The character BoJack Horsemen (voiced by Will Arnett), of the original Netflix series of the same name, is an asshole. When we first meet BoJack, he is stuck in the glory days of his 90s sitcom Horsin’ Around. He is a dysfunctional Hollywood actor (Hollywoo in the show) who wallows in so much existential dread and pain that he lashes out and hurts most, if not everyone, he touches. This alcoholic horse has done a lot of damage on his road to “self-discovery,” and if he does find completion in the upcoming sixth season, one has to ask if it was worth it.
Is he worth being forgiven?
This loaded question has implications that extend far beyond the hit animated television show. In asking viewers to forgive him, the show pushes up against the boundaries of our notions of right and wrong.
This Horse Is A Predator, Of Course, Of Course
BoJack is an alcoholic mess when we first meet him in Season 1. He spends his days excessively drinking in his Hollywoo mansion that overlooks the city. He has loose acquaintances in the form of his “best friend” Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), his nemesis Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), his nemesis’ girlfriend Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) and his former girlfriend and current agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), but he doesn’t treat any of them particularly well. Even though they are his last tether to society, he, at best, begrudgingly allows them into his life.
Throughout the first five seasons, he develops a particular pattern. BoJack searches for meaning to fill the empty void he feels, and when he can’t find it, he spirals out of control. He eventually goes too far and crosses a line he didn’t imagine himself capable of doing. He retreats back to his mansion where he falls back on familiar coping mechanisms (i.e., substance abuse).
In the first season, he goes on a weeklong bender after Diane publishes a book about his life that depicts him truthfully, which is to say the book depicts him as a narcissistic, self-destructive mess. He tries to write a book of his own and resorts to drugs as a source of inspiration, proving everything alleged in the book. The result is meaningless garbage, and he has to admit to Diane that she wrote the better book.
As the series progresses, BoJack’s behavior becomes increasingly worse. He tracks down an old romantic partner Charlotte Moore (Olivia Wilde) and sexually harasses her daughter Penny Carson (Ilana Glazer). He stalks Penny at college, which retraumatizes her. He pushes his sober friend Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), a former actress on Horsin’ Around, back into substance abuse, ultimately leading to her premature death. He strangles his cohost Gina Cazador (Stephanie Beatriz) on his gritty crime show Philbert. He is so high off pills at the time that he initially has no memory of the assault.
BoJack is a predator. As his romantic partner in Season 2, Wanda Pierce (Lisa Kudrow), says when their relationship is falling apart:
WANDA: You know, it’s funny. When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”
BoJack has demonstrated a consistent pattern of abuse, and he is quite frankly a danger to those around him.
At the behest of his friend Diane at the end of Season 5, BoJack enters into rehab. The upcoming Season 6 will focus on him trying to reform his destructive pattern of behavior. He will assumingly be held accountable for his dark, predatory past. What that reform means, however, is a matter of debate, and the show itself sometimes questions whether or not such a thing is even possible.
Making Hay Over Good And Evil
A central philosophical tension of the series is whether or not BoJack is a “good” or “bad” horse. BoJack repeatedly reiterates the belief that the “bad things” he does are a product of his intrinsically terrible self. This mindset is best summarized by his mother Beatrice Horseman (Wendie Malick) in Season 2:
BEATRICE: I know you wanna be happy, but you won’t be…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.
The idea that “badness” is an intransmutable property that one inherits has a rich philosophical tradition in cultures around the world. Bad people have existed for a long time, and it’s only natural that humanity has tried to rationalize their existence through philosophy.
In some theological or philosophical traditions, “badness” is the result of something the devil created (see Manichaean dualism), the absence of Godly goodness (Neoplatonism), the result of the bad deeds committed in a past life (Karma and Samsara), or the million other theories that categorize Evil and Good as tangible, absolute things. These outlooks see badness as something inherent to a person’s very essence.
Certain people are “Bad,” and there’s no cure for that.
Other times badness its equated to the character of a person. A person does good things because they have developed the proper virtues to act ethically in a particular situation (see OG Aristotle or your local Republican). BoJack either knows how to behave ethically, or he doesn’t, and that informs whether or not he will act like a “good person” in his day-to-day life.
This framework, known commonly as Virtue Ethics, turns ethics into a skill that can be honed through habituation. This task is something BoJack attempts to do (poorly) throughout the series in the form of donating money to charities, engaging in sobriety, and listening to self-help podcasts.
On the flipside, Virtue Ethics categorizes the lack of virtue as a personality failure. As Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics:
“Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature.”
