The Philosophy of BoJack Horseman – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of BoJack Horseman, exploring the dark existential undertones of this seemingly light-hearted cartoon. Behind the colorful animations and snarky one-liners is a show that’s astonishingly deep – a series that ponders important philosophical questions about living life in a meaningless universe. From Pascal to Sartre, we’ll dive into the thinkers and philosophies that are foundational to the show’s underlying message.
Written by: Charlie Caplan
Narrated and Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of BoJack Horseman
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here, and today we’re talking about The happiest character on television “BoJack Horseman”. With its colorful animation, talking animals, and Hollywood glamour, BoJack might look like your typical happy-go-lucky cartoon, but this is far from the case. The show’s light hearted veneer hides a dark and downright depressing reality, which is fitting given its focus on the disillusionment that inevitably comes when you look beneath the surface. Bojack reveals the ugly, narcissistic reality that lies behind the dazzling façade of Hollywoo: from Mr. Peanutbutter’s feigned interest, to studio executives only focused on money, to meaningless award ceremonies that only reward those with established names. In other words: “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.”
But the show goes far deeper. Hollywoo could be considered a metaphor for existence in general. Just like the facade of Hollywoo covers up the reality of an ugly, hollow industry, the trappings of our daily lives cover up the meaninglessness of existence itself. This idea, known as “Existential Nihilism,” is foundational to “BoJack Horseman.” If life is truly meaningless, then how are we supposed to deal with it? Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of “BoJack Horseman.” What does it know? Does it know things?? Let’s find out!
A key way to cope with the anguish of a meaningless world is to simply distract yourself. Princess Carolyn persistently distracts herself with her job and her compulsive need to fix the lives of those she cares about. Despite complaining about work dominating her life, she can’t actually handle the free time that comes without it. When her agency folds, she finally has time for the relationship she always wanted, but still finds a way to get right back to the Hollywoo grindstone. Todd, BoJack’s best friend and perpetual mooch, is happy as long as he has something to do. The one time we do see Todd without anything to do, he immediately starts to spiral into existential despair before finding something to take his mind off of it. Todd may not have much direction or common sense, but he manages to keep himself busy: He composes a space opera, builds his own Disneyland, and starts a number of businesses.
Similarly, Mr. Peanutbutter spends his life in a state of distraction. Though he may seem like a moron, Mr. Peanutbutter is more self aware than most. And then there’s BoJack. Bojack’s whole life is a series of distractions, eating muffins, getting wasted, sleeping with random women, or watching old episodes of Horsin Around. The way BoJack spends his days is so trivial that the show often makes a joke of not showing us what he’s doing half the time. In fact, BoJack himself can’t even keep track of how he spends his time.
In the years since Horsin Around, BoJack has been able to drift through life in a near constant state of distraction. But in the first episode, BJ has a “mild anxiety attack” that sends him to the hospital. The doctor tells him he needs to take it easier. The show asks a question commonly directed at celebrities – They have everything, so how can they not be happy? This question was addressed by 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal, who is considered by many to be a precursor to the Existentialists. For Pascal,when given too much time to think, humans will eventually contemplate their own insignificance, which inevitably bums them out. Or as Pascal puts it:
“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.” (Pensees 139)
For Pascal, humans have a natural psychological defense mechanism that keeps these thoughts at bay: We’re really easily distracted. And when we’re distracted, we stop thinking about our existence and can be, if not happy, at least functional. Pascal directly addressed the unhappy celebrity question, though he used kings instead of movie stars:
“Yet, when we imagine a king attended with every pleasure he can feel, if he be without diversion and be left to consider and reflect on what he is, this feeble happiness will not sustain him.” (Pensees 139)
Like a king, BoJack has no serious struggle to occupy his life. Instead, he has to spend all of his time trying to distract himself so that he never has to think about the reality of his situation. Although he succeeds in doing this for years, the whole charade comes crashing down when he reads Diane’s book, “One Trick Pony.” In the book, BoJack sees an honest reflection of himself, warts and all. He is forced to face all the things he really is and isn’t, and to confront the extent of his self-deception. So what should BoJack do now that his distraction has crumbled ? For Pascal, once you’ve passed the critical point where diversion will no longer sustain you, the only recourse is to turn to God.
But for BoJack this isn’t an option. It seems that Hollywoo is a post-God-Is-Dead world. In the Christmas Special, the show uses Santa Claus as a stand-in to discuss the non-existence of God:
“He’s a lie that grown ups made up because we like to believe that there’s an order to the universe and good behavior will lead to happiness but the fact is that just isn’t true.”
But if there’s no God, where are we supposed to turn? For BoJack, the first choice is right back to distraction. However, the show provides two separate case studies of what happens when you try to force distraction after the illusion has been broken, and neither ends well. First, Secretariat gives a young BoJack advice that basically amounts to “Don’t Think About It.” But once he’s disqualified from racing and can no longer keep the thoughts at bay…
The second case is Sarah Lynn. BoJack drags Sarah Lynn on a months long bender that only ends when she OD’s on, well, BoJack (the heroin, not the horse). Looking back on it, that might have been a bit on the nose. If trying to reclaim his distracted state is doomed to end in tragedy, what other options does BoJack have? From the beginning, BoJack rejects responsibility: “I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be reponsible for my own breakfast.”
