The Nostalgia Nook allows us to look back upon the classics of yesteryear, back to the simpler days of Pogs and Nickelodeon Gak. First up in the Nook is Hey Arnold, as Electronic Hearth Editor-in-Chief Sal Von Fletcher takes us through the illustrated masterpiece episode by episode.
Hey Arnold Episode 3, Original Airdate: October 14, 1996
I apologize for this review being a week late, but you don’t just spend one week reviewing the one-two combo of “Arnold’s Hat”/”Stoop Kid”, two of the most important episodes of Hey Arnold that somehow fit into the 22 minute span of the series’ third episode. These two episodes are the bedrock upon which Arnold prospered, marking the moment when the show shook off the uneasiness of its first two episodes and declared to Nickelodeon and the world, “I am Arnold, the greatest artistic undertaking of the 1990’s. Here me roar.”
(minor Psycho spoilers ahead)
The show never shied away from sexualizing Arnold in the first two episodes, but “Arnold’s Hat” fetishizes Arnold’s football head throughout, well aware of the Arnold hero-worship that would result from the show. The episode serves mainly as a damning critique of idolatry, examining how we tend to exalt things and people to an unholy level. Obsession is often the guiding force of humanity, and Helga’s obsession with Arnold and Arnold’s obsession with his hat are dual examinations of unhealthy fixations, as well as mini-lessons on sexual depravity and materialism.
The episode begins by exalting Arnold’s mythic status with the first appearance of Arnold’s alarm clock. The alarm clock is a wonderful microcosm for the entire show itself, an indulgent exercise in hubris that involves Arnold creating an alarm clock in his own image and likeness that repeats his name over and over again. By creating a mini-Arnold that wakes himself up every morning, Arnold is himself indulging in the same obsession that we mock Helga for having. Is Helga’s obsession any less dangerous than Arnold’s self-obsession?
We are supposed to find the classic and macabre scene in which Helga dances with the football head that she made out of Arnold’s chewed gum disturbing, but how is that any different from the show itself beginning by having a shirtless Arnold take off his towel and slip into the shower, showing what a perfect physical specimen he is? We are all, Helga, the viewers, and Arnold himself, worshipping and exalting a version of Arnold that cannot possibly exist. Once again this show is asking the hard questions, like who we have a shrine of in our closets, be it a metaphorical shrine in our own hearts or an actual shrine made up of chewed gum that we have been collecting for years. Both are equally damaging to the psyche and a clear disconnect from reality.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he discovered the false idols that the Israelites had created in his absence and crashed the Ten Commandments in anger. Helga spends most of the episode trying to get Arnold’s hat in order to complete her shrine, but when she finally does, her mother destroys the shrine (she throws it in the trash). Helga is the wandering Israelite in the desert for 40 years, searching for a place to call home and not be persecuted. No wonder she has resorted to the golden calf that is the Arnold of her mind’s eye; the real Arnold is up in Mount Sinai searching desperately for the rules of life. When Helga discovers how upset Arnold is by the loss of his hat, she must complete her own seven-day march around the city of Jericho (she goes to the dump and finds the hat) to restore her faith and put it in its rightful place. When Arnold hugs Helga for finding his hat, most likely the most physical contact the two have ever had, Helga’s connection with Arnold is real and in the moment and not a collection of used gum and pennies that she is kissing.
Arnold’s obsession with his hat mirrors Helga’s, while also giving us an intriguing look at the show’s mythology. The episode begins by showing how crucial the hat is to Arnold, as he wears it even in the shower. When the hat gets blown away, Arnold is distraught and refuses to leave the house. Is Arnold simply a victim of materialism, having invested more in cloth than in humanity as so many of us are wont to do, or is there more to Arnold’s love of that hat?
We then get the most important flashback of the show’s entire run, as we see baby Arnold in a crib being handed the hat by his faceless mother and father. The hat is his only connection to his departed parents, explaining why Arnold is so physiologically disturbed that he wears a baby hat on his head even in the shower. This is not healthy behavior, as the hat appears to not even have fit him as an infant, but the lack of central parenting in his life has him grasping at straws, doing whatever he can to desperately have some sort of mother and father in his life. The hat is Arnold’s parents, a disturbing relic not unlike Norman Bates’ insistence on keeping the skeleton of his dead mother in Psycho.The upsetting and dark beauty of this show is that, in order for Helga to deal with her obsession, she must give Arnold back his hat, plunging him deeper into his past just when it seemed like he was finally getting over the death of his parents.