Ah, the sound of a thousand-year-old man masturbating.
Under this view, BoJack’s failure to turn away from pleasurable vices is a defect of character. He needed to stop with the drugs and alcohol, and instead, focus more on podcasts and jogging. A jogger states as much near the end of Season 2:
JOGGER: It gets easier…Every day, it gets a little easier…But you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.
Another idea the show plays with is that BoJack is bad because of his shitty actions. It’s not because of something intrinsic to his nature or a personality defect, but rather the acts he commits. As the character Diane remarks near the end of the first season:
DIANE: I don’t think I believe in a deep down. I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do.
Whether you believe those actions are Bad for inherent reasons (Deontology), or because of their effect on the world (Consequentialism), the judgment is more or less the same: BoJack is Bad because of the things he has done. He has preyed on people, mainly women, and deserves to be punished for perpetrating sexual harassment and assault. In fact, all of these theories lead to the same judgment:
The answer to the question of forgiving BoJack Horseman is a resounding “no.”
Under the previous philosophies on justice, we should punish BoJack because he is either an inherently bad horse, an ethically bankrupt horse, or a horse that continues to commit ethically questionable actions, respectively.
At the end of the fifth season, BoJack wants to be held accountable for his actions. He contacts Diane and begs her to reveal his predatory history to the world:
BOJACK: I need you to write one of your take-downs about me…Everything. I need to get it out. Diane, please, I need this. I’m a bad guy and the world needs to know.
Diane says no, and that’s because the show isn’t genuinely interested in these prescriptive definitions of good and evil. It has its mind set on something far more existential.
It’s All A Load Of Horseshit
BoJack may ask viewers if he’s a good horse over and over again, but the show heavily implies that the question is itself irrelevant. There are no “good horses” because good horses don’t exist. As Diane remarks to BoJack at the end of Season 5:
DIANE: There’s no such thing as “bad guys” or “good guys.”
The previous frameworks of good and evil that we discussed (e.g., Manichaeism, Virtue Ethics, etc.) rely on the universe having a central organizing principle. Whether we are accrediting this to God, Gods, a Prime Mover, a cosmic force, or “reason” (looking at you Kant), our ideas of Good and Bad are the way they are because the architect of the universe said so.
The problem is that if such an architect exists, then we are not picking up their wifi signal. There is no outward proof of such an organizing principle, and that has left humanity in the uncomfortable position of questioning the very meaning of existence.
Does life even matter, bro?
For some, this question has left such an impression that they have abandoned all notions that life has any inherent meaning, purpose, or value. This school of thought is known as “Nihilism,” and it is perhaps best associated with the works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Though in the show, we can see this sentiment reflected by resident nihilist (and bro) Mr. Peanubutter.
MR. PEANUTBUTTER: Sweetie, you know I support you, whatever you want to do, but you’re not gonna find what you’re looking for in these awful made-up places. The universe is a cruel, uncaring void.
For pure nihilists, the answer to forgiving BoJack Horsman is a big, fat: “Fuck you, and your ideas of justice.”
The issue many have with nihilism, other than it being depressing, is that it makes enforcing norms philosophically pointless. While nihilism argues that we don’t need to stress out about adhering to a fictional conception of Good; consequently, we aren’t prevented from doing “bad stuff” either.
The show brings this point up explicitly in Season 5. BoJack is giving an acceptance speech during the premiere of his misogynistic TV show Philbert, and he references nihilism as an excuse for his predatory behavior:
BOJACK: And the most amazing thing about this show is that I’m sure we all have Philberts in our lives, or we are Philberts. You know, we’ve all done terrible things that we deeply regret. I’ve done so many unforgivable things. And I think that, that’s what this show says. Is that is that we’re all terrible, so therefore we’re all okay. And I think that’s a really powerful message.
We, as the audience, are not supposed to like BoJack Horseman’s response here, and neither does Diane, who promptly grills him about his predatory past. This comment brings to the forefront a chief contention that people have with nihilism. If rigid definitions of Good and Bad are arbitrarily decided, and life itself is arbitrary, then how are we supposed to find meaning? How do we hold this fictional TV character accountable for the shitty things he has done?
The show (and really many philosophical schools) have developed one primary approach to accepting the meaningless of life while still trying to create meaning from it. This approach is Existentialism (though Albert Camus probably has beef with this).
Existentialism is the belief that we come into life with no predefined purpose, and instead, have to craft our own. In the words of proto-existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre:
“Existence precedes essence.”
