BoJack Horseman, which returns to Netflix this Friday for season 6, boasts some of the finest depictions of trauma and mental illness in television history. By many critical estimations, it even heralded a new golden age of animation. (But, c’mon, the golden age started 30 years ago.)
Give me a break. The writing stands out, but BoJack Horseman is masterwork of animation craft. More than any other American cartoon I can think of, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s tragicomedy uses techniques unique to the medium to explore abstract concepts, establish themes, and set moods in ways that no live-action show could possibly muster. It’s probably the best example of what animators can do that nobody else can since Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Watching Hideaki Anno’s nightmarish, giant-robot anime, even without getting into the many alternate endings and versions produced after the original series aired, sometimes feels like watching two different shows. In the second half of the series, Anno, overwhelmed by his own depression and fascinated with mental health, pivoted from the classic “mech pilot saves the world” trope to an exploration of the bleakest reaches of the human psyche. Evangelion is infamous due to the final two episodes of its initial run, “The Ending World” and “The Beast that Shouted ‘I’ at the Heart of the World,” each of which takes place entirely in the minds of its shattered protagonists.
Anno’s new direction, also spurred by a crumbling production schedule, provided the animation team provided a creative wonderland. The resulting episodes are sparse, filled with still moments, blank spaces, and a massive range of art styles to call attention to the mental states of its characters. And yet, in spite of a lack of the sort of showy animation that made earlier Evangelion episodes dazzle with fluid and gorgeous fight scenes, they feel the most cutting-edge.
The emotional states and thought patterns of these characters are expressed by visuals that call direct attention to how they are animated. In Asuka Langley Soryu’s mind, a memory of her childhood self fades from being animated in a hazy style, evoking a memory within a dream-state, into a sketch of the character as she becomes more and more overwhelmed by recollections of her adoptive mother’s madness and apathy toward her daughter.
The treatment for Shinji Ikari, the show’s protagonist, is even more powerful. As Shinji is interrogated by versions of his family, friends, and colleagues in his own mind, he comes face to face with his own anxiety, fear of others, and self-hatred. He meditates on what freedoms he must give up to connect with others and what relationships he has severed in order to feel protected. As this occurs, a still outline of his body is reanimated again and again, filled with images of his experiences and abstract representations of his feelings.
Later, scenes that look like they were drawn by a child unfold as the mental manifestations of three people he knows best grill him on his choices and feelings. Later still, rough line-drawings of Shinji show his subconscious self attempting to grapple with what it means to have control.
Unlike Evangelion, which found psychological and artistic opportunity in time and budget constraints, BoJack all seems planned out — giving it even more opportunity to truly flex the craft. This may even be a case of straight homage; animators on “Stupid Piece of Shit,” the sixth episode of BoJack’s fourth season, use similar techniques to those employed by the Evangelion animators nearly 20 years before. The episode explores BoJack’s anxiety, depression, self-hatred, and guilt, and through abstract art, telegraphs the chaotic, traumatic state of BoJack’s mind. He and the characters and scenarios he’s thinking about are rendered as jittery doodles moving at the jagged pace of early film, which get more horrific as he feels worse and less in control.
The fifth season’s eleventh episode, “The Showstopper,” takes a different approach, animating BoJack’s spiral into drug abuse as a kaleidoscopic Broadway showstopper of self-flagellation.
In the new batch of episodes, BoJack’s animators ramp up the surreal imagery even more. Throughout the season, memories of how Bojack enabled former co-star Sarah Lynn’s alcoholism and drug abuse haunt the horse in the form of a starry sky motif. When he looks at alcohol, his drug of choice and the fuel behind most of the worst moments of his abusive and self-abusive life, reality fades away.
[Ed. note: the following contains minor spoilers for Bojack season 6.]
Princess Carolyn gets a similar treatment in the second episode of the new season, “The New Client.” The new mother is absolutely overwhelmed by her overly-busy life, and the anxiety comes to life in the form of multicolored carbon-copies performing the zillion tasks she has to tackle each day. We see them multiply around her, crowding her endlessly on the screen as she progresses into feeling more helpless and incapacitated by her endless responsibilities, with each color representing a different aspect — mother, producer, agent, and more — of her life.
This is what cartoons do. As comics theorist Scott McCloud would put it, “when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.” Or, in this case, you see the inside of a mind like yours, and what that mind might look like if something has gone terribly wrong.
The connection between BoJack and Evangelion may not seem obvious at first, but their similar techniques representing similar struggles are an all too poignant reminder of how animation can be seized by creators to defy real life and say something new. Marshall McLuhan put it best years ago: the medium, after all, is the message.
John Maher is digital editor and associate news editor at Publishers Weekly and co-founder and editor of The Dot and Line. He has written for Time Inc. Books, Esquire.com, Real Simple, Pacific Standard, Thrillist, Kirkus Reviews, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, and Hyperallergic, among others.
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