The fifth season of “BoJack Horseman” starts off, appropriately enough, with St. Vincent’s “Los Ageless.” It’s a song that paints L.A. in surreal apocalyptic terms, and the episode ends in a repeat of the chorus: “How can anybody have you / How can anybody have you and lose you / How can anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?”
Since the show started in 2014, we’ve seen lots of people come into contact with the titular character (Will Arnett); not all of them have stayed, and many of them have ended up worse. In what may be its best season yet, “BoJack Horseman” digs even deeper into his psyche to ask if anyone can have him but still keep their minds.
Season four ended with the suggestion that BoJack finally began the process of changing himself. After three seasons of wallowing in depression and self-loathing, dragging everyone down to his level, it seemed like he finally decided he was going to do the work and get better. This season follows the creation of “Philbert:” an edgy detective drama greenlit at the last second by Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), created by Flip Zimmerman (Rami Malek) for whattimeisitrightnow.com (the show gets plenty of digs in at the state of prestige television and streaming networks).
The rest of the cast slowly gets drawn into the saga while dealing with their own plots: Todd (Aaron Paul) and his newfound asexuality, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter (Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins) recontextualizing their relationship, and Princess Carolyn’s continued quest for a child. All in all, things seem to be ok for once.
Of course that could never last; no one sabotages themselves like BoJack. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg seems even more aware of the relatability of his character to legions of sad people everywhere. The show interrogates the possibility of change, the suggestion that BoJack is a “bad person” who will keep doing bad things. “Philbert” becomes the perfect springboard for examining if fans can relate too much to a “bad” character, stopping themselves from having to change in the process.
This is not to make it sound like it’s gotten depressing, though it wouldn’t be “Bojack” without it. Don’t be mistaken, the show is still gut-bustingly funny as always. The cast is at the top of their game (down to the guest stars), even as each episode contains a gut punch of varying strength in some way. There is perhaps no show better at managing the tonal whiplash between crying from laughing and crying from sadness, and the season’s sixth episode outdoes everything that comes before and after it.
That episode, “Free Churro,” is an absolute powerhouse. For 26 minutes, Arnett holds forth in a gripping monologue, alternating between eulogizing his mother and expressing his hatred at the woman who was never there for him. One can easily imagine it as a one-man show, and if time allows, it will be a staple among auditions, it’s that good. In between, the script by Waksberg peppers in a running gag about mistimed music and “knock if you can hear me,” before it ends on an all-timer of a punchline.
That’s not the only experiment here; character designer Lisa Hanawalt gets plenty of opportunities to stretch herself and go crazy, both in the background (where some of the darkest jokes happen) and foreground. None of this will prepare you for the penultimate episode, which may be the biggest gut punch of all,not to mention a scene-stealing performance from season guest Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) as the co-star of “Philbert.” And that’s saying something considering the downer endings that have been given in the past.
Of course, I would be remiss not to note how good the other characters’ stories are. Everyone in the cast is screwed up in their own way (except maybe for Todd), and this season continues the process of them searching their own lives even as BoJack threatens to tear it all down.
Throughout the season, the song I thought about the most was “Happy” by Mitski, the opener to her album “Puberty 2.” The message, as she describes it, is “happiness f**** you,” and indeed that’s what happens to the protagonist of the song. In many ways, that’s precisely what this season of “BoJack Horseman” is centering on.
As much as he tries to reach for happiness, searching for that thing that will finally convince him he’s a good person and heal the hole inside him, he can’t find it. Past seasons have had him reaching for some goal before realizing it’s not enough, and as the show slides further into centering on his addictions, it shows just how much of an uphill battle finding happiness can be for someone. “It’s hard work, but you gotta do it everyday.”