Emotions don’t always make sense. They can be triggered by the most unexpected of sources, up to and including a children’s cartoon show. Indeed, some animated series are more effective at inducing tears than even the most tragic of live-action romantic dramas, even if the latter are often specifically designed to make viewers cry. This is a testament to the power of good writing, and the medium of television in general, which allows us to feel unusually close with the characters we revisit week after week.
Though most animated series are intended first and foremost to score laughs, the best of them take advantage of these emotional connections to do something more with their characters, exploring their hopes and heartbreaks in surprisingly poignant ways. It doesn’t matter how outlandish a cartoon’s premise may be when the emotions motivating the characters feel authentic and real. Here are some of those shows that get a little too real, and end up producing cartoon episodes that are all but guaranteed to make you cry.
15. Avatar: The Last Airbender – “Tales of Ba Sing Se”
“Tales of Ba Sing Se” is an anthology of bite-sized stories, one of Avatar‘s filler episodes designed primarily to pad out the season between episodes that actually advance the series’ overall storyline. Most of its segments are upbeat and lighthearted, following the various main characters as they make themselves at home in the big city of Ba Sing Se.
Uncle Iroh’s segment starts as lighthearted as the rest, showing the kindly old man as he dispenses his usual sage wisdom to a group of children and sings a song about a “brave soldier boy marching home” to comfort a crying child. The song gains devastating new meaning as the segment ends, and Iroh sets up a shrine on a hilltop commemorating his late son — a soldier boy who never did come marching home. Alone on the hilltop, Iroh sings the song again, his voice shaking, and collapses into tears for the death of his son.
14. Gravity Falls – “A Tale of Two Stans”
“A Tale of Two Stans” answers a lot of burning questions within the world of Gravity Falls, while still finding time to tell a moving tale of brotherly love and familial estrangement. The arrival of Grunkle Stan’s long-lost brother Stanford leads to the estranged brothers relating the story of their growing up, and subsequently growing apart. As children, the two Stans were inseparable and had plans to sail around the world together as adults, until the delinquent Stanley accidentally ruined his brother’s chance of being accepted at his dream college.
While Stanford went on to success as a scientist and devoted himself to understanding the anomalies of Gravity Falls, Stanley was disowned by his family and made a living off petty scams. He found his brother Ford just in time to see him be sucked into an inter-dimensional portal. Finally reunited, the two Stans are still too stubborn to forgive one another, and the episode ends with Mabel wondering how two loving siblings could drift so far apart.
13. Samurai Jack – “Tale of X-49”
Samurai Jack delivers a stunningly artful episode about a robot cursed with emotions, and blackmailed by Aku to hunt Jack against his will. The bleary-eyed robot wonders about his conflicting emotions as he recalls his origins — while Aku created an entire line of robots to help him conquer the world, one engineer went beyond his orders by building X-49, a robot with the ability to think and feel and understand the damage being done by his fellow automatons.
After X-49 outlives his fellow X-series robots, he becomes enamored with a pug named Lulu and goes into retirement. Eventually, Aku abducts the dog and extorts X-49 into coming out of retirement to take care of Jack. In a tense final showdown, Jack defeats X-49 in the derelict robot factory that produced the other X-series robots. The series’ hero wins another battle, but as he prepares to leave, X-49 utters his final words, “Lulu. Take care of Lulu.”
12. Adventure Time – “I Remember You”
Adventure Time‘s best character must be the Ice King, a kooky villain whose evil was always being undercut by psychological vulnerability and flashes of sympathetic backstory. “I Remember You” reveals more than ever before, as the Ice King goes to Marceline the songwriter-slash-Vampire Queen in hopes that she’ll help him write a song to “score princesses.” His first attempt at singing devolves into a wounded plea for anybody to make him feel less alone.
After the Ice King mistakes her kindness for romantic interest and goes in for the kiss, Marceline reveals that there’s more to their relationship than he remembers. Through her explanation and a brief glimpse into their postwar past, we see the Ice King was once a kind and healthy man who helped an orphaned Marceline, before the crown that enabled him to live so long began eroding his sanity. It turns out the Ice King’s only flashes of lucidity come out through the scribbled lyrics he can’t remember writing. As the episode closes, the pair sing them together: “Please forgive me for whatever I do/When I don’t remember you.”
11. South Park – “You’re Getting Old”
After Stan turns 10, he finds himself unable to enjoy the new “tween wave” music his classmates love, finding that it all just sounds “like shit” (literally, like fart noises put over a drum beat). A doctors informs Stan that his music tastes are likely just changing as he gets older, but after Stan begins thinking everything looks and sounds “like shit,” the doctor diagnoses him as being a “cynical asshole,” unable to see the good in anything around him.
While Stan’s new negative disposition leads to the dissolution of his friendship with Kyle, Randy tries embracing “tween wave” as a performer to stop himself from feeling so old. When Sharon confronts Randy about his latest antics, he reveals that all his crazy schemes are a result of his being unhappy in their marriage. A final montage set to “Landslide” show Stan settling into his depression and his parents heading for near-certain divorce. In its own crude way, South Park shows exactly what it’s like to get older and find that the things you once loved — up to and including music, movies, and even best friends — no longer hold the same appeal.
