A polaroid of a stylized Bojack Horseman horse against an orange and black background.
Design by Reid Graham.

The shows “Bojack Horseman” and “Hadestown” — for the screen and stage, respectively — are some of my favorites, works of art I could dissect endlessly. My consumption of “Hadestown” is also endless, playing the Original Broadway Cast recording on loop for myself. My rewatches of “Bojack Horseman” are a bit more limited, if not still the same conversation.

“Yeah, so I watched ‘Bojack Horseman’ like three times last year.”

This statement that I make about that adult animated series always gives me interesting responses, but the very central sentiment behind them is:

Are you okay?

I laugh it off, with a very quick explanation.

“Yeah, I’ve been in therapy since August of 2020, don’t worry. The first two times were when I was genuinely at low points, but the third time was actually just to appreciate its writing!”

I’ve been rewatching and relistening to a lot of my favorite shows lately: cartoons and sitcoms filled with joy and laughter like “Gravity Falls,” Michael Schur-created feel-good shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place,” the tribute to television that is “Community”as well as musicals close to my heart like the immigrant soup for the soul “In the Heights” and the nostalgia of “The Lightning Thief Musical.” Both “Bojack Horseman” and “Hadestown” are vastly different — they’re regarded as the best recent examples of their respective formats, but there’s another common thread between them besides my re-consumption. Even if I wholeheartedly recommended binging the show and/or the entirely-sung-through musical, you don’t need to know much about their narratives to tell you why indulging in rewatches fill me with guilt. It’s simple — they’re both tragedies. 

They ascribe to the Greek theatrical sense of the word: They don’t really end happily, and their plots are mired with conflict and loss. “Bojack Horseman” is a comedy that tells the story of a deeply damaged and washed-up eponymous ’90s sitcom star in a half-anthropomorphic world, constantly sinking to new personal lows, usually in the daze of chemical highs. “Hadestown” is a musical retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, swapping out the Greek overworld with a Depression-era struggling town, casting Hades and Persephone as gods of the underground industry of Hadestown and of a speakeasy filled with summer, respectively. However, for this piece, I need to tell you a bit more about Orpheus and Eurydice’s story.

You can stop me if you’ve heard this one before. 

The son of a Muse, Orpheus was a musician with literal god-given talent who lost his wife, Eurydice, to a snakebite. Heartbroken, Orpheus took his lyre and charmed his way into the Underworld, the Land of the Dead: past the ferryman of the River Styx, past the three-headed guard dog Cerberus, past the gates to the home of Hades and Persephone. The two gods were so moved by Orpheus that Hades granted him the life of his wife back on one condition: that the lovers walk back the way they came, into the land of the living, with Eurydice behind Orpheus, who could not look back without condemning his wife to death again. There are several interpretations of what happens next — Orpheus doubts that he could really be allowed to escape with his love and checks, he can’t bear another second without looking at his wife, Eurydice stumbles and Orpheus instinctively turns to help — but all end with the same result: Eurydice is sent back to the Underworld. Interpretations again vary to the fate of Orpheus; the most violent version being that after swearing off love, a scorned group of women tear him apart and discard him in the river. The Muses find the remains for burial, except for his head, which sang its way down the river, singing of Eurydice, until it was found and buried — sending Orpheus to the Underworld to reunite with his love. 

Yet again, the interpretations of this myth widely vary. The ancient Greeks told myths to answer what was unexplainable to them, and so the meaning of this tale ranges from the inevitability of loss to the foolishness of love. “Hadestown” opts to use the story for seemingly unsolvable problems, turning the River Styx into a wall separating Hades’ working dead from those living on the surface, the latter of which are starving because Persephone is repeatedly taken back underground along with spring, with her only solace being her speakeasy that provides certain comforts of the surface to the workers. Orpheus appeals to the oppressor Hades’ empathy by singing about their loves — the one that drove him underground and Hades into leaving the Underworld for Persephone, causing a periodic love that formed the seasons. However, as we know, it isn’t enough. There isn’t a happy ending.

Still, both works are designed for re-consumption. “Bojack Horseman” foreshadows and focuses on continuity to such a degree it’s impossible to fully appreciate it with just one viewing. Its exceptional comedy pads its heart-wrenching aspects (plus, the main character’s voice actor, Will Arnett, has an incredibly soothing voice). “Hadestown” is similar in its attention to potentially endless replayability with back-to-back jazzy and/or contemplative bangers, even though it still ends with Orpheus looking back.

This journey toward inevitable tragedy is how it feels to watch “Bojack Horseman.” While “Hadestown” conforms tightly to the structure of the myth it adapts and to the format of a musical, “Bojack Horseman” goes out of its way to subvert the tropes of sitcoms, comedies and narrative. It strives to move away from mythos in order to reflect real life, as much as a cartoon about half-animal people can — using the quirky visual premise as a facade to eviscerate its audience’s expectations (and emotions). 

The series’ penultimate episode, “The View from Halfway Down,” ends at the protagonist’s lowest point and would be a fitting tragic ending for any other work — but not for “Bojack Horseman.” Instead, we finally see the consequences for all the hurt Bojack has caused, and it ends not with any grand finale but a quiet conclusion. 

