“Best. Episode. Ever!” Toonzone Talks “G.I. Joe”
Yo Joe! In conjunction with the impending release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the Toonzone blog staff has teamed up to present an (almost) week of posts looking back at the best G.I. Joe material, classic and modern, in the hope of providing animated alternatives to show what real G.I. Joe entertainment should be.
Shoot, did I just say that out loud?
Any of the multiple G.I. Joe series were fair game for our Best. Episode. Ever! entry, with G.I. Joe: Resolute counting as one episode if anyone wanted to tackle it (and while nobody did, it’s not because it’s bad…and you can read my review that says why, he said self-promotingly). Of course, this really means that the selections were limited to that series, plus the original 1980’s series and G.I. Joe Renegades, since suggesting anything from the crap-tacular DiC second series as a “Best Episode Ever” would require Cobra Commander-levels incompetence. Our four selections are presented in the order in which they first aired.
Be warned: spoilers abound in the writeups to come. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
ED LIU’S PICK: “The Phantom Brigade”
Written by Sharman Di Vono
I’m defying conventional wisdom from the expected picks, at least partially because I was pretty sure other staffers would pick up the slack (as you’ll see). There are no shortage of great episodes in the series’ original run, but I settled on the generally overlooked “The Phantom Brigade” for a number of reasons.
After suffering another ignominious defeat at the hands of the Joes, Cobra Commander gets a gypsy witch to resurrect the restless spirits of a Mongol warrior, a Roman centurion, and a World War I pilot, enslaving the trio by using talismans that were precious to each of the ghosts while they lived. The spectral warriors soon nearly overwhelm the Joes, none of whom can make sense of the strange things they’re seeing in combat. An offhand comment by Cobra Commander about getting rid of all his underlings leads the Baroness to reveal the secret of the ghosts to the Joes in the name of her own job security, while some quick thinking and a spare flag from Wild Bill gets the pilot to stand down. One counter-attack and one surprisingly creepy moment later and the talismans are in Joe hands, allowing them to put the spirits to rest.
“The Phantom Brigade” is sheer nonsense from start-to-finish, but this just makes it emblematic of the way the characters in the show would treat the preposterous seriously, allowing us to cheer for our heroes while kind of laughing at them at the same time. It was a trick that G.I. Joe story editor Steve Gerber pulled in his run on Marvel Comics’ The Defenders, too, and I think that combination is one reason why both of those works have had such staying power. The episode also underscores the major reason why the Joes always win and Cobra always loses, since the Baroness’ betrayal is one of many instances where a senior Cobra screws the organization out of purely selfish motives. Despite the show’s near-jingoistic patriotic streak, “The Phantom Brigade” is one of the only episodes where it really matters that the Joes are American: all it takes is the sight of the stars-and-bars to convince the ghost pilot that he must be fighting for the wrong side. The moment when Cobra Commander is confronted with his sins by a talking skeleton is one of the spookiest moments the show ever did, all the moreso when it turns out not to be a Joe ruse. Finally, there is something deeply poignant in the warriors’ longing, which yields true catharsis when they earn their eternal rest. There’s also a sharply bittersweet pang in Wild Bill’s last vision of the pilot that closes the episode. “The Phantom Brigade” can be moving even as it’s being ridiculous, and I think that pretty much sums up the appeal of G.I. Joe in a nutshell.
JUU-KUCHI’S PICK: “Worlds Without End”
Written by Martin Pasko
A cadre of Joes (Flint, Lady Jaye, Airtight, Barbecue, Steeler, Clutch, Grunt, and Footloose) is transported into an alternate dimension due to the malfunction of the episode’s MacGuffin: the Matter Transmuter. However, it is a dimension where Cobra has won the war against G.I. Joe, ruling the world under Cobra Commander’s iron fist. Faced with this dire strait, as well as the existential crisis of one of their own, the team must find a way back to their own world or die trying.
Whenever I think of something that really exemplifies how epic G.I. Joe can be outside the five-part miniseries, this episode always comes to mind. This two-parter juggles quite a few interesting concepts. It’s the first time we actually got to see what would happen if Cobra actually won the war (complete with alterations of national monuments, the Watergate becoming Cobra Police HQ, and a surprising way to stop unemployment), and the first time we see the Joes at a really big disadvantage. It also posits a rather interesting question of whether or not there’s a point to the fighting, and if it will ever really end. It all comes together exceptionally well, crafting a bleak reality that knows how to leave an impact with its targeted demographic, as well as giving all the Joes a chance to do something and be part of the greater storyline. This leads to a number of events like dogfights over Washington D.C., emotional breakdowns resulting from illness and delirium, and a bevy of torture devices only Cobra could come up with. This two-parter is packed to the gills with this kind of fun, keeping you interested until the very end, where the overarching storyline and existential crisis are completed in a satisfactory, full-circle, way.
