The View From Halfway Up: Finding Hope After Darkness in ‘BoJack Horseman’

Images: IMDb

What started as a tongue-in-cheek TV show about a washed-up star from a famous sitcom that planned his big return to celebrity relevance evolved, with each season, into something much more complex. BoJack Horseman dared through its six seasons go where many others didn’t as it tackled difficult themes including addiction, mental health and sexuality. The sixth season contained both highs and lows for BoJack (Will Arnett), and the two final episodes encapsulate everything this show is about – it’s dark and filled with pain, but there’s also hope.

As the consequences of BoJack’s previous actions are about to come up to the surface, so are his inner struggles. After an interview where BoJack addresses his involvement in the death of Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), viewers praise him which leads to a follow-up interview. After the second interview, which is a disaster, BoJack regresses into old patterns as the pain from the world finding out about his actions is overwhelming. After a night of alcohol and pills, he breaks into his old home and ends up in the pool – and then starts the penultimate episode. 

While BoJack Horseman has excelled in creative approaches in storytelling and animation before (e.g. “Fish out of Water”, “Free Churro” and “The Showstopper”), “The View From Halfway Down” is nothing short of spectacular – and nothing short of a punch in the stomach. The episode follows BoJack as he envisions attending a dinner party with deceased people from his life as they eventually go through a doorway symbolizing death that sends them into a black unknown. 

The episode begins with BoJack and a young Sarah Lynn arriving at a doorstep and since she died of a heroin overdose during a bender with BoJack, it’s a poignant start. While a common slang for heroin is horse, the heroin she used was specifically BoJack-branded and therefore it can be interpreted as BoJack literally killing her. Therefore, as BoJack stands with her, it’s like he is bringing her to death’s door. 

When BoJack’s mother Beatrice (Wendie Malick) invites them in, details are revealed about BoJack’s situation. There is a viscous black substance that is leaking into the house and while it’s a sign of the impending death, it can also refer to tar. Charlotte, the one that got away, told BoJack that “Hollywood’s a real pretty town that’s smack on top of all that black tar. By the time you realize you’re sinking, it’s too late” (“The Telescope”) and later BoJack hallucinates that he is sinking in tar (“Downer Ending”). Even if it isn’t a reference, it’s definitely a powerful metaphor for feeling either trapped or suffocated due to depression. 

Furthermore, the parody of David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” that has been seen throughout the show appears but is now altered so that the swimming horse appears to be drowning as the clothed horse by the edge looks down at him – reminiscent to how BoJack can watch but can’t change his situation. As dinner is served, BoJack sits down in a chair resembling a casket positioned right in front of a fireplace. At first, it’s burning brightly as there’s still a chance of survival, but it’s gradually starting to dim as time is running out. 

During dinner, everyone is served their last meals in life and BoJack is served pills he can’t retain and a water bottle tasting like chlorine. In attendance, besides Sarah Lynn and Beatrice, is Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci), Corduroy Jackson-Jackson (Brandon T. Jackson) as well as Beatrice’s brother Crackerjack (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Later, BoJack’s father Butterscotch (Arnett) joins but only in voice as he takes the visual shape of BoJack’s childhood hero Secretariat. This is heartbreaking as Butterscotch later admits to BoJack that he cared about him deeply but since he resembles Secretariat, we come to the conclusion that not even in his imagination could BoJack imagine his father – in his own skin – admitting that he cared for him. 

The show taking place after dinner starts with an opening performance by Sarah Lynn and when it ends, a door frame appears and reveals nothing but darkness as it opens. She holds her breath, falls backwards and disappears. Suddenly, the tone of the episode changes into something more blatantly dark as reality kicks in for BoJack. If you’re still contemplating whether there is any light-hearted fun in this episode: Neigh way, Jose! 

Following this darker theme, Secretariat takes the stage to read a retelling of his suicide called “The View From Halfway Down”. The poem, written by Alison Tafel, who also wrote the episode, is terrifying. As Secretariat gets to the part where he starts expressing regret for jumping, panic strikes as the door come closer – resembling how he during his fall came closer to the hard surface of the water. He then stumbles backwards; falls through the door frame and disappears. While it’s emotional in itself, the combination of the visuals with Arnett’s voice results in the words being even more powerful. The terrifying development in the poem made me think of interviews with survivors that had attempted suicide by jumping and how they – free falling – realised that their problems had solutions. Since everything that’s happening during this episode is imagined by BoJack, this might mean that BoJack wishes that he could’ve stopped himself from getting into the pool. 

