TW: Discussion of Depression
Spoiler Alert for all 3 Seasons of Bojack Horseman
I think it’s fair to say that none of us really saw Bojack Horseman coming. How could we? The initial premise, written down, is nothing short of ridiculous. A Netflix Original animation about a washed up 80s’ sitcom star who also happens to be a man-horse, living in a world where humans and anthropomorphic animals live and work alongside each other. It sounds like a piss-take, frankly.
Then we all watched it and realised that it was anything but. Three seasons in, and Bojack Horseman has revealed itself not only to be one of the funniest series in recent memory, but also one of the most poignant, insightful explorations of the nature of depression that I have ever seen. The writing is sharp is enough to draw blood, the characters are wonderful and thoroughly explored, and there’s this wonderful sense of unpredictability that I absolutely adore. (Seriously, the show goes some directions you just won’t see coming – not at all.) It’s also feminist as hell, so it ticks all the boxes for me.
I won’t go into the whole plot because, frankly, I’m sure you all know it by now. Bojack is a consistent fuck-up, but he’s not the only fuck-up on that show by a long shot, because we’re all fuck-ups in way or another. That’s a truth that I really needed to hear, and I imagine there are a lot of people that feel the same way. Needless to say through, there will be some spoilers.
Note: If you haven’t watched Bojack Horseman yet, do yourself a favour and do it now. Just do it. You can thank me later.
The Comfort of Depression in Bojack Horseman
Depression is a big theme in Bojack Horseman, and how we try (and often fail) to navigate it. Bojack consistently makes terrible, terrible mistakes, and just when you think he’s finally going to learn from them and change for the better once and for all, he makes another terrible mistake and the cycle begins all over again.
As a person with depression, this show was the wake-up call I needed years ago. Because the thing is, the show is completely right. Bojack won’t change because he’s so steeped in self-loathing that he’s convinced himself there’s no way for him to be anything but a bad person. And I know that’s what’s happening, because I’ve been there myself. You hate yourself, so you tell yourself the rest of the world hates you too. And when the world hates you, you can’t help but hate yourself. Depression is insidious like that, and Bojack Horseman gets that in a way no other show ever has.
Granted, I never did anything that Bojack did. I never sabotaged my friends for my own comfort, or nearly committed statutory rape out of some misplaced desire to feel loved and wanted, never destroyed people’s lives that way Bojack has. Hell, Bojack’s selfishness literally gets someone killed in Season 3. But I have hurt people. My depression has led me to say terrible things, and to drive people away, to close myself off because I was convinced that no one could possibly understand, or care. Hell, it destroyed my relationship, the way it destroys Bojack’s.
In season two, Bojack’s initially promising relationship with Olivia the Owl, and the two break up seemingly over nothing.
“What happened, Bojack?” she asks, baffled.
“The same thing that always happens,” Bojack replies in that gruff, eternally resigned voice. “You fell in love with me. And then you got to know me.”
Ouch. That hit a nerve. Then by the end of Season 3, after Todd discovers that Bojack slept with his business partner (which later compels her to leave the partnership out of guilt), he realises that this isn’t going to stop because Bojack refuses to. And Bojack refuses to change because he believes he can’t.
“I know – I know I screwed up…” Bojack begins yet another tired apology.
“Oh, here is comes,” Todd interrupts, arms up in the air with sheer frustration. “You can’t keep doing this. You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself like that makes it OK. You need to be better.”
Bojack starts to apologise, but the apology is full of excuses. He was drunk. He was stressed from the Oscar campaign, but now everything will be better, he promises…
“No.” Todd says. “No, Bojack, just stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or the shitty things that happened to you during your career, or when you were a kid. It’s you. All right? It’s you.”
And then the big one. “Fuck, man. What else is there to say?”
Fun fact: The word ‘Fuck’ is only used once per season in Bojack Horseman, and it’s always used by a person close to Bojack, and to Bojack. And, always after he tries to apologise for something where an apology simply will not do.
Season 1. Herb, a dying man who Bojack screwed over very very badly years before, tells Bojack: “Get the fuck out of my house.”
Season 2. Bojack’s old friend Charlotte, after she catches Bojack trying to sleep with her teenaged daughter, tells him: “If you contact me, or my family again, I will fucking kill you.”
Season 3. Todd: “Fuck, man. What else is there to say?”
They’re powerful moments, exceptionally executed, but Bojack never learns. All of these should be Bojack’s wake-up call, but they’re not. He won’t allow them to be. Some like to theorise that Bojack wanted to get caught in season 2, and that’s why he left the door unlocked. Sure, I could by that, but him getting caught doesn’t lead him to becoming a better person. If anything, it just drives his self-destructive thoughts more, because now he’s not just a fuck-up, he’s a fuck-up that might have inflicted serious psychological and emotional damage on someone else. Again.
But that, thankfully, is where my personal identification with Bojack’s story ends, because I got help. I started to learn my way out of those self-hating thoughts, and I won’t allow my depression to make a Bojack out of me.
And at the end of the day, I still like Bojack. That’s the kicker. He’s a well written and complex enough character that you actually want him to be better and so you feel heartbreak when he ruins everything for himself yet again. There is good in him, and decency, and he’s hilarious to boot, and he’s like every other person in this world that’s been hit with crippling depression in their lives. We are more than our depression, but it is still a part of who we are, and Bojack invites you to see that there are right ways and wrong ways to accept that.
There’s accepting your depression and letting it destroy you.
