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Hey Arnold! Analysis (The Road Trip): Childhood Optimism, Adult Tragedy
The Multiple Interpretive Views of Hey Arnold!
Hey Arnold! was a Nickelodeon kids cartoon that ran from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Since its release, and like many of the other cartoons Nickelodeon produced during this time, Hey Arnold! has developed a loyal cult following. The show primarily focuses on a group of 4th graders growing up in an urban environment.
What made Hey Arnold a great show was the different interpretive views that could be used to comprehend the events that occurred in each episode. These interpretive views were usually distinguished by age, for example a child will view a certain event differently from an adult due to their inability to comprehend complex issues.
Hey Arnold! takes advantage of this idea and creates a show that not only can be viewed differently whether your a kid or an adult, but it creates episodes within the show with two radically opposing emotional ideas. Throughout the series the fun, optimism, and adventures kids can have in childhood (child's interpretation of viewing the show), contrasts with the decay of American family, society, and education (adult's interpretation of viewing the show).
Looking specifically at the Season 3 Episode Road Trip, a perfect example of the adventures of childhood clashing with the decay of the family structure takes place. Episodes like this combine the optimistic with the tragic, ultimately leaving a lot of ambiguity to the ending of episodes for viewers to interpret, while heightening the pathos of the series.
Note: I found the full episode of Road Trip on Youtube. It's linked at the bottom, I will keep this video up as long as I can. All episodes of Hey Arnold! can be instantly streamed on Netflix.
Hey Arnold! Show Background
Some background information about Hey Arnold! may be necessary for people who are not familiar with the entire series. The show is named after Arnold, a 4th grader that acts as the moral center of the show. Arnold does this by constantly stating morals or themes of episodes and providing sagely advice to his friends in need. Despite the fact that the show is named after Arnold, and he is a very important character in the show, he is not the show's emotional center.
The character that functions as the emotional center of the show (meaning the character that brings the most emotional story-lines and drama to the series), is Helga Patacki. Helga is outwardly viewed as a bully, but internally she is very emotional (making her a sympathetic character). Her core conflict throughout the series is she is unable to express her romantic feelings for Arnold (whom she has deep romantic feelings for), and instead resorts to bullying him.
The Helga/Arnold relationship is a perfect example of the on-going optimism/tragedy complex that drives the show. Due to Helga being a sympathetic character viewers want her to form a relationship with Arnold, but it will never happen because she can't control her anger and she can't make herself vulnerable (traits she picked from her dysfunctional home life). The optimism part of this complex being: she has serious potential to be in a relationship with Arnold. The all too real tragedy part of this complex being: it wouldn't be able endure unless Helga fixes her psychological issues.
Looking specifically at the episode Road Trip, the optimistic/tragic approach to many of the show's story-lines happens outside the Helga and Arnold love story. Instead, this episode focuses on Helga and her mother, Miriam, going on a Road Trip together to visit Grandma presumably for Mother's Day. Below are two different interpretive recaps of the episode: one recap is viewed through the eyes of a child, and the second recap is viewed through the eyes of an adult.
Through the Eyes of a Child
The episode begins in the classroom with the kids in the class making Mother's Day cards. Helga puts forth a less than stellar effort because she is unhappy with Miriam, claiming she's, "not gonna win Mother of the year." Helga then lists some grievances directed towards her mother Miriam.
Arnold overhears this and states the moral of the episode:
"Come on Helga, give your Mom a chance."
Helga makes fun of Arnold, but the scene ends with Helga seemingly taking Arnold's advice into consideration.
The next scene takes place at Helga's house. Her mother and father are planning on driving out to South Dakota to visit Grandma when Big Bob (Helga's father) gets a business call and has to abort the driving trip. This leaves Helga and Miriam to make the long drive to South Dakota together, much to Helga's displeasure.
The road trip does not start off well: Helga and Miriam can't hold a conversation together, they don't like the same music, Miriam snores too loudly for Helga to be able to sleep, and Miriam spills her drink all over Helga. Bad goes to worse when Miriam loses their map and driving instructions and then crashes the car. This results in a $500 dollar repair job, and Miriam doesn't have the money to cover the fee, leaving them stranded.
