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Being Bad Is Sad: Bojack Horseman & Boethius

By posted at 12:00 pm on August 23, 2016 5

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“You were born broken. That’s your birthright.” BoJack Horseman is an unlikely critical darling. A lewd, animated comedy about a talking horse, critics have heralded its “earned tragedy” and “hypnotic, often horrifying” pull. One simply called it “an unblinking, incredibly empathetic portrait of middle-aged melancholy.” So, not comedy as usual. But BoJack Horseman is more than a surprising treatise on depression. The show operates with philosophical heft, stumbling on big truths through bad behavior, felt observation, and anthropomorphic slapstick. There is no escape from despair for our eponymous equine. He brings it on himself and he firebombs it onto others. But BoJack Horseman isn’t a nihilistic show, however hard it sometimes insists on a meaningless universe. That’s not its final message or the most powerful truths it unearths (through season three, at least). Instead, along with self-destruction, the show features a pathology of hobbling regret, and the doggedness with which BoJack cycles through both gives rise to a curious philosophical correlate: We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius the 6th-century Christian philosopher.

coverA former Roman senator jailed by Theodoric the Great around 524 AD, Boethius produced a treatise called the Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned. And what an apt figure for gross-out animation! In the Consolation, however, Boethius attempts to explain how justice, despite all appearances, is carried out even when evil men seem to prosper and good men to suffer. This is an urgent idea for a guy who thinks he doesn’t deserve to be executed. The explanation isn’t satisfying in total — almost no defense of the problem of evil is — but it’s enlightening all the same. C.S. Lewis summed up the concept this way: “The good are always rewarded and the wicked are always punished, by the mere fact of being what they are. Evil power and evil performance are the punishment of evil will” (The Discarded Image, emphasis mine).

A simpler way to understand the argument is a blunt, distasteful thought experiment. If you are a good person who has never murdered anyone, would you rather become a person who murdered someone, or become the victim of a murder? A crude hypothetical, yes, but being evil carries with it some harm, some tragedy, some awfulness which is recognizable from a general instinct to recoil. We don’t want to be bad, because that’s a hell in itself.

Interestingly, BoJack Horseman builds to this idea by first establishing a personal take on original sin. BoJack can’t re-route a glitch in his system. A former sitcom star, he retains the immortal glow of 1990s success, but is a novelty more than a celebrity. The depression he feels, however, runs deeper than his superficial career or cultural irrelevance. We see how BoJack’s cruelty and narcissism inflict real consequences on others, and we also see that BoJack genuinely regrets these fallouts. His dying mentor and one-time best friend — estranged by the horse’s overwhelming selfishness — cuts to the quick on this front:

You want to think of yourself as the good guy. Well I know you better than anyone and I can tell you that you’re not. In fact, you’d probably sleep a lot better at night if you just admitted to yourself that you’re a selfish, goddamned coward who takes whatever he wants and doesn’t give a shit about who he hurts. That’s you. That’s Bojack Horseman.

BoJack drives home from this conflict in shellshock. His ghostwriter Diane is with him and unsure what to say. They stop, and in the midst of his self-loathing, his genuine ache of remorse, he kisses her. The problem is she’s dating a close colleague, and at the moment he wishes he could change, he just screws up again and regrets that, too.

BoJack’s mishaps and self-induced mayhem escalate. At the end of season one he burns down his relationship with Diane, a confidant as well as his ghostwriter, and then begs her to tell him if he’s a good person deep down. She says nothing as he pleads. In season two, he wins a Golden Globe for a book he didn’t write and is replaced by first-rate CGI for a movie. The situations are as whacky as they sound, only they’re paired with BoJack’s self-hatred and crippling need to find something that lasts, a success that will validate his existence. It’s almost too easy to note the parallels to Boethius’s take on Fortuna’s Wheel, wherein the blind mechanism of nature meets out worldly goods without considering moral conditions. BoJack is awarded and punished in terms of societal well-being arbitrarily, which tells us (and him) nothing of his goodness, happiness, or ultimate punishment. He seems to accept this reality, only to fall so far down a hole of cynicism and escapism that he nearly seduces an old friend’s 17-year old daughter. This occurs after months of receiving the same family’s charity and comfort. He’s a wreck, and feels every splinter of self-devastation.

BoJack decides he needs a friend, one friend, and he might be okay despite the hollowness of success. Season three ruptures even this possibility as he betrays his only intimates again and again, and receives the broad side of a sermon truth: “You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or all the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you.” At some point, amidst all the mistakes of our lives, however much we’ve been caught in someone else’s crossfire, we’re left with the ugly truth of our own shame. We are shameful, and we can’t seem to shed the slick of it from our bodies. This is the emotional core of the doctrine of original sin. Which, wow. Heavy, right? BoJack Horseman: like The Simpsons, but depressing.