People exist for no reason in particular and then need to decide how they are going to face the void for themselves. When you push through the nihilistic veneer, the show seems to be an ardent advocate for finding meaning through the meaninglessness.
The main strategy employed by its characters is the art of distraction. Many of its leads are clinging to the trappings of work to fill the time until their end. Todd Chavez and Mr. Peanutbutter engage in a series of mindless get-rich-quick schemes that never pan out. BoJack and Sarah Lynn consume copious amounts of addictive substances. Princess Carolyn is so blindly focused on her career as an agent/manager that she, at one point, makes the following Sisyphian comparison:
PRINCESS CAROLYN: I have to push a boulder up a hill, and then have it roll over me time and time again with no regard for my well-being.
This quote is a direct reference to Albert Camus’ work the Myth of Sisyphus, where he introduces his concept of the Absurd. This is the idea of humans attempting to accomplish the incongruous task of carving out meaning in an indifferent universe.
Like the boulder rolling back to the bottom of the hill, again and again, life is composed of a meaningless journey. Happiness is found in embracing that journey anyway, or what Camus called “Rebellion.” This is what Diane tells BoJack at the end of Season 5.
DIANE: We’re all just guys who do good stuff sometimes and bad stuff sometimes. And all we can do is try to do less bad stuff and more good stuff, but you’re never going to be good. Because you’re not bad. So, you need to stop using that as an excuse.
We all must try to fulfill our own definitions of Good, even though we must also simultaneously accept that these conceptions are arbitrary. Todd does this by trying to be there for those he has committed to. Princess Carolyn does this through work. Diane does so by being there for her friend, BoJack.
For some, however, that task still means sending our titular hero to prison for his abusive behavior. If our truth is punishing abusers or protecting potential victims from abuse, then this Hollywoo star needs to be removed from civil society. That’s not what has happened in the show, though. BoJack has (yet) to end up in prison.
When it comes to finding meaning, the show suggests, it’s not an activity we come to solely by ourselves.
The Barn You Were Born In Matters
BoJack may be a self-destructive character who has inflicted trauma on those around him, but the show is quick to point out that this is not an individual choice. BoJack has learned these behaviors through his upbringing and environment.
On a superficial level, the Hollywoo environment he lives in actively encourages predatory behavior. A great example of this comes from a remark made by “oscar whisperer” Ana Spanakopita (Angela Bassett). The main cast is talking on a conference call. BoJack is in New York with Ana for a PR blitz to get an Oscar. Todd Chavez has sneaked himself into BoJack’s room. Everyone on the call asks who the new person on the line is, and Ana assumes that it’s predatory:
ANA: BoJack smuggled a young boy into his room. No big deal. Movie stars do it all the time.
The sexual abuse of Hollywoo (like with actual Hollywood) is rampant. We see a similar pattern emerge when Princess Carolyn tries to spin the fact that Bojack assaulted cast member Gina on the set of Philbert.
PRINCESS CAROLYN: Like, the minimum amount of strangled. Everyone’s fine now. It’s like it didn’t even happen.
To blame BoJack alone for this behavior is to ignore the predatory nature of his environment. The problem of sexual assault in Hollywoo is systemic. As psychology professor Lilia Cortina told USA Today in a report about sexual harassment in the Hollywood of our world:
“Sometimes it becomes so common for people, in particular women, that it doesn’t occur to them it could be a violation of the law. For them it’s just everyday life on the job.”
It’s not merely an issue of the immediate environment either. BoJack has learned his craft of hurting others from those who raised him. While he has a tumultuous relationship with his mother Beatrice — the women who called him “born broken” — the two of them are quite similar in how they respond to trauma. They both learned to abuse those around them in order to cope with the abuse they received as children.
BoJack was told repeatedly throughout his childhood by his mother that he ruined her life. At one point during his childhood, she informed him that he “better grow up to be something great to make up for all the damage [he’s] done.”
Beatrice also had a terrible childhood. Beatrice’s mother Honey Sugerman (Jane Krakowski) was lobotomized. This travesty happened because her husband, Joseph Sugerman (Matthew Broderick), didn’t want to emotionally console Honey after their son Crackerjack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) died in WWII. Beatrice learned to not rely on her parents. Her mother no longer could care for anything after her mutilation, and her father was an abusive, racist, fat-shaming asshole. Beatrice was rebellious and cared about politics for a time, but life beat her down. She got pregnant from an insecure, wannabe writer (also voiced by Will Arnett) and it derailed her entire life. That initial resentment over her pregnancy never goes away, and she becomes mean and bitter like everyone else in her family.
