Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
In her posthumous collection of essays, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor argues that we all, readers and writers alike, crave restoration. “There is something in us,” she writes, “that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored” (48). Her own work is testament to this truth, as even the most despicable and reprehensible of O’Connor’s characters are not beyond the bounds of grace, and it reaches out to them through violent and grotesque displays. In O’Connor’s world, no person is irredeemable.
But redemption comes with a price tag—one that many aren’t willing to pay. As O’Connor continues, “The reader of today looks for this motion [the redemptive act], but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration” (48). Redemption is appealing until we realize what it asks of us. It asks that we acknowledge we are deeply, fundamentally broken. That we need to be mended back together. It asks us to look in the eyes of our distorted reflection and ask, “How can I be made right?”
For many, this cost is too much. As much as we crave to be restored, it’s far more difficult to admit that we need to be. We ask ourselves what we might need to do to seek reconciliation with those we have hurt, and we don’t like the answers we find. And so, in lieu of a true, painful, costly reconciliation, we look for alternatives. As O’Connor puts it, we want to be “transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence” (49). Those in the church have been guilty of this far too often. In an era where numerous pastors and spiritual leaders have been caught in sin, abuse, and corruption, how many have chosen to reject the redemption they espoused, clinging to their pulpit, closing themselves off in echo chambers, or quietly accepting posts in new churches once the public eye has turned away? Many in the church have far too often been satisfied with a mock innocence. Redemption is a free gift to all, but it was bought with a price. We’re far too easily cleaned.We ask ourselves what we might need to do to seek reconciliation with those we have hurt, and we don’t like the answers we find.
O’Connor’s words are half a century old, but they’re prescient today. Storytellers and audiences seek tales of reconciliation, but they have all too often forgotten the cost. And it is precisely this—the cost of redemption—that the final season of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman depicts with verve.
Those unfamiliar with the show might raise an eyebrow at this claim. BoJack Horseman is, after all, a surrealist animated series about a narcissistic anthropomorphized horse living in Hollywood, washed up and looking for purpose long after his glory days as a 90s-era sitcom star. The series is full of all the absurd characters, bizarre high jinks, and biting riffs on the entertainment industry that you might expect if you’ve seen a stray screenshot or trailer. But amidst all the clever side plots, thoughtful social criticism, and brilliant wordplay you’ll be treated to in a typical episode, BoJack the character has always had a deeper question roiling in his heart: am I good?
This has been a central theme since the show’s early days. In Season 1, BoJack hires a ghostwriter—soon to be series-regular Diane Nguyen—to develop a memoir of his life. It’s clear, though, that for BoJack, this memoir is meant to be a panacea for his chronic existential dread. He wants to be portrayed as sympathetic and likable, and for his less-than-savory actions, he wants to be seen as a victim of circumstance. So when Diane decides to tell his story “warts and all,” he’s frustrated and dissatisfied at the finished product. Despite Diane’s reassurances that people want to see him vulnerable and honest about his faults, BoJack can’t accept the reflection he sees staring back at him from the pages of this draft. This refusal leads him on a wild drug-fueled bender that lands him in the middle of a crowd, desperately asking Diane for validation:
“Am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? It’s not too late for me, is it? It’s—It’s not too late, Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late. I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good, Diane. Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.”
Diane’s silence tells all. The resounding answer to BoJack’s question in Season 1 is that he can only seek goodness if he first admits he’s broken. And in subsequent seasons, we follow BoJack in his many attempts to get well. Most of these attempts are ill-conceived from the start. In Season 2, BoJack tries to leave Hollywood and start afresh with an old flame in New Mexico, but he does so without being willing to address the reasons that made him want to leave in the first place. In Season 3, BoJack seeks redemption in fame, playing the awards show circuit in vain hopes of winning an Oscar for his acting; but when he doesn’t get the recognition he wants, he binges on alcohol and drugs, resulting in the accidental overdose and death of his old co-star. In Season 5, BoJack’s living in denial of his past, taking a lead role in a grizzly TV series, all while succumbing to a drug addiction that everyone around him quietly overlooks—until it culminates in him attacking his female co-star on set.
But for all the missteps in his desperate search for fulfillment, the sixth and final season gives BoJack, in O’Connor’s words, “the chance to be restored” (48). At Diane’s encouragement, BoJack checks into a rehab center, and in the months that follow, BoJack realizes, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he is capable of being healed. In a letter to Diane, he writes, “I bought into this idea that I was the thing that couldn’t be changed. The main thing I think about is how stupid I am I didn’t do this sooner. I wasted so many years being miserable because I assumed that was the only way to be. And I don’t want to do that anymore.”
