There is a thought experiment called ‘The Ship of Theseus.’ It goes something like this:
Theseus’s ship is on display as a museum piece in the harbor. After some time the sails are damaged from the elements and need to be replaced. Years later the wooden planks on the deck are waterlogged and warped so those get swapped out for new pieces as well. Eventually, every single part has been replaced. Is it still Theseus’ ship? And if you reassemble all the parts that you have removed to create a second ship, is that the original?
The answer is that it depends on your definitions and this is why I bring it up. Let’s say instead of a ship, it’s a person, and instead of decay in physical condition over time, it’s decay in moral character. How many positive actions will it take to make the person good? And can you change into a good person, or are you forever marred by your past?
weighing your sins
Netflix’s BoJack Horseman is a show that dives into the deep end of this discussion and refuses to come up for air.
In the penultimate episode of season one Downer Ending, BoJack goes to Diane and asks her if he’s a good person, and she doesn’t know what to say. His question turns into pleading and soon he is begging for her- for anyone to validate him and tell him that he is good. He wants to hear this because he knows that he isn’t good and needs to be told otherwise.
Throughout the course of the show, BoJack continues to make progress and we see him make better choices with every episode. There are moments in the latest season where his actions seem completely foreign to season one BoJack, but it doesn’t feel out of place because his growth has been natural. However, it doesn’t change who he is and he occasionally does awful things. We are left to wonder, when does the good outweigh the bad? And can it?
The hard talk
In the first piece I wrote for this blog, I discussed what I called The Hard Talk. It’s that moment when a piece of media addresses itself and the reality of how the audience perceives it. BoJack Horseman is a master of The Hard Talk, and by season 5, it is no longer holding the ugly mirror to the audience, but instead toward themselves.
In season 5, BoJack has a starring role in a detective show called Philbert. Diane is upset with the show’s reception because as a member of the writing staff, she intended to use it to point out problems with BoJack’s actions by pulling from his past and inserting those horrible decisions into the plot of Philbert itself. Unfortunately, this reads to the audience of the show within the show that their heroes can be problematic and that is okay. It makes men who watch Philbert feel better for the awful things that they have done because if the sad guy on the show they like do it, then they aren’t bad people. They just see themselves as temporarily sad good guys.
And that’s the problem.
the meta narrative
What makes this story arc so genius is the fact that this is a major problem with how BoJack Horseman is perceived by certain fans. The weight of his actions isn’t taken at face value because he’s the protagonist so at the end of the day, we’re rooting for him.
This problem is tackled when the show introduces Vance Waggoner, a male celebrity with a track record of horrendous behavior including sexually harassing a police officer and anti-Semitic comments. He is clearly meant to be an amalgamation of Mel Gibson, Jonny Depp, Alec Baldwin, and many other men in Hollywoo(d) with sordid pasts who we seem to have forgiven just because they are famous. The show even satirizes this by mentioning that Vance Waggoner is receiving a lifetime achievement award at the We Forgive You Awards.
As funny as the social commentary of this episode is, it made me very uncomfortable to watch because as the episode progressed, I realized that in the real world, BoJack would himself be a Vance Waggoner type. We only like him because we watch all of his wacky antics and get to laugh at it through a screen. If Vance Waggoner had his own Netflix show in BoJack’s world, maybe people would watch it and root for Vance just as we do for BoJack.
As we strip down BoJack’s traits his character gets darker and darker. Remove his love interests, take out Todd’s wacky sub plots, Princess Carolyn’s crazy tongue twisters, all of the background gags, and all of the fun elements that make the show so charming. What are we left with?
A pathetic, drunk man who can’t seem to stop digging himself deeper and deeper while simultaneously ruining any chance he has of atoning for his past.
And we wonder, if BoJack at his bare bones is Vance and we simply dress him up with everything that makes the show enjoyable, is he a new person? Or is he still Theseus’ ship?
BoJack as a person has come a long way, but as we watch him grow, the question becomes more than apparent. How much does he have to do to be a good person? When is it okay to forget about all of the bad stuff he did in the past to see the new and improved BoJack for who he is?
At what point, can we forgive, if at all?
Let’s talk about #metoo
When you do bad things, you deserve to get punished. I think everyone can agree on that, the issue comes with the severity of the punishment.
The punishment should fit the crime, but it becomes incredibly hard to determine the degree when reports of sexual assault from years ago surface. However, that doesn’t mean that we should forgo the punishment altogether. While there are statutes of limitations in criminal cases, I am here to talk about the court of public opinion.
Kevin Spacey was accused and his poorly handled public statement was essentially ‘I don’t remember it, but sorry if it happened.’
What makes Kevin Spacey’s allegations so important is it marked a domino effect. For the first time in my life, these allegations were taken seriously. Spacey’s lost major projects where it cost more to remove him than to sweep the allegations under the rug. For the first time, money wasn’t guiding the reaction.
The following month, A-list comedian Louis CK had similar allegations drop which he confirmed to be true and apologized. He had a film that he starred in and directed set to release soon, but it was pulled from distribution as a reaction to the allegations.
As with most cases in life, The Dark Knight called this phenomenon years ago:
being honest with yourself
Some of my favorite and most cherished movies star Kevin Spacey. Louis CK shaped my appreciation of comedy and his show Louis taught me so many life lessons.
And that changes nothing.
As much as it hurts me to look at BoJack, one of my favorite TV characters and be forced to acknowledge that he is a toxic individual, I also have to look at some of my heroes and have to turn my back on them. Regardless of how many times they’ve brought me joy in the past, it doesn’t change what they’ve done and how it’s been overlooked in favor of their talent.
When we choose to ignore these issues, what we are saying to the victims is that their trauma doesn’t outweigh someone’s stature. While it isn’t impossible for someone to make a comeback from such a fall from grace, I don’t think things will ever be the same. We will always know what they did and how long it went unaddressed and all of the people who were hurt along the way. Sometimes we just need to be better.
What BoJack Horseman does differently is it shows you the raw image of who BoJack is as a person and makes you question yourself. It looks you right in the eye and says ‘is this your hero? Because it shouldn’t be.’
Season 5 of BoJack Horseman ends with BoJack finally going to rehab and seeking help to own up for everything he’s done. While I think that this is a step in the right direction for his character, given everything his past, it’s going to take a lot of work before I stop seeing him as Theseus’ ship.