We see this cycle of trauma impact BoJack’s entire existence. For multiple seasons, BoJack is consumed by the philosophy of always progressing without giving much thought to his past. He is accustomed to saying the phrase “Time’s arrow marches forward.” We, at first, believe this is a philosophy he picked up from his role model Secretariat, but it turns out to be a phrase uttered by his grandfather Joseph Sugarman.
It is an example of how we can be impacted by the actions and words spoken generations before us. Traumas act like butterfly wings creating hurricanes of abuse generations away. We do not come to anything by ourselves, and that includes our pain.
This cycle of intergenerational violence, however, is not an inevitability. This pattern can be broken at any moment. The best example of this potential to break such a pattern is BoJack’s half-sister Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla). Hollyhock was the outcome of an affair between Joseph Sugerman and a staff member of the Horseman family, Henrietta Platchkey (Majandra Delfino). Henrietta gives up Hollyhock for adoption, and she is raised by eight loving men in a committed relationship. Except for some typical teenage self-esteem issues, she turns out to be relatively fine.
Change is possible, but it is something that needs to be taught.
At the end of Season 5, BoJack isn’t headed to prison, but rehab. The show hints at wanting to reform BoJack in the way that different parentage shaped Hollyhock. The implications of this extend beyond merely BoJack Horseman.
Forgiveness Ain’t Just For Horses
The question of if we should forgive BoJack Horsemen is a question on how we should treat powerful people who have crossed the ethical lines that our society has established. BoJack is not an anomaly, and for that matter, neither are serial abusers like Jefferey Epstein or Donald Trump. Our society is currently overwhelmed with powerful men (and a very few women) who have abused their positions of authority for personal gain.
Do they deserve to be forgiven?
This becomes especially difficult to answer when we remember how terrible BoJack has been to those beneath him. Even if the predatory horse manages to mitigate future damage by undoing the distorted thought patterns in his head, he has still silenced so many people. When BoJack is fighting with Diane during the Philbert premiere, he provides us a mere glimpse of this damage:
BOJACK: And while I’m at it, you wanna hear about what happened at the MTV beach house? Or why I’m not allowed to fly United anymore? Or what happened with Sharona, the makeup lady on Horsing Around?
We have yet to meet Sharona — we might never get the chance — because she was silenced during the start of her career by BoJack’s reckless behavior. There are countless men, women, and nonbinary people whose voices we will never hear from because abusers decided to disregard their humanity for a few fleeting moments of personal gratification.
What about them?
It doesn’t seem fair to decouple a predator’s forgiveness from their impact on their victims, especially since their behavior will continuously cast a shadow that can never truly be erased. BoJack’s former cast member, Gina, brings this point home when she describes her assault:
GINA: You physically overpowered me, and if there were any justice, you would be in jail right now. But my career, after so many failed attempts, is finally starting to take off. I am getting offers, and fan mail, and magazine columns about what a good actor I am. People know me because of my acting. And all that goes away if I’m just the girl who got choked by BoJack Horseman.
This isn’t just about BoJack — it never was — and it never can be. He didn’t emerge from the womb a predator, and his predatory actions don’t start and end with him. We might not owe anything to the cruel void that is the universe, but we do owe things to each other.
In the final moments of Season 5, Diane tells the story of a friend named Abby. The two used to be friends, but when Abby started hanging with the “cool kids,” she exposed all of Diane’s secrets for points. Their friendship was irreparably harmed. Abby’s mom then got sick, and her new friends abandoned her.
DIANE: I was there for her…Because I’m an idiot. And it was Abby. And I hated her, and I will never forgive her, but she needed me and she was my best friend and I loved her. And now you’re here, and I hate you, but you’re my best friend, and you need me.
Whether or not Diane personally forgives BoJack Horseman is immaterial to the problem at hand. BoJack is dangerous, and he needs to learn how to stop being dangerous, which is why his enrollment into rehab is such a vital first step.
It is only a first step, though.
In the same way that BoJack is the product of intergenerational violence, his road to recovery needs to be more than his story. We need to focus on the people upon whom he inflicted trauma. They deserve healing even more than BoJack deserves forgiveness. BoJack may not be able to undo the past, but he can work towards making sure the Sharona’s of the world are more than a footnote in his story.
Their stories now need to be told. Let’s hope we see them in Season 6 and beyond.