In season 5 of Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman, the troubled actor BoJack (Will Arnett) introduces a screening of Philbert, his new show about a detective who may have murdered his wife.
”We’ve all done terrible things that we deeply regret,” he says. “I’ve done so many unforgivable things … and I think that’s what this show says, is that we’re all terrible, so we’re all okay. I think that’s a really powerful message.”
That moment is in some ways an indictment of fans of BoJack Horseman and other anti-hero driven stories, particularly in a season that seems dedicated to showing it remembers every part of its title character’s dark history from previous episodes. He nearly had sex with an old friend’s teenage daughter. He went on a bender with a former co-star that ended in her dying of an overdose. He betrayed his best friend to ensure his own fame and fortune. But what makes BoJack different from Philbert, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, or other notable TV anti-heroes is that he’s not trying to escape justice or even the judgment of others. He might believe his actions are unforgivable, but his friends, coworkers and audience stay with him, hoping he has the capacity to be better.
While BoJack regularly points out that playing the title character makes him the star of Philbert, BoJack Horseman has become much more of an ensemble show in season 5. Sadness is still the show’s dominant theme, but giving more time to other characters lets creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg examine flavors of the emotion beyond BoJack’s self-destructive depression.
Episode 5 of the season’s newly released 12 episodes sees BoJack’s perpetually stressed but good-natured manager — and Philbert producer — Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) returning to her impoverished hometown to meet the mother of a baby she hopes to adopt. It’s a heart-wrenching story that provides perspective on Princess Carolyn’s ambitions, how easy it is for women to get trapped in bad situations, and how quickly a future that looks settled can change. Even more striking is the season’s second episode, which follows Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), BoJack’s biographer, who’s turned to writing for Philbert and the feminist website “Girl Croosh.” Framed as a listicle of reasons to visit Vietnam, the episode zips backward and forward in time to address the pain of a failed marriage, the challenge of reconnecting with ethnic roots, and the power of transition. Even BoJack’s fellow actor and typically jovial foil Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) is forced to do some self-reflection over the course of episode 8, which alternates between four Halloween parties and how they marked a turning point in his relationship with his three wives and current girlfriend.
This is heavy material to cram into 25 minutes, but each episode succeeds through a mix of sharp dialogue and the goofy humor inherent to a world equally populated by humans and anthropomorphic animals. Princess Carolyn’s hometown has a flea market where actual fleas shop. Diane escapes from her troubles by strolling through Vietnam with a bald eagle who doesn’t realize she’s also American. And Mr. Peanutbutter’s young pug girlfriend Pickles (Hong Chau) recovers after getting too drunk at the party by lapping water from a Solo cup. Each episode is peppered with blink-and-you-might-miss-it visual gags that demand viewers pay attention, while also providing bursts of relief from the dark themes.
BoJack’s Philbert co-star and romantic interest Gina (Stephanie Beatriz) and the show’s neurotic creator Flip (Rami Malek) round out the season 5 supporting cast, though BoJack’s half-sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), who was the biggest plot point of season 4, still makes a few appearances. Flip provides an outlet for some great meta jabs at the state of prestige television. “I hope you all enjoy it, because that means you are smart,” Flip says when introducing the Philbert screening. “If you don’t get it, that means that my genius wasn’t appreciated in my own time, and that’s okay too.” His comment prompts a round of nervous laughter from the audience. “Why are you laughing?” he asks. “Please do not laugh during the screening. This episode contains no intentional humor.”
But Gina is the real standout, played with the same wry earnestness that Beatriz brings to her Brooklyn Nine-Nine character, Rosa Diaz. Gina has resigned herself to getting by playing unmemorable television roles and having unsatisfying flings with her co-stars. Her tough exterior, combined with BoJack’s desperate need to be loved, alternately brings out the best and worst in him, while Gina’s poignant musings about the limits of ambition and how she wants to be known provide a focal point for a season filled with commentary on how the entertainment industry treats women.
Not all the side plots work so well. Aaron Paul’s Todd Chavez is a relic of the show’s weirder, rougher first season, and it feels like Bob-Waksberg still hasn’t figured out how to update him. Episode 3 of season 5, which contains a classic farce where Todd has to hide his asexuality from his girlfriend’s parents, while alternately being seduced by her mother and identical twin sister, manages the balance of having an emotional core and the zany antics that are the signature of all of Todd’s plots. But the string of events that leads to a sex robot Todd invents for a friend becoming a network CEO gets old long before the admittedly hilarious season-finale punch line.
Season 5 plays a lot with episode formats. Episode 7 has a frame story of two women sharing their encounters with the show’s various characters, which results in the main cast having different animations. Episode 11 uses the same disjointed movements through time and space found in season 3’s drug-fueled episode “That’s Too Much, Man!” to just as chilling an effect. Episode 6 is primarily a monologue, as BoJack delivers the eulogy at his mother’s funeral as a mix of a stand-up comedy routine and deeply moving reflection on the hold abusive parents have on their children.
Letting the character literally stand alone for an episode shows off Arnett’s range and the animation team’s skill at portraying BoJack’s emotions through just a subtle scratch of the neck or movement of his eyes. While it’s wonderful to see BoJack Horseman’s other characters come more fully into their own, BoJack’s eulogy gets to the core of what makes the show so powerful. BoJack has done terrible things, and he’s not okay. But the audience wants him to be, so maybe we can be okay too.