GWOTAKU’S PICK: “The Traitor”
Written by Buzz Dixon
I can see how Joe fans would consider the two-part episode “The Traitor” a classic adventure. Sure, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is a 1980’s cartoon and G.I. Joe is guaranteed to beat the tar out of Cobra every episode. But it’s not just any episode when the bad guys get played for complete and total suckers, and that’s exactly what happens here when Cobra initiates an insidious alliance with the down-on-his-luck Joe member Dusty. His sick elderly mother is bedridden with mounting medical bills Dusty’s family can’t afford, so the Crimson Twins track Dusty down at a bar and make a proposition: Dusty steals G.I. Joe’s secrets and Cobra pays for her care in exchange. A guilt-ridden Dusty goes along with it, giving away G.I. Joe’s battle strategies and ultimately stealing blueprints for special bulletproof armor (say, how useful is that in a show where gunfire always misses?). He even takes down Shipwreck in a fight when he’s caught in the act, though he’s captured and convicted as a traitor anyway. When Cobra breaks him out of jail Dusty even defects and joins the terrorists outright, for lack of anywhere else to go. With Dusty’s help, Cobra is soon on the verge of completing its nefarious mind control gas and testing it on his betrayed allies and friends…that is, until Dusty betrays Cobra and foils their plan at the very last moment, revealing that he was a triple agent for Duke all along. That’s right folks: presented with the temptation to betray his country for family, Dusty decided to respond by hatching a daring, top secret conspiracy with Duke and still taking the terrorist organization’s money. Now that’s some heroic audacity!
Admittedly, this twist and this episode are of their time. If something like this were done today, let’s be honest: the odds are Dusty’s choice would be played straight for drama and there would be some tragedy or consequences whatever his choice was. But while the preservation of the status quo was all too common back then, “The Traitor” is still distinguished among G.I. Joe episodes for forcing viewers to ask: what if the betrayal really had been real? One can’t come away from this episode without appreciating that it just as easily could have been real, and for most of the adventure it appears genuine between Dusty’s demeanor and the ignorance of most of the Joe team about the plan. The plot resonates all the more because Dusty’s reasons would have been personal, desperate, and sympathetic, though they wouldn’t have made the treason itself any less reprehensible.
THE HUNTSMAN’S PICK: G.I. Joe Renegades “The Anomaly”
Written by Ed Lee & Tim Jennings
Directed by Nathan Chew
While I knew about the franchise, Renegades was the first G.I. Joe cartoon that I’d actually watched. I wasn’t very familiar with the characters because of that, and at the beginning, none of them really stood out to me. That began to change over the course of several episodes and I developed a fondness for Tunnel Rat. The reason I like this episode is that it, more than any other, was his episode. It may not rank as highly on other lists, but I greatly enjoyed learning more about him, as well as seeing his older brother, but what I enjoyed most of all was seeing him take command. The sewers were his turf, and when the Joes went down there, they were all following his lead. This episode also gave us some good progress in Ripcord’s plot, as his control chip was removed and gave him both free will and access to his bio-viper powers. That’s a win-win, if I may borrow a phrase from Dr. Mindbender. While I do wish that this episode had given us more insight as to why the green bio-viper did what it did, I suppose a little mystery every now-and-then isn’t a bad thing. Looking back, it’s a shame this series didn’t last longer than it did, as with episodes like this, it deserved more.
So there’s our picks for G.I. Joe‘s Best Episodes Ever. As mentioned, there are lots of other potential candidates from the original series (“There’s No Place Like Springfield,” the second five-part series “The Revenge of Cobra,” and the shaggy dog episode “The Viper is Coming”), and other episodes that are ye olde editor’s personal favorites (“Skeletons in the Closet,” “The Great Alaskan Land Rush,” and the oddly prophetic “Lights! Camera! Cobra!”). Any one of them your Best. Epsiode. Ever! for G.I. Joe? You think we missed an obvious choice? Sound off on our forums, soldier!