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In BoJack Horseman’s searing 4th season, the past comes for everyone

Season four turns the Netflix show into a meticulous, wrenching series of time warps.

BoJack can run, but he can’t hide

The first thing I wanted to do after finishing BoJack Horseman’s fourth season was go back and start it all over again.

A combination of intricate jokes, meticulous background detail, and sly emotional twists have always made Netflix’s animated show one of the most rewarding to revisit. I’ve seen every episode upward of three times, and each time I watch one, I find something new to hold onto, whether it’s a hidden punchline or a new depth of meaning gained through time. I could say BoJack Horseman is incredibly deft and powerful for a show ostensibly about snarky animals living in Hollywoo(d), but the truth fans have known since the end of the first season is that the show is just incredibly deft and powerful, period.

As much as I trust the show at this point, BoJack Horseman had its work cut out for it with season four. The third season wasn’t just beautiful and devastating, but it drove central misanthrope BoJack (Will Arnett) as far to the brink as it ever had — which, considering how many nihilistic drug binges we’ve seen BoJack get lost in over the years, truly is saying something.

Fresh off a particularly harsh bout of self-loathing and the horrifying death by overdose of his old co-star, BoJack drove out of Los Angeles with the resigned slump of a (horse)man trying to find a literal dead end to match the ones in his own mind. He was trying so desperately to reach the end of the road, it was hard to imagine how he’d find his way back again — or how the show could make it not feel cheap after letting him spiral out so many times.

So season four makes a bold and smart decision right off the bat: Where the past three seasons steadily built BoJack’s arc to a final devastating punch to the gut, this one flips that arc around.

Whereas BoJack’s low point typically comes in the penultimate episode of the season, the bleakest chapter of BoJack’s story this season comes in the second episode, on the heels of a premiere that follows everyone but him living in his absence — and then the show largely lets him live his life while everyone else’s crumbles around them. Meanwhile, BoJack’s new attempt to be a better person comes from wanting to be a decent guardian for Hollyhock (the extraordinarily good Aparna Nancherla), the winsome teenager who shows up and reveals that she could be his daughter. But more interesting, and ultimately impressive, is how this season dives into the past, untangling it with careful, empathy.

It’s a season that feels like the insightful BoJack we’ve come to know, but also one wearing its skin in a way that feels just uncomfortable enough that it’s clear something in its bones has changed. Without BoJack firmly at its center, the season becomes a little more scattered, but purposefully so. And by season’s end, it’s shifted the show in a way that feels more permanent than ever.

Everyone is growing and changing this season — until they’re not

At the beginning of season four, the regular cast of characters around BoJack — including eternally chipper neighbor Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), restless writer Diane (Alison Brie), slacker roommate Todd (Aaron Paul), and ambitious agent turned manager Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) — seem to be getting their collective shit together. BoJack doesn’t even show up until that second episode, with the premiere instead following everyone else living almost an entire year without him, and doing pretty well for themselves.

Mr. Peanutbutter, spoon-fed flattery from his political consultant ex-wife Katrina (Lake Bell), decides a fun thing to do would be running for governor against the far more pragmatic incumbent, Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz (Andre Braugher, wielding his fine-tuned deadpan to brilliant effect). Diane, wary but supportive, keeps writing for “Girl Croosh,” one of the only clickbait blog satires that’s ever truly made me laugh. Princess Carolyn and her mouse boyfriend Ralph (Raul Esparza) are trying for a baby while she runs her own management company, and even Todd finds something like stability when he joins an asexual support group. But almost all of this success steadily dissolves throughout the season. (Todd, as always, remains Teflon-level immune to lasting damage.)

Princess Carolyn (Sedaris) really needed this drink.

Hollyhock forcing BoJack to really, truly confront his past starts to save him; her openhearted charm and earnest desire to make everyone happy is impossible to resist. But in contrast to other seasons where BoJack’s descent into depression ripples throughout the show, he remains more separated in season four from everyone else than he ever has — and they still fall apart, some more than they ever have before. Diane, Princess Carolyn, and even Mr. Peanutbutter end up facing the fact that they’ve all tried so hard to be the people they think they should be without realizing they have no idea who those people even are.

