It’s the quality of so much sorrow held at the brink that attracted me to “BoJack Horseman.” It’s brilliant, at once both witty and belly-laugh silly, and often capable of being shockingly real.
There’s this song I love. My dad used to play it for me in his car after my parents divorced, after I was only ever in the car with one parent at a time for the rest of time. Lamont would whip down the Indianapolis streets in his run-down Kia sedan (a Lincoln, to me at eight) with a palpable aura hanging around his head, filling the car, something I could feel but couldn’t put words to. Freedom, maybe.
He would play this song, “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, when he felt it the most, whatever it was; I didn’t get any of the lyrics but somehow, I got the story enough. A girl, a young Tracy with shy eyes in my imagination, convinces a boy to run away with her to really live for the first time in their lives. They don’t have a single thing but they have each other, like the happily-ever-afters of all the most romantic stories. There is nothing like the rush of emotion that kicks in with the chorus. The drums and guitar feel like the wind on your face in a convertible merging onto the highway; Chapman’s voice makes the ride smooth. This, surely, is what life is meant to be: perfect.
It is. For a moment. A chorus. In Indianapolis, to me, learning how to start family over at eight, that was enough. Of course, the song is more than a chorus. It’s more than a verse of hope. I don’t know what my dad was thinking when he played this song, but on the verge of having to build a life he never wanted, it must not have been the hope of a beautiful happily ever after. There was more for him then in those guitar strums and Chapman’s sorrowful voice. He knew there was so much more to the story.
It’s this quality—the sense of so much sorrow held at the brink—that attracted me to BoJack Horseman. It’s brilliant, at once both witty and belly-laugh silly, and often capable of being shockingly real for an animated show about humans and anthropomorphized animals living together. But it’s a show that, above all else, knows how to be depressing. It makes sense: Where other shows make light of their otherwise depressing circumstances, BoJack leans into both the inherent humor and sadness of an alcoholic depressive washed-up ’90s sitcom star (Will Arnett) living on top of the world in Hollywoo. As one would expect, hijinks ensue.
It’s the ability to reach both the shallowest areas of humor and the existential depths of the soul that constitutes the show’s brilliance—not to mention incredible animation, writing, and voice performances by Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, and Paul F. Tompkins. But the episode of the show that most successfully unlocks the key to the tragedy driving BoJack (and its title character) at their cores is a departure from the typical brilliance of the series. No Princess Carolyn or Todd, no Hollywoo or Hollyhock (who is staying with BoJack in season 4 in order to find her mother). Instead, “Time’s Arrow” looks back, back to Beatrice Horseman (Wendie Malick).
“Time’s Arrow” works off of an earlier flashback in the season, “The Old Sugarman Place,” where we met Beatrice as a young girl, part of a happy, 1960s nuclear, politely sexist family. Her mother and brother, Crackerjack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), sing jaunts at a piano happily until Crackerjack is sent to war and, soon after, killed. Beatrice’s mother, distraught at the loss of the son she loved so much, is no longer the perfect lady her father (Matthew Broderick) married, so, naturally, he has her lobotomized. Her mother, a shell of her former self, is never a mother to Beatrice again, leaving her with only the advice to never love anything as much as she loved Crackerjack.
There’s some sympathy to be found here, but Beatrice’s bitter presence has, since the show’s first season, been the reason for BoJack and all his bad behavior—he does not hesitate to assert that his actions are his parents’ fault. One of the last things Beatrice did while staying in BoJack’s house was drug Hollyhock in an attempt to make her skinnier; much as with BoJack’s go-to excuse, we recognize that his mother’s traumatic past doesn’t excuse her life-threatening actions. So when “Time’s Arrow” opens with BoJack driving (speeding) Beatrice to a nursing home with no remorse, we, for once, kind of agree with him. Beatrice in this state is a danger to herself and those who share the household with her; a nursing home is probably the best place for her.
