The 2000s and 2010s were the time of the male anti-hero in television. There are a multitude of famous television shows about complex men who compulsively hurt the women around them (think “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “The Sopranos”). It’s a theme that feeds into a long-standing tradition of romanticizing emotional labor and convincing socialized-female adolescents that they should take care of men. They are taught to bury their own needs and focus instead on “fixing” a man, and to excuse hurtful or even abusive behavior in their partners. Even media that is billed as female-oriented often romanticizes borderline-abusive male romantic leads (Big in “Sex and the City,” Adam in “Girls,” and, of course, Christian Grey in “Fifty Shades”).
It’s a trope with real consequences. Media cannot be dismissed as irrelevant when looking at how we train children and teenagers to perceive romance and love. Women and AFAB individuals are socialized to take care of men, while men are socialized to express their emotional baggage through aggression and repression. I’ve spoken to many of my friends about our own experiences with this dynamic, and times that we have excused hurtful or even abusive behavior. For years, I mistakenly associated romantic intensity with negative feelings and difficult emotional labor.
Which is perhaps why I always related to the female leads in Bojack Horseman, and why I loved how they chose to end the show [warning: spoilers ahead]. Bojack is a washed-up actor with depression, addiction, and childhood trauma, who continually self-destructs in ways that destroy those around him. He commits increasingly atrocious, unforgivable acts, especially towards women, and the last season attempts to reckon with how the series can hold its title character accountable.
Critics have had varying responses. Personally, I think the writers did a good, and realistic, job. Bojack’s privilege as a rich and famous “Hollywoo” actor protects him from some of the serious consequences of his actions: he receives a short prison sentence with time off for his friend’s wedding, and the possibility of a continued career based on the popularity of a movie he makes with a reprehensible celebrity. His potentially successful future echoes the reality of men whose careers bounce back, and the degree to which we as a society are ready to accept on-screen apologies as exoneration.
However, in a more personal sense, Bojack is not off the hook. His relationships with the women in his life are permanently damaged. His last bender is fueled by a letter from his half-sister, assumedly cutting him out of her life forever.
The last episode revolves around Princess Carolyn’s wedding. Bojack admits that he thought Princess Carolyn would never marry because he had wasted so much of her time. He tells her about a fantasy he had of her having cold feet, mimicking the tropes of many romantic works in which women choose the toxic man she “truly loves” over the one who treats her well. Yet, in this story, Princess Carolyn gets happily married to someone else, and gently shuts down Bojack’s allusion to rehiring her as his agent.
The very last scene takes place on the roof with Bojack and Diane. Bojack spends much of the series searching for absolution from Diane, his ghost-writer-turned-friend. In the first season, after she publishes a true (and damning) account of him, he attends her panel at a ghost-writing convention and begs her repeatedly to “Tell me that I’m good.” The episode ends with her silence.
Even in the last few episodes, Bojack reveals that he has always used Diane as his life line. He calls her before jumping, high and drunk, into a pool, asking her to save him.
In this final scene, she asks him why he called her. She tells him she wishes she could have been the person who would save him. When he replies that that wasn’t her job, she responds: “Then why did you always make me feel like it was?” She expresses that she felt guilty for moving away, for being happy in her new life as a Chicago-based fiction writer, for not being available to save him from himself.
There’s a moment in which we think she ruined her life because of him. It’s the story we expect, one that maybe even ends with them together at last, the woman giving up her happy new life to take care of the eponymous character, who has, of course, always loved her, as much as he’s able. Then she tells him that instead, she moved again, began to trust and got married.
In the final episode, Bojack returns to his old world just long enough to realize that everyone has grown past him. There are many characters whose lives were permanently altered, or even ended, because of Bojack’s actions, and the show does not shy away from that reality, or let Bojack stop reminding himself of it. I don’t know if they gave him a worthy punishment, but I think they gave him a realistic one, and I am grateful that they allowed the two main female characters to be happy. Diane and Princess Carolyn could have both been love-struck by Bojack and pulled into the typical plotline that favors the destructive man’s needs over the woman’s fulfillment; but, instead, they both get to have their own lives. They are not held responsible for Bojack’s happiness, and instead are allowed to find their own.
Carrie Mannino | firstname.lastname@example.org