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The Psychoanalysis of Bojack Horseman

Are you a fan of the show Bojack Horseman? If so, you might have come to the realisation that it’s more than just a simple cartoon. You might have noticed the insane psychoanalysis woven through each episode, from the jogging baboon - reminiscent of Sisyphus and his boulder - to Bojack’s constant flashbacks.

If you’re not familiar with Bojack Horseman, the show is about a half-man, half-horse, of the same name, who was once in a hit television show called Horsin’ Around. Bojack, played by Will Arnett, is washed up and living in Hollywood. He is cynical and spends his days invariably complaining, moaning, and blaming all his failures on various people in his life. 

I read a book recently, The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst, that is narrated by a gorilla and depicts the story of animals trained to become human. When the gorilla successfully becomes human, he is awarded a D to pin to his clothes as proof of his humanity. I found this to be reminiscent of Sarah Lynne, acted by Kristen Schaal, when she receives her chip for reaching her ninth month of sobriety in the episode That’s Too Much, Man (series three, episode eleven).  She wakes up full of glee at having hit her ninth month, only to go on a drug infused bender, inspired by Bojack, seemingly controlled by her pleasure principal, or in psychoanalytical terms, her id.

I’m going to discuss the ego and id throughout this post to I shall give a brief explanation of its definition and if you want to read more about it you can do so in Jacques Szaluta’s book, Psychohistory, available on Amazon.

What is it that makes us human? The ego is what sets us apart from animals. All living creatures exist with the concept of the id. The id is not concerned with reality and acts on basic instinct. It doesn’t understand consequence or know the repercussions of transgressions. The id is the lion stalking a deer who mothers five fawns. He has no concept of taking the mother away from her young, only that he needs to eat to survive.

The ego comes as we grow from toddlers into children and start to understand the world. We are aware that there are consequences to our actions. We understand that we have a place in the world and what that means. We realise that although we want something, and our basic instinct, or id, is to take it, we can’t have it. Our ego is the thing that stops us acting impulsively and learns from the past.

Back to that question. What makes us human? And can we make something, or someone, be something, or someone they are not? In The Man I Became the narrator attempts to train the lion to become human. The lion is angry and uncooperative, and the training session results in him killing a keeper and a leopard. Despite lions having been trained to be human. In the episode That’s Too Much Man, directed by JC Gonzalez, Sarah Lynne resorts back to her old ways, no matter what measures are imposed on her, no matter how sober she gets, she is unable to be tamed, much like our lion. She is ultimately driven by her need for pleasure and the things that will instinctually give her immediate gratification. And who is responsible for that? The id. Our instinctual drive, despite her ego being fully aware of the consequences. She is animalistic and gives no thought to the consequences of her thirst for pleasure, which sadly will be her death at the end of the episode.

I suppose, our Sisyphus-baboon is relevant here, if we dig a little deeper. The myth of the cruel Greek king, Sisyphus, is that he was punished with pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity, only for it to roll back down the hill every time he made it to the top, more on this here. There are many interpretations of the myth but what I get from it is that Sisyphus was happy with his task. He focused only on his task, despite never reaching completion. The nihilists amongst us interpret it as life having no meaning. What I’m getting at is, some of us are able to keep pushing that boulder, despite there being no purpose to it. Those who can’t cope with the idea that there is no hope or reason might try to block it out with drugs or alcohol. And some people can’t handle the prospect of pushing the boulder, so they stop, they quit, they end it.

Bojack and Sarah Lynne appear to struggle with the fact that life is meaningless, as many celebrities do. Those who are famous but no longer working, as is true with Bojack and Sarah Lynne, often find themselves with a huge amount of time on their hands. Time to sit and mull over the meaning of life. Time to be weighed down by heavy nihilism. Human’s need to be occupied. This might be what drives many celebrities to party lifestyles, a distraction from their impending doom if you like.

Bojack spends so much of his time trying to find himself/make things right. It’s as though he’s searching for that one thing that is missing. The one thing that will complete him. Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst whose work wasn’t dissimilar to the work of Sigmund Freud. Lacanian theory suggests that we are born ‘lacking’ and spend our lives attempting to ‘complete’ ourselves. My research tells me that Bojack suffers with this aspect of theory significantly. How many projects does he take on, only for him to feel entirely dissatisfied upon completion? The Old Sugarman Place (series four, episode two), directed by Anne Walker Farrell, is particularly reminiscent of this theory. The episode drifts back and forth between the past and the future while he attempts to build up the broken remains of his family home.

Another episode directed by Walker Farrell, Stupid Piece of Shit, from series four (episode two), gives us a peek into the mind of Bojack. We listen to his thoughts as he goes about his day, hating himself. The ego and the id are consistently at war inside his head. Just a quick reminder that the id is our animal instinct while the ego develops from the id and is influenced by the world, learning from mistakes. According to John Storey, the ego tries to replace the pleasure principle, which drives the id, with the reality principle thus bringing around the concept of consequences. Freud compared the relationship between ego and id to that of a rider and his horse. He said, ‘The horse supplies the locomotive energy, while the rider has the privilege of deciding the goal and of guiding the powerful animals movement.’ Bojack’s narrative really goes much deeper than the audience might initially comprehend with every detail seemingly carefully constructed within psychoanalysis. This brings me to the conclusion that Bojack Horseman is, quite literally, the rider and his horse.  His entire character appears to built around the Freudian ideal, starting with the physical visuals (he is half-man, half-horse) and ending with his desire to do good conflicting with his impulse to do bad. The entire show centres around Bojack’s life being driven by his id and his disregard for consequences. He insistently satisfies his pleasure impulses with quick fixes such as alcohol, drugs, food, and sex. This episode is evidence of this, as his ego fights his id on whether he should eat cookies for breakfast. His ego knows he shouldn’t because the consequences will be poor health and weight gain, but his id pushes him to eat them for that instant gratification achieved by the pleasure principal.

All in all I am blown away by how intrinsically embedded Freudian and Lacanian theory is, as well as other aspects of psychoanalysis. I could write an entire thesis on this and have only given a select few examples. If you haven’t seen Bojack Horseman, I think it would be entirely worth your time. Just try not to get too despondent. I’ve been known to spiral into quite the existential crisis during some of the particularly deep episodes.  

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