But the episode doesn’t stay on this cynical moment for too long; BoJack Horseman’s animation is designed by Lisa Hanawalt, and “Time’s Arrow” uses its animation to put us in Beatrice’s jumbled headspace. From a close-up of Beatrice, eyes blue and watery with cataracts and neck showing her age, the frame pans over to where we expect to see BoJack, instead revealing Henrietta, a girl with brown hair and a black scribble obscuring her face. We zoom back out to find Beatrice, eyes black now; she looks in the rearview mirror and, upon seeing the blue, breaks it. Suddenly, as she exits the car, she’s young again, surrounded by whiteness, nothingness. She’s young, innocent, and alone. Roll credits.
The animation of BoJack Horseman is distinctive, flat in a certain way, but with depth in the colors (shades and tones sometimes resemble watercolors) and the imagination bursting at the seams within the frame. The “D” in the Hollywood sign was stolen midway into season 1; for the rest of the series, the characters refer to their town as Hollywoo and the opening credits boast the famous view sans D. But even the movement of the sequence that so beautifully places us in Beatrice’s head marks a departure from the visual language of the show; immediately, we are reminded that Beatrice’s head is different terrain. We’ve known that Beatrice thinks that BoJack is someone named “Henrietta,” but to now visualize what that world looks like—to imagine that she is the protagonist in a vision of the world—changes the whole world we’ve come to know.
Beatrice’s memory is fuzzy, changes in places, and sometimes lurches forwards in time, often taking even her aback as she rides the waves of her memory. But only named and speaking characters within the frame are clear; the margins of her memory remain blurry, keeping us grounded in the unreliability of Beatrice’s vague vision. We see flashes of her early childhood, marked by schoolgirl bullying and the gentle teachings of her sexist father (Matthew Broderick’s gently goading voice perfectly taunts her as he encourages her to turn her brain off to education). She soon falls ill with scarlet fever and, with a pan to the fire, her memory picks back up the night of her debutante ball, where she is uninterested, exuding the energy of someone so ready to become someone. She speaks both like an Old Hollywood movie star and a nineteenth-century English professor—she’s so much more than this place, this event, these people. She’s ready, like Tracy, to find the fast car that will take her away to her happily ever after.
And, right on cue, enter Horseman Sr. (also played by Arnett). A sturdy gray horse with a broad white stripe down his nose, Butterscotch is an uninvited guest to the open bar at Beatrice’s debutante, but he quickly recognizes Beatrice’s lack of interest in the life being set out for her. They strike up a rapport, a cat-and-mouse game where Beatrice, though in the process of being wooed, is the cat in control of the wit of the conversation. But this moment is interrupted by a series of flashes to the past and present, reminding us that this moment—this beautiful moment where Beatrice feels so full a person—is just an oasis of memory; ultimately, all of this is an immovable domino in the series of events leading to the bitter future we know Beatrice comes to. While wittily discussing her life, young Beatrice suddenly visualizes her lobotomized mother, reminding her of the sexism that has so disrupted her life—and out of this memory, she returns to her current reality of her debutante ball, yet another example of the ways that sexism threatens to rule her life. But this isn’t the only thing that controls her life; as we zoom back out from this memory of her mother, we hear Arnett declare that he wants to leave his mother here forever—except now he’s BoJack, deciding where his mother will live out the rest of her days: alone, in the worst room of the nursing home with a view of the dumpster. She will end up alone.
She shakes herself from this moment, bringing her back to her debutante ball, where she is an easy best in show (as both a horse and a lady). Of course, as we knew she would, she escapes this—her own hell—with Butterscotch, ditching the party to enjoy the view from the backseat of his car. The next day, she goes for a walk in the park with the husband her father has arranged for her, the heir to the Creamerman fortune, as she is the heir to the Sugarman’s. For a moment, Beatrice Sugarman and Corbin Creamerman share a moment of genuine connection as the heirs of cold, 1960s parents. There’s a sliver of light in the future she’s spent all this time avoiding. But then, she pukes.
