultural icons and commercially and critically successful titles, that perhaps the best portrayal of depression and mental illness can be discovered within a show about a talking, alcoholic horse.
There’s no series of prologue episodes that introduces BoJack as a seemingly well-to-do individual with a litany of demons bubbling beneath the facade of a glossy smile. Instead, we meet him as the broken, afflicted character that statically develops over the course of the series. Within the first five minutes of the first episode, we see him tossing prescription pills and vodka into a fruit smoothie in order to make it palatable, and it’s noteworthy that the showrunners present BoJack in this way from the start, as a sort of fully fleshed paradigm of misery.
One of the main thematic threads of the show pits BoJack’s nurture against his nature. What makes him such a compelling antihero and the reason that, in the end, we root for the redemption of a character who shows himself neither ready nor worthy of it, is our bearing witness to his unceasing juggling act of the person he was born as and the person he envisions himself becoming.
Is the “authentic” BoJack the one who betrayed his friend and mentor Herb Kazazz, or the one who went to great lengths to reunite a newborn seahorse with his father? Is he the one who saves Todd from an improv comedy cult, or the one who directly contributes to the death of his friend and co-star Sarah Lynn? The fact that BoJack frequently inhabits both of these spaces simultaneously indicates that the closest definitive answer we might come to is that he is indeed both sympathetic and highly problematic. As Diane tells him later on, “there’s no such thing as ‘bad guys’ or ‘good guys,’ we’re all just guys, who do good stuff sometimes and bad stuff sometimes.”
But for BoJack, that element of retrospective ambiguity toward past actions doesn’t always apply. His life is punctuated by bad decision making and an apathy toward others that isolates him when he needs personal connections the most, and at the center of that self-inflicted solitude, the question lingers as to how he gets there — are his patterned actions of self-destruction simply uncoerced character flaws, or is it possible that his accursed childhood sabotaged his development and his chances at a stable adulthood?
A litany of evidence, compiled through studying the effects of generational trauma, gives credence to the idea that what has happened in the pasts of our mothers, fathers and even distant ancestors can have a reverberant impact on the present. Severe trauma, studies have found, is not solely the burden of the presently afflicted; there are instances in which we pass that trauma to our offspring.
Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York have looked closely at how intergenerational transmission of trauma might occur. In August 2015, they published a study of Holocaust survivors that showed that parental trauma experienced before conception can cause epigenetic changes, or gene alterations, in both parent and child. Likewise, researchers at Ulster University released findings in 2018 that residents of Northern Ireland who endured the decades-long sectarian conflicts during the Troubles may indeed pass on their trauma and trauma-related illnesses to their children.
The studies only cement what some psychologists have argued since the late 19th century. The concept of the “inferiority complex,” as Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler described it, dictates that traumatic experiences during childhood can often mold our expectations of adulthood, and feelings of inferiority we experience as children may result in a lifelong battle to subvert that crippling perception of inadequacy.
While the most prominent corners of psychological study revolve around interpretations of one’s past, others place emphasis on what lay ahead rather than what sits behind. Victor Frankl, perhaps most known for his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning in which he vividly describes his harrowing time inside of a Nazi concentration camp, was so affected by his own traumatic experiences that his work and career were deeply shaped by them. In contrast to the “will to pleasure” of Freud’s psychoanalysis and the “will to power” of Nietzsche, Frankl focused on one’s “will to meaning” as a motivational force for existence. That cavernous existential dread we feel when we believe we’re without purpose, Frankl argued, stems from the absence of meaning in our lives.
This kind of psychotherapeutic approach, focused more on one’s future and their conscious decision-making, is essential to the prolonged well-being of a character like BoJack, who, seemingly in every moment, is confronting the trauma of his past and also the ambiguity of his future.
The seeds of BoJack’s tribulation were baked into his consciousness by his equally afflicted parents — his father Butterscotch, a failed novelist, and his mother Beatrice, a disconsolate heiress who arrived at her malady following her own traumatic childhood.
“You were born broken, that’s your birthright,” Beatrice at one point tells her son, and it’s one not relegated to BoJack. Later on in the series, BoJack’s half-sister Hollyhock tells him about a voice inside her, “the one that tells you you’re worthless, and stupid, and ugly.” She asks whether such thoughts are part of a silly teenage girl phase. The dramatic irony of the scene is that BoJack knows that voice well, because it’s the same one that constantly reminds him of his own inequities and dictates so many of his self-destructive actions.
Throughout the show, swimming and water reemerge intermittently as motifs. In both the opening credit sequence and as displayed within the BoJack-Pool painting hanging in his home, BoJack frequently finds himself submerged, looking upward toward the surface for someone to pull him out of the water. The painting itself is a mock recreation of David Hockney’s 1972 painting “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” sold at Christie’s for $90.3 million in 2018. It remains the most expensive work ever sold by a living artist.
While “Portrait of an Artist” portrays Hockney’s unyielding pain following a tumultuous break up with fellow artist Peter Schlesinger (who Hockney depicts as the man staring downward into the pool at a swimmer believed to be the new love object of Schlesinger’s eye), the painting’s message takes on a further evocation in the context of BoJack’s struggles as a character.