Sal’s Stray Shots
-The episode once again begins with Arnold dreaming, continuing that motif while setting up the kite symbolism that permeates the episode. Arnold’s dream has him as the kite, soaring above everyone. Arnold then spends most of the episode trying to get his kite to work, in what couldn’t be more obvious of a plea to escape the dreaded city.
- Arnold eats a large stack of pancakes that Grandma makes him to prepare “for the cattle drive.” Grandma’s already fragile grip on reality is slipping more and more with every passing episode, and the continuity with which the show explores such a delicate issue is commendable.
-“Hey Arnold, you look terrible,” is a hilarious line delivered by Harvey the mailman when he sees Arnold without his hat. Harvey will have his own centric-episode in which we explore his hatred of snow, but Grammy-winning recording artist Lou Rawls did the best work of his long career as Harvey.
-Arnold turns on the TV, and it’s hat day at Quigley Field. “Hats, Hats, Hats, Hats,” the sportscaster explains in what I took to be the show’s way of showing that Arnold was missing his hat.
-Helga’s manic-depressive mother makes her first appearance despite us not seeing her face (the faceless parents in this episode both echo Peanuts and beg the question, “do we really think of our parents as individuals or simply as arms and legs?”). Helga’s mom, while clearly modeled off of Allison Janney in American Beauty, is one of the most vivid examples in the show’s run of the inherent depression of the nuclear family, and we see her in this episode adding Tabasco sauce to a blender in a desperate attempt to do anything to spice up her life.
-Arnold won’t come outside even though “the Jolly Olly Man’s gone insane.” Fortunately for Arnold but unfortunately for the Jolly Olly Man, this will not be the first time he succumbs to mental illness.
-Helga finds Arnold’s hat on a little bird at the dump, in what is one of the most striking and poignant metaphors this show ever explored. I don’t even feel the need to explain it.
How does one even begin to discuss “Stoop Kid”: the most easily quoted and revered episode of the show? Let me just start off with the bold thesis statement that I have spent countless nights since that fateful day in 1996 when I first saw the episode working out: Stoop Kid, you see, is afraid to leave his stoop. It is as simple and complex as that, and Stoop Kid is the first and arguably the best (Pigeon Man is coming) in a long line of mythic Arnold figures who have one thing that defines them that they desperately try to shake, normally with Arnold’s help (last episode’s Lock Jaw could be looped into this category as well, but he is a turtle, so he is unfortunately unable to communicate with Arnold about the nature of humanity’s inherent soul-crushing cruelty).
No Nickelodeon show has done a better job at exploring the concept of nature vs. nurture than the contrasting foils of Darwin the chimp and Donnie the wild boy on The Wild Thornberry’s, but Arnold proves that it has something to say about the matter as well in the master class of storytelling and character-exploration that is “Stoop Kid.” We are introduced to the legend of Stoop Kid through Gerald’s first ever official telling of an urban legend (complete with hype-man Sid introducing him as the keeper of the tale), and the story is as twisted a combination between fact and fiction as any that the show tells. Stoop Kid was left on the stoop, either by his mother, aliens, or through cracks in the sidewalk, and he has grown up on the stoop, increasingly embittered by his loveless upbringing. Stoop Kid is a walking, talking urban legend, like The Beast from The Sandlot if he screamed insults and didn’t have James Earl Jones for a father.
Is Stoop Kid the aggressive loner that he is because he is the spawn of aliens or the son of the living embodiment of the city? Or did he simply become that way because he has never ever left his stoop? This show raises and deals with the same “are people born or made?” question in one episode that shows like Dexter have spent seven seasons exploring. Arnold, a show for fourth graders, has no problem exposing the dark underbelly of mankind and explaining that the monsters that exist around us are only that way because we have made them so. Stoop Kid is Frankenstein by way of Tony Soprano, a dark product of his environment forced to contend with the identity that is put upon him by others.
