BoJack Horseman and Ibsen: Prestige Television’s Greatest Trick

Bojack Horseman | Netflix

Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But, of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”

—Cutter (Michael Caine), The Prestige 

I. The Pledge

Neither BoJack Horseman nor the plays of Henrik Ibsen tell stories about magic, but the ways in which creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has woven the playwright into his show is a narrative trick as good as any.

On the surface, the two have little in common. BoJack is an animated Netflix comedy about a talking horse-man—Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian playwright in the 19th century, known for fathering the Realism movement on stage. What they do share, beneath their respective veneers, is a sharp insight into the festering wounds within society. BoJack is known for satire, particularly its skewering of Hollywoo(d), but more often, Bob-Waksberg uses that film industry lens to consider our social problems at large.

Ibsen, too, was insistent on using his plays to deliver social commentary, so much so that he often faced enormous backlash. In A Doll’s House, among Ibsen’s most famous plays, protagonist Nora leaves her husband, having grown disillusioned with their marriage and her role within it. When the play was staged in Germany, it could be done only if the ending was reversed. In 1870s Europe, a woman abandoning her “womanly duties” would be well beyond the pale. Feedback on another play, Ghosts, was simpler: one London critic simply called it “an open sewer.”

Beyond this focus on challenging absurd or oppressive norms, both BoJack and Ibsen stand out from the pack due to their deep human cores. Both are about ordinary people, obsessed with their legacies, fleeing from their pasts, searching for some kind of happiness in a difficult world.

That’s all well and good, but it wouldn’t mean anything if Bob-Waksberg hadn’t showed us the Pledge. In the show’s very first scene, BoJack, a washed-up sitcom actor who’s done nothing but drink whiskey since the ‘90s, sits with Charlie Rose and reflects on his legacy. “I think the show’s actually pretty solid, for what it is,” he says. “It’s not Ibsen, sure…”

A canary in a cage, the magician tells us—perfectly ordinary, if you’d like to take a look.

II. The Turn

Of course, the reason this particular canary looks so ordinary is because it is. BoJack Horseman isn’t a magic trick, and as far as the viewer is concerned, that line only serves to characterize BoJack—he’s cultured and somewhat self-aware, even if the line is delivered through a haze of alcohol and narcissism. He elaborates by describing life as a “kick in the urethra,” and arguing his sitcom (Horsin’ Around) didn’t need to reach the height of dramatic art to be meaningful; the very fact that it could help people forget their lives and indulge in innocent fun for 20 minutes made it worthwhile.

There’s real insight and sympathy there, a trademark of both the show and the character. BoJack’s been miserable his entire life, thanks first to his parents—Beatrice and Butterscotch, two wrecking balls in horse-man form—and later to his depression, cynicism, and self-destructive tendencies. Yet, despite that, he recognizes the worth of trying to make others happy with his comedy, even if it is fleeting and “saccharine, and not good.” Ibsen seems to be the least important part of the scene—until season two.

In “Brand New Couch,” the second season premiere, BoJack reflects on his sitcom once more, this time less consciously and without the constructed justifications. We see him performing to a live audience as a young man, glancing nervously at his mother in the crowd. Beatrice, for her part, is openly unimpressed. Later, at a restaurant, she relays her disgust that the man beside her had been wearing a T-shirt in the theater. On the show itself: “Well, it wasn’t Ibsen.”

It’s as if the canary, which had seemed so unassuming when the magician brought it onstage, vanishes before our eyes. We know from season one that BoJack’s relationship with his parents was never strong, but it’s the first time we realize how hateful Beatrice actually is, and how her son has internalized that hate, probably without even realizing it. That perfectly innocuous line is spat back at us an entire season later, turning BoJack’s seemingly self-aware comment to Charlie Rose into a product of something vulnerable and hidden.

In season four, when an elderly Beatrice is quickly succumbing to dementia, we see her laughing at an episode of Horsin’ Around, likely having forgotten why it is she’s supposed to hate the show. Her ancient jab in the restaurant was intended to be cruel. It was intended to demean BoJack and remind him that he, like his father, isn’t actually worth her time. In another flashback, Beatrice is heard smashing a plate in the kitchen. When Butterscotch shouts that he can break dinner plates too, Beatrice throws back, “That’s a salad plate, you peasant!” Tellingly, BoJack and Butterscotch are both voiced by the same actor, Will Arnett.

Butterscotch was a failed artist as well, a writer too mediocre to succeed and too proud and bitter to admit it. That bitterness twisted him into a cynical, abusive nightmare every bit Beatrice’s match. Child being father of the man—as Wordsworth wrote—we see BoJack warped by his childhood, spiraling towards a terrifying sameness. It’s not just that he sounds like Butterscotch, he’s becoming the man. His parents have made him in their image. We sail, as Ibsen once wrote, with a corpse in the cargo.

III. The Prestige

The reader might be forgiven for wondering why I’ve brought Ibsen into this at all. The great playwright is mentioned in those two lines—the first, largely meaningless; the latter, giving it meaning in a simple, if devastating, way—and, except for one more repetition of the line in the fourth season episode “Time’s Arrow,” doesn’t really show up again. The reader might also be forgiven for thinking they already know what Prestige I’m building to—how the magician is ultimately going to make the canary reappear: season four’s plot, with young Hollyhock being revealed as BoJack’s half-sister by way of Butterscotch and Beatrice’s maid, is lifted directly from Ibsen’s Ghosts. The parallels between Bojack and Ghosts are abundant, with Ghosts also demonstrating the past’s parasitic hold on the present, particularly for Osvald and Regina the maid, who suffer for their father’s actions years after he’s passed.

