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Warning: This article contains spoilers for Bojack Horseman.
What do you see when you look into the eyes of Bojack Horseman?
Do you see anxiety? Do you see dysfunction and excess and addiction? Do you see yourself?
The creators of Bojack Horseman hope to conjure all these thoughts and more—but before the show even really begins. The 40-second title sequence, shown at the top of each episode, is instrumental in building the show’s tone and mythology. It changes subtly over the seasons and even from one episode to the next, exposing emotional subtexts and foreshadowing plot points. “It’s tremendously important—I definitely think it’s affected the show,” Bojack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg tells TIME.
But the title sequence’s biggest impact isn’t uncovered until the show’s penultimate episode, which was released on Netflix on Jan. 31. In that episode, it’s revealed that the show’s climactic moment has been hiding in plain sight from the very beginning. This long payoff, six years in the making, is just another small but key example of how Bojack has been one of the smartest and most transgressive shows on television in recent memory.
While Bojack is now widely revered, its fate was much less certain when the filmmaker Mike Roberts was brought on to direct the title sequence in 2014. For the most part, adult animation was confined to a specific lane—largely consisting of crude jokes aimed at teenage boys—and the first few episodes of Bojack hewed dangerously close to that standard.
“The first three episodes didn’t give everyone the full picture of how serious and dark and thematically deep the show goes,” Roberts tells TIME. “The main thing was to let the audience know that it wasn’t just this typical show—that there was some depth coming.”
In creating the title sequence, Roberts hoped to take viewers on a tour of Bojack’s everyday life—just like the introduction to The Simpsons and Scooby Doo—but from a peculiar vantage point: as if a GoPro was locked facing Bojack’s head. Roberts says he was primarily inspired by YouTube travel videos and how unintentionally strange they are: “It has this weird sensation of being there but also not being there, because the person is such a large part of the frame,” Roberts says. “We wanted this lost-in-life feeling, as if you were on a vacation somewhere exotic but stuck in your life that you kind of hate.”
The sequence shows Bojack walking through his house, going to the supermarket, partying with friends, and falling into a pool. But while his day is action-packed, he doesn’t seem to be in control—his body drifts automatically through space, wobbling slightly. “We wanted to feel like the day was running away from him,” Roberts says.
The sequence also communicates a disconnect between Bojack and those around him. Because Bojack faces the viewers, he can’t actually see the people that populate his house, and thus mostly doesn’t react to them at all. While he moves fluidly, the other characters flicker in stop-motion, as if they they’re not quite real to him. The amount of space Bojack’s own face takes up in the frame also reflects his narcissism and his inability to see the world outside of himself.
And the sequence not only gives the viewer clues about Bojack’s disorienting headspace, but forces us into it. Bojack’s blank stare has a startling mirroring effect, as if you were staring at your own reflection through the window of a moving train. “The feeling of the camera being locked to you while the background is moving is so surreal and weird,” Roberts says. “In some ways, it feels a bit like being drunk or being high.”
While the visual sequence was arresting on its own, the accompanying music would also be crucial in signaling the show’s tone. After culling through options, the creative team ultimately came down to two pieces: an instrumental by Patrick and Ralph Carney propelled by braying saxophones, and a melancholic ditty by Grouplove. “The Carney song was intense—almost a film noir kind of thing, while the Grouplove song was scary-funny in a Lynchian way,” Roberts said. “As we overlaid them, it was obvious which one fit.” They chose the Carney song, with its sinister haziness, for the top of each episode, and then moved the Grouplove song to the end credits as a pitch black resolution.
“You’d feel the momentum”
Bob-Waksberg loved Roberts’ concept: “It illustrated what the show was going to be even when the show itself was not illustrating that,” he says.
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But he wasn’t completely satisfied—and he asked that the sequence reflect another key aspect of the show. “One of the things that set us apart early on, as opposed to other animated shows, was the fact that Bojack was continuous and serialized,” Bob-Waksberg says. While other animated sitcom protagonists, like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and Sterling Archer, perform reckless actions that are mostly wiped clean at the end of each episode, Bojack’s life doesn’t reset; his decisions have devastating consequences to himself and those around him.
Bob-Waksberg wanted to use the title sequence to underscore those continuing repercussions—”so you’d feel the momentum of the series.” So Roberts and his team worked to implement small changes to the background of each episode’s title sequence. Some of the changes are little more than fun easter eggs: when Todd jumps on Bojack’s bed and breaks it, for example, his bed is propped up by books the next episode.
But other changes are far heavier: they document the end of relationships (with Wanda and Gina quietly disappearing) or show how Bojack’s actions have affected the outside world (after he gets the director Kelsey Jannings fired from Secretariat, she’s summarily replaced in the sequence by Abe D’Catfish). Before it’s revealed that his mother Beatrice has been drugging his sister Hollyhock through coffee, Beatrice is shown pouring a cup for her at the beginning of each episode.
And as the series goes on and Bojack devolves deeper into addiction and narcissism, the title sequence changes even more drastically. In season four, the segment that previously showed Bojack finally leaving his house is replaced by a kaleidoscopic montage of characters, signifying his past and present collapsing, his mental grip on reality spiraling out of control. (The sequence is triggered by Bojack drinking coffee, which also could be a nod to Beatrice’s sleight of hand.) “We wanted to have a trip-out kind of moment to show that he’s losing it,” Roberts says.
Bojack’s disconnect from reality is brought to its logical end in the season six title sequence, which was designed by Peter Merryman. Rather than showing Bojack meandering through his day, he instead wallows in his most entrenched and devastating memories, whether being confronted by his dying ex-friend Herb or eulogizing his mother. The sequence serves an unsettling double function: showing how Bojack has become locked in a prison of his own memories, and as a quasi-curtain call for the show’s most memorable episodes. “You’re watching a part of show that reminds you of watching a show that was about a guy that was in a show,” Merryman says. “You can peel that onion for a long time.”
A downer ending
Over time, the title sequence wormed its way into the show’s ethos and plot. In season three, for example, Bojack chooses a mirror-based ad campaign for his film Secretariat that looks eerily similar to the sequence.
But its significance rises another level in the penultimate episode, when a relapsed and depressed Bojack returns to his old house and flatlines in his pool. To Roberts, the possibility of this ending had been looming from the start: “The sequence implies that Bojack could fall into a pool, drunk and high, and maybe not come out,” he says.
Bob-Waksberg says this wasn’t by grand design—he had no idea when or how Bojack would end when he began writing the series. But he says that “the motif of swimming versus drowning gradually accumulated a lot of poignancy—and part of that is because it’s in the main title sequence. When someone brought up the idea while pitching, it felt so perfect and appropriate.”
Bob-Waksberg and the writing team then added another devastating connection to the title sequence. While the viewer might expect Diane to come to Bojack’s rescue—given that she perennially and anxiously hovers over his fall—this time, she fails to pick up his call. The fact that he will not be saved by his best friend means that the cycle shown in the title sequence—where he emerges from the pool scot-free from his mistakes—has truly been broken.
That climactic moment was widely hailed by critics and fans—and its emotional impact surely would have been dulled to anyone who uses the “Skip Intro” button on Netflix. Bob-Waksberg wishes that the button would be removed entirely. “I think it’s useless and it hurts the show,” he says. “Especially when you’re binging, it builds up anticipation and gives you a moment to think about the episode you saw and the episode you’re about to see. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have included it in the show that I delivered to Netflix.”