On Talking Animals and Mental Illnesses

Pietro Romeo
8 min readJun 28, 2018


An analysis of the zoomorphisation of human darkness through the characters of BoJack Horseman and Night in The Woods

BoJack Horseman (left) and Mae Borowski (right)

There are not many things I clearly remember learning about literature when I was in primary school. I do remember the difference between “fables” (short-stories involving anthropomorphised, talking animals) and “fairy tales” (children stories depicting magical creatures such as, well, fairies). Fables made use of animals to depict and make fun of human vices and the flows of society, often with the aim of teaching some type of moral lesson. In Æsop’s The Fox and the Grapes, the fox is unable to reach the object of its desire — the grapes — and concludes that they are not worth eating. “There are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach”, concludes Æsop.

It is much harder to draw any moral conclusions from modern fables of the 21st century, which is unsurprising given the everspread millennial’s taste for nihilism and (animal) puns. Modern character depictions focus a lot more on creating well-rounded, intensely flawed “human” characters to the point that the audience may feel an uncanny sense of relatedness to a middle-age horse with depression or a 20-something cat who dropped out of college to go back to live with her parents. I am talking, of course, about the main characters of the Netlix TV series BoJack Horseman and the indie computer game Night in The Woods. Both media became incredibly popular in the past couple of years and share some common themes — namely talking animals, dark humour, and what are arguably the best depictions of mental illness to date.

! The remainder of this post contains minor spoilers for BoJack Horseman

BoJack’s view of himself.

Let us begin with BoJack Horseman. The show makes use of both anthropomorphised animals and human characters who essentially think and behave in the same way (with the exception of some additional quirks added to the animal characters mostly for pun purposes). The protagonist, BoJack, is a former Hollywoo(d) star in his 50s who grew up with a dysfunctional family and suffers from depression, self-loathing, substance abuse, and overall cynism. His own despise for himself leads him to hurt nearly all other characters throughout the show which in turn causes more self-loathing and doubt about whether he can consider himself a “good” person or not. What makes BoJack a unique character in television is that he is pretty aware of the fact that he is a dick and he often takes action towards self-improvement, only to regularly and ever-more brutally crawl back into the darkness of his own depression.

“Piece of shit. Stupid piece of shit. You’re a real stupid piece of shit. But I know I’m a piece of shit, that at least makes me better than other pieces of shit who don’t know that they’re pieces of shit.” — BoJack Horseman

Mr. Peanutbutter confronts BoJack during a game show starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Other characters in the BoJack Horseman universe are not spared from this. Mr. Peanutbutter appears as cheerful and happy as the dog he is for most of the show, only occasionally bursting into the really really real reality of his turbulent relationships with friends, lovers, and family members alike. Mr. Peanutbutter is the one character in the show who does not show any signs of mental illness yet when you least expect it drops his own bombs of nihilism like no other character ever could. He is the only character who seems genuinely happy in the BoJack’s universe, yet the “key to being happy” is something that too many of us relate with and wish they didn’t.

“The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.” — Mr. Peanutbutter

Princess Carolyn’s motivational speech to herself.

Finally, we have Princess Carolyn, the workaholic pink cat who suffers from loneliness and longs for creating a family but is too committed to her own career to invest into her love life. We see Princess Carolyn succumb to a life which is sad and unfullfilling despite her genuine efforts, but we also fail to see herself truly attempt to take care of herself the way even BoJack sometimes manages to do. Admittedly, Princess Carolyn “punishes” herself for neglecting work when she falls in love a little bit and prefers to help others instead of focusing on her own problems.

“My life is a mess right now, and I compulsively take care of other people when I don’t know how to take care of myself.” — Princess Carolyn

! The remainder of this post contains minor spoilers for Night in the Woods

From left to right: Angus, Gregg, Bea and Mae from Night in the Woods.

