Late in Season 6 of BoJack Horseman, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are catching up after some time apart, and she says to him: “When you’re Diane, you can live your whole life like it’s a puzzle, put together from the pieces of different sets….Your whole life is full of these pieces that don’t quite fit.” She goes on to explain that eventually these various pieces begin to feel normal until at some point she doesn’t want to feel that way anymore. The moment was very powerful and showed Diane’s growth—and Mr. Peanutbutter’s—over the course of the show.
But as I watched this scene, it made me think about the puzzle piece metaphor for BoJack Horseman, the show, as well. Episodes are often told out of order, pieced together from different points of view. Jokes and plot points build on each other slowly, piece by piece—sometimes with multiple seasons passing in between.
The show as a whole, is multifaceted, combining constant laugh-out-loud moments, smart word-play, and an element of sadness that hit me like no other show I’ve seen. They’re pieces that don’t seem like they should fit together. But the larger picture created is something incredibly brilliant.
I was late to the BoJack party and only began watching it shortly before the final season aired. I had assumed it was your typical animated comedy (along the lines of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park).
And while I loved the comedy aspects of BoJack Horseman, especially when drawn out like the gag involving Princess Carolyn’s boyfriend/business guy Vincent Adultman and Todd’s group of dentist clowns (and clown dentists). But this show is so much more than clever laughs, and what made BoJack Horseman so special to me was how much I found myself relating to aspects of certain characters. I never would have thought that an animated show with talking dogs, cats and penguins would be one of the most relatable shows I’ve come across.
I think this realization clicked for me in S2E10, “Yes And.” At the end of the episode, both Diane and BoJack are in a rough place and they have this exchange:
Diane: “That play in New York, would that really have made you happy?”
BoJack: “Yeah. I mean, for a little bit.”
Diane: “And if Kelsey hadn’t gotten fired, and you got to make the Secretariat movie you wanted to make, would that have made you happy?”
BoJack: “For a little bit. But then. Probably…” (Shrugs)
Diane: “So what does it matter?”
BoJak: “But there has to be more.”
Diane: “Well, when’s the last time you were actually happy?”
The scene cuts to BoJack driving, and Kevin Morby’s “Parade” starts playing in the background. Wanda has moved back in with her mom after breaking up with BoJack. Todd is performing with the Shenanigans and his friend BoJack’s reserved seat is empty. Diane (who is pretending to still be in Cordovia) calls Mr. Peanutbutter and says it’s too hard to keep talking to him on the phone all the time. And finally BoJack has ended up in New Mexico, where he is seeking out an old acquaintance, Charlotte. The episode credits roll just as the lyrics for “Parade” kick in, and it’s just incredibly powerful.
(This scene also introduced me to Kevin Morby’s music, which I am now enjoying quite a bit.)
This was the turning point for me. I realized I wasn’t watching just a silly comedy. BoJack Horseman had a darker, very sad side to it. And I was hooked.
As I wrote about when thinking about my experiences of listening to the wonderful album Boxer by The National, listening to sad music when I’m sad makes me feel better. It heals me.
My experience watching BoJack Horseman was slightly different. The more I watched it, the more depressed it made me. (Am I an Alice in Chains song right now? Because I am Down in a Hole.)
Yet, I was fascinated by the show. And the reason for that, I think, is that when I look at certain characters—specifically BoJack, Diane, and Princess Carolyn, who I will be focusing on for this article—I see them display feelings and frustrations that I deal with too. I can look at them and say, “Hey, I’ve had that exact same thought before,” and I have never really found that in a TV show before.
The Pursuit of Happiness
You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms. Because if everyone is happy, then the show is over, and the show has to keep going—you never get a happy ending because there’s always more show. I guess… until there isn’t.”
– BoJack talking about a season finale of Horsin’ Around in S5E6, “Free Churro”
So much of BoJack Horseman revolves around characters trying to find happiness, or wondering why they aren’t able to.
Diane is driven by trying to “make a difference” in her life. The books and articles she writes don’t seem to bring her happiness. Her failed marriage with Mr. Peanutbutter obviously does not bring her happiness. It isn’t until she finds Guy and settles down in Chicago that she finds some semblance of happiness (thanks to the help of some antidepressants). But it certainly wasn’t an easy road for her through the six seasons.
Although I think Princess Carolyn ultimately ends up on top by the end of the series, she similarly has her ups and downs as well. In S4E9, “Ruthie,” Princess Carolyn hits bottom. She loses a client, finds out Judah went behind her back and didn’t disclose a potential deal, discovers her family heirloom necklace is a fake, tragically learns that she has had another miscarriage, and breaks up with her boyfriend Ralph. The episode is framed as being told as a story from the future, by Princess Carolyn’s distant ancestor, Ruthie. Ruthie promises the story will have a happy ending.
