Breaking BoJack Down

i know you hate me, bea ~

BoJack Horseman has always been a show concerned mostly with the utter destruction of its characters. One definition of tragicomedy I’ve heard is that it’s a tragedy that ends with a final, unexpected twist towards happiness or hope, and while I think the series will end with that final twist, it’s hard to expect after four seasons of existential despair and inability to change. And yet it’s an utterly captivating series, with season four being my favorite thus far.

All of the characters on the show have experienced loss after loss, misery piled up over and over, and peeling back the curtain on BoJack’s personal family history has been a well the show has gone to before: BoJack’s sniping mother and disengaged father have reared their heads a few times, giving flesh to why BoJack is as broken as he is. Episode 11, “Time’s Arrow,” follows the tradition of being the season’s most cutting episode. This time, though, the episode focuses on the tragedy of Bea Horseman’s life: a society girl from a different era, chafing between the expectations of her domineering father and her own desire for freedom, she follows the tropes out west to California.

That’s not a bad thing. Bea’s life may be a series of tropes, but it still feels real and gives an idea of why she inflicted her misery on BoJack so thoroughly in his childhood. (And ultimately, all of our lives are a series of tropes and cliches–those few that end up truly breaking the mold are either too weird to fathom or become the new cliches in the next time the story is told.) Watching Bea’s life follow this familiar-yet-trenchant pattern, the simple fact that life’s vicissitudes wear you down is underlined repeatedly. She wants freedom from her father but yearns for the comforts his wealth provided. She’s captivated by the beat-inspired bad boy and the freedom he represents and ends up choosing to flee to California with him.

This episode manages to elicit empathy for Bea, a herculean task if there ever was one given her absolutely terrible treatment of the young BoJack. We are always the sum of the choices we make and this episode reminds of that when Bea stumbles upon the realization that the boring boy she’s coupled with by her father may have an appealing depth to him: she still chooses to flee with Butterscotch. And the choices ripple out ever forward: when Henrietta the maid is impregnated by Butterscotch, she tries to repair her mistake by forcing Henrietta to give the child up as Bea’s key life regret was not giving up her child by Butterscotch.

In a way, she does fix that mistake: Hollyhock eventually ends up with a happy home environment, and it’s only when she returns to the Horseman galaxy that her life goes almost immediately astray. Bea, once again inflicting the pains on her life on another, secretly drugs the girl with amphetamines in order to make her thinner.

It’s a testament to the writing that we can feel any empathy for her at all. While knowing Bea’s history and the injustices acted upon her give shape to the miserable person she becomes, ultimately Bea is a malignant character that takes out her own tragedy on those closest to her unjustifiably. The episode serves as an excellent meditation on the inter-generational scars a family bears and how each person in the nebula of a damaged individual reacts to and acts upon those scars.