In the very first episode of BoJack Horseman, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) says to BoJack (Will Arnett), a deeply troubled actor who quickly becomes her close friend, “You’re responsible for your own happiness.” But it takes until the show’s sixth and final season for Diane to embrace what that means in her own life. Diane has long validated both her own sadness and her disinterest in doing anything about it—something that feels real and true for writers who struggle with their mental health, as well as for women who diminish their own lives in order to prioritize the happiness of those around them.
While in therapy with her husband, actor Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), in the Season 3 episode “Love And/Or Marriage,” Diane tells their therapist, “I’m not always good at using words to describe emotions,” to which the therapist replies, “Aren’t you a writer?” But it’s not that Diane can’t describe emotions using her words; she does it for others constantly. It’s that she can’t describe her own. Despite her commitment to her own history of trauma (which defines both her sense of self and her art), her voice is subsumed to the voices others—literally. She ghostwrites an entire memoir as BoJack; she later takes a job writing tweets for celebrities in which she, again, is a ghost of a voice.
And instead of fighting for herself, Diane fights for causes. She decides, seemingly randomly, that she cares about orphans in the Republic of Cordovia; on live television, she challenges Hank Hippopopalous (Philip Baker Hall), a beloved actor who has victimized women throughout his career; she latches onto anti-fracking activism; she tackles capitalism and confronts a mega-corporation despite the knowledge that the company can literally kill her if it wants to. (In the universe of BoJack Horseman, Congress approved a bill allowing billionaries to murder people.)
But even as she puts social justice before her own needs and prioritizes the people she cares about, Diane has an air of selfishness. She doesn’t come across as a person who inspires others to do better; instead, she appears judgmental and holier-than-thou in theory but in practice, is not being much better than those she criticizes. She stands up for survivors, but is also extremely close with BoJack, who has a long history of being cruel to the women in his life. She wants to fight capitalism, but she’s spent her adult life surrounded by celebrities and all that comes with their wealth. She pushes the idea that women should support women, but she largely considers herself to be better than other women, judging her coworkers at Girlcroosh (essentially a BuzzFeed parody) and looking down on young women at the mall. And she engages with her racial identity in a strange and stilted way, but keeps it at a distance.
Diane is a relatable figure to those of us who once engaged with a flattened version of feminism, building our careers in the midst of the first-person industrial complex in which we commodified our identities and trauma, learning the right words without learning how to actually engage with the concepts themselves. It felt difficult at times not to look at Diane and think she was doing just fine…wasn’t she? But she wasn’t: For five seasons, Diane surrounds herself with shitty men and ignores the impact of her own trauma and, as a result, built her life as a response to said trauma. As Season 5 turned into Season 6, though, she realizes that what’s connected her to people like Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack is that they’re stuck, and so is she.
And because they’re as stuck as she is, the people closest to Diane don’t push her to be better. In the Season 2 episode “Yesterdayland,” Kelsey Jannings (Maria Bamford) tells Diane, on the set of BoJack’s film, “BoJack’s stunted….He got famous in his 20s, so he’ll be in his 20s forever. After you get famous, you stop growing, you don’t have to. Every celebrity has an age of stagnation.” This statement is the crux of the show, and Diane is constantly surrounded by evidence of it: Mr. Peanutbutter is trapped in a loop of dating young women (Diane included) who quickly outgrow him; BoJack is undeniably stuck in the past to the point that he gets off to watching his own television show, and even Diane’s friend and BoJack’s sometimes-roommate, Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), the most empathy-worthy character on the show, stumbles his way through adulthood playing video games.
Diane rationalizes that her own growth can’t be stunted this way, given that she’s not famous. But, as Kelsey points out, “It doesn’t just happen when you get famous. Your age of stagnation is when you stop growing. For most, it’s when they get married, settle into a routine. You meet someone who loves you unconditionally and never challenges you or wants you to change, and then you never change.” Here, Diane begins to realize that she’s fallen into her own loop, tricking herself into thinking she’s doing what she wants to be doing despite never really being happy with it. She stopped growing the moment she convinced herself that happiness just wasn’t for her and that, instead of fighting for it, she could coast along on her own misery and, eventually, capitalize on it by writing about it.
