BoJack Horseman, titular character of the Netflix original “BoJack Horseman,” is an old sitcom star, who made his career out of the same, tired formula of everything returning to normal by the end of an episode. Consequences last 30 minutes, and drama between characters is resolved by each season finale. Anyone who has become familiar with that formula is in for a surprise upon watching the show. The comedic tone can become an uncomfortably honest and intimate view of a character’s actions and motivations very quickly. The main characters develop self-destructive habits and end up damaging each other through their relationships with one another. The consequences of BoJack’s trauma, substance abuse and resulting despicable actions follow him throughout the entire show. Just when the viewer starts to feel a little too sympathetic for BoJack, the show reminds us of the trail of destruction he’s left in his wake. We are shown BoJack spiraling to rock bottom, and we are ready to see him build himself back up — but “BoJack Horseman” loves to subvert viewer expectations. We are shown that the road to redemption is arduous, frustrating and nonlinear; effort cannot come in bursts, but instead must be a constant push against old ways.
In my opinion, BoJack’s lowest point is directly after the death of Sarah Lynn, an old child actor co-star who he failed as a role model. After the two went on an ungodly bender in BoJack’s awful attempt to apologize to people he’s caused harm to, Sarah Lynn dies of an overdose. BoJack, fearing the consequences, waits to call an ambulance, killing crucial time where she could have been resuscitated. I say “in my opinion” because this being his lowest point is up for debate. BoJack’s character arc isn’t about his sudden spiral and hard-fought redemption, which is what we might have expected. It’s about watching the cycle of BoJack attempting to make up for his past actions, attempting change, and then feeling that gut-wrenching despair of watching him spiral even lower.
At the beginning of the show’s final season, BoJack enters into rehab. At this point, we’re probably more familiar with BoJack than he is with himself. We know why he’s so self-destructive and so harmful to those around him. We watch BoJack get sober. We watch him begin to take more responsibility for his actions and give back to his friends. He leaves Los Angeles, not in a shortsighted attempt to flake on obligations but to start fresh. Yet one of the main themes of the season is that the damage BoJack has caused to the people around him still continues, despite whether he’s removed from it or not. That damage catches up to him, and the shame, guilt and isolation caused from this lead to the episode “The View From Halfway Down.” Over the course of the season, relief turns to suspense turns to despair, and we are left with the most harrowing episode of television I’ve ever seen — the culmination of all six seasons coming together in one spectacular climax.
The show does a fantastic job of repeatedly regaining the viewer’s trust, just as BoJack regains the trust of those around him, only to destroy it all again. As the highs get higher and the lows get lower, both the show’s cast and viewers lose faith. But no one wants to see BoJack fail. Eventually, the story concludes. BoJack must come to terms with the way his life has changed, that many of the people he relied on will never be in his life in the same way. Despite that, BoJack adapts to the change, and is seemingly learning to rely on himself more. As the credits roll, we must trust him as he begins to trust himself.
And now, another set of credits opens a riveting conversation between a man and his ancient reptilian brain — he then wakes up naked, with no memories and suffering from a pounding headache. “Disco Elysium,” a narratively dense open-world, role-playing game inspired by the noir genre, follows a detective also struggling with substance abuse. Alcohol and amnesia are both used as a defense mechanism against the grueling self-hatred that our mystery detective is steeped in. As he teams up with his much more competent partner — Kim Kitsuragi — to solve a murder, his vices continue to follow him throughout his search for the culprit. Different parts of the detective’s brain will communicate with him in an inner dialogue throughout the game, one of those parts being his electrochemistry: The embodiment of his most hedonistic desires that will continually advocate for the player to fuel our lovely detective’s crippling alcoholism and drug addictions through the game. If you don’t, your playthrough will be miserable.
The game is set in the dilapidated, dying city of Revachol — scarred from its various encounters with different clashes of political ideologies — and is populated with residents all doing their best to scrape by in their own ways. Surrounded by that city is The Pale, a void that is the opposite of matter. It’s colorless, odorless, featureless and isolates every landmass of “Disco Elysium’s” world — and it’s growing. The threat of this nothingness consuming everything is quite a distressing dilemma, but it lines up with the character conflict that our sleazy detective confronts. After a few days in, our pathetic detective discovers his identity and that he crashed his car after drunk driving, making an utter fool of himself. Most likely, he’s destroyed his career with this stunt. No amount of drinking himself to death can be used to escape that. Life is pain, especially for our miserable, slovenly detective, and the substances are an indulgence in the “warm primordial blackness” that can be so nihilistically inviting. To cease existing, to just say “screw it” and give in to complete disorder and entropy is an insidious desire. It’s at the bottom of BoJack’s pool. It’s in the pale enveloping Revachol. It’s in the alcohol and drugs that both protagonists are consumed by.
No matter how incompetent the player feels as they navigate Revachol, as they get mocked by its residents, getting played like a damn fiddle trying to solve the murder and even end up getting shot and almost fatally wounded, they and our tenacious detective still get back up and try again. The white flag is thrown aside, and shameful resignation is not an option. Each failure is a learning experience.
