Best Episodes Ever: The Flashback
So, we’re back – a little late this week, since Solo made my brain come leaking out of my ears and unable to write anything beyond “argh bleeeuuuuh” for the last few days. But we’re back! In fact, we’re flash-back, as this week we take a look at episodes that delve back into the past. And yes, I cringed as hard at that transition as you did. On with the article!
The episode I chose this week was a real no-brainer for me – when it comes to flashbacks, nothing has impressed me like Bojack Horseman’s fourth season. I love the show in general, and it’s one of those gut-punch TV shows that feels like it can unpeel you with an incisive deconstruction of mental illness and then just as quickly put you back together with a gag about clown dentists. I love it, as I have written about before, and, with the latest season so wrapped up in the past, I knew I had to write about my favourite episode of the show to date; the second episode of the fourth season, The Old Sugarman Place.
A flashback episode is often used as filler, brutally – how many shows how tossed us back in our character’s timelines just for the sake of getting them through that twenty-four episode season hump? But the flashback, when used properly, can provide an invaluable insight into the people the characters in question have become and how they ended up there. But at the same time, you run the risk of stalling the show a little. Backwards-facing stories are hard in a medium with as much forward momentum as television, and finding that balance of insight and relevance is something I’ve never seen done better than this episode.
The episodes intertwines two stories; one of Bojack and his new neighbour attempting to rebuild his old family home, and the other of the history of the members of his family who lived in it. Both stories centre on a loss – for the neighbour, the loss of his wife in a tragic accident, and for Bojack’s family, the death of their son and brother as part of the war, and resultant breakdown and lobotomy of their mother. That’s the first thing it does right, eliminating any kind of argument that this is just here to kill time; the story of the past directly draws into the story of the present, hypnotic and horrible and vital to one another.
But it’s more than just a neat way to pull of this story – it’s a potent reflection of the main themes of the show as a whole. One of the central notions of Bojack Horseman as a show is the idea that people fall into patterns, and that part of growing as a person is breaking free of those patterns. And that’s articulated well in this episode, thanks to the parallels between the storylines; fuck, more than parallels, as the grief-stricken parties in the middle of each plot come together across timelines to lament their lost loves over a mournful piano tune. A flashback works when it’s used to inform our characters as we know them already – it kills when it finds a way inside that structure to delve deeper into the show’s thematic elements as well.
The episode, too, is really a tight twenty-minute exploration of grief. Amongst other things, too – mental illness, suicide, war, misogyny – but grief is front and centre here. And, by it’s very nature, grief is a naturally backwards-facing notion; a longing for what was, how things used to be. As a show that has constantly lampooned sitcom tropes, using the flashback episode as something so utterly necessary, as a properly profound exploration of grief is a sharp choice, and one that lets the naturally meditative nature of the flashback shine.
But the best thing about The Old Sugarman Place is simple: the flashback doesn’t wrap up neatly at the end. The weight of the past is heavy on this episode, in a very literal way; the episode ends with Bojack destroying the house he spends the entire story rebuilding, and driving away from the past wrapped up in it for good, but the past still lingers over everyone left behind. We don’t walk out of the past and back to the present just like that; as the past has interacted with the present in this episode, it continues to do so over the rest of the season, mistakes and troubles and illness plaguing the characters as much as they try to move forward. This flashback isn’t here to put a pin in anything – it’s here to continue a difficult conversation the show has been having with itself since season one, and that’s what makes it the best example of a flashback episode I’ve ever seen.
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(header image courtesy of The AV Club)