Please welcome to the stage. The star of Horsin Around, the Bojack Horseman show, Philbert, Secretariat and the upcoming Horny Unicorn. Son of Butterscotch and Beatrice. Husband to no one. Father to none (that we know of). Stand up comedian, actor, crippling alcoholic, a talented charmer and a stupid piece of shit. 

Season 6, Episode 15 “The View from Halfway Down”

With those words, resembling an obituary, BoJack is introduced to the stage in what seems to be his last performance. Ending with “a stupid piece of shit” is familiar to everyone who remembers “Stupid Piece of Sh*t”, an episode where BoJack’s depression and constant self-loathing is portrayed. As BoJack tries to run away from the black substance, he tries to call Diane (Alison Brie). However, she can’t save him and instead, he watches as the tar consumes the silhouette of his floating body. Then, as there is nothing else to do, BoJack asks Diane to stay on the phone with him and that’s when I gave up on trying to cry gracefully because “THAT’S TOO MUCH, MAN”! 

Their conversation can reference back to “Yes And” where Diane expresses to BoJack how she wishes she could return home to Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) and not having to apologize for being a difficult girlfriend. “He would just say: ‘How was your day?’ and I would say: ‘My day was good’”. Therefore BoJack asks Diane about her day and as she replies, “My day was good”, the tar consumes him completely. We hear the sound of a flatline but during the credits, the beep of a heart monitor returns.

“The View From Halfway Down” feels both brave and emotionally draining. Just as BoJack confronts death, the closest he has ever been to it, so do we. I remember when I was young and got my first grasp of death and that we were all going to die – the dying wasn’t what got me scared, not knowing what would happen afterwards was. Still, to this day, it’s a weird unknown to think of – even though I’ve many times wished for nothing else than to end up in it. While many TV shows have tackled death before, this feels different. In BoJack’s imagination, there is no “Good” or “Bad” place, there is just darkness which is scarier since it’s uncertain. The doorway, with no fire, heavenly clouds or anything else depicting afterlife, just feels empty.

Throughout the show, there have been several references to drowning. Besides the obvious reference in the show’s opening title, BoJack has repetitively described that he can’t breathe and how it feels like he’s drowning. Furthermore, when imagining a future, he pictures himself going out for one last swim fully knowing that he won’t make it back to shore as he is too weak (“Downer Ending”). During a car ride a couple of years ago I blurted out to my brother that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. “I feel like I’m too far out in the ocean, constantly in a state of drowning, as something drags my body down”, I said between uneven breaths. When you feel like you’re struggling to stay afloat, it feels like only a matter of time until there is nowhere left to go but down. It’s either this or feeling numb and nothing, like Diane. I think that’s why I’ve always felt strongly about BoJack Horseman – there is always someone to feel connected to, either in their struggles or in the way they cope with them. 

In the final episode, “Nice While It Lasted”, BoJack shares moments with all other main characters as it picks up roughly a year later as he’s released from prison to attend Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) wedding. When BoJack expresses his fear to Todd (Aaron Paul) about what would happen if he relapsed, Todd calmly responds “then you get sober again” since it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. It made me think of “Out to Sea” when BoJack is told that running gets easier with time but committing to it every day is the hard part. This applies to many things: to staying sober, caring for yourself and continuing to stay alive even when you don’t want to. It gets easier with time if you’re getting help, but it’ll always be a struggle – that’s the hard thing. 

In “The View From Halfway Down”, Herb admitted that the reason he decided to stay alive even though he was suicidal was that the Knicks were having a good season. There is something so raw about this casual excuse to stay alive. “What would you have done if they were having a bad season?” BoJack asks and Herb answers “I don’t know, gotten into baseball?” As someone who has used the same technique, it felt weird hearing someone else talk about it. For me it could be anything, it was just about finding something to get me through the week, the month and – eventually – the year. Sometimes you just need a reason, something to keep you going, and it doesn’t have to be something big or spectacular. It just has to be something.

After having moments with Mr. Peanutbutter, Todd and Princess Carolyn, BoJack meets Diane on their special place – namely a rooftop. As they sit together, BoJack jokingly says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if this night was the last time we ever talked to each other?”, and Diane meeting it with silence as she knows it’s true, is complete heartbreak. I could feel a knot forming in my stomach as it was obvious that their conversation was about to come to an end, maybe for forever, as there was nothing more left to say. “Life’s a bitch and then you die, right?”, says BoJack out of nowhere. “Sometimes,” Diane responds, “Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep living”. With that small exchange, it perfectly sums up everything BoJack Horseman is about. Despite everything, you keep living and trying. As the frame pans upward we can finally see the stars Diane and BoJack are gazing at – but unlike the stars BoJack and Sarah Lynn watched in the planetarium, these stars are real and they light up the darkness. 

