“That voice, the one that tells you you’re worthless, and stupid, and ugly… it goes away, right? It’s just, like, a dumb teenage girl thing, but then it goes away?”
CW: depression, suicidal thoughts
The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for BoJack Horseman, both its first 3 seasons and the just-released fourth.
It wasn’t until about mid-2015 that I realised and accepted that I am depressed. Upon the hindsight that I’ve gotten over the past two years, I can trace the origins of my depression definitively back to early 2012 (during my first year of Sixth Form) and less-definitively back even further than that (since I was experiencing some of its effects and behaviours as a teenager in Secondary School), but for the longest time, I did not believe that there was anything wrong with me, or at least that it wasn’t depression that I was specifically dealing with. I had extensive bouts of prolonged misery, sometimes set off seemingly by nothing, but that’s all I considered them as (and continued to refer to as such until I was officially diagnosed last year). Periods, symptomatic of nothing deeper than a lack of emotional maturity. Besides, even in these moments of deep misery, I was still capable of feeling joy or pleasure through games, television, films, and what have you. Plus, I knew friends online who were diagnosed with actual depression, and since I clearly couldn’t be depressed, I refused to acknowledge the idea for myself out of a desire to not lump my trivial inability to act like a grown-up in with their very real illness.
A lot of this can be blamed on my family at large failing to latch on to this being a very real problem until only very recently. My mother, an overbearing smother who takes any critique about her parenting or any bad news about either myself or my younger brother as a personal indictment that her parenting was a complete and total failure, making her unreceptive to learning or changing. My father, the kind of stereotypical divorced dad Man who frequently mocks any non-masculine emotions or inclinations without a second thought, and being very noticeably uncomfortable and ill-equipped to deal when forced to confront them. My nan, simply too innocently insensitive to realise that her relentless attempts to make me feel good about myself only make me feel like I have no good reason to feel depressed. My brother, eventually just not being around, going off to live his own life. I was left to figure out that I had a problem all by myself.
Not helping this delayed discovery were the representations of depression in the media I experienced. In a way, it’s largely an extension of the still casual, flippantly-reductive way that many people fling around the word “depressed” as a hyperbolised shorthand for feeling temporarily down, draining it of meaning and weight, and in other ways it’s also a result of the way our pop culture tastemakers like to snidely look down at entire teen-movements made specifically for them as overdramatic. So depression in many television shows and films is often depicted in a highly reductive and simplistic manner. Some straight-up romanticise mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder in various cutesiepoo ways that are ultimately harmful. I’ve seen comedies that treat depression as nothing more than a fountain of jokes about how much their sad-sack character wants to die. There are those works that characterise depression as nothing but pure misery where no light ever gets in, and then there are those that use it as nothing but a narrative crutch with little care or attention given to its representation – never forget just how insensitively David Cage and Quantic Dream handled Fahrenheit’s “Mental Health” meter.
So, if depression is either a harmless punchline felt by overdramatic crybabies who are never going to do anything about it, or relentless glumness incapable of any joy or reprieve, and nobody else around me is going to help teach me any different, then I guess I’m not depressed. I didn’t spend every waking minute of every day as miserable as miserable could be, and, even if I was, why should I be, given that I’m just being hysterical over nothing?
It took until viewing Pixar’s Inside Out, during what was (at the time) one of the heaviest bouts of depression I had encountered, for me to start realising that I was depressed. Inside Out is not even specifically about depression – it’s more about the virtues of healthy emotional balance, of destigmatising and acknowledging the necessity and positivity of ostensibly negative emotions like Anger and Sadness, with director Pete Docter even having cut a character called Gloom (who would have been the film’s villain) in order to avoid stigmatising the illness – but the way that it handled the subject of mental health and emotional honesty truly resonated with me. I was able to begin to understand why I feel the way I feel, the complexities involved in that feeling, and that it is ok to feel this way, that it’s not stupid or inherently awful or just a cheap narrative device with no actual meaning. Readers of this blog at the time will know that I wrote extensively about this, and it’s ultimately why I gave it the nod for Film of 2015 over Carol (sorry, Kyle).
