If you’re reading this, then odds are you’re the sort of person who spent a large chunk of his or her weekend binge-watching Bojack Horseman Season 4. If you haven’t—leave. Immediately. It isn’t that I don’t want you here (though I am questioning your character right now, theoretical person). It’s that you’re missing out on perhaps one of the most perfect seasons of television ever made. If there was ever any doubt about the artistic viability of a series about an oversexed, drug addicted, talking horse, then Season 4 put those doubts to rest in the classiest and most intelligent way possible. From the expertly interwoven past and present sequences of Episode 2 to the sometimes touching, sometimes nightmarish phantasmagoria of Episode 11, Season 4 of Bojack Horseman is a master class in excellent writing, both in terms of storyline and characterization. As the season wound down, though, I began to realize that there a number of thematic similarities between it and the fourth season of another critically acclaimed, highly revered, groundbreaking piece of television. Just as Bojack spends the Fourth Season of the show trying to honestly clean himself up, make real human connections with people, and reconcile his bad behavior with the good person he wants to be, so too does Season 4 of Mad Men find Don Draper trying to stop his bad behavior and become a better person. Both seasons find their respective protagonists at perhaps the best place they’ve ever been in the show’s run, finally having formed a new, deep relationship with someone; and both seasons end on a hopeful shot that indicates maybe, just maybe, things can turn out OK after all.
And that’s when I realized that Bojack Horseman is Don Draper. As a horse.
Though we first meet Don at the height of his power and Bojack at the nadir of his, their lives both follow similar trajectories. Both come from abusive families with a domineering mother or mother figure; both flee to major coastal cities to reinvent themselves; both initially find some modicum of personal and professional success, only for the march of time, their own addictions, and their unresolved personal issues to slowly eat away at the lives and careers they’ve built for themselves. Both are sexual compulsives who use hookups as a quick fix for their emotional intimacy issues; both are alcoholics who drink to quell their own deep-seated self-loathing. (Season 4 of both Mad Men and Bojack each feature an episode partially narrated by the protagonist as they attempt to get a grip on their bad behavior in general and their drinking specifically—Bojack’s Stupid Piece of Shit allows us to hear his inner monologue, while Mad Men’s The Summer Man has a narrative composed of excerpts from Don’s journal).
Beyond the similarities between Bojack and Don, the supporting cast fill similar roles. Just as Don and Peggy have an initial flirtation that develops into a real friendship, and Peggy becomes the one person to see and accept Don for who he truly is, so too does Bojack begin the series hitting on Diane, only for them to become one another’s trusted confidantes (in one of the show’s best pieces of writing, it’s Bojack that Diane comes to when her humanitarian crusade falls apart; in a move demonstrative of his growth over the course of the show, Bojack helps her get back on her feet rather than put the moves on her). Similarly, Princess Carolyn is a Betty Draper stand-in: She and Bojack begin the series as a couple, then his irresponsibility and womanizing drive her away before they have a tentative reunion as friends and allies, with each occasionally helping the other out and providing clarity and emotional support. Mr. Peatnutbutter is Bojack’s Ted Chaough, while Sara Lynn is an analogue for both Don’s brother Adam and Lane—troubled souls who reached out to Don for help, only for Don to prove to be the (unwitting) catalysts for their deaths by their own hands. Todd fills the roles of both Roger Sterling and Megan—a friend with whom Bojack shares a rocky yet ultimately close relationship, and someone to whom Bojack becomes especially close, hurting them in the process.
With Bojack now a confirmed cultural phenomenon, it’s interesting to speculate why we find this narrative so compelling, and what it is right now in the popular consciousness that’s made two shows built around a self-destructive, borderline-abusive asshole’s road to recovery so successful. It speaks, perhaps, to a more optimistic truth about ourselves than we want to—or can—acknowledge. The show is, after all, ultimately a story of redemption. The series could work just as well depicting the demise of a celebrity superstar by his own hand, a sort of Behind the Music with animals. We could watch as Bojack bounces from mishap to mishap, causing more havoc and sinking deeper into his own neuroses and addictions until the series ends with Todd having to put him down. We do love human suffering, don’t we? Everyone stops to watch a car crash.
But it’d seem we love a success story even more.
Though Bojack keeps backsliding into bad behavior, every time he climbs back up, he gets a little further out of the pit. Season 1 found himself acknowledging he has problems; Season 2 found him taking the initial steps to solve them; and if Season 3 was Bojack hitting rock bottom then Season 4 is proof that, once you do, that’s when the healing can really begin. For all of the programming that plays to our baser instincts, we’ve flocked not once—but twice—to a show about a broken person trying to improve himself and start treating the people around him better. That says, maybe, that we’re not as in bad of a place as we may think—that deep down, we still feel like there is hope in the world. In an age of internet trolls, vitriolic political divide, and the resurgence of white nationalism, perhaps we need to indulge in a story about someone fundamentally broken yet also fundamentally good who wants to improve. We see not just ourselves but our world in Don Draper and Bojack Horseman—and if one person can get better, perhaps the next one can, too. And the next. And the next.
Mad Men ended with Don Draper finally reaching a place of transcendence and creating something beautiful out of that. Season 4 ended with Bojack in perhaps the best place he’s ever been in the series—perhaps his life. Though the show has a much more wry and caustic view of the world then Mad Men ever did, it’s a nice thought that, even if he doesn’t get quite as bombastic a redemption as Don did, he’ll at least get something close. It’d be a suitably uplifting ending; and perhaps, if we’re really better than we think we are—if our love of Bojack is really a love for the idea of a better world—maybe it’s an uplifting ending that we deserve.