Toeing the line from the other half of Greek theatre, its comedy elements also serve to enhance the ending. Ridiculous and satirical events aside, a rewatch illustrates the tragic elements of its jokes. For example, cutaways to Bojack’s comically poor childhood elaborate on the deeply twisted cycle of abuse that he’s bound to. Once you know what’s lying at the bottom of the hill, every increase in the slope is that much more appalling. So why go back down?

“It’s a sad song / but we sing it anyway / ’Cause here’s the thing / To know how it ends / And still begin to sing it again / As it might turn out this time / I learned that from a friend of mine.” In “Road to Hell (Reprise),” that’s one of the last lines sung in “Hadestown,” and names its central thesis. The cast repeats, re-consumes and reinterprets tragedies to honor their legacy, in the faith that eventually, they might have a happy ending. Not only does this create a metatextual motivation for the work as a performing musical — telling the tale all around the country and across the pond — but a powerful commentary on the very nature of tragedy.

There’s a common reason Orpheus could look back: desperation to see Eurydice again, disbelief he could have the love of his life back, deciding instantly to help his wife get back up. In every version, Orpheus turns out of love. Maybe we look back for love. Maybe that’s what fuels my journeys back into the depths of Bojack’s depravities, out of love for the characters that occupy his world. However, they’re not my Eurydice, are they? Is there something more?

The hope that it might turn out different this time — is that something that can be ever said about published, fixed media? Art and gods are the same — stuck in their eternal ways and as immortal as we allow. Hades always takes Persephone and the dead without discrimination; this is what makes the world work. Characters aren’t people, they’re works of art — they exist as long as we appreciate them. Bojack is the worst person that we can’t redeem in our heads but still somehow root for. Those hands that gather your sadness in your throat and push your heart out of your ribcage, making it fall and releasing the stopper of your emotions — that’s your humanity. The release and its recognition are what the Greeks called catharsis. It’s what makes you empathize with those who act mortal in myths and half-animal hybrids that sound like humans. If the worst of us can find a way to be better, there’s hope for the rest of us. So we keep that hope.

The first time I watched “Bojack Horseman,” it was a simple show to put on in the background as I killed my days in quarantine playing Minecraft. The first time I listened to “Hadestown” fully, it was a background album for doing math homework in high school. Those are actually both lies — I watched the second half of “The View from Halfway Down” first (curious about the “Is it terrifying” trend) and skipped ahead in the album to the Genius explanation of the penultimate track. I didn’t quite appreciate everything I was internalizing. Still, I started, knowing the end and singing anyway. Both works would jar me out of my ruts with their endings. Bojack would monologue as I wasted away in my room, studying for finals during my first virtual semester, then my second. I listened to “Mr. Blue,” the finale’s closing song, as I zipped up my suitcase to move out, with Bojack looking to the future in the background. “Hadestown” would keep coming back to my music kicks, its trombone starting me back on its tragedy — hollowing me out and building me back up until I realized I needed help. Until I felt like writing again, until I had to write again. Until I felt like singing that song again.

The ancient Greek myths were created to explain what they didn’t understand — in some cases, there are no happy endings. The creators of “Hadestown” and “Bojack Horseman” explain what they understand deeply — there are no happy endings. Things just end. You have to find the happy part, if you really want to, even though I know that quiet voice in you whispers that you don’t deserve the happy parts. Even when it screams. When I watch my happy comfort shows, they eventually end, and I no longer get the joy of seeing my favorite characters grow. Ending these tragedies feels like freedom, freeing these characters from their tragic endings, allowing them to see the morning after. 

“Hadestown” doesn’t end with “Road to Hell (Reprise)” but with “We Raise Our Cups,” sung by Persephone after the roll call — honoring and wondering what Orpheus is now doing with his life. “Bojack Horseman” doesn’t end with “The View from Halfway Down” but “Nice While It Lasted.” Even when I thought I knew the end, I was wrong. I have a story in my Google Docs about Icarus rising from the ocean to conquer the stars — but he has to fall first. I have an essay taped to my wall asserting that Hamlet hates the reader for having the free will he’s denied. I’ve written a multiverse of possible alternatives to tragedies.

I’ve thought a lot about endings. We can love life because it doesn’t last, and we fill our lives with love we try our best to make last. Still — it hurts when faced with loss. It hurts so much. Those truly tragic circumstances of our lives — it’s possible they’re never going to hurt any less, especially when we’re at our most vulnerable: pain that visits like your first and most persistent friend, the people who are gone, despite everything you did to keep them, and the people who are gone because you couldn’t do anything more. That pain doesn’t fade with time, but we get stronger. Facing tragedy after tragedy — in your personal life, between people, in protest — makes you stronger. Or, to paraphrase a wise half-man, half-monkey jogger: “It gets easier. Every time, it gets a little easier. But you gotta survive every time. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.” I know we’ll inevitably fall back into tragedy and rise up again. Next time, I’ll have new endings to share with you. Like I said, the shows “Bojack Horseman” and “Hadestown” — for the screen and stage, respectively — are some of my favorites, works of art I could dissect endlessly.

Daily Arts Writer Saarthak Johri can be reached at sjohri@umich.edu.