Then there’s accepting your depression and recognising that it is only a part of you, and not all.
Which brings me to Diane.
I Am Diane. And That’s Good.
First things first, I recommend this excellent article from the Mary Sue about Diane and ‘Situational Depression,’ for context.
Diane was a quick favourite for me just because she was so damn refreshing. Basically an adult, slightly less acerbic Daria, Diane is introduced as the author brought in to ghost write Bojack’s autobiography. Initially, it looks like Diane’s simply going to be a love interest, especially when the early conflict of her dating (and later marrying) Bojack’s clueless rival Mr Peanut Butter. But of course, Diane is a lot more than that. Everyone in Bojack Horseman gets their share of character development, another reason to love it.
Having had some time to fully digest the third season, I’ve come to realise that Diane and I have a lot in common. A frightening amount in common, actually. We’re both opinionated feminist writers who are simultaneously aimless yet driven by a vague need to do something. We don’t know what that something is, but we know we have to do it. Of course she became a favourite for me; I was subconsciously identifying with her in ways I’ve never identified with any other character on a show. (Don’t get me wrong, I see a little of myself in Princess Carolyn too, but only a little.)
The only way that we differ is our apparent taste in men, but even that’s questionable. I still don’t know if Mr Peanutbutter and Diane’s relationship is going to survive and in some ways it’s never felt as genuine as it should. Diane is so independent and principled that it seems strange she would end up with someone like Mr Peanutbutter, who is loyal and loving but has no strong opinions about anything or a desire to rock the status quo.
Personally I like a dog personality in a dog, not so much in a partner, but the thing is that Bojack Horseman is so good that even Mr Freaking Peanutbutter, an infuriating and eternally optimistic dog man who is literally dumber than rocks, has his moments of complexity and depth. Sometimes you can see what Diane might see in him, other times it’s just a bit baffling.
Diane is a person that wants to do good, but is conflicted as to why she wants to do good. She often struggles with the idea that she tries to do good for her own benefit, and ends up having a major identity crisis as a result. She puts herself in the line of fire for what she believes to be the right thing but ends up wondering if it was the right thing to do at all when society consistently turns against her for trying. Any feminist or half way decent human can relate.
So Diane’s depression manifests itself when she simply can’t take any more of that criticism. She can no longer accept people attacking her for wanting justice, or for questioning her beliefs. Hell, even her husband refuses to support her when she goes after Bill Cosby stand in Hank Hippopopolous because he’s his hero and he doesn’t want to disrupt the status quo. It doesn’t matter about the women Hippopopolous assaulted, only that people not discover the truth about their idol. Diane simply can’t believe it, and decides to go and work with the humanitarian worker Sebastian St.Clair in the hope that she can make a difference. St.Clair turns out to be nothing more than an opportunist, and Diane has a crisis of faith. She returns home, but instead of going back to her husband, she camps out at Bojack’s house and lets her life go to total shit. She won’t get dressed, she lies around watching Horsin’ Around, she drinks and smokes and doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Diane is done.
And this is where you realise that Bojack isn’t the only character in this show that suffers from depression. Not by a long shot. Everyone does, but they all internalise it differently.
Bojack internalises his through self-destructive behaviour that ends up hurting others.
Princess Carolyn throws herself into work even though she knows it doesn’t make her happy and frequently sacrifices her own happiness and well-being for others that aren’t even grateful for her sacrifices. (Seriously, Bojack needs a fucking slap in the face for not seeing what she’s given up for him over the years)
Mr Peanutbutter denies difficult concepts like mortality in favour of his own comfort. He pretends to be happy all the time because the alternative is too frightening, and avoids conflict like the plague because he doesn’t like the boat being rocked.
Todd sees himself as a failure because others do. This leads him to subconsciously destroy his own ideas and lets himself be treated badly as a result.
And Diane? When everything becomes too much for Diane in season 2, she runs away. She shuts down, lies to her husband, and goes into her own self-destructive spiral that leaves her unsure of who she really is. Diane’s depression spoke to me, because it was the same as mine.
At the height of my depression, this is precisely what I went through. I shut down. I stopped talking to people. I hid away, because I was both ashamed and convinced that it was actually the best thing to do. It wasn’t. Diane becomes a slob. She stops caring. She gives up because she no longer has the energy to fight against the world. I became a slob. I stopped caring. I no longer had the energy to fight the world.
Been there, done thought, bought the t-shirt, wore it for months and then burned it.
But then Diane gets her wake-up call, and unlike Bojack, she responds to it. And starts to get better as a result.
So, Diane’s identity crisis hit a serious nerve for me, and the way she’s still kind of drifting leaves me hoping that she’ll be able to find herself again in season 4. But the seeds are there, I think, like the seeds are there for me. She’s getting her mojo back, the way we all get our mojo back eventually, and this is just as important to see as the full impact of Bojack’s particular brand of depression. You can let it drag you down or you can crawl your way back up. Bojack is one. Diane is the other. Bojack sinks while Diane floats.
Diane is a person trying to discover who they are after they were certain they already knew. We need more of that on television, because we all reach a point where we think “Am I the person I really think I am?” Most characters start not knowing who they are, but they realise eventually. That’s not realistic. We all think we know who we are, but then something will happen that questions that, and we have to let ourselves grow and change, and realise that we don’t have to be defined entirely by these very small aspects of ourselves.
At this point in my life, I’m pretty confident in how I am as a person. That person is Diane Nyguyen.
And I’m OK with that.