What St. Ignatius Would Say to BoJack Horseman

BoJack Horseman, now in its fourth season, has offered one of the most bizarre yet compelling narratives in television. Absurdist humor and obscure pop-culture references dominate, yet at the core of the show is a deep sense of melancholy. Paste described it as “the sad horse show.” As an animated series, BoJack Horseman is able to get away with this tonal mashup without feeling insincere.

The show follows the title character, a horse/man, who in his heyday was the star of a family sitcom called Horsin’ Around (like Full House, with a horse). By the start of season four, BoJack has attempted to reclaim his status in Hollywoo (the D was lost in season one), while struggling to maintain relationships both romantic and platonic. The season starts with an effort by BoJack’s friend, Mr. Peanutbutter (a dog/man), to run for governor of California. BoJack’s manager, Princess Carolyn (a cat/woman), is struggling with a miscarriage and its impact on her relationship with her boyfriend, Ralph. Everyone BoJack knows desires something more from life, but that something always seems just out of reach.

BoJack is surrounded by people who genuinely care about and even love him, and yet he constantly pushes them away by being rude, boorish, and sometimes cruel. In one particularly strange episode, BoJack rebuilds his family’s cabin, which had fallen into disrepair. He does this with the help of a neighbor, with whom he develops a close friendship. Just as their relationship begins to blossom, however, he decides to demolish the house and leave town. He acts as though he doesn’t care about the house or this newfound friend, but the reality is he hates himself so much that he is unable to participate in any healthy relationships.

Later, BoJack is forced to deal with the roots of his brokenness when he has to care for his aging mother, now overcome by dementia. One particularly striking episode takes us through her fractured memory. The animation becomes jumbled as faces of forgotten friends are scrambled and background details come in and out of focus. Like his mother, we only get glimpses and crumbs of memory, distorted through an aging mind. Elsewhere we are brought into BoJack’s mind, which is filled with crudely drawn figures floating in his subconscious. His inner monologue of doubt and disappointment becomes an animated children’s drawing. BoJack is faced with the thing he has been running from since season one: his own pain and self-loathing. Ultimately, BoJack finds reconciliation with his mother and is given a chance to end the cycle of pain in his relationship with a newfound half sister.

Throughout season four, the same desires and failures play out with each of the other characters. The only reason Mr. Peanutbutter is running for governor is because he needs to be constantly reminded that people like him, which ultimately leads to the deterioration of his relationship with Diane, his wife. At the start of the series, Diane hoped to be a serious journalist, but she now writes for a celebrity gossip blog where she tries to sneak in stories about refugees. Princess Carolyn’s insecurity, meanwhile, leads her to fire her trusted assistant and almost destroys the first stable relationship she’s had.

These characters, like BoJack, all want to know that they are good enough, that someone can know them and truly love them. What is tragic is that they all struggle with a deep suspicion that they are not worthy of love. BoJack’s self-loathing is perhaps the most developed, but all the characters struggle with it in some way. If BoJack Horseman is a “sad horse show,” it’s because it traces relationships that develop and then crumble, leaving the characters wallowing in self-doubt.

Watching BoJack struggle with doubt, broken relationships, and a desire for redemption, I am reminded of the wisdom of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius thought of human beings as loved sinners, people who are broken and messy, yet loved by a God who knows all the deepest darkest parts of us and loves us just the same. For Ignatius, self-loathing is a form of ingratitude, a rejection of God’s love. In Making Choices in Christ, Joseph Tetlow explains, “You hate yourself, whom God loves. This fake humility masks a flinty pride: you refuse to love the gifts and even the self that God is giving you. This is a self-deceiving way of telling God, ‘I will not serve.’” Lost in his own self-loathing, BoJack can’t imagine being loved by his friends and family, let alone by a loving, forgiving God.

Perhaps, though, that day will come. Each season ends with a close-up on BoJack’s face, which is often in distress. But at the end of season four we see, for the first time, traces of hope in his expression. It’s not a happy ending, but it gives us a glimmer of growth.

Whether or not BoJack lives into that hope, his struggle is still instructive. In its own way, BoJack Horseman can inspire us to address our own ingratitude and come to a greater appreciation of God’s abundant love.

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Patrick Brown teaches theology at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill. He has followed his interests to a degree in Digital Cinema from DePaul Univeristy and an M.A. in Theology from Catholic Theological Union.

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