10. Rugrats – “Mother’s Day”
There’s always been something sad about Chuckie Finster, the cowardly Rugrat being raised by an equally-cowardly single father, but it wasn’t until the episode “Mother’s Day” that the tragic subtext behind Chuckie became clear. While the other babies are working to find gifts to give their moms on Mother’s Day, Chuckie admits to having dreams about his late mother, including one where he isn’t even scared of a butterfly, which would normally terrify him now.
As the babies struggle with the idea of what a mother is exactly, Chuckie realizes his father Chas is the closest thing he has to a mother that will love him unconditionally. In trying to find him a Mother’s Day present, Chuckie stumbles upon a box filled with memories of his late mother, whose picture he recognizes from his dreams. Chas is finally honest about the fate of Chuckie’s mother with his son as he sorts through the memory box, which includes a poem his mother wrote to Chuckie before her death, beginning with the lines, “My sweet, little Chuckie, though I must leave you behind me/This poem will tell you where you always can find me.”
9. Spongebob Squarepants – “Have You Seen This Snail?”
Yep, even Spongebob can get heavy from time to time. This double-length episode concerns Gary running away from Spongebob after he neglects to feed him for several days. Of course, the titular sponge is devastated when he realizes what’s happened and recruits Patrick in trying to find Gary by canvassing the whole town with posters. While Gary is at first enjoying and then trying to escape his elderly new owner, Spongebob is just trying to find him and make up for his past neglect.
The episode’s most heartbreaking moment is undeniably a montage of Spongebob’s futile attempts to find Gary, set to an earnest original song, “Gary Come Home,” far more affecting than any Spongebob tune has any right to be. The story ends with Spongebob giving up his search and wishing to see Gary one last time, at precisely the same moment that his pet snail returns, hearing his apology and ready to continue their life together.
8. Courage the Cowardly Dog – “Remembrance of Courage Past”
In its series finale, Courage the Cowardly Dog finally gives its titular character a proper origin story — a suitably tragic one too, that might explain how Courage became so cowardly in the first place. Before living with Muriel and Eustace, it’s revealed that Courage had two loving parents who one day were abducted by a sinister veterinarian with a plot to breed dogs in space. Courage is so shaken to remember his traumatic past that Muriel and Eustace take him to a vet — the very same one who took his parents.
The vet tries trapping Courage just as he did his parents, hi-jinks ensue, and eventually, Courage manages to save himself, Muriel, and Eustace as usual. Only after things have calmed down do we see the end of Courage’s origin story, wherein Muriel finds the wounded pup and decides to take him home, giving Courage the love he needed to recover from his parents’ loss. After that moving scene, the show ends on a happy note, as the vet is blasted into space and receives his comeuppance, courtesy of all the dogs he’d abducted beforehand.
7. Steven Universe – “Rose’s Scabbard”
Steven Universe is a series seen through the eyes of its optimistic titular hero, an alien (gem)-human hybrid with a sunny disposition being raised by three gem women who were close with Steven’s late mother, Rose. In “Rose’s Scabbard,” we see through Steven’s eyes just how close they really were, and how her death continues to affect his seemingly-unshakable matriarchs — especially Pearl. When the gems are looking for Rose’s sword and Steven is unexpectedly able to find it, he unintentionally reveals the secrets his mother kept even from Pearl, her closest friend.
Distraught, Pearl flees and Steven follows, trying to understand the hurt she feels for having lost a woman to whom she had dedicated her entire life, and yet who still didn’t share everything with her. In one of the episode’s most telling moments, the maternal Pearl nearly lets Steven fall to his death out of her lingering spite for Rose. At the end, Pearl wonders what Rose would think of her now. Steven, her son and reincarnation, hugs Pearl and says he thinks she’s pretty great. Overall, the series nails the complexity and pain of grief, all through the eyes of a child.
6. The Simpsons – “Mother Simpson”
For all its sharp satire and bickering humor, The Simpsons has always been about a loving family. In this seventh season episode, the show finally gets around to exploring the origins of the family’s one missing member: Homer’s mother Mona, portrayed by Glenn Close. It turns out that she left Homer as a child after being targeted by Mr. Burns for protesting and destroying his chemical warfare laboratory.
For an all-too-brief amount of time, the Simpsons get to know their grandmother–Lisa relates to her intelligence, Bart is taken with her stories of the swinging ’60s, but Marge expresses her fear that Mona will only hurt them again by leaving. Sure enough, Mr. Burns recognizes her and is soon in hot pursuit, forcing Homer to help his mother escape Springfield and continue her life on the lam. This time, Homer gets to say goodbye to his mother, but it’s clear that the pain of her absence will remain, as Homer stares up at a starry night sky through the end credits.
