Tag Archives: drama

Helga Pataki: Profile Of A Tragic Love Story (From A 90s Kids Cartoon)

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I was lucky to be a kid in the 1990s. Talk to most people my age and they’ll agree. The 1990s was a golden age for cartoons. That may seem somewhat egocentric, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing counter-argument. This was the era that brought us the animated classes for “X-Men,” “Batman,” “Daria,” “Animaniacs,” and so much more.

As a kid during that era, there were many great shows that I still hold dear to my heart. I’ve mentioned a few of them in the past. A few of these shows hold up, even by today’s standards. I contend that the “Batman” animated series only gets better with age. One show, however, has taken on a very different meaning over the years the air and, being an aspiring romance writer, it still resonates with me.

That show is “Hey Arnold!” and for most cartoon-loving kids in the 1990s, this was one of the best shows that didn’t involve talking babies. It was a unique show that followed a diverse cast of characters, each with their own unique connection to the titular Arnold. By almost any measure, Arnold was a lovable, relateable idealist who you just can’t help but root for.

How can you not love that football shaped head?

He’s loyal, altruistic, friendly, compassionate, and empathetic. Even as a 4th grader, he’s the kind of kid you want to be friends with. He’ll go to bat for you. He’ll stand by you when the chips are down. When the whole world around him is wrong, he’ll stand for what’s right. Whether it’s the 90s or today, there’s a lot to like about a character like that.

However, the best part of “Hey Arnold!” isn’t how inherently likable Arnold is. In fact, one of the most endearing sub-plots of the show is built around a character who, on paper, couldn’t be more different. That character is Helga Pataki, the short-tempered, overly hostile, overly dramatic girl who often threatens others with her fists.

She’s also secretly in love with Arnold. It’s not just a childish crush, either. She’s really in love with Arnold.

When I watched this show as a kid, I thought that crush was kind of odd. It’s not that I didn’t care for romantic sub-plots. Even as a kid, I enjoyed romance, even in cartoons. It was one of the reasons I loved the 90s Marvel cartoons so much. I just didn’t understand the romance in “Hey Arnold!” Then, when I watched it with a more refined perspective, it gained a whole new context.

In essence, the love story of Helga and Arnold is built around tragedy, but somehow manages to feel sincere and genuine. It’s a love story that initially comes off as obsessive and unhealthy. However, as we learn more about each character, they gain more complexity. With each subsequent refinement, it becomes clear just how much these two complement each other.

It’s worth reiterating that this is a kids show from the 1990s. Things like tragedy, romance, and chemistry are things that usually don’t fit into a show within the pre-Spongebob Nickelodeon era. Even within those limitations, the complicated love story between Helga and Arnold is surprisingly mature.

To appreciate the depth of that story, it’s necessary to understand some of Helga’s story. Even by the skewed standards of a kids cartoon, it’s pretty sad. Helga does not come from a nurturing, supportive environment. Her parents are a wreck. Her father is a self-centered blowhard who cares more about his business than his family. Her mother is a dazed alcoholic who always seems hung over.

Then, there’s her older sister, Olga. She’s basically the perfect daughter who sucks up all the attention in her family. She’s sweet, successful, kind, and an overachiever. She sets the bar so high that Helga has no chance of ever matching it, so she doesn’t even try. As such, her parents barely notice her. Her father often forgets her name. Most of the time, she just calls her “the girl.”

This pretty much sums it up.

This is not a happy home life for anyone, let a lone a 4th grade kid. Nobody pays attention to her. Nobody shows her any semblance of affection or love. Nobody is even nice to her. Then, she meets Arnold. He’s the first person to show her real, sincere kindness. It’s not out of pity, either. That’s just the kind of person Arnold is. Naturally, it makes an impression.

It’s a tragic foundation for any love story, but it’s one that isn’t fully fleshed out until later seasons. If there’s one episode that defines Helga’s character, it’s Season 4, Episode 78, entitled “Helga on the Couch.” This is the episode that lays bare just how tragic her life was and still is. It also puts all the obsessive feelings she has for Arnold into a larger context.