But the episode ends with Princess Carolyn talking to BoJack on the phone: “You wanna know what I do when I have a really bad, terrible, awful day? I imagine my great-great-great granddaughter in the future talking to her class about me. She’s poised and funny, and tells people about me and how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s going to work out. Because how else could she tell people?”
BoJack argues that the story is fake. And Princess Carolyn replies, “”Yeah, well…it makes me feel better,” and that is how the episode ends. When I first watched “Ruthie,” as the credits rolled, I exited out of Netflix, turned off my TV, and just started crying. I was gut-punched that the future-Ruthie was made-up.
These ideas of happiness (or lack thereof) in BoJack Horseman really struck something inside me. I admittedly often feel unhappy, for a number of reasons—and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. It also makes me wonder: What does it really mean to feel “happy”? How would I define it? Can I truly pinpoint moments in which I would consider myself “happy”? With certainty, I can say that ever since the Cubs won the World Series in October of 2016, I haven’t had a ton of happy moments.
I have realized that while I may not be able to define my happiness, I have learned I need to stop comparing myself to others. Remember that no one is happy 100% of the time. I have stayed away from social media more, keeping in mind that the “happy” things people are posting are merely the best things going on in that person’s life. They’re sharing only what they want others to see.
I am also trying to be more mindful of living in the moment and appreciating good moments as they happen.
As for BoJack and his happiness, he has a literal whiteboard full of bad things to feel guilty about (what happened with Penny and Charlotte, the death of Sarah Lynn, and his abandonment of Herb being the most egregious), he was vastly mistreated by his parents, and he is constantly battling an addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Early in Season 2, BoJack’s mother tells him: “You were born broken, that’s your birthright. And now you can fill your life with projects, your books and your movies and your little girlfriends but it won’t make you whole. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”
BoJack has a lot stacked against him, but a lot of his troubles are self-caused. By the end of the show, I was unable to root for him, but I did have a sense of pity for him. One of the most frustrating things about BoJack’s character is that he has talent. He has money, fame. But it’s never enough. Diane, Princess Carolyn, and Mr. Peanutbutter all try to point out to him the positives in his life at some point, but it’s never enough to make him “happy.”
That brings me to another aspect of trying to find happiness that I related to while watching BoJack Horseman.
Looking for the “Next Thing”
Throughout my life, I have always found myself reaching for that one next thing that will make me happy. If I could get a “good” job, then I’ll be happy. Then it’s get a “better” job. Then it’s “I need to find a house to buy and then I’ll be happy.” Then I need to find a better house. It never really ends.
This occurs a lot in BoJack Horseman, particularly for BoJack himself. At the start of the show, his dream is to play the role of Secretariat. He achieves that, but it doesn’t make him happy. He wins a Golden Globe, but he feels nothing.
In Season 3 Ana Spanakopita asks him how he feels to be nominated for an Oscar for his role in Secretariat. BoJack responds: “I feel…I feel…the same….It happened again. Why do I keep thinking things will make me happy? What is wrong with me?”
I very much identified with this type of feeling, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it portrayed so effectively on television before.
Princes Carolyn also displayed this search for the next thing to bring happiness. Career-wise, Princess Carolyn worked her way up the ranks, from a daughter of a maid to the owner of a successful talent agency. She rocked it—and she knew she was good at her career. But she always had a bit of a hole in her life, in that she wanted a family.
In Season 4, Princess Carolyn has two miscarriages while she’s with Ralph, and she reveals she’s had previous miscarriages when she was younger. In the following season, she turns to adoption, which provides more uncertainties and trials. Finally, Princess Carolyn is able to adopt Ruthie, but even then, she has her doubts about her choice. For years, she has wanted to become a mother. But now that she is a mother, what happens now?
During a particularly rough couple of challenging days taking care of her new baby, Princess Carolyn tells Vanessa Gekko: “I don’t think I’m feeling what I’m supposed to feel. What I thought I would feel. I mean, I love her, of course I do. Of course I love my daughter. But…but I don’t know if I love her. I know I’m a terrible person for even thinking it, but…what if it never happens?”
Vanessa assures Princess Carolyn that she will get through this, and that she will do the best that she can. (Which she of course does, because she is Princess Carolyn.)
This story arc hit very close to home for me. My wife and I have fought fertility issues for years, and I have to say it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever faced. The roller coaster of emotions, the doctors appointments, the treatments, the medications. It’s extremely difficult.