In Night in the Woods, you play as a female 20 years old cat named Mae Borowski who returns to Possum Springs, her unimpressive hometown, to live with her parents after dropping out of college for unspecified reasons. She also reconnects with some old friends, including her best friend Gregg with whom she used to commit “crimes” during her teenage years. Mae is a character many 20-something can relate to, including myself. She is quite talkative yet somewhat socially awkward and makes extensive use of quirky, witty humour to mask her flaws and insecurities. She shows signs of several mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, body dysmorphic dysorder — she looks at herself in the mirror and calls out on her “crazy eyes” — , dissociative disorder, and anger issues. She used to be a troubled teenager devoted to pickpocketing and smashing things, to the point where she was sent to a therapist who suggests she keeps a journal (which she does).

You can access the options menu of the game through Mae’s Journal. Smile!

During a party in the woods in which she gets spectacularly drunk after two cups of watered-down beer, Mae reveals that she could not bear life at college anymore — not before threatening to stab people and proudly calling herself a “total trash mammal”. While she seems to get along with both of her parents, she admits that her father had to quit alcohol because he was becoming a threat for his family, and on one occasion we see her mother suffer from mood swings. But ultimately she feels that her family and hometown are what are keeping her relatively sane, in a world where everything else seems to change fast and lose meaning as you grow up. Unlike BoJack, we don’t see Mae make any particular effort improving her situation (besides her journal keeping), instead the game starts with her “giving up” and refusing to becoming an adult. Upon returning to Possum Springs, she falls back into old habits of pickpocketing, knife-fighting and smashing things, even dragging her old friends with her. But towards the end of the game we know that Mae has changed — even though we do not see a “breakthrough”, and her daily life stays as monotonous as ever, we know that something has changed.

Gregg questioning his own behaviour, worrying he will lose Angus.

The second-most popular character in Night in the Woods is definitely the fox Gregg Lee, also known as “GREGG RULZ OK”. Gregg is Mae’s best friend with whom she used to commit “crimes” during their troubled teenagehood. While Mae was in college, Gregg got a job at a snack store and had a plan to leave Possum Spring with his boyfriend Angus once they both earn enough money to build a life somewhere else. Gregg likely suffers from bipolar disorder, showing an energetic and overly enthusiastic personality for most of the game while suddenly becoming blue and worrying whether he is a good person and thinking about how much of a piece of shit he is (BoJack much?). When Mae is around, his manic episodes lead him to indulge with her in risky and dangerous behaviours such as intentionally stabbing each other and breaking cars.

Angus giving Gregg the silent treatment with Mae in the car.

Angus Delaney, by contrast, is always calm, quiet and unperturbed (also a bear). He seems to be a positive influence on Gregg and discourages his misendeavours with Mae. He also shows signs of cynism (and possibly autism) and has a horrible history of parental abuse: his father used to beat him down and his mother would lock him into the pantry for days denying him food.

Bea and Mae discussing things.

Last but not least, the crocodile Beatrice Santello, better known as Bea. She used to be one of Mae’s best friends as a child but she grew up to be a somewhat distant, gloomy and serious woman. She doesn’t like bullshit and unfairness and responds to everything with sarcasm, often picking up on Mae about her childish behaviour. Bea suffers from depression and grief due to her mother’s recent loss to cancer and the fact that she was left to take care of her sick father. Compared to any other character I have reviewed in this story, Bea is the one who is the most visibly sad. She gets mad at Mae for acting childish and for quitting college which she herself had to give up when her mother died. Her lack of enthusiasm is in direct contrast with Gregg’s exuberance and her vision of the world strucks me as brutal realism rather than sheer pessimism, especially given her backstory.

Ultimately, every character in Night in the Woods suffers from what is the dreadful reality of living in a small town like Possum Spring, struck by economic and industrial decay and by the lack of opportunities which makes the youth migrate to larger cities. Angus and Gregg lament being the only queer couple around and feeling the need for community, Bea wishes she could go to college, Mae cannot deal with growing up and things around her changing and tries to hold on to her past.

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Pietro Romeo

UX Researcher @ FlixBus. Pan-European, uprooted globetrotter. Idiosyncratic. Passionate about UX, Human-Computer Interaction, and Digital Anthropology.