In the Season 3 episode “BoJack Kills,” she tells BoJack, “It’s not about being happy, that is the thing. I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself ‘Am I happy?’ It just makes me more miserable. I don’t know if I believe in it, real lasting happiness. All those perky, well-adjusted people you see in movies and TV shows? I don’t think they exist.” Finally, Diane challenges herself. It’s a slow process, but a relatable one. One of Season 5’s standout episodes, “The Dog Days Are Over,” is devoted to Diane’s storyline. As her divorce with Mr. Peanutbutter is being finalized, Diane moves into a new apartment (“A sad sad girl with a terrible dirty apartment,” BoJack calls her) and tries to start fresh. But by the end of the episode, Diane, who sports a new haircut and a new outfit, sobs in her car. Desperate to get as far away from Los Angeles as possible, she travels to Hanoi. She’s hoping to find some sense of her familial roots and to better understand herself—and therefore her trauma.
There’s nothing left for Diane and BoJack, but there’s so much left for Diane.
Instead, she recreates the same life she lives back home, finding a new man to follow around and lose herself in. It’s not the trip itself that shows Diane changing, but rather that the trip leads her to a breaking point. As she boards her flight back home, she thinks to herself, “You’re not entirely sure what life will be like when you get back, but maybe that’s a good thing because it means anything could happen.” Diane continues to push toward healing, working on boundaries with her therapist—for example, she drives BoJack to rehab, and then largely stops speaking to him—and taking advantage of new opportunities. By Season 6’s “Feel-Good Episode,” Diane takes the chance to exist outside of Los Angeles and on her own terms. She finds love with her coworker, Guy (Lakeith Stanfield), and a new home in his hometown of Chicago. It’s refreshing to see Diane exist in a world so separate from Hollywood, and with someone who takes her own struggles seriously.
Guy is one of the few BoJack characters who can see beyond his own life and into Diane’s, and can thus support her growth. It’s notable that his own life is changing: He has a son and a strained relationship with his ex, and works at maintaining both. He doesn’t get mired in his own feelings like BoJack; he’s not stuck in a naive, repetitive loop like Mr. Peanutbutter. He and Diane can grow together. Maybe there’s a world where Diane would have bettered herself without a man beside her, but the message of BoJack Horseman is that the people we allow into our lives help us shape it. It isn’t that Diane needs a man to fix her, but that she needs someone who holds her accountable, whether a partner or a friend, and Guy does that for her.
In Chicago with Guy, Diane decides she wants to really dive into her book. Guy agrees and supports her, giving her time and space alone to focus. But she’s struggling. She’s used to sinking into her own suffering, so her goal has always been to write a book about that pain. In Season 6’s “Good Damage” episode, Diane is dealing with the suffering artist trope in real time, questioning her own value and blaming her inability to write about her childhood on her new antidepressants. She ends up writing a fun, light young-adult novel, Ivy Tran: Food Court Detective. And while she enjoys doing it, she’s also quick to cut herself down for writing such cheery fiction: “That means that all the damage I got isn’t ‘good damage.’ It’s just damage,” she frets. “I could have been happy this whole time and written books about girl detectives and been cheerful and popular had good parents… What was it all for?!”
It’s Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), the other woman in BoJack’s life, who helps Diane see the way that her trauma is trapping her potential. When Diane explains that “When I was a little girl, I thought everything, the abuse and the neglect, it somehow made me special. And I decided one day I would write something that made little girls like me feel less alone,” Princess Carolyn comforts her, saying, “I like thinking that my daughter could grow up in a world with books like that….Maybe this book does that too.” Princess Carolyn links her arm with Diane’s, and Diane looks calmer, like maybe her fight to stay miserable is over and the fight to pursue happiness can begin in earnest.
In the final episode of BoJack Horseman, Diane and BoJack reunite, finding each other on a rooftop in a moment that calls back to previous rooftop meetings in which they would commiserate, encouraging each other’s bad behaviors and stagnating further. But this time, Diane offers a soft and easy goodbye to BoJack, one that’s empty of aggression or disappointment but that instead understands that their time has come and gone. Diane has a new life, one outside of BoJack, Hollywood, and trauma, and she doesn’t intend to backslide. She and BoJack look upward as the stars twinkle overhead; there’s nothing left for them to say to each other, but there’s so much left for Diane.
At the start of BoJack Horseman, Diane is a woman who puts the needs and wants of others first; by the end, she chooses to prioritize herself and finds her true voice— rather than the one she thinks she’s supposed to have. Her character arc illustrates how depression and mental illness, coupled with trauma and enablers, hold us back without invalidating the intensity of that struggle. After watching the show’s final season, I feel excited for Diane’s new life, one in which her trauma doesn’t define her, and one in which she knows what she deserves and has the support and willingness to fight for it.
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