The Top 5 Motifs of 'BoJack Horseman' Season 4
At a certain point, BoJack Horseman’s element of surprise was bound to wear off, and showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg has taken full advantage of his Netflix animated series’ critical acclaim and maturity to go bolder in a psychologically innovative fourth season. What started as a washed-up, hard partying anthropomorphic horse trying to write a comeback memoir turned into what has been widely considered by critics to be the most nuanced depiction of depression on television while maintaining biting humor and social commentary.
As is customary in the streaming-era, folks are experiencing shows at their own pace, often eagerly awaiting to start the latest hit after getting through a multi-year queue of other shows to stream. If this sounds like a chore, it’s because it is—but out of respect for the inextricability of content saturation, be advised that the review and list below may contain some spoilers if you haven’t caught up with the latest season or even started watching the show.
That being said, this critic’s threshold for spoilers should allow for a thorough enjoyment of Season Four after reading this review, regardless of background plot knowledge.
Here are the top five motifs of BoJack Season Four:
1. Innovative depiction of depression
Depression and addiction’s role in the show have perhaps piqued the most outside interest in what would otherwise appear to be another stoner/adult cartoon, but Season Four takes the narrative leaps and bounds forward. Lookout especially for Episode Six, “Stupid Piece of Sh*it,” which debuts a new animation technique and a searing internal monologue from BoJack that, while at times funny, should give chills to anyone suffering from mental illness or knows the internal struggle of a loved one with unrelenting negative thoughts.
This season also further illustrates BoJack’s family history, which, on his mother’s side, includes quite severe mental illness. More challenges come to the fore when an alluded to yet unexpected second generation Horseman comes into the picture, confronting our hero with further layers of the lifelong struggle that comes with chronic psychiatric illnesses.
2. Nuanced and subtle critique of 2016 election
The biggest reveal of promotions for this season has been a surprising bid for Governor of California by none other than Mr. Peanutbutter, BoJack’s copy-dog frienemy whose endless optimism and stupidity never fail to irk the show’s more cynical hero. While the show was already well into writing and elements of production before the results of the 2016 election were known, PB for Gov demonstrates how all of us are complicit—regardless of ideology—in the greatest political upset of all time.
The motif of PB’s campaign constantly revolves around what has come to be known in political science and media studies as the “fairness bias,” where, regardless of rigor or merit, opposing positions and opinions are given equal scrutiny and opportunity in the public sphere, especially on cable news. Peanutbutter’s opponent, California Governor Woody Woodchuck Couldchuck-Berkowitz, is a respected policy wonk whose establishment reputation comes to be weaponized against him by his Labrador opponent’s populist campaign.
PB’s campaign shows how the candidate’s inexperience in politics becomes a major asset for lobbyists and other vested interests in politics, who are able to take advantage of his naïveté to push their own agenda, ossified in one episode where Mr. Peanutbutter makes a campaign promise to allow fracking beneath his house, which leads to a wonderful consequence that comes to frame one of the season’s best allegorical episodes in “Underground.”
3. Todd’s Asexuality
Todd gets his own episode this season, aptly entitled “Hooray! Todd Episode!” where something many fans have wondered becomes clarified: Todd comes out as asexual, or, as his support group puts it, an “Ace.” The terms by which Todd comes to this conclusion are unexpected, and, as has come to be expected with Bob-Waksberg and his writing team, Todd’s identity struggle writ-large is tied into his desire to constantly please everyone around him with little to no regard for his own wellbeing. A clear parallel here is the more existential and all-encompassing portrayal of BoJack’s depression, which the showrunner has been on the record as hesitant to properly diagnose.
As a voice actor, Aaron Paul delivers a stellar performance in this episode, which has garnered widespread praise in social justice circles for boasting the first out-asexual character in a national television show. Cleverly, genuinely ignorant jokes made by BoJack allow Todd to clarify misconceptions about asexuality, giving viewers the excuse to say they learned something while binge-watching this show.
4. Historical development of Mama BoJack
BoJack’s mother, Beatrice Sugarman, has long been depicted as the shady bane to our hero’s existence, personifying maternal ambivalence and a general disappointment in her son no matter what he does. This season, we learn about Mama BoJack’s childhood, allowing animators to have fun with the World War Two Era and American nostalgia. Much of Sugarman’s backstory is shocking, and comes to fill in a troubling portrait of BoJack’s own mental illness.
The deep dive into BoJack’s mother’s past also demonstrates how America’s conception and norms of masculinity can be far more damaging long-term than one may think, particularly calling into question to what extent men are willfully ignorant of the emotional suffering of their female counterparts.
BoJack’s mother returns in the present storyline much worse for ware, suffering from dementia after being neglected in a nursing home by her son. Despite her ruthless portrayal in previous seasons, this season’s depiction of Beatrice shows a far more vulnerable and sympathetic side to her, one that will certainly strike a chord with those who’ve felt helpless seeing their parents and grandparents suffer from late-life illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
5. BoJack’s Daughter?
The end montage of Season Three included a mysterious debut from a female, teenage anthropomorphic horse that had message boards buzzing right up until this season’s premiere. Now we find out what exactly BoJack is in for with a daughter whom he never knew he had.
This storyline could seem quite predictable: BoJack finds out he has a daughter, he makes mistakes, learns more about himself, and finds a path to self-reform through the love for his daughter.
Much to the relief of loyal fans, this is not at all how the story actually goes, forming a puzzle that is worth solving by the end.
(Bonus points if you can successfully recite Holly’s full name after she’s introduced.)