An interview with the team behind BoJack Horseman's "Time’s Arrow."

A Deep Dive Into BoJack Horseman’s Heartbreaking Dementia Episode

A Deep Dive Into BoJack Horseman’s Heartbreaking Dementia Episode

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 14 2017 12:06 PM

A Deep Dive Into BoJack Horseman’s Heartbreaking Dementia Episode

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A former housekeeper is shown with a jumbled scribble where her eyes, nose, and mouth should be.

Netflix

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This article originally appeared in Vulture.

BoJack Horseman is a very funny show that also wants to break your heart. One of the most wrenching half-hours in the show’s fourth season is episode 11, “Time’s Arrow,” which reveals the backstory of BoJack’s mother, Beatrice (Wendie Malick), told from her extremely specific point of view as a woman suffering severe dementia. Beatrice doesn’t realize it, but as she flashes back to moments from her melancholy youth and troubled marriage, her son is dumping her in a less-than-luxurious nursing home.

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The animation in “Time’s Arrow” conveys just how scrambled Beatrice’s memories and mental function have become. The faces of inconsequential people from her past register as completely devoid of facial features. The letters in hotel marquees jump around. A conversation she had with BoJack years earlier is vividly remembered, though the background details in his apartment are blurry. A former housekeeper, Henrietta, who plays a particularly painful role in Beatrice’s life, is shown for the first time, but with a jumbled scribble where her eyes, nose, and mouth should be. By the end of the episode, we understand more about the origin story of Hollyhock, whom BoJack believes is his daughter, and we understand much more profoundly what a tragic life Beatrice has led.

Vulture spoke with BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg; Kate Purdy, writer of this episode as well as “That Old Sugarman Place,” the second episode of season four; and production designer Lisa Hanawalt, who directs the animation team, to learn how Beatrice’s story came about. Based on those interviews, we present this mini–oral history of “Time’s Arrow.”

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: There have been some suggestions that Beatrice did not have the best life herself, and that Beatrice is also a product of her own environment and upbringing and her relationship with Butterscotch, her husband. I think one of the mission statements for the season was, this is a character who in the past has been presented as a villain and something from BoJack’s history that he needs to overcome. But of course, if you’re telling her story, she is the hero of it. We’re all the heroes of our own story. Can we take this character that I think is widely, I don’t want to say disliked because I think people like her as a character, but widely thought of as pretty horrible, and without softening her edges, can we make our audience feel for her as well and show her own vulnerability and humanity? Horse-manity. Horse-womanity.

Kate Purdy: We feel that in episode two, where BoJack goes back to his family’s old lake house, you get a sense of Beatrice’s childhood there as well, and also the family history and the lineage. In [episode] 11, you really get her full story, and it’s a way for us to create empathy with this character and for BoJack to better understand himself in a way, by empathizing with his mother for the first time and forgiving her a little bit at the end of that episode, understanding her humanity and her vulnerability.

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Lisa Hanawalt: I really like episode two from this season, where he’s in the cabin in Michigan. That one felt really personal to me. My family actually has a cabin in Michigan, so I used a lot of details from it.

In episode two, we see the beginning of [Beatrice’s] story. She’s this bright-eyed, adorable little kid, and then episode 11 is really the end of her story.

KP: We did do research about [dementia], and also drawing from personal experiences with our family members. We talked a lot about our own experiences in the room, and we talked about our own memories and compared how our memories work.

LH: This episode really changed as we were working on it, and I also will say the director of the episode, Aaron Long, is responsible for a lot of that. We had a lot of conversations about how to represent the mind of someone who’s going through dementia and is having painful memories, and what the combination of those things looks like visually.

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RB-W: In the designs of the characters and the backgrounds, too, we can say, “Let’s make this ladder up to the slide a little crooked” or “Let’s break some of the rules that we normally do on this show. Let’s have fun with it.” Eternal Sunshine was definitely something we talked about as far as, visually, what does it look like to be inside a brain that is forgetting things?

LH: [The slide] is like a million feet tall. That’s so accurate to what a child would remember, right? It’s like a really scary ladder on a super-tall slide, but then if you saw it again as an adult, you’d be like, “That was just 12 feet high. That wasn’t such a big deal.”

It was drawn that way in storyboards, I believe. It might have been under Aaron Long’s direction, and one of the boarders drew it in that twisty way. A lot of times, when the storyboarder draws something cool, we’ll just go with that for the final design. I don’t think it changed that much from the initial sketch. It just seemed to accurately represent her twisted, demented memory of this scary thing that happened.

RB-W: Throughout the season, we had hints of stuff that was going on in her brain or memories. Some of that stuff was added later, after [“Time’s Arrow” was written. I went back to episode eight and I added a quick mention of Corbin Creamerman. I went back to episode five and added a throwaway line about her debutante party.

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KP: We went back to episode two and added her doll.

I had a great-aunt who at age 93 developed breast cancer and was in the hospital for it. She had dementia and she kept asking for her baby. My grandmother, her sister, was heartbroken and went and got her a doll, and gave her the doll. That pacified her older sister. I guess I thought about that scene a lot in the creation of that moment, and thinking about memory and that very primordial attachment to motherhood and giving birth, and what that means and how that shapes women’s lives who make that decision. That was definitely influencing that sequence [at the end of the episode where Henrietta and Beatrice both give birth].