It recalls the myth of Narcissus, who rejected all those who longed for him in favor of his own reflection, which seized him into a fatal paralysis. When BoJack attempts to take control of the creative process in writing his memoir toward the end of the first season, his idea for an ending involves him growing old at a summer home in Maine, with time spent swimming in the nearby lake.
“When I get too old to take care of myself, I go for one last swim,” he says. “I know I can’t make it back to shore. I’m too weak, too tired. So I just let the water take me under.”
Later in the same episode, in the midst of a drug-induced haze as they stare at his painting, BoJack asks Diane whether they should help the BoJack in the painting who seems to be struggling to swim. “No,” she replies. “He loves treading water.” The toil of the BoJack in the painting reveals that of the BoJack in the real world — frantically scrambling to make progress and to find meaning. Just as Narcissus lacks the volition to pull himself from his own gaze, BoJack finds himself both captivated and enslaved by the trauma of his past.
The water metaphor is cemented in the Emmy-nominated “Free Churro,” a tour-de-force episode in which BoJack, in the form of a eulogy at his mother’s funeral, delivers a 20-minute soliloquy and meditation on the ways in which the failures and cynicism of his parents were projected onto him. He notes that for all of the ways in which he and his parents were at odds with one another, there was one particular, lifelong sensation that bonded them. They “knew what it was like to spend your entire life and feel like you’re drowning … All three of us were drowning and we didn’t know how to save each other, but there was an understanding that we were all drowning together,” he says.
The episode takes its title from a moment reflected upon by BoJack, when, after telling a Jack in the Box drive-thru attendant that his mother just died, he’s offered a free Churro as a condolence. Just like when he realizes that his mother’s final words “I see you” were actually “ICU,” and that she wasn’t offering him some deathbed recognition or atoning for her transgressions as a mother, but instead was reading the letters on the wall of the hospital, BoJack is hit with the comprehension that meteoric events like the death of a parent are not always followed by meteoric meaning. Suffering, as BoJack is again reminded of, does not always have meaning, and that it’s up to us to attribute personal significance to it. In doing so, we give ourselves the hope of forging a new path amongst the ashes of our own trauma.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any circumstance,” writes Frankl. “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them.”
It is this thematic thread which weaves together the central conflict of BoJack Horseman: can BoJack show courage in the face of that choice? Can he confront his own conditioning and determine himself? Can he and will he pull himself out of the waters into which he was submerged from birth?
The significant depths from which BoJack must swim upward are revealed to us slowly throughout the series. In season four’s “The Old Sugarman Place,” we’re introduced to BoJack’s ancestors and to Beatrice as a young girl, as they spend a weekend away at their lake house in Michigan. The bright, wholesome dynamic maintained by the family rapidly unravels when Crackerjack, Beatrice’s brother and BoJack’s uncle, is killed in action fighting overseas. Beatrice’s mother quickly crumbles under the weight of this newfound trauma, eventually resulting in a partial lobotomy to relieve her pain. She makes Beatrice promise never to love someone as much as she loved Crackerjack, planting the conceptual seed within Beatrice that to love requires forming unfettered attachments, and that to avoid the incomprehensible pain that follows the breaking of those attachments, the only remedy is to cease forming them in the first place.
Within the episode, BoJack in present time visits the Sugarman lake house, now a dilapidated husk of its former self, to try and gain some much needed perspective after the death of Sarah Lynn. As he walks through the rooms, we simultaneously see flashbacks of the Sugarmans dealing with the aftermath of Crackerjack’s death. The confrontation of their familial trauma starts to blend with that of BoJack’s in the present. We see the Sugarmans as ghosts, but certainly not as anachronisms. The effects of those events several decades before BoJack walked back into that lake house led him to its doorstep. The Sugarman memories and their traumatic thread is stitched into BoJack himself; he carries the scars with him always.
The episode’s lyrical and thematic payoff arrives later in the season with “Time’s Arrow,” a sequence that elaborates upon the trauma of Beatrice and traces her cynicism to an adolescence riddled with hardship and emotionally stunting landmines. We see Beatrice and her father navigate the breakdown of their family’s structure, as her mother’s condition further worsens. The resulting toxicity manifests in a noxious father-daughter relationship as Beatrice ages, causing her to rebel against the affluent structures of her upbringing. Instead of entering into a marriage that could potentially be advantageous for Sugarman business prospects, Beatrice spitefully chooses the uncouth and incompatible Butterscotch Horseman, whose only motivation is to rub shoulders with prominent Beatnik writers in San Francisco. The couple’s one-night stand has lifelong implications, particularly for their doomed offspring in BoJack.
“Time’s arrow neither stands still nor reverses, it merely marches forward,” Beatrice’s father tells his family in “The Old Sugarman Place” as her mother sits with Crackerjack at the piano and the two sing a duet — the creation of one final memory between them before Crackerjack makes his fatal journey into battle. The tune becomes a leitmotif for Beatrice throughout the series, reinforcing the philosophy behind her grandfather’s “arrow” aphorism. Just as those same piano notes attach themselves to the character of Beatrice, so too does the trauma of what follows their completion. The impact of those notes permeate the Sugarman generations, and they reverberate through time and into the ears of BoJack.
