Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Thoughts on Bojack Horseman, s4e9, “Ruthie,” one of the many remarkable episodes in a remarkable season of a remarkable series.
Every so often a genre show will do an episode where the very reality of the premise is questioned, and posited to be nothing more than the imagination of the protagonist. Buffy jumps back and forth between a mental hospital and her actual life fighting demons, for example. Alternately, a protagonist suddenly awakens in the future with missing memories of a life others tell them they’ve lived, and they attempt to piece together the time they’ve lost only to discover that in fact the future they live in is staged, or that even though the future is true, it must be erased by having the protagonist return to the point that spawned it (newer Trek series pulled off versions of this multiple times on characters such as Picard, Riker, O’Brien, the Sisko family, and Dr. Crusher).
“Ruthie” executes the daring and heartbreaking feat of the show having built a lengthy character arc towards a hybrid of both of these ideas, and then managing to startle the audience with its key revelation. After the duration we’ve spent becoming invested in Princess Carolyn’s dreams of starting a family, we start the episode being given hope–she must have had a child after all, because it’s several generations into the future and her descendant is doing a report on her!
And then she reveals to her beau that she has had many more miscarriages than he realized, with the attendant implication that she simply cannot bear children. But still, we as audience find ourselves holding onto a strand that Princess Carolyn and Ralph don’t have–there’s a future grandchild, and surely she’s biological, because she looks just like Princess Carolyn! Even if she and Ralph are through, which is sad, at least there’s a possibility that Princess Carolyn will find this happiness elsewhere!
And then she reveals to Bojack, and to us, that “Ruthie” is nothing more than a product of her own imagination, and that the richly rendered future classroom we’ve spent the episode in is not real, and was never real. For Princess Carolyn, this is simply another casual coping mechanism. For us in the audience, this is a punch in the gut.
There are a lot of great writing staffs working on television right now, but I don’t know if there are any more inventive, compassionate, and whip-smart than the staff that’s currently writing Bojack Horseman.