Television

BoJack Horseman Became TV’s Best Portrait of Addiction and Recovery

The most relatable addict on television turned out to be a cartoon horse.

BoJack Horseman confronts himself in a bathroom mirror.
BoJack Horseman. Netflix

This article contains spoilers for the final season of BoJack Horseman

From the beginning, BoJack was always drowning. Even though the BoJack Horseman credit sequence was tweaked from season to season, the coda remained the same. At the end of the day, BoJack stumbles, backwards and expressionless, into his pool. He sinks to the bottom as his friends gawk in wonder at his predicament. What initially seemed to be a comedic pratfall was actually a meditation on the universal struggle to change and grow.

As an addiction therapist, I have long been a fan of comedy as a delivery device for complex issues. There’s so much misconception, judgment, and shame surrounding mental health issues—especially addiction—in today’s society, and opening a discussion about those topics without deploying a heavy hand helps to break down preconceived notions. In 2014, BoJack debuted alongside CBS’s Mom and FX’s You’re the Worst, all of which used humor as way to encourage frank and honest discussions about mental health and addiction issues as a relatable part of the human condition. BoJack soon became the stealthiest Trojan (talking) horse of them all. As both a comedy and a cartoon—two formats that hadn’t generally tackled such topics before—the series made its mark as the most delightfully unexpected place to find connection, understanding, and catharsis on TV.

Over the course of six seasons, BoJack used animation to stretch the boundaries of reality and cram the screen with freeze-frame gags, but the medium also made it surprisingly easy for viewers to find themselves in the show’s characters. Instead of a human man at the center, there was BoJack, a talking, depressed horse, and the supreme weirdness of that contrast invited viewers to make personal connections to the series in ways that would prove to be both meaningful and lasting.

However, even though the series sympathized with psychic pain, it never let its characters—and, by extension, us—off the hook. Where most TV cartoons use giddy resets to undo dramatic plot twists (Homer doesn’t age; Kenny never stays dead), BoJack forced its characters to deal with the ongoing ramifications of their actions, in ways both large and small. In the first season, a drug-tripping BoJack set fire to an ottoman, and it stayed crispy until he replaced it. In Season 2, the stakes were raised when BoJack was caught in bed with the teenage daughter of an old crush. BoJack, and the show, seemed to have put that experience behind him, but it became a key part of the series’ final arc, in which decades’ worth of bad deeds finally catch up with him. Actions have consequences, even in cartoon form.

For six seasons, viewers witnessed BoJack flirt with real change, only to backpedal when it came time to truly confront the painful memories and experiences that fueled his maladaptive behaviors. In the first half of Season 6, which Netflix released last fall, BoJack finally seemed ready. He went to rehab, worked at making amends, and embarked on a new career as an acting teacher. But as he made his way back into the world in the show’s final eight episodes, BoJack made one of the cardinal sins of recovery. While he faithfully continued to attend 12-step meetings after he completed inpatient rehab, he neglected to fully contend with all his past traumas, both those that he had created for others and those foisted upon him in childhood by his damaged parents. “Acting,” he tells his students, “is about leaving everything behind and becoming something new.” But he was running from his past, not reckoning with it.

BoJack’s long-simmering traumas came to a head in the penultimate episode of the series, “The View From Halfway Down.” In a surreal sequence that plays like This is Your Life meets Intervention, he attends a dinner party at which all the guests are dead, and who have either wronged or been wronged by him. Eventually, it’s revealed that this deranged fever dream is BoJack’s version of life flashing before his eyes. While he was metaphorically drowning for so long, now he’s physically drowning. As BoJack floats, passed-out and nearing death in his own pool, a mishmash of memory and oxygen-starved hallucination brings all of his history to bear in a way that underscores his conflicting feelings of guilt, confusion, and sorrow.

It’s of note that BoJack doesn’t make a conscious decision to confront his past; it’s just as the former mentor he betrayed tells him, “your brain going through what it needs to go through.” A supervisor once told me that clients must rip out the roots of trauma, otherwise the weeds will continue to sprout and choke any progress a person is attempting to make. However, in my experience, often clients have set up barriers to prevent them from accessing their traumas, because they’re just too much, man. The only way they have survived is to compartmentalize and numb whenever the feelings got too big. And while this may seem to be an effective coping skill, it is also one that is not sustainable. The way out is painful, but it’s a different kind of pain. It’s an unfamiliar pain. Most choose to stick with the devil they know rather than confront the source of their continued substance abuse. Who can blame them? Change is hard.

Yet, within his rapidly darkening mind, forced to confront his demons, BoJack does indicate willingness to change. He expresses sincere regret about his damaged relationships with both Sarah Lynn and Herb Kazzaz, and he actually experiences a genuine connection with his father. (That the latter is also Secretariat “for some reason” doesn’t make the moment less touching.) BoJack Horseman illustrates that harboring unresolved trauma can be deadly and, in doing so, brings viewers to that dark yet somehow hopeful place that’s long been a hallmark of the series. As long as we’re breathing, meaningful change is always possible.

In contrast to the immersive trauma of “The View From Halfway Down”, the series finale, “Nice While It Lasted,” reunites BoJack with the four people who made the most impact on him during this transitional period of his life. In turn, he gets a chance to reconnect with Mr. Peanutbutter, Todd, Princess Carolyn, and Diane. And, shocker, they’re all processing their own issues as well. Change can’t happen in a bubble. We all help one another. The series works to drive that point home as BoJack shares a final emotional moment with each member of his support system.

Despite the horrific things he’s done, BoJack is not beyond redemption. He returns, time and time again, to Diane Nguyen, the woman who he first felt comfortable sharing his childhood trauma with. At times, Diane and BoJack have been each other’s worst enablers, but at other times they have connected in deep, personal ways. They share a complex relationship, and the end of the series concludes on a picture-perfect note, leaving us to contemplate the wide-open future. Will they stay friends? Will BoJack relapse? The emotional generosity of the series extends right up until that final, lovely, lingering moment. It’s one in which we can imprint our greatest hopes for these two characters, but also consider the potential pitfalls that may line the road ahead. In allowing viewers this latitude, the series drives home the idea that recovery, like life, is an ongoing process in which the future is never quite clear.

In reaching out so personally and daring to tell such raw, human stories, BoJack Horseman has generously provided years of much-needed catharsis for viewers around the globe. For that, I’d like to echo Diane’s words by saying: Thank you, BoJack. Thank you for choosing to tell this story, for seeing us, and for letting us know that it’s always possible to try for a better tomorrow.