Toward the end of “Time’s Arrow,” we see the commencement of Beatrice’s trauma. As the show’s writers use scarlet fever as a metaphor, Beatrice’s father commands the household servants to burn her belongings in order to prevent the fever’s spread, which includes her cherished baby doll.
“Your sickness has infected everything. It all must be destroyed for your own good … especially your baby,” her father tells her.
And it was. The doll, as it’s cast into the flames, represents the entity of Beatrice’s innocence. As it disintegrates, so too does her future ability to formulate connections or emotional bonds. She compensates for these flaws through a philosophy of cold detachment. She’s so unyielding in her commitment to inoculating herself from the painful ebbs and flows of love that she raises BoJack with the preconception that if he is to avoid the kind of pain that forced his grandmother into a permanent catatonic state, then he must approach attachment and enduring relationships with the same kind of skepticism his mother has.
The ramifications of that upbringing are felt for decades. BoJack indeed absorbs the harsh lessons and applies them. Like his ancestors, he succumbs to the idea that substance abuse is a long-term anecdote for the absence of personal fulfillment and meaning, and the toxicity of his childhood not only manifests as periodic outwardly lashing toward those closest to him, but also in a deep-seated resentment of his mother. He dreams of eloquently telling her to her face of her failings as a mother and her improprieties as a child-bearer. When the moment finally arrives after BoJack drops her off at a nursing home, he’s unable to deliver the message. With every reason to unleash and let her drown in the despair of her parental ineptitude, in that instant, BoJack chooses to save her, to pull her from the water, as he gently tells her to envision being at the Sugarman lake house, eating vanilla ice cream on a warm summer night.
“At any moment, man must decide for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence,” Frankl writes. “Which choice will be made an actuality once and forever, an immortal ‘footprint in the sands of time’?”
BoJack’s determinist approach in that moment, his ability to choose how his actions affect others, shows us that he’s capable of swimming to the surface on his own.
The theme of determining whether to plunge into the waters of our trauma reemerges in the series’s penultimate episode, appropriately titled, “The View From Halfway Down.” In it, BoJack reconnects with those who he lost in life. He listens to a poem written by Secretariat, who, in the context of the show, was a famous racehorse idolized by BoJack as a child. Much like BoJack, Secretariat was unable to adapt to the rigors and pressures of fame, and was eventually banned from competition due to illegal betting, leading to him committing suicide by leaping from a bridge. The poem he reads in the episode details the moments between letting go of the railing and the impact of the water below, and the almost instantaneous regret once the realization sets in that the compulsive choice to jump is an unalterable one.
“It’s all okay, or it would be
Were you not now halfway down.
Thrash to break from gravity
What now could slow the drop
All I’d give for toes to touch
The safety back at top.
Before I leaped I should’ve seen
The view from halfway down.”
The remorseful sentiment is reminiscent of the words of Ken Baldwin, who, as a 28-year-old, survived a suicide attempt after he jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985.
“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped,” he later told The New Yorker about his experience.
As is true for Ken Baldwin, and for Secretariat, it’s also true for BoJack: the view from halfway down, once realized, is a scenery fatal to our ability to change our circumstances. In order to do so, we must believe that change is possible while we still have one foot on the ledge.
For BoJack, whose grasp on the railing is gradually slipping throughout the series, the show’s finale forces him to confront the disparity between how he’s handled his trauma compared to those around him. Todd’s persistence has yielded a better relationship with his mother. Princess Carolyn has determined for herself that her best years are in the present rather than the past. Mr. Peanut Butter leans on his inexorable positivity through another painful break-up, while Diane has finally learned to trust the faint echoes within her conscience that alert her to recognize happiness when it appears.
In the finale, BoJack sits with Diane on the roof as they’ve done so many times previously. This time, however, they’re also sitting on the precipice of their futures. Diane petulantly tells BoJack of the guilt-tripping voicemail he sent to her the night he nearly drowned, in which he tells her that he’s decided to go swimming because “nothing matters anyway and nobody cares about me.” BoJack places that call at a moment in which he allows the waters of his generational trauma to pull him under, and as always, he looks upward to those on the surface to save him. But sitting with Diane beneath the starry sky, he begins to understand that only he can pull himself out of the water, that the trauma of his past is no longer an excuse or a justification for future failure. He begins to know that his choices from that point forward are actualities once and forever, an immortal footprint in the sands of time as tangible and expressive as those on the sand below the roof.
BoJack himself must be the force that determines what happens to him, rather than the trauma that he has allowed to be an omniscient, fatalist presence up to that point. And in that moment, sitting on the cold shingles of the roof, he must begin to build the monument to his own existence.
Ethan Powers is a writer and editor based in Buffalo, New York. His work has appeared in The Guardian and 3:AM Magazine, among other publications.