Butterscotch, in true BoJack style, gave Beatrice a fake phone number. She tracks him down to his home and informs him of their pregnancy; a momentary flash to the image of a wax doll melting in a fire informs her decision to keep the baby. But Butterscotch, surprisingly, is receptive—he spins a tale of a happy couple who move to LA and raise a child. She loves it. I love it. Tracy would love it. It’s perfect. And it’s meant to be because, as Butterscotch says, “isn’t that how the story goes?”1
And it is. But this isn’t that story. This is Beatrice and Butterscotch’s, Tracy’s, Lamont’s, mine, BoJack’s. Here’s how that story goes: Lamont moves to Indianapolis while Kim and Aliya move to Miami; Chapman’s man sees his friends at the bar more than his kids; Beatrice and Butterscotch are marred by working-class life, a kid, and the malaise of trying to achieve a picturesque American life. Beatrice takes pills that distort her reality until it becomes reality. She puts pressure on BoJack that he could never live up to and easily lets him know that he hasn’t been worth it.
Life settles in: the walls of Beatrice’s memory menacingly shake as Butterscotch comes home, complaining about how his work sucks though he refuses to take a job at Beatrice’s father’s company; Beatrice burnt dinner, again; their lives are regret. But when one day, Butterscotch decides to just take a Creamerman job, raising the family’s socioeconomic status, living up to Beatrice’s conceptions of her life, all she can say is “Oh.” With money, she becomes the housewife her mother was, though bitter. The next twenty years escape her in a haze of grumbles from Butterscotch, sending BoJack away, changing (improving) decor, and changing housekeepers. Finally, we arrive at something familiar: Henrietta. Still with black scribbles over her face, Henrietta politely shoulders Beatrice’s gripes as she cares for the house. When Butterscotch urges her to be nicer to Henrietta, Beatrice challenges him, teasing him about caring for the nanny. (It’s so unladylike a moment to make you wonder: Does she know something Butterscotch may not want her to know, something empowering her to act like this?)
Then we arrive at something else familiar: Beatrice and BoJack. BoJack, at this point in the height of his success as the star of Horsin’ Around, is clearly a product of the abusive, cold, and unloving household he grew up in; suddenly, it’s easy to view his apathy for the rest of the world as inevitable. In the ’90s version of Beatrice, we see all the things we know she is: sexist in her refusal to get a divorce and belief that no man would “have her now” as if marriage is a requirement; her rampant revisionist history in her veneration of her father as a good husband; resentment for BoJack for what he “did to her body” and her belief that all he does is “take”; and, of course, alcoholism.
Beatrice offers BoJack a painting that belonged to her father; BoJack expresses his discontent at having “something that always reminds [him] of this conversation,” and Beatrice pulls on her cigarette as her memory flashes to the things she too is unhappy to be forced to remember: in a moment of red and cigarette smoke, she sees her burning doll, her childhood home, a burning fire, her cigarette, her intense labor, her braindead mother, the fire, her cigarette, her memories of bullying. All of this, she exhales into the next memory.
We return to the Horseman living room, the location that holds what all the traumas of Beatrice’s life have led to. Butterscotch comes home to find Beatrice, here bitter and bullying as ever, and begs her to talk to Henrietta—she’s gotten herself pregnant. Beatrice knows the story, immediately tossing a “she got herself pregnant, has she?” back at him. They get into a spat—clearly familiar to them and familiar to us from our interactions with BoJack, where everything is a spat, an argument, a problem—but there’s something more resigned about Butterscotch in this fight. Beatrice hurls insults at him, he grumbles and half blames her, she provokes him, he folds: “Do you think I want to come here hat in hand begging for your help?” (Beatrice’s memory flashes, his hand suddenly moves from his side to hold a hat by his waist.)
Behind this scene of a family destroyed from the inside, Beatrice’s memory projects a mix of her two families in the large portrait frame: her happy family from childhood before Crackerjack’s death and her current family that will never live up, the one she chose to be stuck with and now can’t get away from. These images meld and switch focus throughout the scene, reminding us of all that led Beatrice to this unsavory moment. As Butterscotch asks her to “just think of the poor girl,” the frame centers on Beatrice with the portrait over her shoulder showing a young BoJack overlapping with a young Beatrice, two figures she pities, resents, and wants the best for. All she can say is “oh God,” perhaps her only moment of witless conversation with her husband.
