Title: “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”
It’s sometimes easier to see our lives fitting into a template than allowing the randomness of life to take control. We seek that uniformity because it lets us feel connected in a time where connection is severely lacking. This is especially true for young adults, who crave the validation provided by assigning their identity to one particular stereotype or niche. This manifests itself usually through tastes and brand loyalty, but more commonly in the United States, society’s need to fit into a category comes out during the holiday season.
As the son of two Syrian immigrants, I always felt a little bit left out of the traditional American childhood. I didn’t visit or have friends over my house in any meaningful way until high school, I didn’t have many outdoor adventures with the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t have anything resembling the Wonder Years-esque experience of young love whatsoever. I don’t regret these things not being part of my life, because I made up for them with meaningful, character-buildling experiences of my own. Sometimes, it’s nice to imagine what could have been.
I did watch a lot of cartoons though. When my family and I were still living in a lower middle class duplex, my sister and I watched a whole lot of Hey Arnold! It fit into Nickelodeon’s block of cartoons that bridged the gap between serious adult drama and slapstick kid’s show. Nickelodeon was doing what Pixar is today, essentially. For those that don’t know, Hey Arnold! was a show about a young nine year old boy living with his grandparents and various tenants in a boarding house located in some nebulous amalgamation of New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The general formula for an episode of Hey Arnold! was: Arnold sees something wrong with the world, tries to fix it, fails, learns something, and accepts that he can’t fix everything. The show was about disappointment, and realizing how little power we have to change the world. It’s a message that resonated deeply with me as a young kid, filled with optimism and hope that all of the world’s problems could be fixed with friendliness and a helping hand. That’s not to say the show was nihilistic or cynical; rather, Arnold’s accepting that he couldn’t change things led to him being a better person, and adjusting his world view to fix the world in small ways.
“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is the episode that I frequently reference as an essential part of understanding why the show resonated with so many people. The episode starts with Arnold biking down a facsimile of the Brooklyn Bridge, when he stops to watch the christening of The Mayflower II as a city landmark. As the credits fade in, he looks on wistfully, as he so often does at history and culture. Craig Bartlett, the show’s creator and lead writer, has said that his original pitch for Hey Arnold! was that Arnold would start every episode dreaming of some fantastic scenario, then be woken up in class by his bully and secret admirer, Helga Pataki, shouting the show’s title. It’s clear that they kept the skeleton of this idea in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, where you can tell Arnold is dreaming of big ideas before heading back to reality.
The next scene takes place at Arnold’s school, PS 118. The students put on a play telling the story of the first Thanksgiving, and everything immediately falls apart. The hastily-made set collapses, the audience laughs, but the kids keep going. As every scene is ruined in some way, the students never stop the show. Arnold and his friend Gerald are backstage, and as Gerald espouses his love for the holiday, Arnold reveals why he looked on at the Mayflower II so hopefully; he doesn’t get to have a “real” Thanksgiving in the boarding home. His grandmother “gets mixed up”, and confuses Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, meaning they have to go along with it and cook hot dogs on the roof in November year after year. Arnold’s grandmother’s identity confusion is clearly a sign of advanced dementia, and although the show plays it for comedy most of the time, they treat it with just the right amount of weight for it to feel real. The tenants accept her disability, and work around it.
Helga, the other half of this show, goes on a rant backstage about how her Thanksgiving’s aren’t very typical either; between her overbearingly perfect older sister Olga coming home, her alcoholic mother (don’t worry, the show plays this off as her mom just being a goofball who ‘likes smoothies’), and her father who can’t be bothered to do anything but eat and watch football. The irony of both of these scenes is that Arnold and Helga are playing lead characters in the final scene of the play; a re-enactment of a modern day Thanksgiving amongst a happy family. Both of them get to play the part, but once the curtain goes down, they feel left out again.
The next few scenes really highlight how much the creators cared equally about Helga and Arnold, with each scene bouncing between the two of them as their nontraditional Thanksgivings are shown. They both try to nudge their families into more traditional Thanksgiving celebration, but nobody listens to the nine year olds. These scenes hit home with me the most. I made efforts as a kid to fit into more stereotypes; wearing “cooler” clothes, having a messier room, asking to eat more “American food”. I just assumed that was all right, and fitting in would make me feel like less of an outsider.
Arnold and Helga eventually give up trying to fix their own Thanksgivings, and they both leave their homes for the afternoon. I always found the freedom of Hey Arnold!‘s young cast to come and go as they please fascinating, but it makes so much sense when you consider how truly little their guardians cared about their well-being, be it because of old age or neglect. They both cross paths outside of a store displaying models of a traditional American Thanksgiving, looking inside but always separated by glass. In a beautifully directed scene, they go for a friendly walk on the pier and pass by the Mayflower II, still cruising around the bay. As they look on, it crashes into a bridge and collapses. This is actually the funniest scene in the episode despite sounding so tragic, because it really highlights how willing the creators were to go for a visual gag if it also had a solid symbolic undercurrent. The image of the Mayflower crashing in front of two depressed and jaded young children says everything about this episode.
The kids decide to go join what they think is a “real Thanksgiving” at the home of their teacher and writer of the school play, Mr. Simmons. When they (yet again) look through glass to see Simmons’s house and witness a family dinner almost perfectly resembling the characters in his play, they long to go inside. This time, they pass through the barrier and ask Mr. Simmons if they can join him for dinner. He politely obliges, and the dramatic turn of the episode becomes clear. Mr. Simmons’s Thanksgiving is anything from idyllic; his mother is overbearingly judgemental, his two friends are miserable thirty-somethings that take joy in ridiculing others, and his uncle is an oafishly loud eater (who is also inexplicably Canadian). The whole scene ends in a shouting contest, which Arnold and Helga take as their cue to leave. They realize as they converse in Mr. Simmons’s kitchen that he wrote the play as an idealized version of his own family, and that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a perfect Thanksgiving. Simmons comforts them, saying: “This may not make much sense to you now, but I’m truly thankful for them”. Family gatherings are messy and loud, people don’t get along well, but happiness comes from accepting each other’s flaws and being together. The kids realize this, and head home to their families.
The world does pay you back for being a good person, according to Hey Arnold! Helga comes home to a family that misses her, and they put her handmade centerpiece on the table as they eat together. Arnold comes home to an abandoned rooftop grill, but it turns out the tenants and his grandparents decided to meet him halfway and throw him a surprise party that mixes both Fourth of July and Thanksgiving celebrations.
This episode holds a special place in my heart not just because it echoes many of the same things I worried about as a young child, but it’s also hopeful and honest in a way most cartoons are not. The credits roll as we cut back to the Mayflower II. All of its passengers are safe, and the hull of the ship rises back to the surface. Everything is okay, just a few buffs and scratches. And that’s how family can be; rough and constantly on the verge of sinking, but always capable of rising back to a healthy medium.