Old drug PSAs from the ’90s — a product of the spectacular failure that was the War on Drugs — used scare tactics to direct teens away from the allure that drugs presented. Most ads were something along the lines of “winners don’t use drugs” or “drugs will destroy you and ruin your life.” On top of the fact that the war on drugs was a thinly veiled weapon to increase mass incarceration of Black Americans, the ads were largely ineffective anyways, since the curiosity and anti-authoritarian sentiment that drives most teenagers’ actions motivated viewers of these ads to see what all the fuss was about. These attempts at keeping Americans so sterile and proper to combat the impurity of drugs failed because of their discomfort with showing the unfiltered reality of addiction: a reality that did not conform with suburban America. To this day, drug addicts are dehumanized; the people struggling with addiction have become a problem to be solved rather than the addictions themselves in a cruelly ironic twist.
“Bojack Horseman” and “Disco Elysium” expertly walk the line that portrays addiction. They don’t turn their nose up at it, but they don’t lean into it so heavily that it becomes a glorified tribute to hedonism. Both pieces of media do show the instant gratification that body-destroying benders can provide, but they also show the punishment that lies at the end of those impulsive choices. Their bodies and minds both suffer under the desperate desire for more, more, more. These garbage coping mechanisms don’t solve their problems: They only allow them to run away from their problems with a delicious free sample of oblivion.
We see not only the reality of addiction, but the people behind those addictions. And by no means are their actions excused because of their addictions. Yet, because we see these humans (and horses) in all their flaws, they are given a chance to recover: A chance to excavate the person they once were and someone new from the wreckage of addiction. We are not shown a clean, linear recovery either. As nice and self-serving as it is to tell ourselves that picking ourselves back up is straightforward, it’s not. We see these characters constantly tempted and stumbling or falling back down.
Through “BoJack Horseman,” we watch the shame, frustration and danger that comes with failure and falling back into substance abuse and old habits: Not just giving up but intentionally making backward progress, violating people’s trust and hurting them in the process. Through “Disco Elysium,” we play through the ordeal of moving forward despite the self-destructive effects of substance abuse being so punishing. As we watch both protagonists push onward, we watch them fail and make mistakes. We watch them waltz with the temptation of death. And we watch them get back on their feet, because no matter how far they’ve fallen, at a certain point climbing back out of that hole is the only option.
Following along these character arcs, I felt an abstract sort of connection to these protagonists. I’m not the type of person who’s good at tempering the desire for instant gratification, so playing the long game of constantly putting in effort toward self-improvement was and is a struggle for me. I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and any time I would slip and take a step back, I would be immediately discouraged. Missing a day of my beginner gym schedule was enough for me to stop entirely. Going cold turkey on video games and social media doesn’t work if you decide to dip your toe back in the water for just a bit. Getting frustrated at myself for not practicing piano wasn’t making me practice more, it was only making me upset with myself. With every failure, I wasn’t meeting my own expectations, and I felt more worthless with each failure piling up.
I’m going back to the gym this summer. It’s my fifth attempt trying to establish a routine there for myself. I still indulge in my vices of video games and social media a bit too much for my liking. Even so I continue to monitor myself. I feel like I’ve wasted so much time putting off practicing piano. I’m not where I want to be, where I should be as a musician, and I have no one to blame but myself. It’s easy to feel like I won’t ever reach my goals. But I practiced yesterday. I’ll practice today. Maybe you’re asking, “What if you don’t?” I sure am. Yet that question doesn’t matter right now because that defeatist mindset serves no one, certainly not me. No matter how much I’ve come up short, no matter how many times I end up sitting at my piano, blankly staring at the keys or losing focus, I will push through it.
When I have those days where I feel too miserable to be around people, where I have to be alone, I will get up the next and work towards being someone who can love myself. One of my friends, who has also struggled with these feelings, is someone I really admire because of his work ethic. After building himself back up, he works long hours to financially support himself on top of working towards a college degree. I asked him how he does it. He told me something that should have been obvious: You take it one day at a time.
In the finale of “BoJack Horseman,” “Nice While It Lasted,” BoJack expresses his dread at the future: “What if I relapse again?” His friend Todd simply answers, “Then you’ll get sober again.” In his usual goofy Todd manner, he then comes up with a weirdly fitting analogy originating from his daycare career: You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. Turning yourself around, that’s what it’s all about. We as humans like to use markers for progress, tangible milestones and achievements that we can use to validate our efforts. This can help as motivation, but the important part is the effort itself. Celebrating the year anniversary of sobriety is equally as important as making it through those worst days. Those days where you are fighting alone, where there is no glorious triumph, only an exhausting battle against yourself from which you barely come out on top. And sometimes you don’t; you lose and fall backwards. Old habits die hard, but you don’t have to be buried with them. Take a step. Take another step. And keep on walking. When you find you’ve lost progress, keep your eyes forward. Take it one step at a time.
Daily Arts Writer James Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.