The scene changes suddenly to the kitchen, a new space in this grand house, Henrietta’s realm. Beatrice and Henrietta sit across from each other, Henrietta’s face still scribbled over, Beatrice unforgiving as she fires her. Henrietta begs for her job, tells Beatrice that she thought Butterscotch meant something to her (“he told you you reminded him of his dead mother, didn’t he?” Beatrice says), shows Beatrice the ultrasound of her baby girl horse. Beatrice remains steady, asserting that they will pay for her education but she will give the baby up for adoption. Even with the black scribble over her face, the disgust from Henrietta is palpable as she says “no”—she had not even considered this abhorrent option for her child.
Suddenly the dam cracks; Beatrice reaches for Henrietta with concern and her voice, urging her to listen to her advice rather than end up as she did. Give the baby up for adoption, get your education—be so much more than this, than him. It’s insanely hard love, but it is love: she grips Henrietta’s hand at her labor in an empowering sequence that cuts between this, Beatrice’s own labor alone, (and… her childhood, in her bedroom where she sleeps as housekeepers collect her stuff, her baby doll). Henrietta has a successful labor, Beatrice gives birth to BoJack (and Butterscotch rushes into frame, apparently only now ready to be present)—babies have been brought into the world and all should be well.
In the past, young Beatrice wakes up without her doll and rushes to grab her. Like Henrietta, like herself in a decade, she finds her baby. All is well—but the picture shifts. It becomes red, illuminated by the fire, no doubt blown out of proportion in Beatrice’s adolescent memory. Housekeepers with black scribbles over their faces carelessly toss her belongings into the fire as she cries for them to stop. Her father comes into frame and tells her that it all has to go—her scarlet fever has infected it all—even the doll.
We’re suddenly back in the hospital room as Beatrice, now a woman, holds Henrietta’s baby telling her that the hard part is over. She begins to walk away as Henrietta cries, begging to hold her baby. Beatrice, cold once again, tells her no—she’ll get attached. Back in the past, Beatrice’s father easily tosses her doll—her baby—into the fire; she cries as the wax melts off its face, finally offering some context to the image that has haunted both “Time’s Arrow” and Beatrice; this, we come to understand as the frame fills with red, is Beatrice’s Rosebud, the sled she wishes she could unburn to regain her innocence. Beatrice walks away from Henrietta without looking back, without even acknowledging her whimpering cries. The two—Henrietta and young Beatrice—let out a blood-curdling scream, the scream of a mother losing herself, as the black scribble engulfs the frame, connecting the two memories and showing us what we have certainly come to expect—the blocking out that Beatrice’s dementia-addled psyche does to Henrietta’s face has been fixed in Beatrice’s mind since childhood.
As Beatrice cries, her father reminds her not to let her emotions get the better of her like her mother, a mother whose son was taken from her and she lost herself. “I promise,” Matthew Broderick’s almost teasingly calm voice says, “one day, this will all be a pleasant memory.” Of course, the irony is obvious—painfully so; this is a memory. The young Beatrice illuminated by the fire fades into the old Beatrice, watery-eyed and wheelchair-bound as BoJack leaves her.
Beatrice is everything she has always been. She’s a perfect 1960s “lady” complete with sexism, a neglectful and bitter mother à la Livia Soprano, a shell of who she was (and a household danger) due to her dementia and, above all, a large reason for the menace to society that now BoJack Horseman has become. But she’s also more now: she’s someone who was more. She was deeply traumatized early in her life and grew forever chasing the happiness of her childhood, the happiness she had long grown far too bitter to ever truly achieve. She was a victim of her circumstances: the sexism of her mother’s lobotomy, the sexism that ruled her life through her debutante ball, and then the trauma caused by that sexism that led her to keep an accidental pregnancy, sealing her fate.
