The transformation of TV’s greatest character: Diane Nguyen

To say I was ready when BoJack Horseman premiered on Netflix during the summer of 2014 is a massive understatement. Mix my love of animated comedies with hearing the name Aaron Paul, I fired up season one.

I was ready for a wild ride with Todd and BoJack, but I had no idea where the other characters, specifically Diane Nguyen, would take me in this six season travel through life and everything that comes along with it.

I finally started my first re-watch of the show as a whole now that its final season premiered January 2020, over a year ago.

It hit hard to see the show’s conclusion and Diane and BoJack’s final interaction on the roof while Catherine Feeney’s “Mr. Blue” played. What tugged at me even more was it wasn’t all for BoJack, a lot of emotion was felt for Diane and her story and personal growth throughout the show.

Season One – Part 1

First two episodes, meh. A few chuckles, nothing too special so far. Definitely looking more like an Archer style comedy rather than Family Guy. As far as delving deeper than that, it was starting to check the boxes a lot of shows try to now a days, alcoholism, mental health, Hollywood culture, etc. Anything new or groundbreaking? It seemed not.

And then the transformation of one of the greatest television characters, animated or not, started to begin. In the first two episodes, we saw Diane as nothing more than an up and coming writer seemingly looking to get her foot in the door by being BoJack’s ghostwriter.

She is peppy and friendly and eager. She seems intelligent, well-prepared, but a bit overwhelmed by the shine of it all initially, as we see with her awkward initial interaction with BoJack at his party to end episode one.

Diane does her job professionally as possible with a client like BoJack, as he ignores her advice in episode two and hilariously decides to go toe to toe with Neal McBeal the Navy Seal over the muffins.

Episode 3

The first time we start getting insight on who Diane is and her inner dialogue is episode 3 of season 1 (Prickly-Muffin) when Sarah Lynn moves in with BoJack to avoid dealing with her own substance abuse and relationship issues.

BoJack asks what Diane thinks of Sarah Lynn (in reference to her living with him), and Diane gives the moment of the episode with this monologue:

Oh, I don’t really think about her all that much. I mean, obviously, I’m a fan of her early work which both satirized and celebrated youth culture’s obsession with sex, but I do wonder as a third-wave feminist if it’s even possible for women to reclaim their sexuality in this deeply entrenched patriarchal society, or if claiming to do so is just a lie we tell ourselves so we can more comfortably cater to the male gaze.”

As BoJack stammers in confusion, Diane continues:

“But you know, on the other hand, I worry that conversations like this one often dismiss her as a mere puppet of the industry, incapable of engaging in these discussions herself and infantilization, which is itself a product of the deeply misogynistic society we live in. But like I said, I don’t really think about her all that much.”

For a minute or so, we are taken inside the head of Diane Nguyen and while it might be long winded with no real conclusion, it is brilliant and socially aware and complex.

Which is the beauty of her character and the show overall, the complexity. Feminism isn’t a simple issue and there isn’t a correct answer or belief system, but Diane does a damn good job of critically analyzing the movement over the years and pointing out things the average person might not have thought of.

This is a blessing and a curse, as this constant inner dialogue and analyzing of everything can’t be particularly good for her mental health and overall positivity, as we’ll later see.

Episode 4

Next we get the classic (in this universe) Zoe or Zelda question in the following episode, basically the Type A or Type B personality of our world. This episode delivers the greatest moment from the show’s most forgettable character: Wayne.

Wayne is following around and writing an article about Mr. Peanutbutter, Diane’s upbeat and happy-go-lucky boyfriend. Wayne is also Diane’s ex boyfriend.

At the end of the episode, it turns out Wayne is writing a hit piece on Mr. Peanutbutter and has been following him around to spend time with Diane and prove to her that he is the right one for her, not Mr. Peanutbutter. He drops this on her, somehow thinking it would work:

“You know what your problem is? You’re trying to be a Zelda but you’re so obviously a Zoë. You can live your happy Zelda life in this happy Zelda town and pretend you’re a happy Zelda, but I know you, and this isn’t you. People don’t change, Diane, not really. Mr.Peanutbutter’s a Zelda. He’s happy and he’s carefree and he’s loving, but you and me, we’re Zoës. We’re Zoës, Diane. We’re cynical and we’re sad and we’re mean. There’s a darkness inside you, and you can bury it deep in burritos as big as your head, but someday soon, that darkness is gonna come out, and when it does, I want you to call me.”

