It would have been easy to make an episode about mass shootings that lampoons right-wing, NRA-loving gun fanatics, but BoJack Horseman has never been especially interested in doing things the easy way. In its fourth season, Netflix’s animated anthropomorphic dramedy set its sights on gun violence in the episode “Thoughts and Prayers,” approaching the issue by focusing on, among other things, the hypocrisy of Hollywood figures who denounce gun violence while simultaneously working in an industry that fetishizes it—and those of us who enjoy the fruits of that industry.
The episode opens with an underling reporting some unfortunate news to movie producer Lenny Turtletaub: There’s been a mass shooting. Turtletaub flings his sandwich out of the window in dismay, but it’s not the loss of life that has him so distraught—it’s the conflict that this news will create for the opening of his new movie, Ms. Taken, a spinoff featuring the niece of Liam Neeson’s character from the Taken movies. The entire third act of the shoot-em-up thriller revolves around the lead, played by starlet Courtney Portnoy, massacring bad guys in a shopping mall, which could create a potential PR nightmare, given that the latest mass shooting took place in the same setting. (The same thing happened to a Carmichael Show episode about mass shootings in June.)
“I am sick and tired of real-life gun violence getting in the way of us telling stories that glamorize gun violence,” laments Turtletaub as he walks in front of posters with titles like Glockerspaniel and Americanine Shooter. He convenes the Ms. Taken creative team to try to get ahead of the crisis, setting up a Google alert for “mass shooting,” so that they won’t be caught off-guard again. Of course, this alert goes off multiple times, within moments of their setting it up, announcing that there’s been another mass shooting, this time at a movie theater. And at a county fair. And on the interstate.
That bombardment of alerts is hardly an exaggeration, given that according to the Gun Violence Archive there have been 273 mass shootings in the United States in 2017 alone. But that’s just the beginning for an episode that manages to cover a lot of ground in just 25 minutes, threading together two converging gun-related plotlines. One revolves around a new marketing campaign for Ms. Taken, which hopes to downplay the movie’s violence by playing up its supposed feminism. The other shows the uber-liberal Diane discovering that owning a gun is surprisingly empowering—so much so that she feels as safe walking down the street as an unarmed man. The plotlines converge in the episode’s tragicomic conclusion: After concealed carry becomes the latest female lifestyle trend, there’s another mass shooting—but this time, it’s carried out by a woman, and the result is that politicians immediately pass unanimous, sensible gun legislation. “I can’t believe this country hates women more than it loves guns,” says Diane, to which Princess Carolyn’s response is simply, “No?”
Despite these insights into America’s attitude toward women and guns, the most stinging criticism in BoJack’s mass shooting episode might just be the phrase that the characters repeat mindlessly after every new incidence of violence, the one that gives the episode its title: Thoughts and prayers. “You always hear about mass shootings affecting other peoples’ movie openings,” says Courtney Portnoy after she learns that her movie might be shelved because of poor timing. “But you never think they’re going to affect your movie opening.” Then, as an afterthought, she remembers the actual victims of the shooting. “Of course, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families,” she adds hastily.
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by the rest of the people in the room, who have up until this point been looking at the shooting as a marketing setback. “Of course,” they assure each other, putting on various expressions of concern. “Thoughts and prayers.”
That phrase becomes a mantra repeated after every shooting, and every time the characters repeat it, it loses even more of its meaning, until “thoughts and prayers” is reduced to a reflex, like saying “bless you” after somebody sneezes.
The deluge of “thoughts and prayers” is part of a ritual familiar to anyone who has ever checked social media in the hours after a mass shooting—or more accurately, in the hours after a high-profile mass shooting, since we rarely even pay attention anymore to the near-daily mass shootings that take place unless the victims are young children or the body count breaks a record. And while for the average citizen, sending “thoughts and prayers” can be a sincere, well-intentioned way of saying, “I am truly thinking of and praying for the victims and their families,” it still does exactly nothing to prevent future mass shootings. We send “thoughts and prayers,” but as BoJack points out, we also then turn around and happily make (or watch) movies that glamorize gun violence.
The “thoughts and prayers” sentiment is, of course, even more meaningless when it comes from people who have the power to prevent some of these tragedies from occurring in the first place, but choose not to for some reason. In light of the Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, Sen. Chris Murphy called out lawmakers who use the phrase in a statement, saying, “The thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference.” BoJack Horseman, with its blackly comic take on the subject, reminds us that it may take absurd lengths to get them to finally shake off that indifference.