Almost every '90s kid remembers Hey Arnold! as an entertaining series about growing up and the power of friendship. However, there were some grim Hey Arnold! episodes that revealed how downright depressing the series really was.
You may be thinking: “Hey Arnold! is depressing? No way!” Way, argumentative hypothetical person. Way. In fact, there are plenty of dark Hey Arnold! moments you might have not even noticed.
Have you ever realized how many of your favorite childhood cartoons had darker meanings or hidden innuendos? It’s true; numerous animated series often included hidden layers of adult content that were way too mature for your puny kid mind to grasp. If you still can’t recall any sad or dark moments from Hey Arnold!, then it's time to discover the truth about everyone's favorite football-headed boy and the city he lived in.
Arnold and his friends attend P.S. 118, a public school in the city. It's clearly a failing institution, constantly plagued by budget cuts, staff shortages, and an uncaring administration. While there are several episodes that revolve around problems with the school specifically, let's not forget that the students are the real victims here.
In "Tutoring Torvald," Arnold is assigned to... well, tutor Torvald. Torvald is a 13-year-old fourth grader who struggles with remedial math. That's right, he's 13. That means he's been held back for three or four years at least, and he's not even the only teenager in the fourth grade! Arnold's classmate Harold becomes a man in "Harold's Bar Mitzvah," meaning that he too is 13 years old. If Torvald and Harold are indicative sample sizes of what's happening in the rest of the school, then a relatively high percentage (around 12.5%, judging by Arnold's class size) of students are being held back with alarming frequency. Clearly, the public education system in Hey Arnold! is in dire need of some assistance.
Everyone loved Arnold's affectionate and kooky grandparents, but do you remember why he lived with them in the first place? His parents left him when he was an infant. In fact, Arnold is constantly daydreaming about them and their adventures. He never got conclusive proof of their deaths, so he's forced to spend his life speculating.
Clearly, he has a lot of unresolved feelings wrapped up in his parents' disappearance. This can be seen in the episode titled "Arnold’s Hat," where Arnold becomes depressed after losing his signature tiny hat. It is later revealed that the hat was given to him by his parents as a baby. Really stop and think about that. He's been wearing the same hat every single day since he was a baby. If you saw a 10-year-old doing that in real life, you'd probably suggest some sort of psychiatric counseling.
Arnold is generally an all-around nice guy who usually tries his best not to let things get him down. In the episode titled "Mugged," however, Arnold finds himself a victim of a mugging. This prompts him to learn self-defense from his grandmother, which helps him gain confidence and teaches him how to protect himself. However, Arnold starts using his new martial prowess to start harassing other people in turn, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
This episode is messed up on a few levels. First, the manner and brutality of Arnold’s mugging is pretty hard to watch, even if it is animated. Seeing a little kid getting beat up by teenage male is pretty disturbing, and it suggests a frightening level of institutionalized violence. He ostensibly kicks Arnold's ass for some change and a bus pass, but he's clearly mostly doing it for the thrill. Secondly, the episode explores the ways in which a violent incident can alter someone's life.
Often, victims of crimes will, like Arnold, respond by becoming more threatening than the thing that scared them. If Arnold didn't have such a loving support network, he might have just stayed an abusive d*ck for the rest of his life. Frankly, the guy who assaults Arnold was probably a victim himself at one point or another. Violence begets violence.
Out of all the families depicted on the series, Helga’s family is probably the most dysfunctional. And that's really saying something. When the chance arises for Helga to talk about her anger issues, in an episode titled "Helga On the Couch," her therapist gets an inside look of how deeply neglectfully Helga's family has been towards her.
In a heartbreaking scene, the Pataki parents praise their eldest daughter over her latest achievements and ignore a pre-school aged Helga, who is pleading with them for attention. Also, to be fair, they really messed up Olga's head too. It’s truly crushing to see the root of Helga’s anger problems (and the resentment she has for her sister) result from the neglectful actions of her parents.
Jeez, wasn't this show like, TV-Y7 or something? That's some deep stuff.