‘BoJack Horseman’ Brilliantly Portrays Generational Pain in a Flash to the Past

bojack-times-arrow‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.

“I promise, one day this will all be a pleasant memory.”

BoJack Horseman not only tackles some very heavy issues for a show about an animated horse, but it’s also no stranger to experimenting stylistically and delivering a number of atypical, ambitiously structured installments. Last season took some big swings by delivering a silent episode and another entry told entirely through non-linear drug blackouts, but this season arguably goes for its most mature idea yet. It’s an episode about old age ripping your memories away from you and leaving you in a bleak delusion.

BoJack Horseman’s fourth season is all about BoJack confronting his past—both figuratively and literally—with the horse both attempting to come to terms with it, as well as understanding that this generational cycle of abuse is not his fault. At least not entirely. In that sense, this season is not just about BoJack, but the whole Horseman and Sugarman lineage, with the episode “Time’s Arrow” really being the crystallization of all of this.

“Time’s Arrow” centers around Beatrice Horseman (née Sugarman), BoJack’s mother, who up until this season has only been a fleeting presence that’s appeared via flashbacks. She’s also a character that’s primarily been an antagonist who represents the doubt and hatred that lies inside of BoJack. She’s not a character that you’d want to spend a lot of time alone with, yet the beautiful thing about this episode is that it creates empathy for this character that you thought was a monster. It’s a tragic story of how good intentions can sour overnight and how even when you’re trying to do the right thing, you can end up doing the wrong thing.

At a pivotal moment in the relationship between BoJack and his mother, the episode shifts to Beatrice’s perspective, presenting the world through her broken point of view. It suddenly gives much more significance to Beatrice’s earlier manic behavior. From this point forward the episode ping-pongs through key moments in Beatrice’s life, such as meeting Butterscotch Horseman, BoJack’s future father. The chaotic narrative chronicles how Beatrice has come to be how she is, but the whole thing is also erratically structured through her fractured mind. Sometimes Beatrice stands in an empty void with the details of the background being lost to her mind. Other times characters have scribbled-out faces or the extras in scenes don’t have faces at all because they’re not details that are committed to Beatrice’s memory.  

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At certain moments, elements blur together and a hazy filter progressively gets stronger as the episode continues to stunningly depict memory loss. Meanwhile, timelines also blend together with subtle fire transitions and other minor details that end up having major importance later on. There’s a solid gag that’s mined from this where the amount of time that’s passed is constantly being shown on the cover of books, like The Next Morning or 2 Weeks Later. The entire structure is stitched together through the remaining, fleeting memories of Beatrice. Not all of it necessarily makes sense, but it all meshes together and feels appropriate for dream logic.

The really gripping thing here is that Beatrice feels like a prisoner through this whole installment. She has no control of where her rattled brain is taking her or what elements are left fuzzy or lost. She’s being helplessly pulled through this episode just as much as the audience is, and the pain that stems from that truly feels real. She’s being pulled to the stark reality of the present while her mind tries to repress it all. This is all heightened by the fact that Wendie Malick absolutely kills this episode. She’s given the tough task of playing Beatrice through seven different moments in her life, and Malick never falters. It’s a true showcase of her abilities. It doesn’t hurt that Matthew Broderick is also the one portraying her mean-spirited father.

The entire season sees the dementia-ridden Beatrice unable to even properly recognize her son. She continues to call BoJack “Henrietta” throughout the episodes, something that frustrates him to no end. The gesture seems like simple negging or a way to derive some sort of humor to the unfortunate situation that BoJack and his mother are in, but “Time’s Arrow” beautifully puts all of this into context through the free associations made within Beatrice’s brain. The significance of Henrietta is important, and by the end of the mental gauntlet that Beatrice goes through, she’s finally able to see her son again. But then he slips her back into delusion.

BoJack spends much of this season dreading that he’s going to become his mother or that doing so would be a tragic conclusion. At one point this season Mrs. Sugarman says, “I can’t be with people and I can’t be alone. I don’t know how to get better. Please, fix me,” but you just as easily could picture those words coming from out of BoJack’s mouth. BoJack stares this reality in the face a lot in the show’s fourth season, but if anything, this episode proves how intrinsically similar they are. They’ve been through the same trials, but now, finally, maybe BoJack can break this cycle. This episode also depicts Beatrice self-destructing and burning bridges in a highly BoJackian manner. This might happen to be a Beatrice outing, but it has the same plot beats of the most devastating BoJack stories.

“Time’s Arrow” is a strong example of BoJack Horseman firing on all cylinders as it hits the comedy hard and the honest emotional drama even harder with gorgeous animation to hold it all up. BoJack Horseman will surely continue to be a show that plays around with structure and attempts some stylistically ambitious endeavors in future seasons. This will stand as the benchmark as to what can be done with a season’s worth of foreshadowing and emotional catharsis.

Time’s arrow marches forward, after all.

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