BoJack Horseman: “Fish Out of Water” Goes Deep Without Words

BoJack on the street wearing a glass helmet with video playing behind him about his thumbs-up

The following contains spoilers for BoJack Horseman S3E4, “Fish Out of Water” (written by Elijah Aron & Jordan Young and directed by Mike Hollingsworth)

BoJack Horseman was always a show so permeated by visual gags I’d be impressed if anyone ever catalogued them all. So it makes sense that in its third season, the series would offer an entry into the pantheon of Great TV Episodes Without Dialogue with “Fish Out of Water.”

BoJack (Will Arnett) is promoting his forthcoming Secretariat film, and he Cannes not take it to Cannes because of his past remarks about Jean-Paul Sartre, so he’s off to the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, 20 leagues (or whatever it is) under the sea.

The central tension of “Fish Out of Water” is set up in the limited dialogue that does occur towards the beginning of the episode. Ana Spanikopita (Angela Bassett) informs BoJack that Kelsey Jannings (Maria Bamford, though she actually doesn’t talk in this episode) will also be at the festival and that spikes BoJack’s anxiety to such an extent that it might be the reason he tries to get off the plane and bail on the fest.

Alas, it’s too late. He gets tased by an electric eel flight attendant and down below we go.

BoJack holds the baby seahorse looking at a Mr. Peanutbutter stand up advertising seahorse milk

Kelsey had been the director of Secretariat until BoJack got her fired through his shenanigans (classic BoJack), and he hasn’t talked to her since or ever apologized or anything (also classic BoJack), so he hides from her at first, until he gets it into his head that he needs to face the situation head on.

The problem is he cannot (to his knowledge) speak underwater. He’s wearing a glass helmet that also keeps him from smoking and drinking (which is pretty tortuous if you’re BoJack), and while fish speak their gurgling fish language, BoJack is left to try to communicate nonverbally. And, despite what he told Ana on the phone at the beginning of the episode, he most certainly does not know what a thumbs-up means.

So, when it comes to trying to make amends with Kelsey, BoJack tries to write a note. The very first draft is telling. It’s a terrible note, but shows that his primary concern is with feeling like things are cool between them. He knows enough to discard that one, but his second attempt isn’t all that much better. He does, though, proceed to try to give it to her.

BoJack at a bar writing a note that reads, on screen, "Sorry you got fired. That sucks for you. BoJack Horseman"

Instead, he gets caught up in a stream of salmon that pushes him onto a bus, he loses the note, and ends up far out of town with no apparent way to get back. Further, after he’s helped a male seahorse give birth on the bus (because yes, that is a thing), he’s left with a baby seahorse that he can’t abandon. (He tries, mind you! The kid is just not having it).

This relationship, between BoJack and an unnamed newborn baby seahorse, forms the crux of “Fish Out of Water.” Their journey takes them through a series of perils, as when BoJack steals some seahorse milk because the shark clerk only accepts seashells in payment, or when BoJack puts himself at risk to save the baby seahorse from a large metal fan.

They end up in a ridiculous chase in the taffy factory where baby seahorse’s dad works, but ultimately BoJack gets the kid home. He declines the offer to stay for dinner, and he declines the offer of monetary compensation, but he lingers in the doorway as he says goodbye. What he’s found through all of this is a moment of true connection to another living being, and he’s smart enough to get that.

He doesn’t want to let it go, but he has to. We cut to a cab ride, where he’s already missed the premiere of his film, but takes the feeling he has to craft another note to Kelsey. This time, he does a good job at taking responsibility and apologizing. He recognizes that the relationship is the most important thing, and more than having cost her a job, he’s been a terrible friend.

BoJack in a cab writing a note that reads on screen, "I'm sorry I got your fired. I'm sorry I never called you after."

Later, as the festival is wrapping up, BoJack spots Kelsey again. He flags down her cab, and she stops to give him the moment. He hands over the note. She looks at it and hands it back, before driving off. The thing has become utterly illegible, because they’re underwater, after all. The ink is smeared, and you can hardly make out any of the words.

Then a random passerby on the street (voiced by Paul F. Tompkins) yells at BoJack to get out of his way. It turns out BoJack could have been talking all along. There’s a button on the side of his helmet that he didn’t know about. And thus the episode ends, cutting him off in the middle of the phrase as he exclaims, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

BoJack holds a smudged and illegible note

“Fish Out of Water” is one of many times when BoJack Horseman—a show about a talking horse/man—gives us a deep meditation on structures of regret, guilt, shame, and depression. BoJack has messed things up in the past, because of course he has, and he wants to make things right but he doesn’t know how. He’s a fish out of water not just because he’s in a strange environment physically over the course of the episode, but in that he is trying to work in a psychological space where he is not comfortable.

BoJack always wants to save face, not just in terms of how the world at large views him or even primarily in those terms, but in terms of how he sees himself. He wants the people he cares about to forgive him, but whenever he approaches acknowledging his flaws, he’s at risk of spiraling into deep depression and addiction, and thus prone to defense mechanisms that can make him just be an asshole some more instead.

BoJack leans into Kelsey's cab as she looks at his note in "Fish Out of Water"

But on occasion, he gets it. He loves that baby seahorse and longs for that kind of connection. He finds a way to be honest with himself and actually apologize in the last note he writes, destined to failure as this is.

Of course, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that somehow this would have worked if only the ink on BoJack’s note hadn’t been smeared. He’s already making another error if he thinks that he’s found the magic words that will set things right with Kelsey. It doesn’t work that way.

It would’ve meant more if he’d gone to the screening of Billie Jean King Is Not My Lover, the film that Kelsey was at the festival to promote. He could have shown up and supported her, and yes, apologized when he had a chance to talk to her, but of course he didn’t do that.

The end of “Fish Out of Water” is fitting not just because it is very funny but because it is also poignant. BoJack is not a good friend, but we probably relate to him even if we wish we didn’t. And nothing is so simple as parsing fault and blame from happenstance and misfortune. It’s not as though if he could have spoken he would have made things better. Even odds he would have made things worse.

BoJack and the baby seahorse face off with a many-eyed sea creature

And yet we have these moments, like BoJack and baby seahorse playing with bioluminescence under the sea. In this terrifying world, that’s what we’re looking for.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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