When posed the question “Is BoJack Horseman a good person?” almost unanimously people say no with a few maybes thrown in, yet I disagree with them. Rewatching the show though, I can’t for the life of me understand why I think this. He is possessive and dishonest and unappreciative of anyone who tries to get close to him while pining for the acceptance of people who don’t want to accept him into their lives. If you tried to summarise him succinctly you would name nothing but flaws, but by far his biggest character trait is his self loathing.
Starting at the beginning of his story rather than the series, we can blame an awful lot how BoJack acts on his parents. Particularly in the show we see flashbacks with his mother who, above all else, blames BoJack for her flaws. “I used to be beautiful once,” she reminisces, “you ruined me, BoJack.” She can’t even let him take solace in his hero, Secretariat, and states at one point “all you are good for is singing the lollipop song,” and BoJack has very much internalised this way of thinking. All BoJack is to himself is a performer. If he isn’t entertaining people then he is worthless but, upon finding huge success with “Horsin’ Around,” he starts to turn to cigarettes and alcohol to blot out his problems and the real world when he isn’t on stage.
I think people who see BoJack as a bad person refuse to accept that he can still change, which is something that is the butt of many jokes in the series, not least of all the title of his memoir “One Trick Pony.” Truly he is a sad character. When he was successful he found himself being manipulated and, in turn, tried to manipulate those around him and now, 50 and alcoholic, he finds that he has never truly been happy and, by extension, has never truly been loved, and that’s who BoJack is to me. He is the last horse in the stables, to butcher a phrase, who believes that he is absolutely and irrefutably worthless.
He is listlessly looking for love but, upon finding it, doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. To go through the two main “love-interests,” for lack of a better phrase, Diane, in series one, clearly has feelings for BoJack. Perhaps these feelings are not of an intimate nature but she most certainly cares for him, hence why BoJack is still invited to their wedding and why both of them eventually get back in contact. However, BoJack, who has never had anyone care for him truly, reverts back to his idea of love being almost entirely physical which, clearly, doesn’t work out because, in series two, Wanda wanders onto the stage.
Wanda is arguably both cautious and naive. She just got out of a 30-year coma and is trying to readjust to the world. BoJack, likewise, is still trying to adjust to living in the real world but has been trying to do so his whole life. They really kick it off in their first meeting but, instead of trying to have sex with her, BoJack just spends the entire night talking with her. It could arguably be a completely unconscious thing to BoJack but, I’d argue, he did so more out of curiosity. Wanda, he thought, was an amazing person and basically represents the one person who made him happy 30 years ago; Charlotte.
BoJack, to his surprise and the audience’s mirth, finds himself falling in love with Wanda but finds it difficult to accept it or even say so out-loud, which eventually leads to their break-up. Again, we come back to his parents here. The stereotype is, of course, for parents to love their children and so BoJack tries to avoid it as much as possible, especially since meeting Diane. As a result of all this I don’t find his inherent rejection of anyone who tries to get close to him as a personal flaw but more as a cry for help.
I think that he also feels he should be happy but doesn’t deserve it. He’s successful, wealthy and has had a fantastic career yet finds himself miserable, probably something that is not helped by people’s expectations of him to be happy. He finds himself surrounded by the yes-men that flock to Hollywood and feed off of other people’s success like leeches and, after being manipulated into betraying his best and only friend in LA, he can’t help but turn his anger and sadness inward in a perverse and lonely cycle of self-destructive behaviour.
I think the only time we see him being truly manipulative is at the end of series 2, and no I am not talking about when Penny tries to sleep with him. I am talking about dumping Pete and Maddy outside the hospital and forcing Pete to commit to lying on BoJack’s behalf so BoJack doesn’t get into trouble. In those last few episodes where he is in New Mexico we see a happy BoJack for once, one that isn’t just a daydream of his, but, as a result of this, he feels confident enough to exploit people intentionally. I think this has a lot to do with why he is sad as well. When he is sad, which is obviously most of the time, he can trust himself to just keep the damage he does to a minimum.