BoJack, in this light, is Boethius’s successful evildoer, well-paid for bad behavior and unpunished by society for cruel decisions. Yet he can’t escape his self-made pain, whereby the whims of fortune — money, fame, and even friendship — seem as nothing compared with the stings of wickedness. He wants to know if he’s a good person deep down because he can’t live with himself, can’t stand himself, and feels punished by the very fact of his own behavior. And then by the end of season three he might even be a killer. Not a murderer, if such a distinction is possible, but an accessory to a former cast-mate’s overdose. Sarah Lynn, who played one of the children on his old sitcom, becomes his bender buddy, and after they scream across America in a haze of blackouts, they sit together in an illuminated planetarium. BoJack rhapsodizes about the beauty of the moment, and then realizes she’s dead. Even if she was courting disaster on her own, maybe she wouldn’t have died without someone pushing her, a father figure, a horse with drug stamina with whom a skinny former child star could never compete. The zaniness of the show — the fact that its lead is a horse — bleeds directly into its tragedy. BoJack is the problem. “I don’t know how to be,” he says. “It doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get easier… I’m poison.” Boethius’s argument is more nuanced than “bad people feel bad about being bad,” but BoJack’s behavior and subsequent unraveling serve as an emotional outline wherein his selfishness punishes itself.

All of these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths. The pain of depression, of repetitive and lasting self-deprecation, is their entry into all larger statements. The regret of a hangover, of months of hangovers, of breaking trust with everyone you know and love, is the moral center of this weird, cartoon universe. But the moral center is there, however undercut by the jokes, and the larger truths are there as well. Other dramas dabbling in nihilism lack such a vulnerable heart of regret either because they don’t show enough fallout or because they don’t show enough compunction. Other satires, meanwhile, might match BoJack Horseman joke for joke but rarely plumb the depths of the darkness they acknowledge.

Yet, importantly for any parallels to Boethius, the show retains a concealed romanticism through all this tragic contemplation. The latest season finale shows BoJack Horseman driving into the heart of the West, into big-sky hopelessness, closing his eyes and preparing to die. He can let the car veer. He can be done. But he sees a herd of horses in the distance. He sees them sweating, and he doesn’t kill himself. They look free, and even though he deserves all the pain he’s brought upon himself, BoJack keeps control of his car. This is the hope of something beyond justice, but that only a justice like Boethius’s could allow: some sense of purpose, a whiff of a plan, in the midst of a desert. The tale of BoJack’s brokenness is powerful because he doesn’t want to be broken; while he can’t seem to fix himself, nor can he resist hoping that someone, or something, might.





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5 Responses to “Being Bad Is Sad: Bojack Horseman & Boethius”

  1. Pedes
    at 6:54 am on August 24, 2016

    I haven’t watched BOJACK HORSEMAN, but after this I think I will. I am always a sucker for anything that floats through the world on Boethius driven ideals.

    Thanks for your essay.

  2. priskill
    at 9:21 pm on August 29, 2016

    “Other dramas dabbling in nihilism lack such a vulnerable heart of regret either because they don’t show enough fallout or because they don’t show enough compunction. Other satires, meanwhile, might match Bojack Horseman joke for joke but rarely plumb the depths of the darkness they acknowledge” Yes!.

    You’ve nailed why Bojack is so surprisingly moving. One is always wincing and hoping he won’t do the next wretchedly self-destructive and selfish thing — the scene where he almost seduces the teen daughter of his old would-be flame (right after trying to seduce her) is almost too painful to watch. And if I remember correctly, he tries to say no to the kid but gives in anyway, without fanfare and seemingly without desire. This is a sad sad horseman.

    This is a great piece — now I have to read Boethius so I, too, can “float through the world on Boethius driven ideals.”

  3. il'ja
    at 6:45 am on August 31, 2016

    I’d never heard of this show until now. The wave of animated serials that started with the Simpsons and Beavis etc. just never really washed over me. Bad timing. A decades-long bad mood. Something.

    But what to do with a cartoon serial featuring a “horseman” that echoes Boethius and C.S. Lewis, and is recommended by Priskill?

    Damn.

  4. priskill
    at 7:50 pm on September 1, 2016

    @il’ja Right?!? I resisted it for a long time and finally dove in — now I walk around singing the theme song to myself. Granted, as Joel Cuthbertson notes, it is written by” Hollywoo” folks trolling for yuks so you will giggle a lot — mostly at Hollywoo and the many many varieties of narcissism so rampant here. But the baseline is bleak and sobering — Cuthbertson’s excellent critique perfectly captures that grim fatalism that haunts our horseman. His selfishness is only exceeded by his self-loathing — C.S. Lewis’ point that the wicked are punished by being who they are could be the tagline for the show. I am so happy to have all this explained here and to make the acquaintance of Boethius. Still longing to float on Boethius-driven ideals . . .

  5. Justin
    at 1:59 pm on September 29, 2016

    I’ve been a Mad Men-Sopranos-The Wire snob for the last decade, and sniffed away anything that didn’t match those standards. Breaking Bad here, Friday Night Lights there, okay, but a cartoon about a talking horse?

    I’ve now watched all three seasons. Nothing has hit me harder than BoJack Horseman. Nothing.

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