The two years since have been a period of discovery and difficulty for me. I’m learning more about my depression, a lot of that coming from the time I was able to spend in therapy from last August through to June of this year, and just how deep-seated and for how long its effects have been, as well as seeking out works and media that do manage to depict depression in ways that can help broaden my understanding and resultantly provide me with some level of comfort – this is why Paramore’s After Laughter has been one of my favourite records of this entire, stupidly-good year for music. But I’ve also graduated from university, the effects of which I absolutely have not droned on about in endless detail since, and 2017 has only seen that mental state get worse. I’ve had two full-on, uncontrollable-sobbing, “I want to die” breakdowns this year, which is two more than I would have liked. The anti-depressants I thought were helping me only worsened the effects that depression was having upon my subconscious, so I stopped taking them only to be met with some of the same effects off the meds a few months later. I found myself casually daydreaming about suicide more and more frequently, the realisation of which caused a panic attack and a subsequent realisation that this line of thinking was not new.
All this whilst, thanks to the cruel fucking joke that is the underfunded mental health arm of the NHS, I sit in endless referral limbo, unable to try any other methods to deal with my worsening mental state (or even just go back to therapy) in case anything I do affects the prospective treatments I have yet to be assigned because I haven’t heard from anyone in months. My last referral was for yet another assessment as to whether I have depression and anxiety, and the assessor’s advice for combating these things, as somebody with major anxiety living in a shitty Northern town with little to do and who does not drink, was to go out to clubs and talk to random strangers. And people wonder why others like me treat Theresa May’s empty “promises” like the condescending bullshit they are.
In the face of all of this, there is at least one show that I’ve been able to turn to. One that I first watched during the Summer of 2015 and which I very quickly connected to due to its nature as one of those rare Netflix shows that remembers how you’re supposed to actually construct a goddamn episode of television. But over time, the show burrowed its way deeper into me. As its heart came more to the forefront, as its insights became sharper, as it became clearer that – although creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, by his own admission, never intended for the show to become explicitly about depression – everybody involved realised what they were doing and how exactly they could take it forward, I came to find a comfort in it, one that has helped me out massively in the last few months especially when I went back through it again. That show, of course, is BoJack Horseman.
Now, the fact that BoJack Horseman is less of a Family Guy-type scatological celebrity satire and more of a deeply, deeply unflinching, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable examination of depression and its harmful, oft-self-destructive effects has been an open secret for years now. This is not news to anyone anymore, but it was still shocking to me, in that week alone during Summer 2015, to find myself relating to a television show again. Properly relating in a specifically-personal way, for the first time in ages. Not only relating, but being understood right back by the show itself.
The exact sequence in which I realised that I was going to take this show right to my heart was near the end of “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen,” where BoJack finds Diane at the Boston dump, after she screeches away from her family with the chummed remains of her dead dad in the back of their pickup truck. All episode, we’ve witnessed this family’s toxic, mentally-abusive behaviour towards her, refusing to give her any support of any kind and relentlessly guilt-tripping her into looking after them. Diane confesses to BoJack that, even despite all of that, she still craves their approval and recognition, and asks him if she’s stupid for thinking so. He bluntly responds “yes,” and tells her that, since her family makes her so miserable and are so awful to her, she should just leave and never come back, a viewpoint the show supported. And to hear this meant so much to me. I may never be in a secure enough position to be able to cut my family out of my life, but to be told that feeling this way is acceptable, that moving forward and away from the people who, maliciously or not, keep making me feel helpless and miserable, in a narrative medium that constantly preaches about the importance, strength, purity, and sanctity of family regardless of how toxic they are… It was genuinely heartwarming to be heard and understood like that.
And as time has gone on, as the show has progressed, and as my acceptance and understanding of my own depression has grown, my connection with BoJack Horseman has only increased. A large reason why, though, and why I think BoJack has managed to become one of the leading lights when it comes to depictions of depression in media, is because it understands that depression does not manifest itself in exactly the same ways for each person dealing with it. There’s a misconception that the effects of depression are largely universal and shared with only minor variations, but it’s not true. Each person’s depression manifests in different ways, each person’s depression affects them in different ways, and each person tries to deal with depression in their own different ways. It’s an illness that is simultaneously universal (nearly 1 in 5 UK adults suffer from it at some point) and deeply personal, and BoJack’s genius is that it realises this. So the structure of an ensemble sitcom about, what many of them describe themselves as, broken people is, subtextually, really a way to examine multiple different types and ways that depression affects people, avoiding painting a reductive ‘definitive’ picture of depression through one man.