The first half of the season brings this arc into stunning realization. After years of succumbing to generational cycles of abuse and trauma, BoJack Horseman realizes that he could be redeemed. This realization culminates in “The Face of Depression,” a remarkable episode where BoJack checks out of rehab and travels the country, in an attempt to reestablish friendships with those he has alienated and driven away over the course of the show.
The episode even ends with BoJack in a church building. After his cross-country journey, BoJack travels to “Old Town Horseberg,” where a group of actors reenact scenes from Puritan society. As he quietly enters the back of the church, an actor assuming the role of a reverend stands in the pulpit. “My fellow horses,” he charges, “Are we doomed to die in the shadow of our sins? Does thy Lord turn his back on his colts? Nay, for to forgive is divine. If God forgives thee, thou must also forgive thyself. Though thy sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow. It is only when we show ourselves forgiveness and mercy that we truly live a life of grace, that we are reborn.”
In this moment, we see the motion of BoJack’s redemptive act—the image we’ve craved since the show began. It’s beautiful, evocative, and resonant… and yet, this redemption is still cheap. And the show knows it.
This fact is made all-too-clear in the subsequent moments. The reenactment ends, the actors exit the church, and the reverend passes BoJack and says, “Stay if you like. In thirty minutes, we start over.” BoJack has experienced an easy-to-swallow, made-for-television version of redemption. He’s forgiven himself, and he’s found internal peace. But has he truly paid for his sins? Has he truly sought reconciliation?[BoJack] dons the as-seen-on-TV veneer of a redemption narrative, without doing the hard work of relational restitution.
The next episode, “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” gives us our answer. BoJack doesn’t appear in this entire episode, and instead, we witness brief vignettes into the lives of everyone he’s manipulated, hurt, and betrayed over the course of the show. First, we see Kelsey Jannings, a film director who was fired because of BoJack’s misbehavior during a shoot. Once a prolific arthouse director, Kelsey is now stuck filming commercials and TV spots because of the black spots on her resume. Next, we check in on Gina Cazador, the actor BoJack attacked during a shoot; when a scene in her new show triggers those memories, she has a meltdown on-set and yells at the crew. Later, she loses a chance at a career-defining role because her coworkers label her as “difficult to work with,” unaware of her underlying trauma. And finally, the family of BoJack’s late costar, Sarah Lynn, continue to grieve her untimely death, completely unaware that BoJack covered up his presence and involvement in her final moments.
These brief glimpses exemplify BoJack’s “mock innocence.” He’s sought redemption for himself, without seeking reconciliation for those he’s hurt. He forgives himself without asking for forgiveness from his neighbor. He dons the as-seen-on-TV veneer of a redemption narrative, without doing the hard work of relational restitution. As O’Connor says, “What he has forgotten is the cost of it.”
And so, the final episodes of BoJack Horseman force its protagonist to reckon with the cost of redemption. BoJack’s deepest secrets are revealed, and his new life unravels before his eyes. He loses his new job as an acting professor, his house, his fortune, his reputation, his sobriety, his closest relationships, and in the final two episodes, he nearly loses his life. If it sounds overwhelmingly bleak, it’s because it is, and the show portrays every painstaking detail of BoJack’s fall from grace. In the show’s brilliant, surreal, and devastating penultimate episode, BoJack reunites with the dead, facing actual ghosts from his past and coming to grips with his own mortality.
Yet, he who loses his life might just still find it, for when everything BoJack holds dear is stripped away, the show’s creators finally offer him a path forward. After nearly drowning in his pool during an overdose, BoJack’s life is saved, and he’s sent to prison for the trail of destruction he left in his wake. It’s within the cramped view of cell walls that BoJack finally learns to start looking beyond himself, running an acting clinic for the other inmates and taking his first steps toward seeking repentance from his loved ones.
And this is the truth that many overlook in O’Connor’s—and BoJack’s—stories. Though redemption in these tales is elusive, violent, and costly, it’s real. Possible. Available. And all the more substantial for what it has endured.
Am I good, or am I broken? And if I am broken, can I ever be made right? In the world of BoJack Horseman, the answer is yes: redemption is possible and available. For all his faults, BoJack is not irredeemable, and he’s shown to be capable of overcoming his past and rewriting his future. But the path to restoration is arduous, and you must be willing to relinquish all you hold dear. As Luke Harrington puts it, “There is no easy fix.”
But there’s a comfort in knowing there’s a fix at all. Liz Bruenig writes, “It can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.” God bless those miracles. God bless the BoJacks. God bless us all.
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