LH: Originally, I had designed a face for Henrietta. Actually, she went through several different models until I got her exactly right. And then we ended up just blurring it out. I mean, I’m sure I’ll show [her] at some point, just as a bit of interesting ephemera from the show. She has sort of a horsey-looking face, honestly. She’s interesting-looking.

RB-W: [Blurring her out] was not in the script.

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KP: No, that was a total surprise to me. It was a wonderful invention and creation.

LH: A lot of the characters in the background of this episode had designs, and then we blurred out their faces just to show that she doesn’t actually remember them. In the case of Henrietta, the memory is so painful that it’s like an angry-looking scribble on top of her. I just thought that was such a powerful and painful image.

RB-W: [Henrietta] is such an important character to the narrative of the season and these characters. You know, what do we want that character to look like? She’s almost too important to see just for our audience. It’s almost more powerful to use your imagination. To justify it in universe, it felt like this is a traumatic thing for Beatrice and a painful memory that she would be aggressive toward it and blot it out and almost scribble over it like an old photograph. She wouldn’t like thinking about this woman and the pain that she caused her.

LH: I think it really creates a more interesting look than just a static scribble. It also mimics the look of some of the animation from episode six when we see BoJack—we see his subconscious and he’s calling himself an idiot, and he has a scribblylike id or superego or whatever’s going on in there. It mimics that. It’s like, “Oh, that’s where he got that from,” a little bit. Maybe his mom has a similar state of mind in her later years. We thought stylistically it would be fun to use that.

KP: What I love about that, which I think is probably just a side effect, is that Hollyhock doesn’t know her mother, and no one does. We still don’t know [what she looks like]. She still has the opportunity to experience this person on her own.

So much of the character design comes from Lisa and the animation team, and so a lot of that we leave up to them. We decided we wanted her to be a human. At one point, we were talking about her being a bird or an animal. We decided that she should be a human.

RB-W: Sometimes, we just leave it vague and let Lisa decide. Like Sebastian St. Clair, I remember we never specified what he was and Lisa decided he should be a snow leopard. Usually, it’s kinda boring and technical: We look at who they are going to share most of their scenes with, and we try to keep it somewhat even, so we don’t have too many scenes that are all animals or too many scenes that are all humans.

LH: Often with main characters, the writers will decide. With [Henrietta], they went back and forth about it for a while. I think eventually it was like, “Okay, this episode has a lot of animals in it, so we need some humans to balance it out.”

KP: We’re pro-diversity on this show.

RB-W: In the edit, we watch these episodes over and over and over again. We’re always looking for continuity errors or just little, small animation glitches. And this one was a delight, to be like, “Oh, wasn’t that cup there a second ago?” “Eh, it’s dementia.” We would be like, “Oh yeah, it’s intentional.” Or we would say, like, “I don’t know if that should be there.” And Mike [Hollingsworth, the supervising director] could be like, “Could it be … dementia?”

LH: Have I hidden anything in this episode? There’s a parody of a Degas painting in there. That’s not an Easter egg; if you’re an art-history buff, you might notice that and appreciate it. It’s in the bar when Beatrice is at the cotillion, her debutante ball. It’s kind of in the background, and I think the faces of the characters in the painting are blurred out, too, just like in the real-life characters.

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The Degas parody painting easter egg in“Time’s Arrow.”

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Also, in Beatrice’s childhood bedroom there are some paintings on the wall that are based on a children’s book from the ’40s that is about a horse. I wish I could remember the name, and I’m blanking on it right now, but I just thought it was so ridiculously appropriate that we made parodies of the illustrations from that book. [Note: Hanawalt sent a follow-up email that said, “That book I was trying to remember the name of was called The Horse Who Lived Upstairs, it’s a children’s book from 1944!”]

RB-W: I think there is a moment of grace at the end that [BoJack] offers her, which I think is surprising, especially because he is not privy to the half-hour that we have just seen, right? It’s not coming from him seeing this backstory of his mother and how tragic her life was. It’s coming directly off of him putting her in this place because he feels like she’s severed the one connection he has in a truly horrific way. Even then, he cannot help but feel sorry for her and try to give her a little something. The fact that she has not earned that grace, I think in some ways makes it more powerful. He decides to offer her that unrelated to whether or not she “deserves it”, quote, unquote.

LH: Literally, as we were designing [Beatrice] getting older, the eyes on her got smaller and smaller. The director and I were joking that people’s eyes don’t literally shrink as they age, but in animation, it’s a way of showing age. It shows her closing herself off from the world a little bit, becoming really bitter and hardened.

RB-W: There’s that old saying, “They fuck you up, your mom and dad / They may not mean to, but they do / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you / But they were fucked up in their turn / By men in old-style hats and coats / Who half the time were soppy-stern / And half at one another’s throats / Man hands off misery to men / It deepens like a coastal shelf / Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.” [Note: This is a mostly verbatim reading of Philip Larkin’s poem This Be the Verse.] Right? That’s the pattern all these characters are in. I think it’s always in the back of my head, certainly for these characters. I don’t know if it’s a universal truth, but I think in the world of our show, it definitely fits in pretty squarely.

LH: This episode made me cry when I was reading the script. I cried again when I was watching the animatic, and then I cried again when I watched the completed episode. That’s great. I love it when that happens. It really means something to me. It seems so unfair, her life story. And it feels very real to me, even though it’s a cartoon about a horse.