Consequently, I don’t just see myself in BoJack, I see parts of myself reflected in all of the main cast. In Diane, I see my anxiety-driven overthinking, self-loathing over my inability to tough out adversity and be a good person, and the infrequent belief that I am a pit incapable of being happy, whilst sometimes unawares fetishizing my own sadness. In Todd, I see my uncertainty about myself, in-show represented by his grappling with his asexuality and the moments of quietly-heartbreaking doubt brought upon by casual snipes from BoJack. In Princess Caroline, I see my attempts to distract myself from my own unhappiness and emptiness by throwing myself into other people’s problems and lives, wanting them to be happy and busy so that I can vicariously feel that joy and life through them – for the record, I know that this is horrible behaviour in its own way, and I’m trying to change. In BoJack himself, I see my streak of self-sabotage whenever things seem to look even slightly up, and the sporadic moments where my inward self-loathing turns to outward bitterness. And in Mr. Peanutbutter, seemingly the most well-adjusted and positive character on the show, I see the way he can become completely overwhelmed whenever things become too much, incapable of handling them outside of passive-aggression that solves nothing and helps no-one.
It’s that spectrum, the way that each character’s flaws are mostly individual with only the occasional shared trait, that manages to make the overall depiction of depression so nuanced. None of these characters are Depression – in fact, depression is never explicitly named on the show either, which, unlike the way that some works (e.g. The Big Bang Theory) try and dance around the issue of explicitly naming mental illnesses as the reason certain characters act the way they do, actually feels even more respectful. All of these characters are, in their own way, depressed, but their depression never defines them as people. It is a reason they act the way they do, but that’s all it is: a reason. And, far more importantly than that, BoJack Horseman never mistakes a reason for an excuse. These are people who can cause real damage to themselves and others, and the fact that they’re under the thrall of their depressions does not absolve them of that damage.
This is why I gain such a visceral, deep, personal response from many of the show’s must gutting exchanges. I’ve been on both sides of the sequence where Charlotte first tells BoJack to leave because “you make me too sad,” albeit never in as direct a way as what occurs on the show, and it truly does feel like a knife through the heart whether you’re the recipient or the one doing the admitting. I’ve tried throwing myself headfirst into work in an attempt to deny the emptiness at the core of me like Princess Caroline does after her and BoJack officially break-up midway through Season 1, and it too just led to a feeling of hollow insignificance due to that refusal to directly acknowledge the central problem. Meanwhile, Diane’s stay at BoJack’s house when she abandons her Cordovia assignment, unable to return to Mr. Peanutbutter’s out of personal shame over her inability to tough it out, where she regresses into a directionless, layabout cynic with no drive who spends her days drunk, high, sad-eating, and espousing opinions about how “all your favourite musicians beat their wives… ALLEGEDLY!” to no-one in particular is worryingly close to my life post-university (minus the drink and drugs).
And then, there’s the show’s crowning achievement so far: “Stupid Piece of Sh*t,” from the recently-released fourth season. An episode largely dedicated to the mind of BoJack, with a constant running narration that bluntly and unflinchingly throws up his self-loathing, paranoia, bitterness, anxiety, and crushing depression for all to see. Throughout, his mind constantly reminds him of how he is a “stupid piece of shit,” over and over and over and over and over and over and over, drilling its way down into his and the viewer’s head with a relentless bore, gaining more and more power the more times it’s repeated, eventually being said so often as to lose all weight and meaning. It stops being noteworthy and just becomes a phrase, a belief one’s brain can misconstrue as a fact that resultantly destroys self-worth and a belief that trying is worth less than nothing. And nothing pleases that voice, because nothing ever does – when BoJack throws Henrietta’s doll over the balcony, after the voice tells him to, he feels no satisfaction and the voice offers no reprieve, pegging him as a “goddamn piece of shit idiot asshole.”