During these years, of course I’ve thought having a child would make me “happy.” But I’m also scared to death that if it finally happens, what if it doesn’t make me as happy as I think it will? Will I still be sad? Or even if it does make me very happy, what will be the next thing to worry about?
As Diane tells BoJack in the Season 1 finale: “Well that’s the problem with life, right? Either you know what you want and you don’t get what you want, or you get what you want, and then you don’t know what you want.”
I can be very hard on myself. Sometimes, I feel like I can do nothing right. I’m a terrible writer. Nobody cares about what I have to say. I’m not successful enough in life. I compare myself to others and feel like I’m a complete letdown.
It’s exhausting to have these thoughts.
This demoralization is another aspect of depression found in BoJack Horseman that I look at and say, “Hey, I feel that way and I never realized other people did too.”
S4E6, aptly titled “Stupid Piece of Sh*t,” addresses this pretty directly. Set off by having his mother come to live with him, BoJack calls himself a worthless piece of sh*t over and over. He can’t even successfully complete the task of picking up milk. Instead he goes to the bar all day and gets wasted. It was a difficult episode for me to watch. And even though I’m not as hard on myself as BoJack is to himself in this episode, I could relate.
The ending of this episode also killed me, when his sister Hollyhock asks, “That voice, the one that tells you you’re worthless and stupid and ugly…it goes away, right?” And BoJack lies and says “yeah.”
Diane also displays these thoughts of worthlessness, especially while attempting to work on her collection of essays in Season 6. At one point, while pretending to write, she instead types “I am terrible” over and over, filling the screen.
And then in S6E7, “The Face of Depression,” she says to Guy, “You flip over the nothing and underneath there’s more nothing. Then you flip over that nothing and there’s more nothing underneath that. So you just keep flipping over nothings all your life, because you keep thinking under all that nothing, there’s gotta be something, but all you find is nothing.”
It’s a heartbreaking statement, but one that I understand. Sometimes while spiraling in self-criticism, this is exactly how I feel.
Although watching BoJack Horseman did leave me feeling sad most of the time, it also provided me with some perspective.
Time and time again, Princess Carolyn was faced with hardships that could have caused her to give up: Rutabaga changes his plans on starting a new agency with her? She decides to open up her own agency without anyone else’s help. Adoption plans keep falling through? She keeps at it, even though she’s discouraged. While trying to balance her career (which she knows she’s great at) with raising a child (which she highly doubts herself about), she manages to find a way to keep her business running successfully while also spending more time at home and strengthening her bond with Ruthie. Princess Carolyn is my favorite character in BoJack Horseman because I greatly admire how she handled the struggles that life threw at her.
I can look at Diane struggling with writer’s block and relate to that. It happens to me all the time. It happened when I sat down to write this article (which I wanted to write months ago directly after finishing watching the series but I kept putting it off because I figured I wouldn’t do it justice). But then I can take a step back and realize how talented Diane is.
She’s written multiple successful books, and that’s something to be proud of. Diane struggled mightily while trying to writer her personal essays in Season 6. Again, she was trying to “make a difference” by using her damage and trauma from her past to create something meaningful. But instead she writes a teen book series about a food court detective. The book is wildly popular because of Diane’s creativity and skills as a writer. Even though it wasn’t what she thought she wanted to do, she stepped back and was able to be happy by realizing creating Ivy Tran, Food Court Detective was just as impactful as a collection of personal essays.
I personally have not written a book (although it’s a dream of mine), but I need to find my own equivalent of that—find something that I can be proud of and realize not everything I do is trash. I need to remember this the next time I’m crumbling under thoughts of worthlessness.
Even looking at BoJack can provide a take-away. As troubled as he was—with a lot of it due to self-sabotage—BoJack had a ton going for him, but he never appreciated any of it. He had a successful career, with many accomplishments. A number of great friends stuck by his side, even after all of the terrible things he did. He clearly had talent, which was in full display during his time spent as an acting professor at Wesleyan University.
I look at that and I think how important it is to live in the moment. Appreciate what you have. Appreciate what you’re good at, as opposed to focusing on what you think you suck at.
As BoJack tells Princess Carolyn in the series finale, after she worries her marriage to Judah won’t make her as happy as she hopes, “What if this is a thing that will make you happy, and you deserve to be happy? And maybe don’t worry about whether you’ll be happy later and just focus on how you’re happy right now?”
I’m trying to focus more on what I can control, and be happy with the fortunate aspects of my life. But it won’t be easy. It never is.