Bojack Horseman and Mental Health Representation: An Analysis
“Nothing on the inside, nothing on the outside”
-Bojack Horseman (Will Arnett)
Mental health was not a very talked-about or acceptable topic a few years ago but then many shows and movies started talking about mental illness and the problems associated with them for example movies like Silver Linings Playbook, Girl Interrupted, Black Swan etc, but one of the most prominent shows that have really represented the truth and reality of mental illness and health is Bojack Horseman.
Why did I start with the quote I started with? Because that’s exactly what mental illness feels like. Although agreed there are many many more quotes throughout the series that are deeper but that line is the simplest and easiest to understand, do not worry though those quotes are coming up shortly! The entire show starting with its intro where we see a Bojack just phase through life with never really attending to what is going on around him and just being surrounded by his own thoughts and problems is filled with tiniest details which represent mental illness perfectly. Now if I actually go deep into the show I’ll be writing for days and endless pages because of how perfect every detail is. If I write about every character, I will probably never be able to complete this so I am going to stick with 2 characters for this one: Bojack and Diane.
Looking at both the characters and their mental illness (majorly depression) one notices an endless cyclic pattern. The mental illness they have, causes them to ruin relationships around them like Bojack’s relationships with so many women one of the most prominent being Wanda whose last words to Bojack were “When you look at someone with rose coloured glasses, all the red flags just look like flags”, hits you hard doesn’t it? So does mental illness. In the final season, Bojack seemed to lose almost everyone in his life due to his mental illness which forced him to finally join rehab but we’ll get to that later. Diane ruined her relationship with Mr Peanutbutter because she wasn’t sure what she wanted and she never felt happy. Not just ruining relationships but no success no achievement makes neither of them happy like when Bojack got to play Secretariat his dream role in his dream movie, he realised he wasn’t happy even then, he realised that achieving this purpose left him with no more purpose or in Diane’s words, “Well that’s the problem with life right? Either you know what you want and don’t get it or you get what you want and then you don’t know what you want.” Even Diane struggles to find happiness in her achievements but never really does.
But the cyclic pattern doesn’t just exist in the present. It has evolved from a past of cyclic pattern which was represented beautifully in Bojack and his mother’s relationship. Since childhood Bojack was mistreated, ignored, never loved, never seen by either of his parents because of their own mental health issues and marital problems. But then they gave us an episode called ‘The Old Sugarman Place’ where we understand where this cycle started from when we get to see Beatrice’s (Bojack’s mom) childhood and the realisation hits us that she too had a terrible childhood with a robot for a mother and a patriarchal father who was in a hurry to just get her married off. That’s when we see the real cycle, that’s when we see mental illness perpetuates more mental illness. A lot of us see Bojack’s mom as the villain but was she really that or just a victim of an ignorant and mentally abusive childhood followed by a failed marriage? Her frustrations all came out on her son and she had no control over it, most of the time in mental illness you do not have control over things.
Throughout the show, we get hints that Diane too did not have a happy childhood with one episode early on in the show dedicated to taking us through a day in Diane’s house where her father had passed away. What we see is that she too faced ignorance and self-esteem issues because of her family. Do you see how endless this cyclic pattern is?
Diane and Bojack were very similar, from the beginning of the show the two had striking similarities leading them to have striking similarities in their illnesses. In the episode after the death of Sarah Lynn, we see Bojack having self-esteem issues and feelings of worthlessness, in his own words “I don’t’ know how to be Diane. It doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get easier. I can’t keep lying to myself saying I’m gonna change, I’m poison, I come from poison, I have poison inside me and I destroy everything I touch, that’s my legacy. I have nothing to show for the life that I have lived and I have nobody in my life who is better off for having known me.” A more accurate representation of worthlessness does not exist. Similarly, Diane says some words when she comes back from Cordovia cutting her trip short but doesn’t have the confidence to face Mr Peanutbutter. She says in a conversation with Bojack, “I’m sorry I left, I’m sorry I made things so difficult and I’m sorry I am not the person I thought I was.” What else is low self-esteem if not this?
The difference between the two came in where Bojack also had substance abuse issues only to add to his depression. Often his addiction left him into a spiral of bad choices, and often his depression led him to his addiction. You seem to feel better he would take drugs which would lead him to make some bad decisions, bad choices which would further lead him to taking more drugs to feel better, further spiralling into a web of bad life choices and of course deepening his depression. Not just drugs, throughout the show Bojack is an alcoholic as well, there are always empty, half-drunk bottles lying around in his house. Funny how your depression makes you crave for the things that are the most harmful for you and you seem to have no control but to submit to such cravings.
