The Best Writing Is About Change
BoJack Horseman has finally ended. What did it teach us? What can writers take out of that?
So this is it. We’re done with that mess that was the life of BoJack Horseman. God, what a ride.
Was it perfect? Nah. Was it good? Definitely. I’ve been dreading an awful series finale for a while (especially after what happened with Game of Thrones and God-knows-how-many-other-shows), and I truly feared BoJack would be no different. Rushed. Shallow. Utterly disappointing.
Except it wasn’t. BoJack Horseman went out with a bang, and the finale felt as powerful as one could expect from the rest of the series. Nihilism, cynicism and life-saving realisations all came together in the last season, as BoJack’s life crumbled under the weight of his own mistakes.
BoJack Horseman deals with connections on a deep human level. It isn’t the average animated comedy TV show, nor its characters can be easily emulated. Which is why so many loved it.
But because I am a writer and I’ve just recently finished Into the Woods (by UK screenwriter John Yorke), I couldn’t help but over-analyse BoJack’s journey and the overall writing of the whole series, to understand why the finale felt so good and compelling.
Why was BoJack Horseman’s ending so good?
Because the entirety of BoJack Horseman is about change.
BoJack’s First Episodes: Establishing a Problem
BH: It’s hard to imagine you in Houston.
DN: Oh, I’m like a totally different person now.
BH: Are you?
DN: No… Yes? I wear fewer jackets. I smile more. Sometimes I look back at my LA years and I think, ‘Who was that person?’
We all sit down and look back to a time when we were different. The sheer fact we’ve changed proves that we needed it to begin with. Perhaps we could not feel at ease with ourselves; perhaps we could not feel at ease with other people.
But the thing is we liked it that way. We thought it was easier (and hell if it was) to keep moving forward just as we were, without investing in our own selves. And so, we just remained in the backseat of our lives.
That’s BoJack in Season 1. A rich prick, a Hollywoo star one step away from his personal Sunset Boulevard — and he’s perfectly fine with that. He spends most of his days in self-loathing, afraid to face the world and the cruelty of real life out there.
Because that would mean growing up.
And we all fear growing up.
BoJack is a child in the shoes of an adult. He’s a threat to himself and to others, and part of him knows it too. But rather than facing such illness to find a cure, he prefers to complain and drink all day, to forget traumas he’s not even aware of.
This is the setup of BoJack’s entire story. The first seasons work to establish BoJack’s character and the surrounding cast, which will be key to the protagonist’s growth in the following seasons. As the story unfolds, so does the personality of our cast of main characters, who all happen to have clear desires, flaws, issues with themselves and the world.
BoJack’s world is, in itself indeed, a flawed world. Show business and aggressive capitalism bring the worst side of people to life, which seems to be one constant argument of the show.
And through those flaws, our characters will be reborn.
Meeting Opposites: BoJack’s Mid-Point
BH: You ever… ‘miss’ the mess?
DN: No… ‘miss’ is the wrong word.
Because, one day, we all realise there’s something wrong with us. No matter how much we may love ourselves, there’s always something we’d like to change. But we tend to ignore that little voice inside our heads, for a while. We ignore it, until the voice turns into a scream and the scream tears through the walls of our brain.
We’ve hurt somebody we really cared about. We find ourselves alone. We thought others were the cause of our own suffering, except that we were the problem all along. Our own selfishness, our own way of seeing things, our way of studying and watching and judging people all around us. Suddenly, we feel incomplete.
I think that’s what happened with BoJack and Sarah Lynn. That’s what happened with Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn and Judah, and BoJack’s family in general. They all realise something’s wrong, at some point, or they help BoJack with his own realisation.
All of a sudden, BoJack comes to the conclusion that his behaviours are causing trouble and hurt to the people he loves. From Sarah Lynn to Penny and Charlotte, from Diane to Gina, everybody gradually walks away from him. Because they know they could end up way worse than just hurt.
In his subconscious, BoJack starts to develop his desire to aspire to something else, something better. He starts to wish for change to happen, yet he is still too weak and attached to his former self for that resolution to happen. BoJack is missing a big piece. And there’s no churro funeral that can provide that, no further trauma that can make him whole yet.
He does not have the strength to embrace his opposite, let go of his fears, face the consequences of his actions and stop running away from his responsibilities. He needs to change. But he does not know how.
That’s what the best kind of writing is all about. It’s about recognising what change is needed, and that one long, arduous and damn difficult conflict needs to happen within ourselves, so that we can reach our own resolution.
You name it: Finding Nemo, Pulp Fiction, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, even the most classical tales in Greek mythology and fairytales in general all have something to do with change.
That’s why we empathise with those stories on such a deep level. Change is part of life. It is the most compelling aspect of our human nature (or one of them). And we can’t help but chase it all the way, until we finally achieve it.
But before we do, we need to make a tough choice. Just like BoJack.
BoJack’s Finale: The Resolution
BH: Does she ever come back, that Diane?
DN: Sometimes. I felt her when I got back to LA. I feel her now, that I’m talking to you.
BH: But it’s not you?
DN: I mean, it’s all me. I’d love to say ‘No, she’s gone forever.’ But I was terrified of coming back here for the wedding. Seeing Mr. Peanutbutter, seeing you.
At last, BoJack realises he needs to act. As he witnesses his world getting crushed beneath his feet, BoJack begins to accept his responsibilities. But that is not enough; he must also understand that the past cannot be forgotten. He may be a different person now, but he still has to deal with the consequences of his most awful choices.
All the series needs is to introduce a couple of symbolic antagonists, Max and Paige Sinclair, who aren’t but a couple of passionate and vicious reporters being — well, as passionate and vicious as reporters can be. However, nothing truly matters in BoJack Horseman, and the reporters vanish from our protagonist’s life as soon as the plot requires so. Because antagonists do not exist in real life; there are only bad choices and their scary consequences.
It is only when reaching the bottom that you can start digging back up, and BoJack most definitely reaches the very bottom of his existence in that magnificent Episode 15 of the last season. The series may as well have ended right there, with that cryptic ECG against the iconic wall of credits. And yet, it didn’t; because BoJack hadn’t found his peace, he did not deserve to die there. His story was not complete. It still had one last line.
The story needed to show us if and how BoJack had changed. And we find out. He does not run into trouble anymore, he is paying his due in prison, he is a different person (or horse), this time for real. Although some people are gone from his life, a lot have chosen to stick around. Because that’s life; sometimes, people just disappear. All you can do is accept it, and move forward.
Yet, two different BoJack natures co-exist. Though he will probably walk away from prison as a new person, BoJack is still, substantially, the same BoJack. Only this time, he has learnt to embrace his opposite, understand his past, and start anew with sincere selflessness.
‘Change’ isn’t always for better or for worse. Sometimes, change is just change — nothing more, nothing less. A result of two different parts of ourselves, merging to co-exist in a new being; a resolution of our inner conflicts.
We all strive to resolve conflicts in our lives, and most are as simple as they can be. A friend with a problem is just as important to us as nailing that job interview or getting that degree. Because conflicts are fuel for change, and change is the perfect fuel for compelling writing.
BoJack’s amazing finale just works, because it is about change through conflict. Conflict brought by people and relationships. And it argues that our love for people, and the battles we fight with them, are what makes us better in the first place. And writing is all about conflict, isn’t it?
This is why I’ll miss BoJack. Because while that weird horse on screen changed, I changed with him.
“I think there are people 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.” — Diane Nguyen