‘Bojack Horseman’ Learns to Look to the Future

And other life lessons from Princess Carolyn.
By  · Published on September 20th, 2017

And other life lessons from Princess Carolyn.

Bojack Horseman can be a very sad show. If you know nothing else about the animated Netflix drama-comedy, you probably still know this. Bojack’s profound preoccupation with the depression and self-destruction of its has-been horse protagonist has been spoken and written about at length for the past three years, and it’s not oversold. In the past, Bojack has included an almost constant ache of melancholy that once or twice per season (purposefully, and more skillfully each time) has snowballed into staggering despair that leaves you staring blankly at the end credits, feeling lost and small in the universe.

It was a bold choice, then, and probably a necessary one, for showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg to lean into more hopeful territory in the show’s fourth season. Of course, the newest season still addresses (and somehow successfully mines comedy from) dark topics like grief, generational trauma, unhappy marriages, and miscarriages, but for the first time, viewers are left with a tentatively happy Bojack (Will Arnett). In fact, where the past two seasons have featured impactful character deaths that caused the title character lingering existential dread, this season finale is full of life; Bojack has mostly reconciled with his mother and is on good terms with his newfound half-sister. Todd (Aaron Paul) is happily blundering into a successful business endeavor and relationship, Diane (Alison Brie) and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) are finally facing the failings of their relationship (not a happy moment, but at least a propulsive one for a couple that’s been on uneven ground for too long), and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) is producing a new show and considering adoption.

About Princess Carolyn; the career catwoman has always been a beautifully written character, and her plots often get the most laughs–Vincent Adultman might be the show’s best running gag, and the celebrity animal puns and wordplay are endlessly inventive. But Princess Carolyn’s not just a comedic character; while Bojack grapples with existential dread, she’s been quietly championing the power of determination and hope from the outset. If there’s a blueprint for where the show can go from here, it can be found with Princess Carolyn.

Bojack and PC are diametric opposites in many ways, chief among them their fixation with the past and future respectively. This isn’t new–Horsin’ Around nostalgia is at the crux of Bojack’s personality, and Princess Carolyn is always trying to predict the next big thing in Hollywoo–but it’s more apparent this season than ever. While the brutal extent of Horseman family history is revealed in one excellent episode this season (“Time’s Arrow”), and Bojack’s stream-of-consciousness negativity is front-and-center in another (“Stupid Piece of Sh*t), it’s the Princess Carolyn-centric episode “Ruthie” that may be the season’s most important looking forward.

“Ruthie” opens with the titular character, a young cat in a futuristic classroom, giving a class presentation on her family tree, including her great-great-great-grandmother Princess Carolyn. This framing device continues throughout the episode, which, like season one’s “Say Anything,” follows PC through a particularly difficult day. It’s a heartening concept, especially given the show’s knack for reminding viewers of life’s uncertainty, but it all comes undone in the episode’s final moments. In the present day, Princess Carolyn curls up on the couch with a drink after a long day that involved a miscarriage and breakup, among other things. During a phone call with Bojack, he says he’s having a bad day, and she offers him some advice:

“Hey, you wanna know what I do when I have a really bad, awful, terrible day? I imagine my great-great-great-granddaughter in the future, talking to her class about me. She’s poised and funny and tells people about me, and how everything worked out in the end. And when I think about that, I think about how everything’s going to work out, because how else could she tell people?”

And then you’re alone and small again, with the proverbial rug pulled out from under you and only the end credits for company. The sadness of “Ruthie” and Princess Carolyn’s imaginary family is different than the sadness Bojack’s presented before, somehow both more complete and more hopeful. When Bojack points out that PC’s great-great-great-granddaughter isn’t real, she simply answers, “Yeah, well, it makes me feel better.” That’s the only moment we’re given to dwell in this particular sadness before PC picks herself up and moves on with her life. Her feelings are almost always contained and momentary where Bojack’s spill over and spoil. We get the sense that the bright-eyed girl of the future cultivated with care in Princess Carolyn’s mind could be just as powerful as the angry-scrawl self-portrait in Bojack’s, or even the distorted, impressionistic memories in Beatrice Horseman’s.

In the few seconds between when Ruthie’s true nature is revealed and when Princess Carolyn affirms that imagining Ruthie makes her feel better, the pointlessness and dejection Bojack has always returned to feels more real to us than ever. There was a novel sliver of hope in Ruthie’s existence, in the idea of an assured future with something wholly good in it, and losing that simple assurance after having it for the first time in the series felt like losing something huge and irreplaceable.

Yet thanks to Bob-Waksberg’s leap-of-faith finale, all is not lost. When Princess Carolyn says Ruthie will exist someday and tell her story, why not believe her?  She was worth believing last season when she told Rabbitowitz that she wasn’t afraid of being alone, and when she told her rivals that she would open her own successful management company, and when she gave Bojack countless pep talks about his potential. Princess Carolyn has practiced resilience and optimism in the series’ background for four seasons, and the show has been richer because of it. So while we’re at it, why not believe that Diane can find personal fulfillment, and that Beatrice can rest easy with peace in her heart, and that maybe, just maybe, Bojack and Hollyhock can be a happy family.

Happy endings are never guaranteed, especially in Hollywoo, but what’s the harm in hoping?

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)