Identity is ultimately what “Stoop Kid” is about. No one will retrieve the football that lands on the stoop because of Stoop Kid’s reputation. Likewise, when Stoop Kid is up all night crying after he is mocked with the famous chant “Stoop Kid’s Afraid To Leave His Stoop,” he is more upset about the fact that his Stoop Kid persona is ruined than the fact that he has never explored the world. When Arnold eventually coaxed him off the stoop (in yet another example of Arnold’s Jack Shepard-like need to fix everything), Stoop Kid rejoices, exclaiming, “I’m free.” But in true, depressing Hey Arnold fashion, we know that no one is ever completely free so long as the institutions that run society are in place. Stoop Kid is no longer afraid to leave the stoop, but, as he explains “I’m Stoop Kid. That’s who I am. Now I can harass people from on my stoop and off my stoop.”
The negative side of Babe Ruth’s famous quote “heroes get remembered, but legends never die” lives on here. When he finds out that Stoop Kid is going to leave his stoop, Mr. Green the butcher explains, “The legend dies,” knowing full well that once Stoop Kid forsakes his stoop, he is no longer the urban myth that he has become. With this chance at a new life away from the stoop, the uncomfortable uncertainty of not having an identity at all looms over Stoop Kid, and the pressure is too great. Instead, he resorts back into his comfortable persona, choosing to be the legend instead of the man. Stoop Kid has become so much larger than life (a phenomenon that explains why he is so popular to this day) that he no longer has any choice but to be Stoop Kid. Stoop Kid is Stoop Kid is Stoop Kid. He is stuck an endless loop of perception that not even Arnold’s poking and prodding can change. We never learn Stoop Kid’s real name because to even himself he doesn’t have one. Stoop Kid hasn’t learned anything; he has merely allowed himself to enhance his own legend and to revel in his own skewed perception of how he thinks people perceive him. Once again, we leave the episode thinking less of mankind than we did before.
Sal’s Stray Shots:
-It’s almost not worth talking about the Casablanca parallels in “Stoop Kid,” but they are there if I discuss them or not. One of the kids says, “of all the stoops in all the world, it had to land on his”, as well as Stoop Kid’s Bogart-based appearance and his Rick-like devotion to stay on his stoop and let others escape.
-Arnold kicks a football onto the stoop after all of the kids make fun of his inability to kick. Do Arnold’s unwillingness to kick the football and need to retrieve it from the stoop arise from his own need to protect his own football-shaped self? Brilliant imagery.
-Stoop Kid’s ability to slip through the educational system is a pretty damning charge on the Clinton Administration of the time.
-The genius of having Arnold’s first flashback of his parents come in the episode before we see Stoop Kid shows us how Arnold easily could have ended up as Stoop Kid had he not held on to his humanity via grandparents.
-“Stoop Kid’s Afraid To Leave The Stoop” is the front page of the newspaper, causing most Arnold theorists to assume that the entire Arnold universe is one in which there is no world going on outside of Arnold’s life. Whatever is the front-page news in his life is also the front-page news in everyone’s life.
-Arnold shows Stoop Kid the Spanish steps in Rome and the Aztec pyramids to show him how there are other stoops in the world. How does he expect Stoop Kid to go to Rome if Arnold himself cannot even escape the city? Arnold, you beautiful, stupid dreamer.
-Stoop Kid’s favorite book is The Little Engine That Could, and several signs and chants of “I think I can, I think I can” help get him off the stoop. However, Stoop Kid, unlike the titular locomotive of the story, must continue to live on past the final page, and what is the Little Engine without the struggle? Stoop Kid is The Little Engine That Could But Doesn’t, a twisted take on the classic tale.
- Gargoyle imagery is in both episodes, as Helga imitates one in “Arnold’s Hat” and Stoop Kid’s stoop has ones too. Do Gargoyles represent the city at it’s most grotesque? Are the gargoyles heroin?
Next Week: The show takes an in-depth look at gender roles in “Helga’s Makeover” and we contemplate what it really means to destroy something in “The Old Building”