“Life is a neverending show, old sport,
Except the minor detail that it ends.
The overture’s a lifetime but the show is short,
Here with all your family and friends.
…And don’t stop dancing, don’t stop dancing
‘Til the curtain call.”
(“The View From Halfway Down,” written by Alison Tafel)
The dead child actress-turned-popstar Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal, never better) sings these words in the penultimate episode of Bojack Horseman just before she falls into the blackness of oblivion, a doorway to nowhere in the titular character’s mind. Despite a pop interlude, she’s more somber than she’s ever been, and the song is shattering, its echoes resonating with viewers long after that inevitable curtain-call.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s incredible series spent six seasons exploring the balance between culpability and perceived powerlessness–weighing the choices a person makes against the choices that make a person–and the doomed young woman whose death marks Bojack’s narrative midpoint is the linchpin for the series’ darkest and most vital themes. At times, Bojack Horseman is also a show about toxic cycles, rock bottoms that break through to even lower rock bottoms. And “That’s Too Much, Man”, the third season episode written by Elijah Aron and Jordan Young with JC Gonzalez directing, hits rock-bottom going full speed.
Before she was dead, Sarah Lynn was nine months sober, hopping out of her princess bed to peppily greet her gardeners and blend a superfood smoothie. Then Bojack (Will Arnett) calls. “Hey Sarah Lynn, you want to party?” He asks. “Oh, thank God. YES!” She answers, before ripping down her sobriety calendar to reveal a stash of hard liquor.
“That’s Too Much, Man” burns fast and hot from the start, as Sarah Lynn and Bojack recover stashes of drugs and alcohol from increasingly outlandish spots around her home. Then Bojack starts blacking out, and we lose whatever parts of the story he loses. The series would go on to use this choppy, purposely disorienting narrative style again later, in other devastating episodes like “Time’s Arrow” (where Beatrice Horseman’s dementia robs her memories of chronology and context) and “The Showstopper” (when an out-of-control Bojack begins to mix up his TV role with his reality).
At airtime, this was a novel approach, one that was overshadowed by the season’s even more formally daring silent outing, “Fish Out of Water.” With the completed series to consider, though, it’s “That’s Too Much, Man” that stands apart as a turning point and a master-stroke of story-telling, its usage of blackouts at once thrilling and ominous. Addiction narratives are tough to crack, but this one is able to convey both how fun the high actually is–sitcom music and tropes like a makeover montage underscore the duos’ increasingly destructive behavior–and how quickly it can turn sour.
Before Bojack knows it, the pair is at an AA meeting where Sarah Lynn plans to pick up her nine-month chip while hammered out of her mind. Soon, Bojack is talking about the elephant–or in this case, deer–in the room. A season earlier, he left L.A. for New Mexico, where he nearly ended up taking advantage of his former flame’s 17-year-old daughter, a deer named Penny. Years before the #MeToo movement or the term “cancel culture” existed, Bojack Horseman was dealing thoughtfully with the drawn-out implications and complicated psychologies of men who hurt women.
The New Mexico episode came across as dangerous at the time–too big for a comedy to address, and a situation it would be irresponsible for series writers to leave hanging–yet a season later, it becomes clear that the series plans to grapple with it for the long run. Bojack isn’t off the hook, but he’s a character who brings us an unnerving sense of realism as he fails again and again to reconcile the person he wants to be with the damage he does to the people around him. He blacks out again, and he and Sarah Lynn are suddenly “making amends” with the people he’s hurt, oblivious to the trauma they’re causing by bursting into living rooms while dangerously strung out. As Diane (Alison Brie) will later point out, Bojack sees himself as the main character of everyone’s story, so it’s impossible for him to see the layers of pain he’s caused without believing himself an injured party.
And then there’s Sarah Lynn. She’s written as an obvious stand-in for a half-dozen young women who came of age in the spotlight, the girls who spun out of control after years of being manipulated for profit. At first glance, she’s the tabloid headline, a bratty party girl who respects nothing, least of all herself. But with Bob-Waksberg and his writing team as her creators, she’s much more than that; Sarah Lynn isn’t a parody, she’s a fully formed tragedy. That she dies before Bojack is not surprising; while he thinks there’s a better version of himself out there, she’s resigned herself to the path her parents, managers, producers, fans, media stalkers, and Bojack himself have laid out for her, only stopping to consider a healthier path for rare, fleeting moments. Seasons after “That’s Too Much, Man” we learn that she had her first drink at the age of 10 on the set of Horsin’ Around, when Bojack left a water bottle full of vodka within reach. It’s him who told her–when she was too young to process it, but not young enough to forget it–to not stop dancing and smiling for a crowd, even if it kills her.
It would be easy to blame Bojack for Sarah Lynn’s eventual demise–she even overdoses on heroin named after him–but as a series, Bojack Horseman wants to do more than that. By series end, we have a portrait of intergenerational pain that spans decades before present-day Hollywoo. Post World War II, Joseph Sugarman was instilling trauma in Beatrice Sugarman, who grew up to raise and traumatize Bojack, who influenced and traumatized Sarah Lynn, who in turn inspired an even younger popstar. Sextina Aquafina, a sexualized teen who eventually becomes pregnant. The vein of human hurt and destruction runs deep, and few shows have ever succeeded or even attempted to tap into it the way Bojack does.
One of the most frequently aired and valid pop-cultural criticisms points out that women in the stories we see on-screen often die to spur the character progression of their male counterparts. Sarah Lynn is never that simple. She’s at the center of all the complicated guilt Bojack carries with him through the series, and in the sixth season’s opening credits, her child self is the first image to appear in a veritable greatest hits of his self-loathing. Yet she’s also written as a real person who we’re meant to see more clearly than half-listening Bojack ever can, as someone who should’ve been the main character of her life but never got the chance. Hers is the first death in the series that matters not only to the central character but to us. We know her, even if she doesn’t know herself. Sarah Lynn said yes to brand deals just so she could feel wanted. Sarah Lynn thought that being a child star should be illegal. Sarah Lynn loved the Hollywoo planetarium. Sarah Lynn wanted to be an architect.
Those are her last words, actually, with Bojack in the dark of the planetarium, a dazzling projection of the night sky plastered across the ceiling above, limitless and open: “I wanna be an architect.” The show would go on to break our hearts again and differently, but we’re meant to be haunted by this particular heartbreak long after the final curtain call.