It’s almost disturbing how sad things were for her. As early as pre-school, we see just how neglected she was. We also see just how big an influence Arnold was for her at that moment.

Again, it’s worth reiterating that this is a kids show. If there were a story about a pre-school kid who was that neglected by her family, it would make headlines and stir plenty of outrage on social media. However, “Hey Arnold!” managed to make this distressing story feel genuine and heartfelt.

The romance isn’t entirely one-sided, either. In the early seasons of the show, Arnold mostly saw Helga as his bully. He rarely saw her as anything more than that. However, as the show went on, he starts noticing her complexities. He even manages to get through her tough, hostile exterior on a few occasions.

While there are more than a few occasions when she comes close to confessing her feelings for him, it’s not until the series finale/movie that they actually become an item, at least as much as a couple of 4th graders can be. The way they go about is part of what makes the romance feel genuine.

It doesn’t just revolve around Helga finally coming clean. Without getting too heavy into spoilers, Arnold gets to see first-hand just how far Helga is willing to go for him. She shows him with her actions how much she cares. It’s not something she could ever put into words and not just because she’s a kid. Remember, she comes from a home where she never got a shred of affection from anyone.

This moment, which was a culmination of many hints and sub-plots that developed over many seasons, is incredibly cathartic. Even my inner 90s kid could appreciate it. It effectively completed a journey that started with the first episode. Helga starts off as this obsessive, stalker-like bully. Then, over time, we understand why she feels the way she does and why Arnold reacts to it so strongly.

It’s still tragic on many levels. As a foundation for romance, Helga and Arnold don’t start off on the right foot. This is a relationship that could’ve easily become a one-sided affair that quickly devolved into stalking. Somehow, “Hey Arnold!” managed to make it work. It even managed to make it feel sweet.

The fact that such a complicated, yet genuine romance could manifest in a kids show is further evidence that the 1990s truly was a golden age for cartoons. For that reason, and many others, “Hey Arnold!” and the unique love story it told will have a special place in my heart.

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How “The Society” Humanizes Teenagers In A Refreshing (And Overdue) Way

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As someone who hasn’t been a teenager for many years, I admit I have some unflattering perceptions of that demographic. Ask anyone over the age of 30 what they think of teenagers today and chances are you’ll hear more than a few complaints.

They’re too obsessed with their phones.

They’re too emotionally fragile and prone to outrage.

They’re too entitled, coddled, and sheltered from the real world.

You’ve probably heard those rants before and not just from Fox News. With those stereotypes in mind, imagine what would happen if a large collection of teenagers were left unsupervised and isolated in a large area for long stretches of time. What do you think would happen? How do you see that playing out?

Something like this, probably.

I don’t deny that I’d make some unflattering assumptions such a scenario. I would fully expect that they act erratically and irresponsibly. I would also expect for them to falter emotionally if left alone for too long. Having lived their whole lives within some system of authority and supervision, I wouldn’t expect them to function for very long on their own.

It’s those very assumptions that that “The Society,” a very binge-worthy Netflix show, dares to challenge. This thriller/mystery/drama is one of those shows that has all the right ingredients to play up every tired trope that teen-centered television show has explored for years. That was certainly what I expected when I discovered the show. I freely admit that those expectations were wrong.

The premise of “The Society” is built around a strange mystery that “Lost” fans should appreciate. One day, a large contingent of high school students get on a bus and leave the affluent New England town of West Ham for a 10-day camping trip. For reasons not yet revealed, the buses turn around and drop them off exactly where they picked them up.

Upon returning, these teenagers find out that all the adults in their town are gone. Near as they can tell, everyone just picked up and left. To further compound the mystery, they find out that all the paths leading out of the town have become dead ends. There are no neighboring towns to visit. As far as they know, there’s nothing but endless forests in every direction.

It’s genuine mystery with distressing implications. While the specifics are only partially explored in the first season, the mystery is only part of what makes the “The Society” such a compelling show. It doesn’t just put a bunch of hormonal, irrational teenagers in an enclosed area and let the drama tell the story. The show dares to humanize teenagers in a way that is exceedingly rare in a TV show.

