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TV Review: BoJack Horseman (Season 4)

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From the moment it first premiered in 2014, BoJack Horseman has diverted our expectations. From the first season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg's animated series, we have been consistently moved, and shocked, by the existential crises of an anthropomorphic, humanoid horse and those closest to him.

Returning for a fourth season, the series continues to surprise in intriguing new ways - and although the season takes some frightfully dark turns, it still manages to end on an uplifting, thoughtful note.

Tackling themes of parenthood, mental health, politics and asexuality, the show is rich with thoughtful subtext that takes the characters we know and love to new places. The titular horse of the series doesn't even appear in the season's first episode, having set off on a sombre, nostalgic roadtrip without a word to his friends.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peanutbutter's latest shananigans see him running for office as the governor of California with the help of his austere ex-wife Katrina - much to the chagrin of his current wife, Diane. Having managed to devolve the constitution with ridiculous amendments and elaborate ski contests, Mr. Peanutbutter seems as confident as ever that the very likeability that made him famous will make him a good leader.

Ever the paragon of rational thought, Diane is less convinced, but reluctant to cause conflict in her marriage. As she quietly bemoans her husband's latest venture, as well as her unfulfilling role as a blog writer, she attempts to reach out to BoJack - who is still off the grid. After wandering from place to place, BoJack returns to the old Sugarman place, where memories of his family's ancestry come to light.

Family is perhaps the overriding theme of this season, with almost every character faced with new developments in their closest relationships. While Diane wrestles with the success of her marriage to Mr. Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn grows closer to her boyfriend and becomes determined to start a family. Todd is often lost in his own incredulous capers - ranging this season from 'drone thrones' to the genuinely terrifying concept of 'dentist clowns' - but is also seen to be struggling with his asexuality and how that defines his relationships with women.

Meanwhile, BoJack is faced with the prospect of fatherhood when a young horse named Hollyhock comes to find him, keen to discover her biological parentage. As well as this, we get new insight into the life and childhood of BoJack's tacitern mother, Beatrice - who we discover is suffering from the early stages of dementia. Naturally, BoJack's story is the most intriguing, taking on dark and deeply emotional turns that provoke a lot of thought.

The flashback scenes that indicate the tumultuous life of Beatrice Sugarman are the most affecting, with certain scenes marred by distinct signs of her growing dementia - such as rooms full of faceless people, blurry details, glitches and sudden jumps in time. As a child, Beatrice endured some truly harrowing scenes; following the death of her beloved brother Crackerjack (voiced by Lin Manuel Miranda), Beatrice's mother goes mad with grief.

Her father, Joseph - who is just the worst - elects to subdue his wife's hysteria with a lobotomy that leaves her an empty shell of a woman. To reiterate how awful her father is, we also witness how he deals with Beatrice's bout of Scarlet fever - by remorselessly burning her possessions. The fact that he is energetically voiced by Matthew Broderick - who has made a career out of playing the good guy - just makes Joseph's actions seem that much worse.

Later, Beatrice encounters Butterscotch Horseman - a charming, would-be poet who seduces her at her debutante party. Naturally, this is the story of BoJack's conception, and as with all our favourite characters, it is somewhat satisfying to catch a glimpse of his origins. However, BoJack's arrival sours Beatrice and Butterscotch's already fragile marriage and makes Beatrice grow resentful of her son, her husband and the life she chose.

In previous seasons, we've only ever viewed Beatrice from BoJack's perspective; as his hard-hearted, constantly demoralising mother. And while she certainly isn't perfect - and does some truly horrifying things as a result of her own painful experiences - this season goes a long way towards evoking empathy towards her. It's no wonder BoJack is fucked up - his Mother never stood a chance.

Although it is later revealed that Hollyhock is actually BoJack's sister (born from his father's affair with their maid, Henrietta), BoJack's attempts at playing a parental role to Hollyhock are as marred as his Mother's. Though he recognises a sense of familial love and admiration for the young horse, BoJack is as incapable of being a guardian as he is being a partner - his selfishness, jealousy and pride get in the way too often. When it is revealed that Hollyhock is his sibling, there is an uplifting sense of hope and relief, as BoJack realises that he finally has someone of his own that he can't drive away (like Charlotte and Wanda) or infect with his own nihilistic habits.

Princess Carolyn's story arc this season is also affecting, as she deals with the heartbreaking reality of miscarrying not one, but two pregancies with her boyfriend Ralph. One episode is narrated by P.C.'s future grandaughter, speaking grandly of the worst day of Carolyn's life. As it turns out, this narrative frame is but a coping mechanism - as P.C quietly laments to BoJack: "I imagine my great-great-great granddaughter in the future talking to her class about me. [...] and when I think about that, I think about how everything's going to work out. Because how else could she tell people? [...] It makes me feel better."

Although certain story threads - mainly featuring Todd - run somewhat blandly alongside these broader arcs, this season of BoJack Horseman continues to impress. Despite it's surreal universe, in which humanoid animals and people co-exist, the series is grounded in meaningful depictions of the human condition and a smart, critical commentary on real-life issues. Attitudes towards women and gun violence are wryly examined in one episode, highlighting the ridiculous prejudices we share in to brilliant effect. 

As steeped in dark, thoughtful themes as it is, this colourful series also has room for a certain sense of humour. Characters like Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd - who are as dim as they are loveable - bring a certain levity to the series, which balances the cynicism emanating from BoJack and Diane. Zach Braff gets burnt and eaten alive by Jessica Biel; RuPaul voices a fabulous Queen Ant; and it all works perfectly. 

Perhaps the most affecting season to date, BoJack Horseman is truly a testament to the ever-increasing power of smart, adult animation in television. 

BoJack Horseman: Seasons 1-4 are available to watch on Netflix now.




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