I have seen the episode “Free Churro” from Bojack Horseman at least four different times, and I very well might see it four more. As far as TV episodes go, it’s probably the most uniquely written episode from one of the most uniquely written TV shows out there. For anyone who is not caught up with the show up to the point of season five, episode six, beware, for there are some pretty big spoilers in this blog post. Also, if you haven’t caught this show, but have been meaning to, certainly do not read this blog post. This is definitely not a good episode to jump into.
Welcome, to any of you that made it here. We’re going to get a little existential in this post, because that’s all I do with my life, anyway. Specifically, we’re going to get existential about Bojack Horseman and the search for meaning. In this instance, when I say “search for meaning,” I mean “trying to extrapolate meaning from things that happen in our lives.” Some people define this as seeing “signs” in things, such as a butterfly landing on your shoulder while sitting in a park and reading a book that your late mother gave you several years ago. I’m sure you’ve met someone (or you might be that someone) who pulled meaning from that, when it’s very possible that it really didn’t have any meaning at all. It was just a tired butterfly, and you were just an inanimate object. There are a few people who are particularly susceptible to “finding” meaning in things—among them: superstitious people, writers, and fiction critics. The habit of searching for meaning compounds exponentially if you tick multiple of those boxes.
The reason people like this are susceptible to this habit is because they’re all trained (academically or otherwise) to ascribe meaning to things that might be banal. You might recall your high school English teacher walking you through the different interpreted themes, motifs, and symbols of classic literature, back in the day. Was the mockingbird in To Kill A Mockingbird really a metaphor for Boo Radley? And was the murder of Tom Robinson also a metaphor for the “loss of innocence” that Scout goes through during the course of the book? Maybe. But I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Why do some people do that, though? Why is finding meaning in things so appealing? I think it’s because as social creatures, we like stories. And what’s better than stories? Stories within stories. Parables. Teaching moments that elevate our stories from simply entertainment fodder, to life lessons we can internalize and perhaps share with others. Icarus wasn’t just a story about a boy, his father, and defying the laws of physics—it was a warning not to reach further than you can grasp. “Reading between the lines” is a way for us to feel smart about recognizing esoterica, and boy, who doesn’t like to feel smart? (Particularly people who use words like esoterica)
As a writer and amateur fiction critic, myself, I constantly find myself searching for meaning in things. But as a pragmatist and general non-superstitious person, I also find myself trying to remember that the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you. Because—yes—sometimes a cigar is literally just a cigar. And that brings me to my favorite episode of Bojack Horseman.
I’m going to try really hard not to get into the nitty gritty details about Bojack Horseman’s possibly-optimistic approach to existential nihilism, because then I’d be talking about the whole show at large, and that’s a blog post for another time. But what I do want to talk about is the way Free Churro pretty brilliantly walks between the duality of meaning and meaninglessness. The episode is absolutely dripping in existentialism, and I will admit that it gets a little meta finding meaning in an episode that explores what meaninglessness means (I’ll give you a second for the room to stop spinning)… But honestly, that’s part of the brilliance of the episode, for me. Sort of like how Evil Morty’s speech at the end of The Ricklantis Mixup absolutely shits on every evil villain speech, while simultaneously being the greatest evil villain speech ever conceived.
For anyone who needs a refresher on the episode, it’s basically a 30-minute monologue by actor Will Arnett, taking the form of a beratement at Bojack from Bojack’s dad, and then a subsequent (read: much later) eulogy from Bojack after his mom died. One of the most brilliant things about the episode (that I didn’t catch until my third time watching it) is that its opening line is, “Yes, yes, I see you.”
Maybe you’ve heard people say that some of the best books/movies tell you exactly what the whole work is going to be about from the opening shot/paragraph/line. Most memorably for me is the opening sequence of the movie The Prestige (and I’m not even going to risk spoiling that one for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet—side note: why the fuck haven’t you seen The Prestige, yet???). In Free Churro, one of most repeated phrases by Bojack is “I see you.” The reason he repeats this so much is because he was in the intensive care unit when his mother died, and the last thing she said was “I see you.”
Throughout the episode, he wrestles with this last parting message from his mother, with whom he had a strained relationship throughout his whole life—”strained” being a massive understatement. He wonders what she meant by “I see you.” Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
BOJACK: I was in the hospital with her those last moments, and they were truly horrifying, full of nonsensical screams and cries, but there was this moment, this one instant of strange calm, where she looked in my direction and said, "I see you." That's the last thing she said to me. "I see you." Not a statement of judgment or disappointment, just acceptance and the simple recognition of another person in a room. "Hello, there. You are a person. And I see you." Let me tell you, it's a weird thing to feel at 54 years old, that for the first time in your life your mother sees you. It's an odd realization that it's the thing you've been missing, the only thing you wanted all along, to be seen. And it doesn't feel like a relief, to finally be seen. It feels mean, like, "Oh, it turns out that you knew what I wanted, and you waited until the very last moment to give it to me." I was prepared for more cruelty. I was sure that she would get in one final zinger, about how I let her down, and about how I was fat and stupid, and too tall to be an effective Lindy-hopper. How I was needy and a burden and an embarrassment. All that I was ready for. I was not ready for "I see you."
