Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How BoJack Horseman showed us 'The View from Halfway Down'
The final half-season of BoJack Horseman, which dropped on Netflix in January, saw the titular equine antihero spiral away from the redemption arc of the season’s first half. BoJack, a recovering alcoholic, former sitcom star, and frequently terrible person (or horse), saw the sins of his past exposed to all of Hollywood, became a pariah, and relapsed, ultimately confronting death in the series’ haunting penultimate entry, “The View from Halfway Down.” Here, episode scribe Alison Tafel explains how the BoJack writers cracked one of the year’s most acclaimed half-hours of TV.
TV episodes often begin as notecards on a board. “The View from Halfway Down” began as one.
For years, BoJack Horseman writer Alison Tafel says, showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg had had an idea that BoJack (Will Arnett) would somehow end up at a dinner party with all of the show’s characters who had died, and a notecard representing the idea — reading simply “dinner party” — “floated around” the entire time the writers’ room was planning season 6.
“We knew that we wanted it to maybe happen this season, and then when we realized it was the last season, it was like, ‘Well, it has to,’” Tafel tells EW. “Eventually, it landed on being the penultimate episode, which I think was really fitting.”
Each season, BoJack Horseman fans would await the penultimate episode with bated breath. Though widely considered some of the series’ best entries, those episodes reliably delivered the show’s darkest moments and most bruising gut-punches: BoJack trying to sleep with an old friend’s teenage daughter, his former costar Sarah Lynn’s death, a journey through his elderly mother’s dementia-stricken memory. As literally and figuratively the penultimate BoJack episode to end all penultimate BoJack episodes, “The View from Halfway Down” would be no exception.
Over the course of the episode, BoJack slowly realizes he’s dying, drowning in his pool while on a bender and experiencing a surreal vision as his brain shuts down. But first, he and the other characters — Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal); his mother, Beatrice (Wendie Malick); his old friend Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci); his Secretariat costar Corduroy Jackson-Jackson (Brandon T. Jackson); his uncle Crackerjack (Lin-Manuel Miranda); and Zach Braff (yes, that Zach Braff) — gather around the dinner table and discuss their lives, the point of existence, and what true goodness looks like.
The episode “burst open,” Tafel says, once the central concept “changed from being a dream to, ‘What if [BoJack] is in this limbo of, is he going to wake up from this or not?’”
“That really created the driving force of what the episode was about,” she continues. “From there, it then became a fun kind of one-act play [with] philosophical discussions of what it means to live a good life, and what it means to be a good person. Because I think those are the things that everybody grapples with, but especially if you're dealing with your possibly impending death.”
Heavy material, of course, but as always on BoJack, it’s leavened with humor. The dinner party eventually gives way to a talent show, with the characters performing various acts — a song, a dance, a roller skate routine — and the dialogue is peppered with the series’ characteristic wit. (Says Zach Braff, listing his regrets, “I never got to license the Zach Braff Short Stack Breakfast Attack at Shake Shack!”)
“We were combing through and finding places where there could still be humor, so it doesn't feel like we're talking like we just read philosophy books for the first time, you know?” Tafel says with a laugh. “There was no way it was not going to be funny, because this is how comedy writers touch upon darker things. This is just what happens when you ask a group of funny, funny people to talk about something serious and dark.”
The writers also scattered elements of surreality throughout the episode, from nods to BoJack’s reality outside of the dream — a perpetually dripping ceiling, bottled water tasting like chlorine — to more esoteric touches. (Tafel refuses to explain the bird in the opening minutes: “I love all the different theories; they're all right and they're all wrong at the same exact time.”) For instance, when BoJack’s father, Butterscotch (also voiced by Arnett), arrives midway through the episode, he appears as BoJack’s hero Secretariat with Butterscotch’s voice.
“That was Raphael's idea from the get-go,” notes Tafel. “I feel like it’s really relatable — we've all had those dreams where you're like, ‘I was with my mom, but my mom was Dolly Parton.’ And then there’s something about Secretariat being this male figure that BoJack has really idolized throughout the show, and a father who was aloof and not a good father. Combining them, I think, was really fitting, talking about the father you wish you had versus the father you had.”
In one of the episode’s standout moments, this Secretariat/Butterscotch hybrid recites a poem called “The View from Halfway Down,” a reference to Secretariat’s suicide by jumping off a bridge. The poem was penned in real life by Tafel (with Bob-Waksberg adding two stanzas), who initially pitched a joke where Secretariat would start to read a poem and get cut off.
“I didn't have any intention to have a poem in the episode,” the writer says. “I put it in the outline, and Raphael read it and he was like, ‘Where's the poem? Alison, you can't set up a poem and then not have a poem.’”
“I always get really nervous when you see art in art,” she continues. “The example I always give is, you know in She's All That how Rachael Leigh Cook's supposed to be this great painter, and then you finally see her painting at the end of the movie, and it's really terrible, but it's supposed to be quote-unquote good? So I was really nervous about writing a poem, because it's like, ‘Do I try for it to be good, and then it's actually bad, and that's embarrassing, or do I purposely make it bad because it's comedy?’”
Bob-Waksberg offered his input, suggesting the title and the concept, of writing the poem from Secretariat’s perspective as he falls from the bridge — “To which you go, ‘Oh, great, so you have to try to make it good,’” Tafel says. “You can't write a bad poem that's about such a serious topic.” And she got an extra dose of encouragement from her husband, who “wrote me a poem just to say, ‘Anyone can write a poem,’ which was really sweet of him, but also annoying, because he's not a professional writer,” she adds wryly.
Like most TV shows, BoJack was written collaboratively in the writers’ room, with all of Tafel’s colleagues contributing jokes and story points, but eventually, she went off to pen the episode script by herself. “My favorite thing about working on BoJack was, Raphael really allowed you to feel ownership of your own episode, meaning you did feel like it was your script,” she explains. “However, you also felt very taken care of, very supported by all of the amazing writers throughout the process.”
Bob-Waksberg gave Tafel two plays to suggest the tone and style of the episode, Top Girls by Caryl Churchill (about several dead historical figures having dinner together) and Three Tall Women by Edward Albee (about an old woman reflecting on her life). “They're very experimental in how they write dialogue,” Tafel says. “I think [Bob-Waksberg] was just wanting me to feel the influence of that style of dialogue overlapping, for me to then infuse into the episode. Which I tried to, and then he took it and made it much better.”
Director Amy Winfrey and the show’s animators also contributed plenty of their own touches, embellishing and adding to Tafel’s script. “For the talent show I just wrote, like, ‘Beatrice dances,’ ‘Sarah Lynn sings a song.’ So all of the choreography and the visuals for the talent show were all a big surprise,” Tafel says. “Also, when [BoJack] went outside to talk to his father-slash-Secretariat, I just had that they were on a porch, and [the animators] changed that to being the bridge, which I thought was also very wonderful.”
It all added up to an episode that received immediate and near-unanimous praise, earning the series its second Emmy nod for Outstanding Animated Program and landing in many a roundup of the best TV installments of the year. For Tafel, though, the most meaningful responses have been the reactions to the poem shared with her on social media.
“Not a day goes by that I don't get like a message from somebody telling me how much that poem means to them,” she says. “That has been the craziest part of this experience, because I was just happy it didn't suck. I think it really resonates with people, and I'm really proud that it's a positive message about regret, about changing your mind. I've had so many people say to me, ‘This poem really helped me change my mind about doing something myself.’ That’s incredible.” That's the power, as the poem says, of knowing about the view from halfway down.