By that, I’m not just referring to a handful of character that are well-developed and fleshed out. While there are certainly plenty of those in this show, it approaches how teenagers conduct themselves with more balance and nuance. It even makes the case that, in dire situations, they can come together and cooperate as well as full-fledged adults.

In the beginning, that’s not immediately apparent. When they all return to West Ham and find out the adults are gone, they react the way most would expect of decadent, hormonal teenagers if they were left unsupervised all night. However, the extent of their decadence never goes beyond a certain point.

To a point, being the key term.

Sure, many drink, they dance, and they hook up. A few just go home and turn in for the night, thinking nothing is amiss. They don’t do anything too outrageous, though. In essence, they conduct themselves the same way most single adults would if they knew there were no police or authority figures to stop them.

After that first night, though, things start getting serious. These teenagers, who still come off as kids in the first few episodes, realizes that something has gone very wrong. Their parents are gone. The adults are gone. Their entire town is completely cut off. They have no connection to the world beyond their town. They have a finite supply of food and little experience in terms of governing themselves.

It’s a scary situation. Some handle it better than others, but a few start to crack under the pressure. For some, especially Campbell Eliot and Lexie, the situation reveals sides of their personality that probably wouldn’t have otherwise emerged. That tends to happen with most people in extreme circumstances, but being a teenager tends to raise the stakes even more.

The fun and games quickly end. People start getting hurt. There are even a few deaths, which has a significant impact on everyone in the town. It sends a clear, unambiguous message. This isn’t just about hanging in there until their parents find them. They have to survive and they can’t do that unless they work together.

On paper, it sounds like it can only end in disaster and it certainly comes close, especially towards the end of the first season. Again, these are teenagers. Most people don’t expect them to function beyond a certain point. While “The Society” doesn’t strip away everything in the mold of “Lord of the Flies,” it removes enough to make the situation dire.

They still have electricity, running water, and shelter. However, their food supply is finite and there’s a distressing lack of expertise in everything from basic medical care to fixing a car. In order to survive, they must create a system of governance to keep the peace. If they don’t, then everybody suffers.

This is where “The Society” really shines, both as a story and as a concept. It’s also where it explores how teenagers, despite their maturity and lack of experience, can come together when they have to. They’re not perfect, but neither are experienced adults. They do find themselves in painful, heart-wrenching situations that include murder, illness, and despair. However, things never totally fall apart.

To anyone who has ever tried to explain student loan debt to a teenager, it almost seems absurd. The idea that a bunch of unsupervised teenagers can somehow form a functioning society just doesn’t fit with the common narrative surrounding teenagers.

In that narrative, things always tend to devolve until the adults return to impart the proper amount of discipline. Look at any movie, sitcom, or rowdy music video and the themes often come back to teenagers being out of control and needing the discipline of responsible adults. “The Society” makes the case that teenagers can become responsible on their own, albeit after some setbacks.

There are still many factors working against them. We’ve yet to see what happens to the citizens of New Ham, as they dubbed it, when the food runs out and they have to start farming the land. We also haven’t seen them endure a harsh New England winter. However, “The Society” never gives the impression that these young people are incapable of overcoming these challenges.

By the end of the first season, it’s easy to root for them. The emotional toll is palpable and so are the difficult decisions that many end up facing. Over the course of the show, however, it’s easy to see the progression that they all experience. It’s hard to even see them as teenagers anymore. Some conduct themselves as true, full-fledged adults.

While the mystery surrounding “The Society” is still unfolding, complete with fan theories and potential clues, the show’s approach to depicting teenagers is its greatest accomplishment in my opinion. If there is a second season, I’m definitely interested in seeing how these characters and their over-arching story progresses.

I doubt “The Society” will change anyone’s current attitudes of teenagers. There will surely be other shows and movies that double down on the many stereotypes surrounding them. If nothing else, “The Society” shows that teenagers are capable of carrying a story without adults complaining about them.

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Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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