Yet, I found myself laughing at it just as much as I was bristling at how worryingly much it related to my own mind and my own “voice.” In the cold open that introduces the episode’s conceit, the same one that demonstrates just how casually and flippantly BoJack’s voice brings up the prospect of suicide in much the same way my mind can do so, his voice also berates him for having cookies for breakfast and a digression over the forgotten sitcom Suddenly Susan becomes a metaphor for how futile and shitty his own life is. Much of the way that the show depicts this voice mirrors my own, but it’s also capable of finding the absurd in it without diminishing the seriousness or the effects of it. There’s a sympathy and understanding there, which relates to how BoJack treats depression on a macro show-wide level as well, and it’s what allows me to find the humour, without feeling like the show is laughing at me or that I’m laughing at characters who are far enough removed from me to avoid any personal recognition in their struggle. They’re incredibly funny, precision-honed jokes – these are professional comedy writers, after all, it’s their stock in trade – about subjects that can seem too heavy and dark to crack wise about, but their ability to do so makes it easier to cope.
It’s a feeling that even gets expressed in-show, when Diane is waiting at an abortion clinic. She believes that Sextina Aquafina’s latest pro-abortion song – for an operation she’s not actually going to have, cos she’s not pregnant, but the world believes she will; it’s a long story – only trivialises this serious, delicate topic and is ultimately doing harm to views on abortion. But a young woman also waiting for her own abortion points out the satire in the song, and how Sextina’s ability to joke about the issue made it seem less scary and more manageable for her. When I told a friend of mine earlier this year that I had been having suicidal dreams, sometimes my own and other times involving my friends as a result of me, her first response was to crack a joke about it in order to try and make me feel better. I’m lucky to have a friend who understands like that, and it’s the same kind of understanding that BoJack practices. Never flippant or insensitive, and aware of the seriousness of the situation, but refusing to give depression that level of total control and power.
This is ultimately why BoJack never ends up fetishizing sadness, like our own pop culture landscape at large is prone to do. Christ, Kevin Smith just recently partially blamed his own inability to make not-shitty movies on the fact that he’s happy! There’s a fine line between treating pain and sadness with respect, and fetishizing those things outright. The latter helps nobody, least of all oneself, and too much time spent there can turn that person into a toxic drain on everybody else who only brings them down, as they see it as the only way to live (or not live). It’s important to acknowledge the sadness and the pain, legitimise them as real emotions that are ok to feel, and it’s even ok to wallow in there every now and again. But, eventually, one has to try, no matter how much that voice convinces you otherwise. As Princess Caroline almost always starts her pep-talks with, “You’ve got to get your shit together.”
And, as the conclusion of Season 4 proves, BoJack is trying. Genuinely trying, unlike in previous seasons, and though it seems thankless and he has to battle that same mania-inducing voice in order to keep at it, he is rewarded with the one thing he hasn’t felt in a long while: happiness. Two seasons prior, he and Diane expressed uncertainty as to whether anything would make him truly happy for a prolonged period of time, and their response was to shrug and wonder if anything matters. It’s a feeling I’ve had too many times over the years, so it completely gutted me the first time I saw that scene. But BoJack, whilst never invalidating how one comes to that conclusion, has set about in this latest season proving that trying is not inherently futile. That putting the work in, actively trying to push on and address that central sadness, whilst not always providing the kind of turnaround one would hope for, is never for nothing, and it only makes each little victory that much more powerful.
There is a kind of bitter irony to the fact that BoJack Horseman has become a source of comfort for me, given that the in-universe Horsin’ Around is all about the false comfort and emotional reductivism that television, and sitcoms especially, often engage in. But, in rather the same way that Horsin’ Around gave Diane comfort and strength with her shitty home life growing up, BoJack’s sympathy and nuance when handling depression has quietly helped me these past couple of years. I watch the show and I feel like I am understood, in the way that a good friend understands you, and that means so much given how little of that understanding I get in my day-to-day life. And with Season 4’s final note being a moment of unambiguous hope – messy and not shared by everyone in the show, which only makes it feel more real and more earned – I even have a comfort that Bob-Waksberg and his team know where they’re going and how they’ll tackle the show’s eventual end (which is something I have been anxious about ever since the end of Season 3). They understand and, despite all of these words, I cannot articulate just how much that means to me.
Life, after all, is like the second season of Friday Night Lights: sometimes you gotta push through and hope there’s better stuff on the other side.
Callie Petch can’t look back, it’s impossible.