CW: Discussions of death, suicide and drug use.
This post contains major spoilers for the Bojack Horseman series finale.
Bojack Horseman is one of my all-time favourite shows. The universe it creates is so wonderfully fun, and the animators do a spectacular job at including jokes in all of the scenery. As an art-lover, one of the things I really love about the show is how it features paintings from real life, reimagined in the Bojack Universe. Sometimes, the works are just implanted into the show. Other times, characters from the show are added, or the works are included in a specific scene to add to the overall message and plot. The reinterpretations of David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972 and John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52 foreshadow major events. In this post, I’ll explain their role in the show and why Bojack Horseman is one of the greatest cinematic universes out there.
Okay, so, final spoiler warning here – do not continue reading if you do not want to know what happens at the end of the show. Go watch all six seasons, then immediately come back and read this.
The creators made it explicit from three minutes into the first episode that Bojack was going to end up drowning in his swimming pool – and he eventually did in the masterful penultimate episode ‘The View from Halfway Down’. The opening sequence to the show is brilliant and unskippable, and in this sequence, Bojack always ends up in the swimming pool. Every episode, the creators show us that Bojack is inevitably going to end up in the pool.
Immediately after the opening in the first episode, David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist appears, reimagined with horse people. Seeing this after Bojack falls into his swimming pool shows that swimming and drowning are central themes in the show, and the pool is an important motif. The painting is behind Bojack’s desk, always looming behind him. It tells us a lot about Bojack’s character; a hilarious exchange in season 6 episode 7 emphasises this:
Princess Caroline “it’s a 1970s pop art interpretation of the Narcissus myth”,
Bojack “Narcissus? I thought the painting was about me?”.
It is a recurring image that foreshadows ‘The View from Halfway Down’. For once Bojack was right – the painting was about him, specifically, about his near-death and (possible) suicide attempt.
Season 1 episode ‘Downer Ending’ inserts Bojack directly into the painting. During a drug binge with Todd and Sarah-Lynn, Bojack hallucinates that he is trapped in the painting. Another version of him and Diane stand looking at him thrashing around, trapped in the water. The watching Bojack asks “shouldn’t we help him?”, Diane replies “no, he loves treading water.” Bojack, both metaphorically and literally, treads water for the entire show. He’s never happy or content with life, he’s stuck himself into a never-ending cycle of drugs, alcohol, and unhappiness. The time when Bojack is at his happiest is when he’s living on a boat in Charlotte’s driveway at the end of season 2. Bojack’s doing his best when he’s living on something designed to float on water and prevent sinking.
Drowning is ever-constant in Bojack’s life. In season three episode ‘Fish Out Of Water’, he remarks that he hasn’t ‘been underwater since my mother tried to drown me in the bathtub when I was 22’. In Season 5 episode ‘Free Churro’ he explains that he’s always drowning, saying “my mother, she knew what it’s like to feel your entire life like you’re drowning, with the exception of these moments, these very rare, brief instances, in which you suddenly remember, you can swim… but then again, mostly not. Mostly you’re drowning.”
It’s what he envisions for his perfect death. Again in ‘Downer Ending’, when trying to come up with the ending for his book, he explains his ideal end, saying “and when I get too old to take care of myself, I go for one last swim. I know I can’t make it back to shore. I’m too weak, too tired, so I just let the water take me under.” Bojack has felt like he’s been drowning his entire life, so it only makes sense that drowning would be the cause of his death.
In season three episode ‘It’s You’, Bojack crashes a car into his swimming pool during a party. Prior to this, when talking with Ana Spanakopita, he panics and says “Uh, oh god, I’m drowning, I feel like I’m drowning.” Ana then tells him about a time when she was 17 and crashed her car into a lake. She couldn’t figure out which way was up till she breathed, and noticed the bubbles floating up. “Bojack, when you find yourself lost and disoriented and underwater, and you don’t know which way is up, it’s important to breathe.” When Bojack then crashes his car into the pool, he breathes, looks at the bubbles, and then decides not to follow them. He only survives because Mr Peanutbutter rescues him. Bojack made the chose not to save himself and instead drown. Perhaps because he always felt like he was drowning, and ultimately (as the reimagined Hockney painting imagines and foreshadows) the swimming pool is where Bojack is always going to end up.
