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BoJack Horseman’s brilliance was in making life feel longer than death

BoJack Horseman ends with a muted blend of hope and horror, as only it can.

BoJack performs standup.
BoJack Horseman will go into the light someday — just not yet.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Spoilers for the entire run of BoJack Horseman follow.

“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” says BoJack Horseman, in an attempt to sum up what he’s come to think about the world over the six seasons we’ve been watching this TV show about him.

But his former friend, Diane Nguyen, disagrees. “Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep living,” she says. This exchange occurs during the series’ final episode, an unexpectedly muted half hour that consists entirely of four conversations BoJack has with each of the show’s other main characters. Only the five top-billed actors are credited in the finale, an unusual turn for a guest-star-heavy show — particularly when you consider that “Nice While It Lasted” follows one of the series’ most visually inventive and structurally experimental installments.

As a dying BoJack’s brain attempts to make sense of his life and the people he’s lost, it’s tempting to read too much into it. The episode actually opens with BoJack flatlining: Is he dead? Is this another hallucination? Is the character reckoning with those who will be left alive to mourn him?

In a word, no. BoJack Horseman’s series finale is encapsulated in the aforementioned exchange between BoJack and Diane. Life stinks, and one day you will die. But also, life stinks, and most days, you will keep on living. You get to choose how to deal with that, how you will take out the pain you feel on others and yourself. You can let that pain infect the world around you, or you can find some way to try to heal and atone for the bad you’ve done.

The punishment BoJack deserves for his sins isn’t that he dies. The punishment BoJack deserves for his sins is that he keeps right on living, but without some of the people who made his life better. They’ve cut him off. And he knows why.

In its final season, BoJack Horseman revealed itself to be a consideration of what justice might look like

BoJack and Diane have a rare conversation.
The friendship between Diane and BoJack falls apart during the final season.

Broadly speaking, BoJack Horseman was an antihero series, albeit a satirical and silly one that both paid homage to the tropes of other antihero shows (like The Sopranos or Mad Men) while also taking the piss out of them. The show was sympathetic to the childhood abuse, mental illness, and other trauma that made BoJack someone who sometimes took his pain out on the world around him, but it didn’t let him off the hook.

Indeed, in 2015, after the series’ second season dropped, I compared BoJack to Mad Men’s Don Draper himself:

[BoJack is] all of the worst things we fear about ourselves, in the form of a TV character. And, crucially, he experiences occasional flashes of insight, moments when he understands the problem in his life is him, not the place he lives in or the company he keeps. He just lacks the wherewithal to actually confront his demons. Indeed, when it comes time to do so, he usually runs away from them.

But it’s one thing to show BoJack’s pain and another to depict the pain he’s caused for others. The show’s choice to not look away from the consequences of BoJack’s actions sets it apart from so many other antihero series.

In the midseason finale of Bojack Horseman’s sixth and final season (which was split into two parts), the series abandoned BoJack entirely after he seemingly found a path toward peace. Then it checked in with all of the people he’d hurt along the way, in minor and major ways, to see how the consequences of BoJack’s actions spiraled outward to destroy so many lives beyond his own. The message was clear: Maybe BoJack Horseman can find inner peace, but is it worth it if none of the people he’s hurt can find their way back?

The final season of the show was quite obviously truncated from a slightly longer story. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg thought he might get two full seasons to finish the series, and it’s evident that a potential 24 to 26 episodes were crammed into 16. The final stretch is much more self-serious than is typical for BoJack Horseman because there’s less room for levity. But those episodes did something rather daring that I’ve never seen another show pull off quite as well, splintering the show’s core friend group and scattering it to the winds.

The conversation between BoJack and Diane that ends the series is framed as what really might be their final conversation. BoJack is in jail (after breaking in to his old home while intoxicated). Diane has moved to Houston and gotten married after becoming a successful author of middle-grade books about a girl who solves mysteries. She refers to the years she lived in Los Angeles — years dominated by her friendship with BoJack — as “her LA years.”

BoJack’s other friends have also left him behind. Sure, he’ll probably still see some of them — Princess Carolyn will always be trying to find him work — but for the most part, the people who made up this little friend group have gone on to live very separate lives.

This final season also captures the ways in which time can pass without the realization that you’ve grown apart from people who were once important to you. When Diane reveals she’s married and living in Houston, BoJack realizes how little he knows about her life anymore — and so does the audience. We’re trapped with him as our protagonist, which means that when months and months pass without BoJack seeing his friends, we don’t see them either.

It’s achingly sad. I’m sure some will wish the series had let BoJack stay dead — the penultimate episode, set in his subconscious as his brain slowly ceases to function, is something else — but I think there’s something even more poignant about the choice to conclude with BoJack having to keep living.

Dying is easy; comedy is hard

BoJack tries not to drink at a college party.
BoJack remained a sad horse to the end.

When talking about dramatic stakes, it’s far too easy to assume that “life and death” is the most compelling stake imaginable. And yet the more that “death” is presented as the most horrible thing that could possibly happen in a work of fiction, the less power death ultimately holds. Death, after all, is final, inescapable. In fiction, at least, there are several worse fates.

As I wrote after the series finale of The Americans (a very different show with similar ideas about life-and-death stakes) in 2018:

Yes, life-or-death stakes can have a visceral, straightforward quality to them that is hard to overlook, especially in heightened settings like a fantasy kingdom or the zombie apocalypse. But there are fates worse than death, and lives that can be happy here and there but are still lived with that hint of melancholy of what once was but is no longer, as everybody on [The Americans] could tell you.

I increasingly favor thinking about dramatic stakes in television (and in life, really) not in terms of death but in terms of the death card from tarot, which can symbolize the ultimate end but usually just represents an irreparable rupture in your life. Things were one way, then they changed. Now you have to find a new path forward. This is what happens to BoJack Horseman: He had friends in his life. Now he doesn’t. He has to figure out a new future by himself.

There is a rightness to the way BoJack loses the people who used to give his life meaning. When he tries to fix himself and right old wrongs, there’s a chance they might still have room for him. But when his chickens come home to roost and he reacts not by coming clean but by trying to paint his actions in the most sympathetic light, his friends have finally had enough. Covering up for BoJack, who is happy to improve only when he doesn’t have to face the bad things he’s done, becomes a bridge too far for all of them, in one way or another.

I’m not saying that BoJack dying couldn’t have been an effective ending. Obviously it could have had immense power, as we watched him come so close to understanding the way his behavior rippled out to hurt so many people before falling so tragically short. But the show also made clear in its penultimate episode that whatever hallucination BoJack has at death’s door is just that — a hallucination, one that ends with an imagined phone conversation with Diane, who’s eliminated him from her life. Thus, once BoJack dies, that’s it. Whatever meaning his life held will forever elude him; instead, it’s up to his friends (and to us) to figure out.

The actual series finale, then — and especially that final scene with Diane — allow some measure of hopefulness. After all, BoJack might beat the odds and work toward being a better person, for the sake of both himself and others. He gets to keep on living. But he also has to keep on living, without Diane, without Todd, without Mr. Peanutbutter. The tragedy of any one life isn’t that it ends; it’s that it continues and continues and continues, and often the people you thought would always be there fall by the wayside.

BoJack Horseman is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.

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