There were multiple times in the show where Bojack tried to leave drugs and alcohol but he never got help for his depression and so every time something went wrong, he would fall back into the same pattern of substance abuse because he can’t help it, he doesn’t know how to. Often when he had a career crisis he would choose to run away like in the episode ‘Escape from LA’. It is not to say that Bojack himself didn’t make some wrong choices but when you are living with constant mental illness, you often lose control, you often feel nothing, you often forget the difference between right and wrong and just do something to make yourself feel better. Like where at the end of the episode ‘Escape from LA’ Bojack realises he will not get the dream life he has always wanted with Charolette, he makes a bad decision of going to bed with her daughter Penny, of course, gets caught the mid-act and is forced to leave and face the grim reality his life is. One of the worst things he thinks he has ever done, which is leading to Sarah Lynn’s death was when he was trying to escape from the reality wherein he was not nominated for an Oscar. He went on a month-long fender bender with Sarah Lynn, which led to her death.
There are so many details and instances in the show that represent how mental illness controls a person. Often Bojack and Diane have reiterated throughout the show that nothing is ever final and there is no ‘happy ending’ and you may think something in the future will make you happy but what happens once you get it? When Bojack asks Diane to tell him he’s a good person. When Bojack’s sister hears about what Bojack did to 2 high school going kids. The episode ‘Stupid Piece of Shit’ that single-handedly showed how your thoughts work and are constantly negative when you’re depressed and anxious and the negative thoughts overtake any goodness or happiness away. What a masterpiece of an episode. The entire show is based on a celebrity’s mental illness and is trying to show that even when a person has everything the society feels is enough to be happy (money, fame, friends, success), they can still have a mental illness.
By the end of the show, we see the two characters part ways because Diane realises their friendship is toxic. As Bojack realises he needs help and signs himself up in a rehab centre with Diane’s support, Diane realises she needs to get away as well. After that we see them meet sometimes but not often, not like they used to. Diane too starts taking her medication for depression and has the support of her boyfriend Guy all the while where Bojack is getting better at the rehab centre. Bojack pushes himself to get better because of what happened to Sarah Lynn, her thought keeps him determined throughout his time at the rehab. The two have already parted ways but they do not say goodbye until the very last episode.
We come to the last difference between Bojack and Diane which is an escape. Although we do see Diane escaping to Cordovia when her relationship gets a little tough, she tries to escape from her problems much less often than Bojack in the show. Bojack used 2 kinds of escape throughout, one was where he would travel to a faraway place like LA or Michigan and the other is suicide. In the most famous and probably most liked episode ‘The View From Halfway Down’ we see Bojack’s brain trying to give him some closure before he dies as he has jumped into the pool of his now ex house after reading a letter from his younger sister which probably said that she doesn’t want to be in contact with him anymore. Once again Bojack chooses the path of drugs, drinks and tries to escape through suicide and this is after rehab. This constant need to escape shows how mental illness makes you so weak mentally that you are never ready to face any problems. When dying his last conversation in his brain is with Diane where he asks her how her day went and she replies, “My day was good.” An attempt of his brain to give him happiness in his last moments. However, he survives and then he meets Diane where they finally part ways and tell each other goodbye. Diane says, “I think there are people in your life that help you become the person that you end up being. And you can be grateful for them even if they were never meant to be in your life forever.”
They both realise this is the end of their relationship. They may never talk again, Bojack even jokes about it. They have grown. They have both tried to fight their illness and Diane has succeeded, Bojack is still on his path to recovery. He did have some major issues and a pattern of substance abuse and escaping which made things worse for him. Bojack did not even get the support he needed once he was out of rehab however Diane did, she got Guy. The entire show gives you a character arc of these two characters who are very similar to each other and yet have different endings. Throughout the show we see them fight their battles, try to get better, relapse and then try to get better again. It shows you happiness is overrated and it shows you recovery is not a straight path. it shows you how twisted mental illness is and how hard it can be for a person to live with it, to fight it and to beat it.
Bojack Horseman represents mental illness like no other show and that is a reality.
by - Tanya Chandra
Graphic by - Brijesh Kumar