Holy shit. For me personally, this was the turning point in the show. I realized I was in for a lot more than a few laughs and animal puns. A complete tone change, which Mr. Peanutbutter immediately follows up with “I like that guy!” as the episode ends.

As far as Diane goes, we start to get an even deeper look into her as a person and her past. What is this darkness she has that he speaks of that we aren’t (but soon will be) aware of?

As cynical and unlikeable as Wayne is, is he right? Are we are who we are and some people are just designed to be sad and some happy? Again, nothing can be that simple, and that’s what Diane continues to explore as she navigates “old” Diane into “new Hollywood” Diane as her story continues.

After referencing Diane’s past trauma in the previous episode, episode five “Live Fast, Diane Nguyen” dives right into it the single most important “Diane” episode of season one.

Episode 5

In poetic fashion, the episode starts with BoJack telling his publisher that Diane is “too functional” to tell his story.

Diane then enters and BoJack makes a joke asking where she’s been that he actually feels bad about when her response is:

“That was my brother Tommy. My dad just died.”

Even better (or worse?), she follows up BoJack’s apology with “It’s fine. He was old and also the worst.”

Diane said she has to swing by Boston to give her condolences but BoJack can join and they can get some work done. She seems completely unfazed by the death of her father.

We find out Diane has four brothers, is despised by her mother for turning into a “big-shot” and leaving them, and is overall treated like complete shit by nearly everyone in her family for no particularly good reason.

She asks BoJack to stay in the car, but he of course decides to come inside and live out his brother fantasy he never had growing up as an only child in an abusive household.

What was supposed to be a ten minute in and out turns into Diane finding her father’s dead corpse still sitting there and being told by her brother to take care of the funeral arrangements, all while still hurling insults at her. It starts becoming apparent where this darkness that Wayne spoke of came from.

Diane’s rage and tension is palpable and increases throughout the episode, apparent when BoJack and her brothers have a good laugh about the time they tricked her into thinking she was writing letters back and forth with a “sweet boy from Cambridge.”

They even hired a homeless man to pretend to be him and take her to prom and videotaped it, which BoJack and her brothers watch joyously as younger Diane cries on screen. She seemingly brushes this off, but eventually reaches her breaking point later when nobody shows up for the funeral she planned.

Rather than coming to the funeral home, her family decided to turn their dad’s body into chum and throw him at Derek Jeter, being the diehard Red Sox Massholes they are. After her mother attacks her for making everything about herself and acting like she’s too good for her family, BoJack tries to come to the rescue:

“Yeah, guys, you got it all wrong. Diane isn’t a big-shot. She’s my ghostwriter. She’s writing a book that’s not even gonna have her name on it. You think this is how she expected her life would be going at 34? She lives with her rich boyfriend and doesn’t pay rent. She’s not too good for anything.”

Ouch. To say the least. Diane outbursts and screams at BoJack that this is why she told him to the stay in the car and disappears. Nobody bats an eye besides BoJack, who wanders off to find her sitting alone at the dump where she cuts off her phone conversation with Mr. Peanutbutter.

BoJack gives her a letter he wrote for her, as we see the regret BoJack has for not only what he said, but the emotions he knows he stirred up inside her related to her family:

“Dear Diane, it’s me, your old pen pal Leo. This definitely isn’t BoJack Horseman writing this. You’re a good person, Diane, and that’s the most important thing. Even if no one appreciates you, it’s important that you don’t stop being good. I like how you always bring your own bags to the grocery store, and how you’re always organized to go places. I like how you chew gum on the airplane so your ears will pop. A lot of people might not appreciate that about you, but I do. Yours forever, Leo.”

Diane tells BoJack it’s the best letter “Leo” ever wrote, and they debate if it’s stupid or not for Diane to still want her shitty family to be proud of her. BoJack, coming from a horrible set of parents himself, of course says it is stupid and closure isn’t real.

The beauty of it all according to BoJack, is if she feels shitty when she comes back, she doesn’t have to come back. Ever. And her dad can’t hurt anyone else anymore (except Derek Jeter of course).

In one 25 minute episode, we’re able to go through Diane’s homecoming literally and emotionally, getting a much deeper perspective on who she actually is as a person and character moving forward from her family trauma.

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