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The Scariest TV Show I Ever Watched: G.I. Joe

Snicker all you want, but a reality-bending, face-melting episode of the beloved kids cartoon was deeply terrifying.
  • A scene from the 1985 G.I. Joe episode"There's No  Place Like Springfield" (Tubi)
    A scene from the 1985 G.I. Joe episode"There's No Place Like Springfield" (Tubi)

    In the days leading up to Halloween, Primetimer is plumbing the depths of television's past to come up with the scariest TV episodes we've ever seen. And we're not just talking the usual suspects for horror — Buffy, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone — we're talking about shows that weren't usually out to frighten their fans. Because sometimes TV can get really weird. And unsettling. And straight-up terrifying. 

    G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero: "There's No Place Like Springfield"

    Air Date: December 12 (Part 1) and December 13 (Part 2), 1985
    Available to Stream? Yes! For free, on Tubi

    Based on the degree to which the G.I. Joe cartoon series dominated my life from the ages of 5 to 8, it's a wonder I didn't grow up and enlist in America's elite paramilitary crime-fighting force. After all, the terror threat from international organizations like Cobra was omnipresent, and the Joes seemed like an excellent organization -- one that encouraged things like self-expression, signature costumes, and everything else a burgeoning gay boy could be interested in. Honestly, if anybody working in the military-industrial complex had the notion that G.I. Joe would help indoctrinate a generation of young boys towards the armed forces, they clearly never watched an episode of the series, which featured, among other things, sexy ninjas, muscle jocks who spoke entirely in rhyming jive, and a mistress of disguise known as The Baroness (a true diva). In short, G.I. Joe was pageant as hell.

    Which is why, if you look at a wide enough spectrum of episodes, you see the Joes trying to thwart such campy Cobra plots as a rock band whose tunes are meant to brainwash the populace, and a multi-episode quest to steal the DNA from history's greatest villains in order to create a supervillain made of snakes. But "There's No Place Like Springfield" was a different kind of episode (episodes, actually, as it's a two-parter), where the Cobra menace lurked sneakily below the surface, and was more about psychological dismantling than ambitious, cartoon villainy. And since you can probably imagine how equipped a 6-year-old was to deal with psychological warfare and torture in his after-school cartoons, you can understand why this episode might have scared the bejeesus out of me.

    The episode begins in the middle of a daring aquatic rescue in which Lady Jaye (covert operations specialist for the Joes, and one of but a handful of women fighting for the good guys, so obviously I loved her) and Shipwreck (sarcastic sailor man whose voice and style suggest he was inspired by Jack Nicholson's character in The Last Detail) are trying to bring rescued scientist Dr. Mulaney to safety. Mulaney had been kidnapped by Cobra and forced to give them his formula for turning water into an explosive. But it will only work with the right chemical formula, which Mulaney implants into Shipwreck's brain, where it can only be retrieved using a code word that he whispers to Lady Jaye. Then the whole rescue goes pear-shaped, and Shipwreck becomes caught in a transport pod that gets sunk at the bottom of the sea.

    When Shipwreck wakes up, he's in a comfortable bed in the idyllic suburban town of Springfield. He's told that it's been six years since the Joes rescued Mulaney and defeated Cobra for good (Lady Jaye was sadly killed in action). Since then, Shipwreck returned home, married his sweetheart Mara, and had a daughter, named Althea. And while Shipwreck remembers none of this, it certainly feels like the happy ending he's been hoping for. Only, it's all a lie. Despite being surrounded by old Joe pals like Torpedo, Roadblock, and Scarlet, not to mention his parrot pal Polly (don't ask), everyone is acting vaguely shady. And when Shipwreck starts experiencing nightmares and seizures, he's taken by ambulance to an underground lair that appears to be a Cobra base.

    This kind of "nothing is what it seems" stuff was scary to a grade schooler. G.I. Joe was all well and good in their globe-trotting battles on land and sea, but setting this episode in a recognizable, residential neighborhood, in a home with a mom and a kid and a living room, only to suddenly turn that environment into a veneer of lies, that was unsettling enough. But when Shipwreck's supposed friends turn on him, only to melt into purple plasticky goo when he fights back, that was UTTERLY TERRIFYING.

    In "There's No Place Like Springfield," G.I. Joe is taking classic Twilight Zone tactics and using them to unnerve its audience. But when the audience is a bunch of kids who have likely never seen The Twilight Zone, the effect is less a nod of recognition and more the pale-faced chill of fear. Especially when Shipwreck figures it out and returns home to find his home in flames and his "wife" and "daughter" wielding assault rifles, having been a part of the conspiracy all along. And then THEY melt into goo! Hey kids! Better be careful! At any moment, your mom and your sister could turn out to be synthetic soldiers made of goo, created by a vast criminal conspiracy! Sleep tight!

    G.I. Joe's "There's No Place Like Springfield" scares because it's pitching a tried and true type of psychological horror (your world isn't what you think it is) to an audience that has never had to grapple with that fear before. I wouldn't call it a scarring experience, but what may come across as campy to adult audiences definitely landed differently in my primary school years. Who knew I'd learn about existential paranoia from my after-school pro-military cartoons!

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: G.I. Joe, Halloween, Kids TV, Retro TV, The Scariest TV Show I Ever Watched