(Written for Reviewing the Arts, November 14, 2019)
BoJack Horseman’s fifth season is hard-hitting throughout all twelve episodes, tackling issues like addiction, divorce, gun violence and death. The show, which first aired in August 2014, has become very well-known for its creativity and unique episodes. “Free Churro,” the sixth episode of the show’s fifth season, is definitely one of those. Along with high praise from critics, this episode was nominated for an Outstanding Animated Program Emmy Award and Will Arnett won an Annie for Outstanding Achievement for Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production. After the opening scene and credits, titular character BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) is seen in speaking to a crowd behind the camera. And he talks, and talks, and talks. For the rest of the episode. This distinctive monologue style is captivating to audiences and shows his innermost thoughts for everyone.
The opening scene shows a young BoJack waiting on a bench after soccer practice in late fall. His father, Butterscotch Horseman (voiced by Arnett, the only voice actor featured in this episode), drives up next to him to pick him up and drive him home, complaining the whole way about BoJack’s mother, Beatrice (Wendie Malick), and how he can’t depend on anyone—and neither should his son. After the show’s distinctive intro credits, viewers see BoJack dressed in a suit behind a podium. He begins by telling the story of how he stopped at a Jack in the Box restaurant on his way to where he is now, and how the girl behind the counter asked him if he was having an awesome day. His response to her is when we learn that he is speaking at his mother’s funeral. And that when he tells the service worker about her death, she gives him a free churro, hence the episode’s name.
Throughout his eulogy, BoJack talks about many things, whether it be his mother’s last words (“I see you,” said when looking in the direction of her son), his relationship with his parents or his feelings about death. The episode itself is set up like any other, with different plotlines and a main focus—that being the “I see you” that Beatrice gives BoJack—and does all of it without showing anyone else besides the show’s titular character. You can hear the organ player giving out poorly timed rimshots or the audience members coughing or gasping in response to the eulogy, but the focus remains entirely on BoJack.
Monologue episodes can be difficult to write. With no clear plot, one setting and one character, there are obvious differences between ones like “Free Churro” and the show’s other episodes. The main challenge here is how to keep the piece compelling and coherent to viewers. The static setting of the funeral parlor—light blue walls and a bland-looking stained glass window—feels artificial, almost like it matches the beginning of BoJack’s eulogy, but it gives BoJack and his words a chance to really shine. The plot, entirely told through his words and stories, has subplots that guide the episode. According to Amy Winfrey, who directed the episode, these plotline changes are each signal by a slight change in the angle that BoJack is seen with to “shift [the] focus. . .to these different stories and I tried to change the angle at that time just to kind of also give it a formal break, to keep [the audience] kind of engaged” (Trumbore). And these shifts work. The episode, which has the same runtime of the others in the season of around 25 minutes, moves and flows normally, even though it’s missing its usual group of regular faces and Los Angeles setting. But you don’t miss the quirkiness of Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) or the Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) tongue-twisting lines. It’s just BoJack.
Arnett’s voice is emotional and enthralling as he cracks jokes, asking the mourners what “the difference [is] between a first-year lit major and my mother, Beatrice Horseman?” Of course, the answer is that “one’s decently read, and the other’s a huge bitch” (“Free Churro,” 15:15). But even BoJack’s carefully crafted persona begins to fail as he thinks more about his mother and all her flaws. It leads him down many paths, one where he talks about how his father died in a duel over his pride and poorly written novel, or when he tells the story of the dinner parties his mother would throw and dance at, or when he finally realizes what “I see you” meant. It wasn’t vindictive, observational or caring, but merely a sign that was behind BoJack as he sat with his dying mother in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. “My mom died and all I got was this free churro,” he says, processing the information, slowly bringing the story of the episode full circle, back to where it started. As he tells the mourners about how that free churro was an action more compassionate than anything this mother had ever done for him, he turns to the casket, voice trembling. “I’m your son,” he spits out. “All I had was you!” (22:30). It’s this heartbreaking emotion that gives this episode what it needs to stand alone out of a whole season. Of course, BoJack will have lower moments than his mother’s death. But this episode allows him to be seen clearly by viewers, even more so than in season four’s “Stupid Piece of Sh*t” that he narrates on and off. It’s this episode, out of the whole fifth season, that he shows the most of himself and his pain.
The fourth season of BoJack Horseman was not exactly the beginning of his mother’s story, but it was where she became more important. After the arrival of Hollyhock (Aparna Mancherla)–who believes she is BoJack’s daughter but ends up being his sister—Beatrice becomes a more prominent figure in BoJack’s life as Hollyhock wants to get to know her potential grandmother. However, she and BoJack end up causing each other nothing but pain as she ends up staying at his house and drugs Hollyhock with diet products unbeknownst to her. In the season’s penultimate episode, “Time’s Arrow,” the story of her relationship with BoJack’s father, Butterscotch, is shown, as well as Hollyhock’s real parents. It’s also the episode where BoJack puts her into a home to live out the rest of her life until her death in “Free Churro.” While the show allows more insight into her story and a greater understanding of her actions, “Free Churro” ends her story with BoJack as it gives him the ability to process everything, tying up a past storyline and hinting at what could happen in the future.
From the beginning of the series, it’s clear that BoJack is unhealthy. He’s an alcoholic and avid drug user with no ability to process or handle his emotions or experiences. So, when he falls of a building doing stunts for his new show in “The Amelia Earhart Story” and is prescribed pain medication for an injured back, he misuses it. In “Free Churro,” he takes a break from the eulogy to swallow a handful of pills and wash them down with whatever’s in the flask in his jacket pocket. Even here, at what should be his lowest point, show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and the writers hint at how this season will test him more.
And of course, it will. But “Free Churro” serves as much more than a catalyst for the pain coming to BoJack and everyone around him. Each minute of the episode gives more insight into the broken man that has been the focus of the show for the last five seasons, showing how damaged he truly is and how bad he is at hiding it most of the time. Yes, he drops his charade multiple times throughout the show to speak candidly about his trauma and other problems, but “Free Churro” lets us see him as plainly as he’s allowed so far. Along with this, the episode manages to captivate audiences and move the plot forward in a way that keeps it at the same—if not a higher—level as the episodes that surround it.
“Free Churro.” BoJack Horseman, season 5, episode 6, 14 Sept. 2018. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/title/70300800.
Trumbore, Dave. “‘BoJack Horseman’ Team Reveals How the Emmy-Nominated “Free Churro” Came Together,” Collider. 21 August 2019. https://collider.com/bojack-horseman-free-churro-emmy/#bojack-emmy