MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD (Nothing crazy, but brace yourself).
Well, it’s finally here. On Friday, September 8, Netflix released the entire fourth season of its critically acclaimed show, “Bojack Horseman.” BH has filled a unique niche for audiences since its creation, attempting to sit at the crossroads of comedy and tragedy versus realism and absurdity. One moment you laugh at an animal pun, the next you cry during a tragic drug-binge and the next moment you do both at the same time. BH has had a notable weakness that threatened to cut the legs out from under their fourth season before it began. The main characters, with a few exceptions, struggle to actually develop and change for the first three seasons. This is where season four shines.
The issue of character development in BH is tricky, because part of the show’s power is in the realistic nature of its portrayal of the human condition. People make the same mistakes even when self-destruction is imminent, a haunting reflection of the real world. However, in a story, we don’t actually want to see our characters stagnate. Bojack in particular seemed to be in a constant pattern of one step forward and three steps back for the first few seasons. He does something nice for his friend Todd and then alienates or sabotages him in the next episode. He runs away to Arizona to make a new life for himself, appears to change and then ruins it, returning to LA to live out the same life he has always lived. He gets a new girlfriend who loves him, challenges him and tries to help him heal, but then breaks up with her the moment things get too complicated.
BH also opts to state character flaws and relationships very explicitly, sometimes choosing this over more action-based characterization. Consider a line from Sarah Lynn spoken in the third episode, her introductory episode: “I’m at a place right now where I never need to grow as a person or rise to an occasion because I can constantly just surround myself with sycophants and enablers until I die tragically young… It’s pretty much too late for me.” This line is literally a blueprint for Sarah Lynn’s character arc for the next three seasons.
Such direct characterization does not rule out subtlety as a narrative tool, but it does shorten the amount of time necessary for setting up characters. In “Rick and Morty,” for instance, the same amount of characterization would be stretched into an entire season at least, using meticulously placed details and character decisions to communicate the information. When you are told exactly what a character is like, it becomes easier for that character to feel stagnant because we don’t need to learn anything new about them.
The ending of Season 3 was, of course, utterly heart-breaking and disturbingly tragic. To me, it seemed that this pattern of slowly taking Bojack lower and lower had finally bottomed out. How could they take him any lower? Was everything just going to stagnate? Something fundamentally needed to change for BH to move forward and I wasn’t sure the writers were willing or capable of doing it. But boy was I wrong.
The fourth season of BH is the most different in the series because of how reserved it is with its characters. Bojack has made tremendous steps in his personal health and self-control. Sure, he’s still an alcoholic attention-seeker with both attachment issues and separation anxiety, but his self-destructive streak seems to have been taken down a few notches. He develops a real, substantive relationship with the girl believed to be his daughter. He allows his dementia-riddled mother to stay with him despite the fact that she has been abusive and degrading to him his entire life.
Todd is also an excellent example of the fourth season’s reserved and calculated characterization. At the end of season three, we see two major developments in Todd’s character. The first is that he becomes completely fed up with Bojack’s antics, calling him out as a selfish person and emotionally distancing himself. The second is the realization that he is asexual. Both of these threads are handled masterfully in this season. Bojack desperately wants a relationship with Todd again and it seems that he has actually changed enough for it to possibly be worth Todd’s while. But Todd has been burned too many times and chooses to keep his distance for the time being. He isn’t mean or insulting when he explains this to Bojack. Todd simply tells Bojack that since not seeing him, his own life has been going well and he wants to keep it that way, at least for now. It’s sad, but a sign of maturing from the show’s token goofball.
His asexuality is also addressed successfully. He doesn’t deal with any cliché obstacles, such as other people stigmatizing his orientation or someone else falling in love with him in a way he can’t reciprocate. Instead, he wrestles with the title of “asexual” itself. He doesn’t like calling himself asexual; he doesn’t want to feel trapped by labels. It is a small, but authentic arc that is resolved satisfyingly. Todd is also given plenty of zany misadventures to juggle as well, placing him appropriately at the corner of serious and ludicrous—the show’s sweet spot.
Diane takes an interesting turn as well, but on an opposite path from many of her fellow main characters. In the first three seasons, Diane was one of the few people to steadily change and grow. We watch her make compromises in her professional and romantic life. She tries to come to terms with the superficial reality of LA and finds varying levels of success. But in Season 4, she takes on a developmental arc similar to the Bojack of the earlier seasons. Her relationship with Mr. Peanutbutter has always been tumultuous, but here we see it being pushed to the brink of destruction. It is not pushed by new decisions or changes in anyone’s character, but by the same problems that have always plagued it. Their fundamental differences, Mr. Peanutbutter’s extraversion and impulsivity, Diane’s cynicism and need for privacy/independence, these are all issues we have seen since season one. But here, they’re brought together in a most complicated and heart-breaking fashion.
The most significant change in character development, however, is that of Bojack’s mother: Beatrice. Without getting in to spoiler territory, it should be said that we are finally given context for her villainous presence in the story. In previous seasons, her character remained static and unredeemable, acting only as a tool to flesh out Bojack’s dysfunctions. In this season, however, we are given a vividly detailed portrait of her life and character arc. It is deeply upsetting and probably the most compelling element of the entire season, because it not only has direct relevance to the plot, but it further fleshes out Bojack’s problems. The audience is able to see and understand how deeply rooted these character flaws are in the family, and how inescapable family can be.
While this season has a few pacing issues and is debatably the least consistently funny of all three seasons, it is also one of the strongest because of how it deals with its characters. The angles and plot directions utilized by the writers are fresh, insightful, exciting, and, of course, so tragic that they cause you physical pain while viewing. Wherever they take the show next, I know I will be at the edge of my seat.