An opportunity presents itself in the form of a mechanical bull riding contest which offers a $500 dollar reward. Miriam spends the last of their money to enter the contest, defies the odds, and wins, beating a two time champion in the process. With the reward money Helga and Miriam are able to repair the car and finish the journey.
The episode ends with Helga and Miriam having a lively conversation about how Miriam was a State Bull Riding champion back in high school. Helga appears to be enjoying her mom's stories, while Miriam is enjoying the attention Helga is giving her.
Through the Eyes of an Adult
The episode begins with the kids making Mother's Day cards for their mothers. Helga appears to be the only child not putting forth any great amount of effort on her card. When confronted with this Helga lists some grievances she has with Miriam which include: Miriam forgets to pick her up from soccer practice, Miriam naps behind the couch, and Miriam packs Helga lunches that contain plastic silverware, no sandwich, and packets of moist towelettes. Arnold states the moral of the episode, and encourages Helga to appreciate her mother.
Note: In the series Arnold has never met his biological parents and instead lives with his grandparents. Arnold's comment here is tragic because it underscores his having to grow up without parents.
In the next scene we see Big Bob on the phone getting a large sales opportunity. Putting his business before his family he leaves Helga and Miriam to make the road trip to Grandma's house without him. Miriam with her slurred speech and unenthusiastically toned voice puts up a minimal amount of resistance at Big Bob's announcement.
During the car ride Miriam shows how little she knows about her daughter asking her how school is while struggling to remember the name of her best friend Phoebe. While driving Miriam spots a hotel next to a karaoke lounge/bar. Miriam decides to pull over, and in the process she cuts off a truck off and nearly causes an accident.
In the next scene we see Miriam singing on stage with slurred speech to Helga who is horribly embarrassed. Afterwards, while they sleep Miriam is out like a rock, snoring loudly preventing Helga from getting any sleep.
The next morning as Helga waits by the car to begin their journey, Miriam comes stumbling out of the hotel holding a drink while continuing on with some extended dialogue in her slurred speech. Miriam proceeds to spill her drink on Helga, and then forgets that she left her purse on top of the car as she and Helga drive away. As Miriam pulls out of the Inn, she nearly causes another car accident.
Miriam once again tries to bond with Helga by suggesting they play a game that Helga liked when she was 4, further aggravating Helga. At about this time they lose their directions and discover Miriam's purse is missing. Miriam searches the car for the missing items while driving. This causes a car accident as they crash their car into a mud pit.
The next scene shows Helga pushing the car along the highway while Miriam sits in the drivers seat trying to figure out where she left her purse. Helga suggests she probably left it on top of the car again, which Miriam hazily recalls that she did.
They get the car to the shop and a $500 repair charge, which they can't pay because Miriam lost her purse. Helga is beyond frustration at this point and in a sentimental outburst tells her mother:
"I'm 9 years old mom. You're the parent. You're supposed to take care of me, but you couldn't even do that. Face it Miriam, you're a lousy Mom."
After hearing this Miriam takes Helga's criticism to heart and tries to redeem herself, and that's when she discovers the mechanical bull riding contest. Miriam has to borrow money from Helga to enter the contest, and from there she is able to successfully win the contest and pay for the car repairs.
As Miriam and Helga continue driving, Helga takes a more enthusiastic interest in her mother's life. Miriam is glad to be receiving this attention from her daughter, but still continues to answer questions in her slurred speech and while she is holding a drink. During the final conversation between mother and daughter, Miriam nearly causes another car accident. Helga grabs the wheel and avoids the oncoming truck while saying in an exasperated voice, "Oh Mom," as the episode cuts to the credits.
The Optimistic and The Tragic
Hey Arnold is a kids show and because it is a kids show certain things cannot be done or said. This forces the writers to make allusions to what's really happening rather than explicitly showing it. A lot of the optimism of this episode in particular is easily visible through the eyes of the child while a lot of the elements of the tragic show up through the eyes of the adult.