5. Hey Arnold! – “Arnold’s Christmas”
Hey Arnold! had an undeniable knack for turning one-joke side characters into full-fledged human beings, and never more effectively than with Arnold’s broken-English-speaking fellow boarder Mr. Hyunh. After pulling his name for the annual boarding house secret Santa, Arnold attempts to get to know Mr. Hyunh better by asking about his past. Reluctantly he reveals the story of his daughter Mai, who he gave up to an American soldier at the conclusion of the Vietnam war–depicted in surprisingly stark detail for a Nickelodeon series–and has been trying to find ever since.
Helga has her own heart-string-tugging subplot happening as well, as she gives away the designer boots she wanted for Christmas to help find Mr. Hyunh’s daughter just when Arnold had given up hope. Helga makes a totally unselfish sacrifice for Arnold, and ends up giving Mr. Hyunh’s tragic tale a happy ending by reuniting him with his daughter.
4. Teen Titans – “Things Change”
For its series finale, Teen Titans could easily have gone out with the epic battle and inevitable victory of “Titans Together,” but instead, the show continued one episode longer and ended with the depressing head-scratcher that is “Things Change.” Still fresh from an invigorating victory, Beast Boy unexpectedly sees his crush from earlier in the series, the supposedly-dead Terra, a character whose arc was uniformly tragic since her season 2 introduction.
Previously, she joined the Titans and became close with Beast Boy before their arch-nemesis Slade revealed she had been training as his apprentice the whole time. Beast Boy turned his back on her, leading Terra to embrace her new role as a villain before having a change of heart and using her powers to avert disaster (but turning herself to stone in the process). Though Beast Boy is convinced of her miraculous return, the girl he sees insists she is not who he thinks she is, and is generally immune to all his attempts to jog her memory. In the end, Beast Boy must accept Terra’s insistence that “things change,” and move forward without the closure he expected–a decidedly melancholy way to conclude the series.
3. Justice League Unlimited – “Epilogue”
Often, superhero stories are too outlandish or larger-than-life to make viewers emotional. But that’s not the case with Justice League Unlimited, the series which devoted its second season finale to tie up a few loose ends from another DC animated series, Batman Beyond. The episode, entitled “Epilogue,” follows Bruce Wayne’s successor Terry McGinnis after he learns that Wayne is his true father and demands that the Justice League’s government liaison Amanda Waller explain why he was lied to.
In an extended flashback, she explains her goal of creating a new Batman to replace the aging Wayne and relates a story wherein Wayne calms down the villainous psychic Ace as she dies from an aneurysm that might have killed thousands, were she not calmed by Batman’s presence. But Terry is understandably angry, his identity determined for him even before he was born. Waller empowers him to live the life he wants, to do better than Bruce simply by taking care of the people he loves. He starts with Bruce Wayne himself, sharing a moment of fatherly love that’s all the more touching for being mostly unspoken. No film ever articulated the tragedy and hope inherent in Batman as effectively as this episode.
Oh, and you have, like, two days left if you want to watch this one on Netflix, so get to it.
2. Bojack Horseman – “That’s Too Much, Man”
Bojack Horseman is as much about struggling with depression as it is about the vapidity of Hollywoo(d) stars, so it makes sense that it would have some downer episodes. But the tragicomic series outdid itself with the penultimate episode of its third season, “That’s Too Much, Man!” The episode finds Bojack reaching another in a series of rock bottoms alongside his former costar Sarah Lynn, a former child actor who now shares Bojack’s affinity for recreational drug use.
It’s a tough episode to watch for their convincing, codependent descent into heroin addiction and day-long blackouts. In a rare moment of tenderness, Sarah Lynn confesses that she’s always wanted to be an architect, a dream derailed by her childhood rise to stardom. That only makes the next moment all the more heartbreaking–Bojack delivers his own impassioned speech of sorts, but to no response. “Sarah Lynn?” he repeats several times, as reality sinks in for both him and the viewer. She’s gone, and Bojack was the one who enabled her overdose. Roll credits?
1. Futurama – “Jurassic Bark”
For a series about a futuristic delivery company, Futurama certainly has a lot of episodes that will leave you bawling, but none more uniquely devastating that “Jurassic Bark,” which finds Fry pining over the only creature that seemed to care about his disappearance from the 21st century–his dog Seymour. He rediscovers his beloved mutt in fossilized form and convinces the Professor to revive him using modern technology, much to the chagrin of Bender.
In the end, Fry realizes he must let his past go and decides not to revive Seymour, assuming he forgot him long, long ago. The episode ends—but not before delivering an emotional sucker-punch for the ages. In a devastating montage set to “I Will Wait for You,” we see Seymour waiting for Fry outside Panucci’s Pizza through the years before finally he lays down to shut his eyes, for good. Fry’s devoted dog never forgot him and the connection they had. Now how could any pet-owner make it through that with dry eyes?
What other animated series contain episodes that will have anyone with a soul diving for the tissue box? Let us know in the comments.
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