[This is a review of BoJack Horseman season 2, episode 12. There will be SPOILERS.]
For a series that reliably places things like happiness and fulfillment (both personal professional) on the unattainable end of the achievement spectrum, and features a cast of character (both human and anthropomorphic animal alike) whose lives are ruled by bitterness and disappointment, BoJack Horseman makes a strong case for optimism and self-improvement in the final moments of season 2.
During the touching final scene, which takes place between BoJack (Will Arnett) and an oft-seen, always-jogging humanoid makak (voiced by Jason Beghe) who has, until this point, never actually interacted with any of the major characters, the dark and darkly funny series makes a startling and effective tonal shift that is the equivalent of pulling back the drapes and letting a little sunshine in. That shift brings what was an incredibly solid second season to a close by allowing all characters – not just the eponymous series protagonist – to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of a long tunnel, rather than continue to stare into the abyss that is their uniquely unsatisfactory lives.
'Out to Sea' is a surprise for many reasons, the least of which is that the season was so strong it feels like it could easily sustain another 12 episodes (so here's hoping for another BoJack Horseman Christmas Special, or something in the same sitcom-skewering vein). Mostly, though, the surprise comes from the notion that these characters, these animated, bipedal-animal characters (and the animated humans, too), have been infused with such a precise, biting kind of humanity, that their existential woes feel intensely relatable. And yet, just when it seems as though BoJack, Diane (Alison Brie), Todd (Aaron Paul), Princess Carolyne (Amy Sedaris), and, yes, even the effortlessly optimistic Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) couldn't sink any lower, couldn't get any more lost in the haze of emotional confusion and self-inflicted misery, there emerges a brief flash of self-awareness that ushers in the potential change and improvement.
It's fleeting, to be sure. If creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has proven anything, it's that his characters are as prone to doubling back and running away from their problems, as they are likely to be the cause of their own unhappiness. But it doesn't matter; the last few moments of the finale are such an effervescent tonal shift in the complete opposite direction of the season that it allows the BoJack Horseman to have it both ways. The show can be emotionally wrenching and hilarious, but it can also suggest even the slightest modicum of change is possible in characters who routinely prove otherwise. In that sense, the series gets to have all the qualities of a sitcom, while still being able to skewer the format (and all of Hollywood, really) through some on-point jokes. But more importantly, it is allowed the virtue of being a sitcom, even though has no intention of playing by sitcom rules.
Aside from its ability to make a compelling comedy set around a group of characters who might all be suffering from a near crippling depression, this might be the genius of BoJack: As a series, and especially as a sitcom, the characters are required to maintain some level of consistency. And yet, in this, the never-ending golden age of television, it is expected for a series to have some kind of narrative thrust that allows its characters to grow beyond what they were initially conceived to be.
'Out to Sea' excels at depicting, thanks in part to the fallout from the fantastic penultimate episode, 'Escape from L.A.,' a remarkably accurate depiction of its characters' humanness, particularly through their inability to facilitate necessary change themselves. In other words, the show recognizes how people are typically only compelled to change their circumstances, not themselves. As BoJack said to Charlotte (Olivia Wilde), right before he gave in to his baser instincts and was caught about to have sex with her teenaged daughter, he has a tendency to make the sort of decisions that hurt those closest to him. And even though it's hard for him to admit, those decisions hurt him most of all. Charlotte's response: Stop doing that. It's the emotional equivalent of telling the doctor, "It hurts when I do this," only to have the doctor say, "Well, stop doing that."
But the season needed some sense of closure, and while it was difficult but fascinating to watch BoJack and everyone else self-destruct and self-sabotage their only meaningful relationships, there had to be a sort of turnaround. The series couldn't survive if it was one implosion after another.
In the end, that turnaround came fast and furious. To go from the beautiful montage of BoJack on his boat being towed back to L.A., to this feeling of righting the ship in the span of a half-hour is no easy task. And yet, the finale managed to make everything from BoJack's computer generated chances at winning an Academy Award, to his rescuing of Todd, Princess Caroline's firing of Rutabaga, and Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter's incredibly sweet phone conversation seem completely organic.
Perhaps because of the series' subject matter, and the way it is both textually and subtextually about depression, the ending felt very much like the sort of breakthrough one has, granting you a moment of poignant, life-altering clarity. As with all breakthroughs, though, what really matters is what happens next. How can that breakthrough become a permanent, positive change for these characters? All the materials for BoJack, Diane, Todd, and Princess Carolyn to facilitate the most meaningful change in their lives have been stacked up and placed at their feet. But what they do with those materials will determine who they will become.
The show doesn't have to say it, but change – even positive change – can be intimidating and frightening. But like the makak says, "It gets easier. Every day gets a little easier. But you gotta do it every day. That's the hard part." We may have our doubts as to whether or not BoJack and his friends can do the hard part, but the brilliance of this series is in making us want to watch them try.
BoJack Horseman seasons 1 & 2 are available in their entirety on Netflix.