The optimism for the outcome of this episode is alluded to in the very beginning when Arnold states the episode's moral. Not only is he stating a moral, but because this is a kids show, he is foreshadowing the final outcome of the episode for the kids.
This episode features a lot of overcoming the odds type of moments. Miriam must learn to become a better mom, Helga and Miriam need to get their car repaired, and Miriam must win a mechanical bull riding contest. On a certain level all of these obstacles are overcome.
By the episodes end Miriam has won the mechanical bull riding contest, their car gets repaired, and Helga and Miriam are shown have some quality bonding time over their change of fortune. From the optimistic or child's perspective, the episode ends happily, and all of the problems appear to be solved.
While viewing the show as a child it would appear all of the problems that were presented at the beginning of the episode have been solved. However, viewing this episode as an adult it can be easily argued that that is hardly the case.
One of the most notable tragic elements in this show and particularly in this episode is the degradation of the family structure. Helga has no respect for her parents, and rightfully so. Her lack of respect for her parents is evidenced by her calling them by their names Big Bob and Miriam throughout most of the show.
Her dad is a workaholic who spends very little time with the family, placing them second to his job. Despite having preplanned this trip with the family, he leaves them in a heartbeat in order to go sell some more beepers. This showcases a common issue in today's world where adults neglect their children in order to satisfy their personal greed. Big Bob will still have plenty of money and a job the next day if he doesn't go and make this beeper deal, but he does so anyway, thus neglecting his daughter and wife.
Throughout the series, and particularly in this episode, Miriam displays a number of poor parenting attributes. A lot Miriam's poor parenting skills are likely due to Miriam's implied dependency on alcohol. The implication of Miriam's alcoholism in this episode is shown by Miriam's slurred speech, her frequently holding drinks, her sleeping behind the couch, and her poor reflexes and motor coordination. In this episode Miriam's dependency on alcohol allows Miriam to fail Helga as a parent in the following ways:
- Miriam fails to properly feed her daughter - This is evidenced by the lunches she packs for Helga and by ignoring Helga's request for food during the trip.
- Miriam fails to remember/support what her daughter is doing - She can't remember to pick Helga up from soccer practice, she doesn't remember the name of Helga's friends.
- Miriam fails to drive her daughter sober - Morally speaking this is a pretty terrible thing to do. This results in one serious car accident, and nearly three additional car accidents. (That's a lot considering the episode is just under twelve minutes long).
- Miriam forgets things important to the trip - This is evidenced by Miriam leaving her purse on top of the car, losing the directions, and thinking a map of Wanky Land is actually a map that can get them to South Dakota.
- Miriam has to rely on her 9 year old daughter to take care of her - This is evidenced by Miriam having to borrow money from Helga to enter the bull riding contest, Helga having to push the car to the mechanic's shop, and by Helga having to repeatedly grab the steering wheel of the car from Miriam in order to avoid a crash.
Miriam's dependency on alcohol and how it effects her relationship with her daughter is tragic, but the most tragic part of the episode is the end. By this point of the episode the failure of developing a real mother-daughter relationship between Helga and Miriam is clearly the result of Miriam's dependency on alcohol. Although Helga and Miriam are bonding and everything seems all good and swell, by the end of the episode has Miriam solved her alcohol dependency? Is she even trying to stop drinking? Has the real issue that's causing all this dysfunction between mother and daughter been solved? No.
To put a stamp on the point that the Helga and Miriam's relationship will continue to be dysfunctional, at the very end of the episode we see Miriam drinking and driving her 9 year old daughter to South Dakota while Helga looks on her mother in admiration. The last two words of the episode uttered by Helga, "Oh Mom," (done in exasperation) as Miriam nearly causes another accident is a testament to the fact that the relationship between Helga and Miriam is not fixed.
What the viewers are treated to by the episode's end is a grim reality. A beautiful bonding moment between a mother and daughter has occurred despite a number of home-wrecking issues being present. Although we are seeing this bond occur it is tragic because it's a beautiful moment inside a very dysfunctional family unit that is not anywhere near close to being fixed.