BoJack will sit on his sofa and tell Todd to shut up and watch TV. However, when there is a glimmer of happiness he goes off the rails and can’t control himself. BoJack isn’t a bad person doing bad things because he wants to do them, he’s a good but unhappy person who’s never really been loved. His choices are to either remain unhappy for the rest of his life or to take the shots at happiness when they come, even though he knows he’ll end up “making bad decisions and hurting people.” He hates himself not because he is a bad person and knows it, but wants to be a good person and doesn’t know how.
I’ll address the elephant in the room though, which is, of course, the Prom Night with Penny. It’s obvious that BoJack loves Charlotte and you could be forgiven for thinking that Charlotte has feelings for BoJack back. However, while she ruthlessly represses them, BoJack tells her how he feels in a wild, uncharacteristic and heartbreaking realisation, yet she tells him to go, and BoJack accepts it because he believes he is meant to be unhappy. She says that BoJack “makes (her) too sad,” and I think, when she says this, particularly after kissing him, she isn’t talking about BoJack being unpleasant to be around. On the contrary, while he is with Charlotte we see a whole new side of BoJack; one that can forget his past and forget about himself and just be in the moment with those around him. I think that, when she says that BoJack makes her sad, she is thinking about what could have been. They both romanticise the days they spent with Herb in LA but to both them that meant different things.
Charlotte left those memories in the past when she got away from LA and lost contact with Herb and BoJack. They are nice stories to her now, a dream she had long ago, but BoJack could never truly leave them behind, which is why we see him trying to recreate some of those memories with Charlotte’s family by living in New Mexico for 2 months. To BoJack that happiness he felt back then was a feeling of true belonging but Charlotte decided she wasn’t cut out for the showbiz life Herb and BoJack wanted.
BoJack, having already rejected what Penny perceives as love once and leaving her in tears, retires to his room (boat) defeated and sullen once more, all the happiness he felt over the last two months eviscerated in an instant. In trying to reconnect with his old friends who made him truly happy he has found that neither of them want to see him again, and so he is going to sulk away until the morning and then go back to LA, the place that he spends his entire life trying to get away from yet can’t help crawling back to because the vapid, self-absorbed people that populate it allow him to just blend into the background. However, when he tries to go back to bed he finds that Penny is back on the boat. Once again he sends her to bed. He is trying to do the right thing but, at the same time, this might be the saddest we see him over the two series.
Then Penny comes back. We know that BoJack is weak willed, but, for once, in the lead up to this, he has really tried to do the right thing. I think Penny knows this however, and, perhaps through her own naivety or perhaps from her force of will, she manipulates BoJack into sleeping with her. That’s an important thing to note, that it was BoJack being taken for a ride rather than the other way round, which of course raises the question of whether Penny is a good person, to which I would also reply that, fundamentally, yes she is but she still needs to grow-up properly. But then Charlotte catches them, having not actually done anything, and goes straight to the expected response, which happens to be the audiences response as well. We’ve seen, and she’s seen, that BoJack is a mess and can’t control himself but you really get the feeling in the middle of series 2 that BoJack is getting himself together a bit. That’s the thing; both the characters that know him and the audience expect BoJack not to change but I think he could really surprise you if you look closely at some of the bigger moments of each series. Reddit also seems to think that BoJack could have stopped Penny but needed some time to get the confidence to do so. He hadn’t even taken off his bow-tie when Charlotte walked in so he had plenty of time to send Penny away. I don’t personally believe it myself as I think this is one of the few times we see BoJack being manipulated and I don’t think Penny would have given up, but it is something to think about. That’s my take on episode 11 anyway.
If nothing else, I hope this has helped you see BoJack in a slightly better light even though he casts a long shadow. Perhaps he really is a bad person and I’m in need of series 3 to show me that, or perhaps, like I have theorised, I am in denial. A lot of the characters in the show are really relatable because they’re so well written. It truly is a genius show and isn’t afraid to look at really difficult aspects of the human condition, and does so all through the lense of a really broken and strange character, using comedy as a defense against the dark. Out of the all characters though, I find BoJack very relatable for some reason. Maybe I just want to believe he’s a good person because I want to believe that I am a good person.