Another painting that foreshadows a characters death is John Everett Millais’ Ophelia. Here, Sarah Lynn has been inserted in the painting. This image is seen at the start of season three episode, ‘That’s Too Much, Man!’, the episode in which Sarah Lynn tragically dies. Ophelia is a tragic figure, a woman who had an overbearing father and was driven to insanity after mistreatment by her selfish, abusive boyfriend. Sarah Lynn, similarly to Ophelia, was mistreated by the men in her life and parental figures. Bojack was supposed to be like a father to Sarah Lynn. He falsely believed he was a positive role model for her, but as flashbacks to the Horsin’ Around days show, Bojack was never good to her. He scared her into performing and inadvertently got her addicted to alcohol. In adulthood, he exploited their relationship and her struggles with addiction, and they had a tumultuous sexual relationship.
At the start of ‘That’s Too Much, Man!’, Sarah Lynn is doing good. She is nine months into recovery and sobriety. It’s only when Bojack calls and asks if she wants to party that she relapses. Much like Ophelia, Sarah Lynn was driven to her death by ill-treatment from a lover. Drowning and water are a metaphor for overdosing. Both these characters died/almost died due to them relapsing, in the paintings they are stuck in the water. Sarah Lynn is in the water because the perpetually drowning man caused her death.
Everything in this episode told us that Sarah Lynn would die. Partway through the episode, during the pairs drug binge, they visit Ana Spanakopita. Ana tells Bojack a highly emotional and meaningful story. After she almost drowned, she decided to “never again be weaker than water”, and so trained to be a lifeguard.
“On my first day of training, my instructor told me that there are going to be times when you’ll see someone in trouble. You’re going to want to rush in there and do whatever you can to save them, but you have to stop yourself because there are some people you can’t save. ‘Cause those people will thrash and struggle and try to take you down with them.”
The creators made it known that Bojack is the thrashing man with literal imagery, back in ‘Downer Ending’, he is shown stuck thrashing in the pool. Bojack brought Sarah Lynn down with him. He got her to party with him, which led to her death. Ultimately, Bojack cannot be saved because he will bring down everyone else with him.
Sarah Lynn’s eventual overdose triggered by Bojack’s actions is similarly foreshadowed in ‘Downer Ending’. Again while considering how the book should end, Sarah Lynn says “Oh, I know! I should murder you! I’m serious, think about it. If the little girl you raised on television killed you in real life – people would eat that shit up.” It’s painfully ironic that it ended up being the other way round, with Bojack inadvertently killing his fictional daughter.
Finally, it’s time to talk about the penultimate episode, ‘The View from Halfway Down’. This episode is the best one of the entire show, partly because in hindsight everything in the show was so clearly leading to it. At 17 minutes in, Butterscotch/Secretariat makes Bojack aware that he is dying. For the first time, Bojack sees himself drowning in the pool. The horse looks down on the horse stuck in the water, recreating the Hockney painting exactly. Significantly, this moment takes place at 17 minutes. It took Bojack 17 minutes to call the police after Sarah Lynn’s death. This is a stark reminder of Ana Spanakopita’s story that some people cannot be saved from drowning, “‘Cause those people will thrash and stage and try to take you down with them.” Bojack and Sarah Lynn’s fates were embedded into the show’s fabric from the very start, and this is evident in the art choices.
I am obsessed with this show. The amount of recurring jokes, themes and motifs featured demonstrate how well thought-through and planned everything was. The universe is so immaculately crafted and produced. The conversation it has about addiction, depression and identity is the most real-to-life depiction in media. Through the fun hilarity of a washed-up cartoon horse sitcom character, these topics are made accessible. They are facilitated because the universe itself is so ridiculous and fun. It’s not a hard show to watch, but it deals with painful topics with brutal honesty in a way no other tv or film media has. The animators choice of artwork demonstrates just how fantastic the world-building in Bojack Horseman is.
You can find a full list of artworks in Bojack Horseman here – let me know your favourites!