Bojack Horseman: An Ode to Diane Nguyen

Sometimes during the course of a long-running television series, a supporting character becomes so rich and full of life that the show nearly becomes as much about them as it is the central character. Two prototypical examples of this happening were with two larger-than-life series that wrapped up early on in the previous decade, in the form of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. With Mad Men, you had a story built around the infamous businessman and womanizer Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm. Introduced as his secretary in the first season, Peggy Olson, played memorably by Elisabeth Moss, quickly went from being just another of the rich cast of supporting characters to being the 1B to Don’s 1A. The show became very much about how the two of their lives affected the other’s, and how Peggy was somewhat of a course-correction to the failures of Don and the sexist system by which they worked within during the 1960s. By the end of the series, it was clear that their relationship was the most meaningful of any on the show, and much like Bojack, when the self-destructing Don would be at his lowest, he would often seek out the comfort of Peggy. On Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman was written with the intention of being a short-lived way for Walt to “break bad” into the drug business. Creator Vince Gilligan has stated many times that his original plan was to have Jesse killed off at the end of the first season, but after the wonderfully charismatic performance of Aaron Paul became too delicious to let go, Jesse was woven into the fabric of the show. By the end of the series, the effects of Walt’s tirade as seen on Jesse life was integral to our understanding of the show. He was even granted the recent Netflix film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) to further expound upon the character’s sense of hope following the series. As many recognize Mad Men and Breaking Bad to be two of the very best television series ever produced, Peggy Olson and Jesse Pinkman are essential parts of why those shows became so special and beloved. With Bojack Horseman, one of the absolute best TV shows of the 2010s and still the best original series Netflix has ever produced, Diane Nguyen quickly became that character for audiences. Following the show’s touching sendoff at the beginning of this year, we can firmly say that she belongs in the same breath with those legendary supporting characters.

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Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Alison Brie (Bojack Horseman), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)

As was the case with Peggy and Jesse, Diane became something of the audience’s avatar, someone we could root for in between the bouts of toxic masculinity exhibited by the main characters in each of these three shows. In Diane’s case, she really took on something of the millennial persona for the show and was the perfect character for viewers to relate to in a late 2010s series. She is a transplant from Boston to Hollywood trying to make it as a writer in some capacity. When the show begins, she appears to be in a decent place, ghost writing for Bojack’s memoir and then working for Princess Carolyn’s social media team. Later, she is hired to be the writer for the website Girl Croosh. All these assignments bring about their own different set of stressors, in addition to her rocky marriage with Mr. Peanutbutter and her toxic friendship with Bojack. Running somewhat parallel to Bojack’s downward spiral, she eventually comes to realize that a divorce from Mr. Peanutbutter is the first necessary step towards her happiness. It’s at this point when she decides to leave Los Angeles behind and takes a trip to Vietnam in an attempt to connect with her cultural heritage. What she finds on this sabbatical is quite profound. Though she is Vietnamese, she comes to understand that the country is still a foreign land to her and she has no connection with it. She is American, and she knows now that is where she must find her way. It’s a great moment for the series as it turns from the character’s second act to her final stretch in the show’s last season. Just through this time, she has already exhibited so many relatable and adult quandaries. She has had to overcome toxic romance and toxic friendship, struggled to carve out her career path, and come to grips with her own depression. By the time she returns to the States and takes her old friend Bojack to rehab, we are hopeful that during the final season, Diane will be able to finally find some peace and spiritual comfort.

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Alison Brie in Bojack Horseman, “The Dog Days are Over”

For the show’s final season, Diane’s story became about her working to write her own story, as well as overcoming what had become a crippling depression. She started dating Guy, who was a much more stable and complimentary partner for her than Mr. Peanutbutter ever was. As her body changed from taking antidepressants and entering her late 30s, Guy continued to be a supportive partner for her and helped her to push forward when in the past she may have slipped out of control. Living with him in Chicago proved fruitful for the two of them. By the finale, it is clear that Diane is in the best place she has been in all the time we’ve spent with her over the years. The show makes a point of indicating that she gave up her grueling determination to pen her life’s struggles onto the page in favor of the more spiritually rewarding writings of middle school detective fiction. In the final scene of the series, we learn a lot as she and Bojack have a deeply resonant conversation on a Los Angeles rooftop. She explains how deeply hurtful her relationship with Bojack was for so many years. She bared the burden of their friendship, always feeling that she may be the only thing standing between him and a substance-induced death. So many of us have felt this way in our own lives, struggling to keep the people we love safe from their own evils, perhaps at the detriment of our own sanity. In this moment, Bojack knows what Diane is saying is true, and all he can do is apologize for how he hurt her. But with that, the two of them come to an understanding that they are both in a better place now, removed from each other’s lives. Bojack hit his truest rock bottom, serving a prison sentence, and during this time Diane has carved out her place in life and appears to finally be in spiritual peace. She has married Guy and happily lives with him in Houston. In a conversation earlier in the episode over the phone with Mr. Peanutbutter, meant to give closure to their relationship, they too came to a point of understanding that they were better off apart and are genuinely happy for each other in finding their own way towards absolution. Diane states that life’s a puzzle and we are but just a piece of that puzzle, trying to find where we fit in. When we finally do, she says, there is no better feeling. As this character has closed the book on her downtrodden youth and has now found happiness entering her 40s, she explains this to Bojack on the roof. “Life’s a bitch and then you die, right?” he says to her. “Sometimes. Sometimes life’s a bitch and then you keep on living,” she responds. It’s a deeply memorable and meaningful moment, one that perfectly encapsulates their relationship and what we are able to take away from the series. Diane has had a positive effect on Bojack. He sees that she has overcome her demons and worked through her past detractors, one of them being himself. He knows that he can do the same. We, too, have been inspired by Diane. There is some of her in all of us, and seeing the way that she keeps pushing in spite of all the hurdles and personal turmoil that life has thrown her way, we know we can do the same.

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Alison Brie and Will Arnett in Bojack Horseman, “Nice While It Lasted”

When it comes to television and long-form storytelling, nothing is more important than the writing of the characters and being able to draw connections with them. It is why shows that are considered to have disappointing narrative closure, like Lost or Game of Thrones, can’t be entirely disregarded in their accomplishments. On some level, TV can be whittled down to “the friends we made along the way.” In those cases, our deeply personal relationships with characters like Jack Shephard or Jon Snow seemed to overwhelm any qualms one might have had with the broader narrative. With Bojack Horseman, the show was able to end in a deeply satisfying way, knowing full well that we the audience needed a moment of emotional catharsis between Bojack and Diane. It was not dissimilar to the previously discussed endings of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, in which we are able to see that Peggy and Jesse are going to be okay. With Diane particularly, this was an emotional moment to end on. We connected with her character more than anyone, and seeing her in a good place as we cut to credits was a meaningful conclusion to this exceptionally moving story. Years from now when we look back on Bojack Horseman as one of the defining series of the beginning of this streaming era, it will surely be Diane Nguyen and her journey that immediately comes to mind. Alison Brie, perhaps the most acclaimed television actor of the decade with significant roles in Mad Men, Community, and GLOW as well, deserves all the praise for bringing Diane to life. Bojack is a series that will stand the test of time, and Diane Nguyen is a friend we won’t forget any time soon.

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