But there is no forgetting that she is the woman who told BoJack that he was ruined and always would be. She’s the one who told BoJack that he wasn’t worth ruining her life and body. She’s the one who, at the height of BoJack’s success, would visit him to complain about her marriage, refuse to get a divorce, and tell BoJack that she’s disappointed in him. She’s the one who, just last episode, drugged Hollyhock with diet pills. In “Time’s Arrow,” we get a blueprint for how to view this complex figure, someone who parallels BoJack in most every way: she’s both sympathetic and awful. She doesn’t deserve her fate and absolutely should be placed in a home. She’s a horse but, in a way that only BoJack could achieve in twenty-six minutes—she’s so undeniably human.
There’s one more beat in this episode. I love everything about this episode of BoJack (and it’s not even my favorite! See: Beatrice’s death, “Free Churro”): the way it completely changes our view of a character we’ve hated since day one, the way it uses animation to mimic the traumatized mind’s unpredictable movements, the way it is a death march (to a nursing home), a character seeing their life flash before their eyes. It’s all perfect, but its final moments are particularly exquisite, a class above the excellence of the rest.
As BoJack turns to leave Beatrice for the last time—the thing he has been waiting to do, no doubt, since childhood—she recognizes him. Her voice, a commanding presence throughout this episode, wavers a little here: “BoJack?” It’s a question. She’s unsure of everything: who this is, where she is, what’s happening to her. She’s just a scared old lady. Even worse, she’s just a scared little girl.
BoJack could leave. This is just another moment she’ll forget when she wakes up tomorrow. He probably will leave; he has shown us time and time again that he will do what he will do. But something makes him stay. He stays at first, only to get frustrated. Beatrice asks him repeatedly where she is, he tries to get half a word in, she interrupts him as usual. (For the first time, all my sympathies lay with her within this conversation. For the first time, I thought BoJack should try harder with her.) And for the first time, he does. He pauses, takes a breath, and before trying again to insist that this is where she will live, he indulges her; he makes her a little girl again.
He tells her she’s in Michigan, at the lake house. She buys it. He reaches for more: it’s a warm summer night, the fireflies are dancing, and her whole family is there telling her everything is alright. She sees it. He sits on her bed. She asks him what else. “The crickets are chirping and the lake is still and the night is full of stars.” She asks him “what are we doing here, BoJack?” She’s with him: BoJack. “We’re listening to your brother play piano and eating ice cream. Vanilla ice cream.” This is heaven: a place with Crackerjack, BoJack, and ice cream with no worries of being too fat to be a lady. This is heaven. She feels it, it’s all so marvelous. He asks “can you taste the ice cream, Mom?” She can. “Ah BoJack, it’s so . . .” she breathes in “. . . delicious.” A small moment in this drab room with a view of dumpsters. Peace. Cut to black.
Oh and then there’s a twist! As if this episode wasn’t already good enough, it also contains a major plot reveal for the show. That baby that Henrietta had? That’s Hollyhock; she’s not BoJack’s daughter! The show respects its viewers enough to include it so organically you might miss it until BoJack spells it all out in the next episode, “What Time is it Right Now?” But it’s here in “Time’s Arrow,” if you’re not too absorbed in the tragedy of Beatrice’s story to put it all in the perspective of what it means for BoJack.
It’s there, but it’s not what the episode is about. The episode is ultimately about getting to that moment of peace, giving that to Beatrice. Time’s arrow only marches forward and a fast car never slows down, but for the unlucky no truth is true enough; time’s arrow goes forward and back and jumps and skips and somehow always manages to keep you rooted to one place that even the fastest car can’t ever speed away from: the moment of trauma, the moment you allow, however subconscious, to form you.
The tragedy and mistake of Beatrice is all contained in one episode. She couldn’t learn from her own mistakes enough to truly save Henrietta, Hollyhock, BoJack, or herself. She stopped one cycle (rampant sexism) and perpetuated a new one (trauma (and polite sexism)). That’s the thing about trauma: even if you survive it—and that’s hard enough—it’s even harder to escape it and harder still for the next generation. But in BoJack (or, more likely, Hollyhock) and through BoJack there’s a chance—a tiny one—for this line of horses to dig their way out.