Only my mother would be lousy enough to swipe me with a moment of connection on her way out. But maybe I'm giving her too much credit. Maybe it wasn't about connection. Maybe it was an "I see you," like, "I see you." Like, "You might have the rest of the world fooled, but I know exactly who you are." That's more my mom's speed. Or maybe she just literally meant "I see you. You are an object that has entered my field of vision." She was out of it at the end, so maybe it's dumb to try to attribute it to anything. - [woman sighs] -
Back in the 90s, I was in a very famous TV Show called Horsin' Around. - [man coughs] - Please hold your applause. And I remember one time, a fan asked me, "Hey, um, you know that episode where the horse has to give Ethan a pep talk, after Ethan finds out his crush only asked him to the dance because her friends were having a dorkiest date contest? In all the shots of the horse, you can see a paper coffee cup on the kitchen counter, but in the shots of Ethan, the coffee cup's missing. Was that because the show was making a statement about the fluctuant subjectivity of memory, and how even two people can experience the same moment in entirely different ways?” And I didn't have the heart to be, like, "No, man, some crew guy just left their coffee cup in the shot.” So instead, I was, like "Yeah."
And maybe this is like that coffee cup. Maybe, we're dumb to try to pin significance onto every little thing. Maybe, when someone says, "I see you," it just means, "I see you." Then again, it's possible she wasn't even talking to me. Because, if I'm being honest, she wasn't really looking at me, she was looking past me. There was nobody else in the room. I think she was talking to me, but, honestly, she was so far gone at that point, who knows what she was seeing.
I think this section of the episode perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy between searching for meaning and inherent meaninglessness. Later, while still trying to understand what his mom meant by “I see you,” he starts telling the audience about his mom’s final moments in the ICU, and…
BOJACK: …I see you… “I. C. U.” … She was reading a sign!
The episode of full of subversions of itself like that. It constantly asks you to find meaning in something by baking meaning into it, then tearing it down later.
Another comparison in Free Churro I think really drills down on the point is the comparison between Bojack’s opening and closing of his eulogy:
BOJACK: Beatrice Horseman, who was she? What was her deal? Well, she was a horse. Uh, she was born in 1938. She died in 2018. One time, she went to a parade, and one time, she smoked an entire cigarette in one long inhale. I watched her do it. Truly a remarkable woman. [rustling] Lived a full life, that lady. Just, all the way to the end, which is, uh, now, I guess. Really makes you think, though, huh? Life, right? Goes by, stuff happens. Then you die. Well, that's my time, you've been great! Tip your waitress! No, I'm just kidding around, there's no waitress. That's all I have to say about my mother. No point beating a dead horse, right? So [inhales] Now what? I don't know, Mom, you got any ideas? Anything? Mom? No? Nothing to contribute? Knock once if you're proud of me. Can I just say how amazing it is to be in a room with my mother, and I can just talk without her telling me to shut up and make her a drink? Hey, Mom. Knock once if you think I should shut up. No? You sure? I mean, I don't want to embarrass you, by making this eulogy into a me-logy, so, seriously, if you wanted me to sit down and let someone else talk, just knock. I will not be offended. No? Your funeral. Sorry about the closed casket, by the way. She wanted an open casket, but, you know, she's dead now, so who cares what she wanted? No, that sounds bad. I'm sorry.
BOJACK: "My mother is dead, and everything is worse now." Because now I know I will never have a mother who looks at me from across a room and says, "BoJack Horseman, I see you." But I guess it's good to know. It's good to know that there is nobody looking out for me, that there never was, and there never will be. No, it's good to know that I am the only one that I can depend on. And I know that now and it's good. It's good that I know that. So it's good my mother is dead. [gulps, sighs]
Well. No point beating a dead horse. Beatrice Horseman was born in 1938, and she died in 2018, and I have no idea what she wanted. Unless she just wanted what we all want—to be seen.
At first, Bojack is obsessed with trying to prove he knew what his mother “wanted” by means of all the cynical jabs at her. At the end, he concedes to never truly knowing what she wanted, because perhaps there was no inherent meaning behind the things she did, other than she just did them. Then again, maybe all she wanted was to be recognized and validated, just like him. Just like all of us. The whole meaning of the eulogy by now is about Bojack reconciling with his mother in front of the attendees of the wake, despite the fact she can’t appreciate or reciprocate it.
At this point, Bojack opens up the casket to look inside. Then, confused, he pulls a funeral program from his pocket, looks up, and asks, “Is this funeral parlor B?”
Bojack Horseman, and Free Churro, in particular, explores whether or not there is a such thing as “meaning” at all, but also asks if you can find meaning in meaninglessness—if nothing inherently means anything, then why can’t you make everything mean something to yourself? Or is the search for meaning as frivolous and temporary as getting a free churro on the day your mother dies? You tell me.