Trash & Treasures: What it means to be a good person — an exploration of morality in ‘BoJack Horseman’

“BoJack Horseman” addresses abuse, relationships and trauma, but the issue of morality remains the overarching theme of the show. Courtesy: James Flanagan via Vimeo

This article contains spoilers for seasons one through five of “BoJack Horseman.”

“BoJack Horseman” is a Netflix television series about a depressed, humanoid horse.

Well, kind of. “BoJack Horseman” is about a lot of things — physical and verbal abuse, interpersonal relationships, intergenerational trauma, substance abuse and mental illnesses. BoJack (the depressed, humanoid horse) is the catalyst for nearly every catastrophe on this show, so all of these themes manifest themselves throughout the different seasons.

There is a lot of debate buzzing among the show’s audience as to whether BoJack is a good person trying to disrupt his pattern of toxic behavior, or a scumbag completely incapable of change.

While the show is quick to remind us that suffering from mental illnesses and having an abusive family does not excuse terrible behavior, it doesn’t present a clear answer to this debate, especially considering that even BoJack considers himself to be irredeemable.

BoJack was once the star of a 90s sitcom “Horsin’ Around,” a fictional “Full House” promoting cheesy family values. Now, he’s a washed-up nobody.

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Season one begins several decades after the show’s cancellation, where we are introduced to the rest of the main cast: his ex-girlfriend and agent Princess Carolyn, his roommate Todd Chavez, his ghostwriter Diane Nguyen and fellow actor Mister Peanutbutter. Each of these characters has their own unique perspective and problems to deal with, but these issues always manage to collide with BoJack’s.

BoJack has done incredibly terrible things. He enabled the drug addiction of Sara Lynn, his old co-star for whom he was originally a father figure, and played a complicit role in her overdose and eventual death. He, in his early 50s, was caught almost sleeping with a 17-year-old girl. The end of season five illustrates his lowest low: While high on opioids, he nearly strangled his ex-girlfriend Gina to death.

Despite his egregious mistakes, BoJack has also demonstrated a capacity for doing good. Although he has zero obligations to do so, he constantly attempts to improve his relationship with his half-sister, Hollyhock. He has screwed this up extraordinarily at certain points, but he does genuinely care about her and seems to value her more than he does any other cast member.

He finds an abandoned baby seahorse and brings it back to its father without any compensation for his efforts. He helps Todd break out of a cult. Perhaps the kindest thing he’s ever done is the gesture he makes toward Diane during season one — he allows an autobiography portraying him in a terrible light to be published in an attempt to further Diane’s career. In doing so, he becomes a laughingstock in the public eye for the sake of his friend’s happiness.

So the question remains: Is BoJack Horseman a “good” person?

In episode 12 of season one, Diane claims that “all you are is just the things that you do,” implying that people’s intentions don’t actually matter. The consequences of this line of thought are illustrated through the character of Sebastian St. Clair, a philanthropist volunteering in fictitious war-torn Cordovia. Despite the obvious good deeds he does on a daily basis, he does not actually care about the people he helps and is solely motivated by maintaining a positive public image.

If you’ve done good deeds with absolutely no righteous motivations behind them, does that make you a bad person? Likewise, if good intentions are all you have to show for yourself, then can you consider yourself a good person?

“BoJack Horseman” shows us that good people aren’t necessarily people who do good things; rather, they are people who always try to minimize the damage that they’re capable of. Consistent inconsideracy toward the potential damage we can do is what makes a person bad.

BoJack is an amalgamation of these qualities, leaving the audience relatively unsurprised when he messes up but always astonished by the new and creative ways he manages to do so.

BoJack perpetually fights against his established apathy and willful ignorance in an attempt to minimize the damage he is capable of. So, no: BoJack is not a good person. He is a bad person trying to become a good person. This is a compelling narrative for many. Just like BoJack wants to better himself, we want to better ourselves in turn. That’s why the majority of the audience continues to root for him: We see ourselves in his character.

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Brooke Sparks PO ’22 never thinks before she speaks. She mains Zelda in Smash Ultimate.

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