He wants to escape the realities of his own terrible life choices. BoJack is afraid of what 20th Century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called “radical freedom,” which was a major focus of his philosophy Existentialism. If Existentialism had a catchphrase, it would be: “Existence Precedes Essence.” An object’s essence, for Sartre, can be thought of as its purpose. If I make a hammer, I create it with a particular purpose in mind, i.e. hammering, so we would say that the the hammer’s essence preceded its existence. For a Christian, a human is like a hammer – a tool created by God with a purpose in mind. But for an Existential Nihilist, humans, and horsemen, exist just because. Unlike a hammer, or a Gentle Farms chicken, there’s no purpose underlying BoJack’s existence and nothing he is meant to do.
There is nothing stopping BoJack from stealing the D from the Hollywood sign or doing three months worth of drugs, and on the flip side, nothing forcing him to do those things either. BoJack has total control over every choice he makes. This is what Sartre meant by “Radical Freedom,” and it is definitely not supposed to be comforting:
“That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” (Sartre, EiaH)
Or, as Diane and BJ put it: “That’s the thing, I don’t think I believe in a deep down. I kind of think that all you are are just the things that you do.” There is no “good BoJack” deep down. There is only the one BoJack, and he is entirely defined by the choices he has made so far. Or, as Todd puts it to BoJack at the end of season 3: “You are all the things that are wrong with you.” While this might not seem too comforting, it does offer BoJack one bit of hope: Yes, BoJack is defined by the choices he has made so far, but he is not “doomed to be the person in that book” forever. He has the freedom to change his actions and himself. But it’s entirely up to him to do so.
The show provides an optimistic take on Sartre by using water as a metaphor for BoJack’s Radical Freedom: BoJack often finds himself overwhelmed by water. But at the end of the underwater episode in Season 3, after falling from the ledge of the taffy factory, BoJack finally recognizes the water for what it is – not an overwhelming and scary force, but instead a medium of incredible opportunity. When Mr. Peanutbutter’s brother gets sick, he goes through his own existential crisis: “Come to work, clock in, you put sugar in your coffee, and watch it slowly disappear into nothingness, but the sugar doesn’t know why – the sugar didn’t ask to be born.” But Mr. Peanutbutter doesn’t suffer through it for very long.
BoJack gets similar advice from his old writing partner and Harvard alum, Cuddly Whiskers, who abandoned his Hollywoo life and is finally able to find happiness. Mr. Peanutbutter’s and Cuddly Whisker’s paths to happiness after or even because of the realization of nihilism invokes the 20th century French thinker Albert Camus and his philosophy of Absurdism. For Camus, the universe is irrational and meaningless, and yet humans are desperate to find reason and meaning in it, and he called this discrepancy “The Absurd”. Once you become aware of “The Absurd”, you only have three choices: Return to the cycle of daily life and don’t think about it, commit suicide, or, his preferred option, Rebellion, i.e., accept the absurd and bne happy anyways, because screw the universe for thinking it can control how you feel.
Camus illustrates these ideas in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, about a man who is doomed to push a rock up a hill each day, only to watch it roll back down again. Sisyphus becomes Camus’s Absurd Hero when he recognizes the absurdity of his task, but decides to be happy in spite of it. The show directly references The Myth of Sisyphus. There’s also a recurring symbol of the Baboon jogging up the hill outside BoJack’s house. Every day, he’s running up that same hill. At the end of Season Three, BoJack comes face to face with the meaningless loop of his life in the young actress from “Ethan Around”. Describing the realization of the cycle, Camus says:
“It happens that the stage set collapses.… At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: Suicide or recovery.”
Just as Camus describes, BJ runs out of the stage set and begins to drive into nowhere. Driving has repeatedly served as a way for BoJack to try to escape the absurd – maybe his own take on Secretariats advice to “run and don’t look back.” But when he releases the steering wheel, BoJack gives in, submitting himself to suicide. However, when he sees the Wild Horses, they represent for him the alternative: Embrace the absurd, carry out your meaningless task, and be happy in spite of it. They may be seen as absurd heroes, a group of horses who have embraced running purely for its own sake. Like Sisyphus, they run, carry out the meaningless task, and are happy anyway. BoJack has proven himself willing to give everything up, maybe he is ready to follow Cuddly Whisker’s advice, and can finally start to become happy.
The show does offer one possible solution to BoJack’s struggle for meaning: Family. When you pay attention to the all the times BoJack watches “Horsin Around,” the scenes all revolve around the in-show family. During the first big bender, he has a vision of himself as a simple family man. BoJack’s attempt to sleep with Penny at the end of Season 2 illustrates how desperate he is to start over and choose the domestic life he could have had with Charlotte. The Wild Horses may represent more than just the absurd hero – they may also represent the herd and a sense of belonging that BoJack lacks. And with the teaser at the end of season three, it seems the show is preparing to explore this theme of family much more directly. Though I hope it works out for him, something tells me that even family won’t be able to fill the void.
Thanks enough from me – I gotta run. Time to go back to staring into the abyss. Peace!