We’re gonna do things a little differently. I tried and struggled to write a full season review and everything sounded kind of hollow. So I’m gonna do deep down what I want to do and write a review of two episodes. This is going to be Episode 2 and Episode 11 of this season, the ones that most heavily feature the storyline revolving around Beatrice (Wendie Malick), Bojack’s mother, and her slide into dementia.
Let me just go ahead and endorse every other aspect of this show. This season is wickedly funny, emotionally brilliant, and one of the best pieces of animation running on television right now. But for now, we’re going to focus on the most striking part of it.
When are you doomed?
Perhaps more precisely, when can you never go back? When have the circumstances of your birth and decisions made that you never had a hand in kept you from ever being what you want to be?
It’s easy to say that we never are. That we are the masters of our own fates and there’s no point where the sins of the father are insurmountable. But how often is that true? Deep down, there’s some imprint on us that we’ll never really understand and that we can only hope won’t fuck us up too deeply.
And now we bring in the funny talking animal cartoon about Horse Bob Saget.
I don’t mean to be flippant to Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s creation, but there’s a part of me that will never not be amused that a show that started so ridiculously has become so deeply wounding and identifiable. Five episodes of animal puns before it took a quick dive into one celebrity horse and his desperate desire to be a good person and quit making the same mistakes.
All while still making the same animal puns and wacky schemes and generally being willing to indulge in parody just as often.
That’s not what we’re gonna end up focusing on here. We’re going to specifically focus on season 4’s richest dramatic vein on the two episodes that center around it. That would be the story of Beatrice (Wendy Malick), Bojack’s (Will Arnett) mother, and the history she can barely remember.
Beatrice has always been something of a background character, the sort of figure there to give a very basic explanation. “Oh, that’s why he is the way he is.” Her denial of affection there to basically make it clear that Bojack is just seeking some kind of love or connection in anyway. A stock that normally wouldn’t be filled out.
Bojack’s secret weapon this season is understanding that people aren’t just their stock. To understand the nuance lying at the core of despair, you have to get into the roots. In other words, for Bojack Horseman, it’s not simply enough to understand that Beatrice denied affection. It’s understanding why she decided to deny it, why she never felt it herself.
We get the first inklings in episode 2. Bojack escapes from LA to the family home in Michigan that he used to spend summers in. The house, falling apart, seems to have a memory that lets us peek into the past.
Beatrice comes from the Sugarman family, wealthy owners of a sugarcube company headed by Joseph Sugarman (Matthew Broderick). Honey (Jane Krakowski), her mother, keeps a tight ship as her brother Crackerjack (Lin Manuel-Miranda) is about to go off to war. It’s as idyllic a 40s life as you could imagine. Sure Joseph is a little backwards, but who wasn’t?
And then Crackerjack is killed in war. Honey loses her oldest son and loses her grip. We see flashes. As Bojack breaks down reliving his personal tragedy, Honey is living hers. Any attempt to make it better, any attempt to rewrite what happened. Honey goes wild in public and crashes a car. Joseph has her lobotomized, as one would do at the time. The fiery, sassy woman is gone, replaced with a zombie.
It’s almost worse than losing your parent. At least when they die, they’re gone. For a parent to be there, but to be a shell? It’s like being reminded every day that they’re not there.
There’s some really brilliant animation work here connecting the timelines. The show blurs the lines between them, allowing for something that almost appears to be interaction, connecting that past to the present and helping the understanding of how these things reverberate.
The next time we see young Beatrice, in episode 11, it’s through the dementia-riddled recollections of her older self. Disconnected from reality, she seems to try desperately to recall her life, most of the faces blurred, some forcibly removed from her thoughts. The narrative is there, but the associations are more powerful, pulling her through her life.
She’s a young girl, sick with scarlet fever. She’s a young woman, finally debuting at her ball when a roguish young horse sweeps her off her feet and gives her a son. She’s moved to San Francisco, barely able to take care of her child. She’s older now, her husband finally quitting his dream and giving her what she wants, some semblance of stability. No love, all of her dreams out the window for mistakes made and pain inflicted on people who can’t understand it. Betrayal by her husband and the hope that someone else won’t do what she did. A flashback to her father taking everything and holding the spectre of her mother over her.
The show draws these connections to weave the tapestry. She’s the withholding mother, yes. But she withholds because the decisions that were made for her took everything from her. The love of her mother taken by some far away war. Her father is a product of the times which made everything he did acceptable. Her dreams taken by some one night fling. Even her marriage’s sanctity taken by another. She may have done unforgivable things, but did she ever really have a chance to feel the love she needed? Did Bojack? Was that family doomed from the moment Crackerjack went off to war?
The brilliance of Bojack Horseman lies in a lot of things. But chiefly, it lies in a storyline like this, that understand why people do the things they do, why the decisions they make stick and reverberate through lives and generations. That try as we might, the traumas of our parents will be ours and will be our childrens, even if we never understand why. People are bad, but people are broken just as often.
That’s why the final moment of episode 11 is so important. Beatrice gets a moment of lucidity, realizing that Bojack is with her. She asks where she is and rather than getting the tell-off he wanted, Bojack simply offers her one final comforting delusion.
She’s back home. With all her family. In the house she was in before everything went wrong. And everything is okay. Bojack hates her, but he can’t give her that pain, because in the end she was just as doomed as he is.