Despite the magnitude of this connection, what actually serves as the final act of the trick is much smaller and sadder. Season five’s “Free Churro”—an episode that could stand as a case-in-point for the show’s place in the pantheon—consists almost entirely of BoJack performing Beatrice’s eulogy. Only one scene is offered outside of that eulogy: a teenage BoJack, sitting in the car with Butterscotch, listening to one of his father’s familiar rants. The writers drop the Prestige as if it’s nothing. As if they’ve figured out their greatest trick, but don’t want it to interrupt the rest of the episode.

“Your mother’s having another one of her episodes,” Butterscotch tells BoJack. “Last night she went to see A Doll’s House with a couple girlfriends, and now she has ideas.” He goes on to mention that she refused to make him lunch (“a meal I need,” he reminds his son, “in order to live!”) and that her weeping distracted him from his writing.

On the surface, the repetition of “It’s not Ibsen” seemed to reveal so much about the toxic relationship between Beatrice and BoJack that we never stopped to wonder: Why Ibsen? Beatrice didn’t just care about Ibsen because she was an aristocratic asshole. Her comments to BoJack were a cruel jab, yes, but there was also a part of her that must have measured all art by Ibsen’s standard. A Doll’s House—for most viewers, likely the play most synonymous with Ibsen’s name—concerns the dissolution of the self within a marriage. It concerns a woman’s isolation within an institution that considers her as secondary, and her decision to free herself of that, regardless of the consequences. Beatrice, an intelligent, free-thinking woman with an activist streak, had watched her father literally cut away her mother’s agency. She worked against her father’s influence throughout her childhood, earning a Bachelor’s degree despite his opposition, rejecting his money and his corporate empire, only to watch all of that progress get sucked away when she accidentally conceived BoJack.

There are a number of scenes throughout the show that attempt to understand the person beneath Beatrice’s flaws, but nothing cuts deeper than Butterscotch’s one off-hand comment. Like her son, Beatrice has no choice but to sail with corpses in the cargo.

IV. The Canary

When Christian Bale’s character in The Prestige collects his applause for making a canary disappear—and reappear—along with its cage, one boy in the audience is left in tears. Later, the magician asks him why—after all, the canary turned out to be fine. “You killed him,” the boy insists. Not the sweet, chirpy, thing in the magician’s hand, but its brother. The Turn, as we find out, involved folding the cage flat beneath a cloth so that it only seemed to be vanishing. The hale, healthy canary revealed in the Prestige was an entirely different canary in an entirely different cage.

Some tricks, no matter how impressive, have a rotten core. The more layers of melancholy we pull back, the more it seems like a sick joke. Giving Beatrice so much pathos is a poignant move on the writers’ part, offering humanity where it didn’t seem possible. But it also shrouds her malice in tragedy.

Her behavior towards BoJack is inexcusable, but the show makes it easier to understand. Beatrice’s mother loved her own son too much and when he died it broke her. Beatrice promised never to love that fiercely—when she grew too fond of her stuffed toy and her father cast it into the fire, the memory haunted her until her death. To love a child, in Beatrice’s eyes, is to leave yourself exposed.

That legacy, compounded by her resentment over replacing her imagined future with a family she didn’t want, turns her into the walking nightmare that still haunts BoJack in the present. This is a show about inertia, about pushing back against the things that defined us, only to become those things for the people that come after. When a young Beatrice’s parents fight in “Time’s Arrow,” they cast tall shadows on the wall. Those shadows loom over her, just as Beatrice’s shadow does in BoJack’s flashbacks. When Beatrice’s dementia takes us on a tour of her past, the portraits of her and BoJack as children blend across decades and spaces until they coalesce. They are both linked to the same chain. “The sins of the fathers,” Ibsen wrote in Ghosts, “are visited upon the children.”

Ghosts is the closest thing BoJack has to a spiritual predecessor. Ibsen was obsessed with the past; many of his plays, from Pillars of the Community to Hedda Gabler, deal with the ways in which the past clings onto us. The corpse in the cargo, in other words. BoJack is a (horse)man with no shortage of past failures. Like poor Osvald in Ghosts, the people around BoJack suffer for his sins. That he regrets those actions doesn’t make them any less destructive.

It can be tough to remember, when considering all of this, that BoJack is very funny. As much as it embraces its own bleakness, it has always rooted itself in humor and hope. BoJack may be the cynical, destructive, piece of shit he thinks he is, but what makes him one of TV’s great anti-heroes is his capacity to change. “The first thing is, you have to believe that change is possible,” an audiobook suggests in season two.

You come by it honestly,” Beatrice counters, “the ugliness inside you. You were born broken, that’s your birthright. And now you can fill your life with projects, your books, and your movies and your little girlfriends, but it won’t make you whole. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”

BoJack believes her, but he tries anyway. In season six, he confesses that he “bought into this idea that I was the thing that couldn’t be changed,” but he claims that rehab is showing him a new way. BoJack is a wrecking ball in every life he touches. His self-destruction explodes outwards in a radius of pain. But he’s self-aware enough to see it and to hate himself for it.

He tries to be better with Hollyhock. He demolishes his grandfather’s old lake house, refusing to live in a shrine to the past. He tries to break the chain. Whether it’s possible is hard to say, and arguments could be made that he doesn’t deserve to escape his past at all. Yet a show that can humanize its most abject personalities without reducing itself or excusing its characters’ behavior is a show worth the journey. And who knows? There might be hope for us yet. In A Doll’s House, Nora has no idea how she’ll exist outside of her traditional roles. She can’t be sure if she’ll survive the change. Yet, she knows that change is necessary, so she takes the leap.