Bojack Horseman Tackles the Suffering Artist Trope in a Standout Episode
"Good Damage" takes us inside the mind of Diane Nguyen.
SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses plot points of episode 10, season 6 of Bojack Horseman.
Bojack Horseman is a show filled with lovingly realized and complex characters, but none have moved me more than Diane Nguyen. Diane started the series as a sober voice of reason, a grounding presence in the zany chaos of Hollywoo. But she’s become so much more nuanced than that. Just as Bojack Horseman began as a Hollywood satire and developed into a stunning meditation on depression and loneliness, so too has Diane become a layered exploration of the woman writer.
Over the course of six seasons, we’ve seen Diane struggle: with her ill-fated marriage to Mr. Peanutbutter, in her career, and with her punishing crusade against those she deems unjust. Diane has long been desperate for her life to be about something, to find a deeper meaning and purpose.
But she has been plagued with false starts: her trip to Cordovia traumatizes her and sends her into a spiraling depression. Her journey to find herself in Vietnam is unsatisfying. And her attempts to hold abusive Hollywoo celebrities like Uncle Hanky and Vance Waggoner responsible are drowned out by a system that refuses to hold powerful men accountable.
So Diane suffers. With every self-righteous rant, with every unpopular opinion (restaurants shouldn’t just give you water during a drought!), she alienates herself because of her beliefs. But it’s okay, because that’s what writers do. Writers are truth-tellers, and their lived experience and pain are all building towards a powerful reckoning that will spin all their suffering into literary gold.
But as we’ve seen in season 6, Diane’s repeated attempts to write her book of essays have been stymied by anxiety. In “Good Damage”, the viewer is invited inside Diane’s mind, which is filled with the same scribbling animation we’ve previously seen in season four’s “Stupid Piece Of Sh*t.” Diane’s disorganized, self-defeating attempts to wrestle insights from her traumatic childhood have resulted in an epic case of writer’s block.
We saw this in the first half of season 6, which resulted in Diane finally dealing with her depression by going on anti-depressants. And they are working for the most part. She is living a satisfying, loving life with Guy in Chicago. But she still can’t seem to write. After weeks of blown deadlines and increasing frustration, Diane decides that the meds are the problem and abruptly quits them. This sends her into a dark, vomiting spiral of anxiety and depression where she still cannot write.
The only thing Diane can seem to crank out is “Ivy Tran: Food Court Detective”, a YA novel about a plucky young girl sleuth that contains none of the gravitas or insight Diane is chasing. When she’s in crisis, Guy sends the pages to Princess Carolyn, who flips out over the potential franchise.
But that’s not what Diane wants. She’s been laboring under the delusion that to make truly great art, the artist must suffer. It’s a well worn and toxic ideal that equates suffering with hard work and success with spilling your guts onto the page (or stage or canvas). It’s something that plenty of artists do.
But not everyone has to do it that way. And Diane clearly she doesn’t want to, despite her protests. She wants to write a spunky YA novel, she wants to have fun. She wants to enjoy her life, but she struggles because she demands more of herself. In a heart to heart with Princess Carolyn, Diane says that if she doesn’t write her book of essays,
“That means that all the damage I got isn’t ‘good damage’. It’s just damage. I have gotten nothing out of it and all those years I was miserable was for nothing. I could have been happy this whole time and written books about girl detectives and been cheerful and popular had good parents, is that what you’re saying? What was it all for?!”
Princess Carolyn simply responds that she likes her book, and that she wants to live in a world where her daughter can read books (or enjoy movies) like the one Diane wrote. Diane demands a deeper meaning from her trauma and her pain, but often there is no deeper meaning. Shitty things happen. Bad childhoods happen.
Diane’s struggle echoes Bojack’s relationship to the corny sitcom that made him a star. Bojack has a love/hate relationship with the show that made him famous, and much of his journey has been to make people see him as more than just the horse from Horsin’ Around.
In the season 3 episode “That Went Well”, Diane tells Bojack “When I was a kid, I used to watch you on TV. And you know I didn’t have the best family. Things weren’t that great for me. But, for half an hour every week, I got to watch this show about four people who had nobody, who came together and became a family. And, for half an hour every week, I had a home, and it helped me survive.”
Princess Carolyn helps Diane realize that she doesn’t have to rehash and make sense of her trauma to write something that helps young girls like herself. Sometimes the only thing that makes it all a little bit better is escaping into a book like Ivy Tran: Food Court Detective. It’s a stunning breakthrough that allows Diane to carve out a healthy and successful path for her future. After all, Diane Nguyen has suffered enough. She deserves happiness.
It’s a truly cruel moment of bad timing that finds us saying goodbye to two of the most profoundly moving comedies of the last decade in the same week. But here we are, bidding farewell to both The Good Place andBojack Horseman within the span of 24 hours. Unlike The Good Place, Bojack has given us 8 final episodes which we can either binge immediately or take our time to enjoy. If you’re a Bojack fan, you already know what camp you’re in.
What a powerhouse episode from a truly unforgettable show.
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