Going into the particular journeys everyone undergoes this season would take up more time than any of us have — though Princess Carolyn’s painful arc deserves special notice, as does Sedaris bringing it to life — so from here, let’s get into the biggest way season four messes with the show’s formula, for the better.

This season’s relationship with time seems haphazard, but it’s the sly MVP

BoJack Horseman disappears from his life for an entire year. The first episode (“See Mr. Peanutbutter Run”) plays out Mr. Peanutbutter’s increasingly ridiculous bids to become governor (including a botched ski race, duh); the second (“The Old Sugarman Place”) jumps backward to fill us in on what happened during BoJack’s lost year, which he spent crashing at the Michigan lake house where his mother Beatrice (Wendie Malick) grew up a wide-eyed girl and later vacationed as a fatally bitter mom, with interwoven flashbacks to her childhood wafting through the scenery like ghosts.

But that’s far from the last time season four plays with aggressive time jumps. Several times throughout the season, a joke will include a cutaway to a week or even month later. In upending the episode’s reality, the show makes the audience recalibrate its perception of the season as a whole, and anxiously anticipate the next weirdo jump.

In the bizarre seventh episode “Underground,” for example, the regular cast of characters — plus bonus Jessica Biel and Zach Braff, voiced by themselves — get stuck underground for several horrifying days that quickly descend into total anarchy. While episodes of TV usually take place over a few days, “Underground” sporadically jumps ahead in time without any warning, more and more quickly, illustrating exactly how frayed everyone’s nerves are getting while also making jokes land with startling force. Even more jarring is the ninth episode (“Ruthie”), when what seems like a flash forward to a space future featuring Princess Carolyn’s distant descendent is ultimately revealed to be a fantasy Princess Carolyn imagines in order to tell herself things will work out, eventually.

If this casual flash-forward and all around technique seems like BoJack is playing fast and loose, the show illustrates that it’s anything but. Almost a full two years pass from the beginning of the season to its end, and in that time, most everyone undergoes serious changes that leave them completely different. In order to do that, the show’s relationship with time — which has heretofore been pretty straightforward — not only had to change, but evolve.

Hollyhock (Nancherla) crashes BoJack’s world for the better.

In “The Old Sugarman Place,” we see BoJack go through his old cycles of hating himself, refusing to get help, getting help, and rejecting that help. But in the flashbacks to his mother’s life we learn more about her family, and how she became the supposedly heartless crone BoJack came to know; played by Jane Krakowski and Matthew Broderick, Beatrice’s parents were heartbreaking and obliviously cruel, respectively.

This episode is as gut-wrenching as BoJack gets — at least before the 11th episode, “Time’s Arrow,” takes a deep dive into Beatrice’s past by way of her disintegrating present-day mind. Fractured by dementia, Beatrice’s perception of everything around her keeps blending with her past. This is largely played for laughs — every time she calls BoJack “Henrietta” she enrages him just a little bit more — until “Time’s Arrow” devotes an entire episode to seeing the world through her eyes.

The past flickers, warps, comes in and out of focus. It splits with what we know, and dovetails with the story in ways both unexpected and startling. Anchored by a steely Malick, “Time’s Arrow” doesn’t just show Beatrice’s journey through her cold childhood, defiant teenage years, and disappointing adult life — it makes it feel more real and present than the faded sepia pictures in her albums and dissolving mind allow. When Beatrice’s story finally reveals the truth behind Hollyhock’s, it brings together several stray threads from throughout the season so well that it’s hard not to immediately flip back and trace how the show set their arcs up for the sheer pleasure of watching their meticulous storylines collide.

So while every season of BoJack is ambitious in its own way, season four may in fact outdo them all, if only because it so thoroughly challenges the show itself at every turn. If the first three seasons waded into everyone’s past to reveal the broken pieces, the fourth takes a deep breath and jumps in to discover how they broke, with breathtaking nerve.

The first four seasons of BoJack Horseman are now available to stream on Netflix.

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