As Catherine Feeny’s “Mr. Blue” starts playing, it ties everything together. There could be various interpretations of the lyrics, for instance about a former lover or maybe one’s depressed self that you’ve to leave behind. “Don’t hold your head so low, that you can’t see the sky”, sings Feeny, which is a hopeful way to end things – not solely for these characters but for the showin general. BoJack Horseman ends in a moment of silence between Bojack and Diane, both of them struggling to say something but choosing not to. As it ends, with a nice night, it ends with uncertainty about the future. It might not be a happy Hollywoo(d) ending and it’s brutal as it’s evident that some of these characters might never speak to each other again. But there’s hope – for change, for happiness and, most importantly, for trusting that happiness. 

Trying to put my love for this show into words felt impossible as every word seemed too small – too inadequate – to express my feelings. When I started watching BoJack Horseman years back, I had no idea what to expect. But season after season, it impressed me with its impeccable storytelling and detailed animations. I’ve struggled with my mental health half my life and throughout it all, I always felt alone. The constant battle between my depression and anxiety is a battle nobody wins but I always lose. In “Nice While It Lasted”, Todd expresses that the point of art is less about what people put into it and more about what people get out of it. For me, BoJack Horseman worked as not an escape from reality but instead as a way to feel less alone in my reality. 

In the end, all characters have grown a lot in comparison to their former selves and, as for BoJack, there’s still hope. However, besides overcoming substance addiction, BoJack has to confront his other struggles as well. He needs to be true to himself, acknowledge his past as well as start to feel okay about who he is without using substances as an escape. Hopefully, he now understands that Secretariat’s advice to him when he was young about always running and never looking back wasn’t very healthy (“Later”). Running away from everything in order to not deal with one’s past and own actions is never as good of an idea as it might initially feel.

Will Arnett and Alison Brie in Nice While It Lasted (2020)

Besides bigger changes, there are also small changes to acknowledge. In early seasons, we often saw BoJack obsessively indulging in food (e.g. once eating nine baskets of bread at a restaurant). It was a form of gluttony that underlined his failed attempts at self-control and he always hated himself for indulging in his impulsive cravings. However, during the wedding BoJack even shows that he finally has self-control over something he never had any control over before – cotton candy. In the end, he is even coming around to honeydew.

Another change is found with Diane and her weight gain after taking antidepressants. I can’t recall having seen a skinny character – specifically a woman in an animated show – gain weight and not have it played as a joke. That means the world to people – including myself – who have struggled with weight in relation to being healthy. Yes, she gained weight but she’s finally happy and that’s much more important. Gaining weight is often seen as unhealthy and shameful – it’s not. I’m glad this was included as it gives the audience a chance to see it portrayed as something positive. 

The view from halfway down is more terrifying than we can imagine as you’re closing in on an inevitable end – as in hitting a hard surface or sinking deeper underwater. However, the view from halfway up is different and in the final episode, BoJack is halfway up as there is still hope. There’s pain and even though he’s far from innocent, it’s hard to continuously watch him self-sabotage. BoJack is written in a way so that we can care for him but at the same time also hold him accountable. As much as BoJack’s own horrid experiences shaped him, he is responsible for his own actions – just like everyone else. While we can’t escape ourselves, we can acknowledge our actions and try to do better. If BoJack Horseman has been about anything, it’s the notion that life is about trying, screwing up, and then trying again. You fall or mess up? You get back up and start over. And if you can’t, you find a reason to.

by Rebecca Rosen

Rebecca Rosen has studied film for several years at university in Sweden where she currently resides. Besides film, she has also studied television and is currently deepening her knowledge of gender studies. When she isn’t writing or talking about all things film, she enjoys getting lost in foreign cities, playing video games and watching German football. Besides being a lover of Twin Peaks (both the band and TV series), she knows Wayne’s World 2 off by heart and will forever ugly cry to Call Me By Your Name. She’s still contemplating about the impossible question regarding what her favourite film is ever since a stranger asked her 10 years ago. She still hasn’t seen Titanic. Share you favourite films with her on her Twitter and Instagram.

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