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How ‘BoJack Horseman’ Achieved Perfection Without a Word

"Fish Out of Water," the nearly-silent fourth episode of "BoJack Horseman" Season 3, reached previously undiscovered depths while inventing an underwater world.

BoJack Horseman Season 3 premiering on Netflix on July 22, 2016. The series stars Will Arnett, Aaron Paul and Amy Sedaris. (Photo Netflix)

Netflix

[Editor’s Note: “BoJack Horseman” Season 3 is a feat of storytelling on both a serialized and episodic level. To honor the impressive accomplishment, IndieWire will be reviewing all 12 episodes over the next few weeks. Below, we delve into Episode 4.]

“You’ll find me in a sea of dreams where no one cares about my words.”

That Raphael Bob-Waksberg would make a largely silent episode of “BoJack Horseman” is as surprising as it is fitting, but the diegetic reason the episode features little dialogue (and none underwater) takes a well-executed punchline and turns it into transcendent TV. Revealed in the final seconds of “A Fish Out of Water,” we learn BoJack could have been speaking the entire time had he not been ignorant of how to use his underwater oxygen bubble. When he finally pushes his communication button and realizes the gaffe, BoJack lets out a frustrated “Oh, you have got to be kidd–” that’s cut off by the credits. While funny as a kicker to an episode building to a crescendo of mistakes, the choice also speaks to our antihero’s larger mental state and why he so consistently struggles to accomplish the simplest of tasks — he doesn’t want to.

All of BoJack’s problems in the episode stem from the idea he can’t speak — an astute decision on multiple levels, but conversely clever in that “BoJack Horseman” is the ideal series to experiment with a silent episode. So much of its humor, drama and general emotions stem from the visuals, be it the alluring color combinations, punny signs or inventive world-building (showcased doubly with this never-before-seen underwater universe). The screen is packed with new information every time the setting shifts; so much so that it’s actually fun to watch episodes with the sound off after appreciating the verbal repartee the first time through.

Note the name in feed at the bottom.

Note the name in feed at the bottom.

Netflix

So creating an episode wholly devoted to the visuals is an excellent means to draw attention to the hard work done by the animators, week in and week out, and how well their choices are incorporated into the larger story. But one reason isn’t good enough. Bob-Waksberg uses the silence to show us what BoJack is lacking in his life, and why. Think back to the opening, when Ana asks BoJack if he knows what a thumbs up means. He says he does without even considering the context of her question — that a foreign “land” may interpret our innocuous gestures differently. This gets him in trouble with the national media; a fact he’s oblivious to even when screens showcase the mistake all around him.

Unless BoJack is forced to learn something — usually the hard way — he doesn’t learn it. Instead, he coasts by on his celebrity status; a status he uses as an excuse to be a jerk, or, to be more specific, a status he uses to convince himself he’s not the one doing something wrong. It’s Famous BoJack; Celebrity BoJack; a side of BoJack he doesn’t consider his true self. But when he’s left alone, literally in the middle of nowhere, with a newborn baby seahorse, BoJack has no excuse. He knows if he abandons his responsibility, no one else will fix it for him. His publicist can’t take care of it. Neither can Princess Carolyn. This is a moment he has to embrace, and he does.

Rescuing the baby stands as a successful accomplishment, and it leads him to what would’ve been another — his apology to Kelsey Jannings — except, well, Famous BoJack gets in the way. Because he never realized he could speak to her, BoJack instead writes down his apology on a note that is ruined by the water surrounding him. Had BoJack simply learned how to exist underwater — to exist in a foreign land not unlike what the world must feel like to celebrities who transition from “normal” to famous — he would have been OK. He would have saved the baby and saved himself.

Instead, he fails — again. One success does not lead to another. In BoJack’s mind, one selfless good deed does him no good in the long run. Saving the seahorse may have helped him figure out what to say to Kelsey, but it didn’t help him obtain her forgiveness. If he’d make the effort to trace his problems back to their root, he’d be better off. But BoJack refuses to go there. In part, it’s because he connects fame and status with a specific attitude (an asshole) unconducive to growth — because growth requires effort. Still, BoJack’s a step closer to understanding as much after this episode. Why? Well, let’s move on…

EPISODE 1 REVIEW: ‘BoJack Horseman’ Season 3 Premiere: Can ‘Bad’ TV Be Better Than Oscar Movies?

Key Foreshadowing

BoJack Horseman Season 3 premiering on Netflix on July 22, 2016. The series stars Will Arnett, Aaron Paul and Amy Sedaris. (Photo Netflix)

For Non-Bingers: Seahorses! Ever since we saw the adorable green babies fall out of a UFO and surround Mr. Peanutbutter, we either knew they’d come back or hoped they would. They did — in orange form this time — and BoJack got to experience parenthood in a (very) limited session.

For Bingers: BoJack’s accidental excursion with a baby seahorse may have directly exposed one major void in his life — an innocent source of joy (as opposed to his many fun vices) — but it also hints at why he couldn’t stop thinking about Penny, his friend Charlotte’s daughter who he nearly slept with at the end of Season 2. It’s often cited how adults don’t fully understand what it means to have a child until, you know, they have one. BoJack didn’t have a kid, but he was responsible for one. And that responsibility affects his perception of children as he moves forward.

Because he’s never been exposed to anything as wholesome as the family life he embraced in New Mexico, it makes sense (on a low level) why he would consider sleeping with Penny in the first place. But BoJack’s self-imposed ignorance was corrupted in Episode 4 — meaning his already lame attempts to justify his despicable actions are going to get even harder to explain, even to himself. His guilt drives him to some dark places as the season progresses, and a little baby seahorse has a lot to do with why.

EPISODE 2 & 3 REVIEW: ‘BoJack Horseman’ Eviscerates SeaWorld With Killer (Whale) Strip Club Sequence

The Joke You May Have Missed, In a .gif

Spike Lee is in the corner, on hand to promote "Do The Right Thing 2: Do The Thing More Right" BoJack Horsemann gif

Spike Lee is in the corner, on hand to promote “Do The Right Thing 2: Do The Thing More Right”

Netflix

Best Pop Culture Reference

Call us suckers for a movie pun, but “Free Willy International Airport” seems all too fitting for an episode about a horse who feels trapped underwater. It may not be as deep as we could pretend — “Think about how Willy escaped, you guys! Remember? He flew to freedom!” — but it’s still a great choice.

SEASON REVIEW: ‘BoJack Horseman’ Review: Season 3 Deserves an Oscar (And Every Other Award)

Quote of the Week

BoJack Horseman Season 3 Episode 4 taffy factory gif

The quote of the week is actually the image of the week, if not the image of the season. No one can deny how striking the above visual was both within the context of the episode and as a standalone moment of visual poetry. BoJack, cradling a pure source of joy in his arms, swims away from a disaster he created; preserving his lone source of happiness as the rest of the world suffers.

If we must tie it to words (which seems wrong, given the episode), the image does call to mind a quote from Episode 3: “Sometimes you need to take responsibility for your own happiness.” Cuddly Whiskers (Jeffrey Wright) said this while defending his own choices and explaining to both BoJack and Diane what they need to do to find happiness. BoJack may not be purely self-motivated in swimming away from the destroyed taffy factory, but he is taking responsibility for his happiness while protecting someone else. The fact that he couldn’t hold onto the lesson isn’t insignificant, but the fact that he found even a fleeting moment of joy without money, status or corruption is hugely important to BoJack. Hopefully, he can remember as much down the line.

Grade: A+

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