G.I. Joe: “The Gamemaster”

Just in case anyone’s trying to make sense of all the pieces I’ve been posting here lately, there’s no cohesive theme, unless it’s all under a nebulous umbrella of “Random Crap I Like.” Ergo, today we’ve got a recap of a 1985 episode of the syndicated G.I. Joe cartoon.

Not just any episode, though: “The Gamemaster” is probably the very best G.I. Joe episode, though I’m willing to hear arguments in support of “Skeletons in the Closet”, in which a negligee-clad Lady Jaye storms around her haunted Scottish castle wielding a golf club while hunting ghosts before getting offered up by a Druidic cult as a sacrifice to the multi-tentacled alien creature living in her basement. Oh, and she discovers Destro is her cousin or something. It’s an amazing episode. Still, I give a slight edge to “The Gamemaster” because the Joes and Cobra end up setting aside their differences and working together against a common enemy and, gosh darn it, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

You know what? Usually at this point in one of these analyses, I’d take a bit of a detour to give everyone some background info about the show, maybe a broad overview of the plot, perhaps a quick rundown of the primary characters. I’m not going to bother with that this time, because… look, it’s a cartoon designed to sell action figures to small children. There are no subtle plot nuances that are going to be too tricky for G.I. Joe novices to follow. Here’s all you need to know: The bad guys are the members of the terrorist organization Cobra, led by the power-mad yet totally incompetent Cobra Commander, and the good guys are the Joes, members of an elite military organization dedicated to taking down Cobra. It has a huge cast of surprisingly well-developed characters (more characters = more action figures), and while jingoistic American exceptionalism always makes me a little queasy, particularly when packaged as entertainment for kids, the show is a hoot.

The titular Gamemaster, the episode’s villain du jour, is a cherubic bald man in a tuxedo who hangs out on a candy island populated by roving bands of killer automatons. He has a robot clown sidekick named Coco, a tendency to exclaim things like, “What’s this, Coco? It’s a real ho-ho!”, and a never-explained ability to grow to an enormous size at will. The G.I. Joe universe is a strange and wondrous place, filled with impossible technology, aliens, supernatural creatures, and people with inexplicable superpowers. I swear, kids who were raised on eighties cartoons have a finely-honed sense of the surreal.

So the Gamemaster decides he wants to play a new game. He kidnaps two of the Joes: Flint, whom he nabs in the elevator of his fancy-schmancy condo, and Lady Jaye, who gets grabbed in a department-store dressing room (is the latter just a flimsy excuse to show Lady Jaye in a partial state of undress? You bet.). For good measure, he also kidnaps two members of Cobra: Cobra Commander (grabbed while overseeing his minions and replaced by a mannequin; everybody’s pretty slow to notice the difference), and the Baroness (grabbed while relaxing in her hot tub with a fruity cocktail).


Ah, the Baroness. The Baroness is wonderful. G.I. Joe has a cluster of exemplary female characters—on the Joe side, Lady Jaye, Scarlett, and Cover Girl are all pretty bad-ass—but the Baroness is in a league of her own: sophisticated, powerful, cold, competent. She’ll run around in her bikini for this entire episode, battling the Gamemaster’s heavily-armed minions with as much aplomb as if she’d been clad in head-to-toe Kevlar.

(Permit me to rant a bit about the 2009 G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra movie, for which my hopes were absurdly high, thanks to some absolutely pitch-perfect, unimprovable bits of casting—Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander! Arnold Vosloo as Zartan! Christopher Eccleston as Destro!—but which ended up being nigh-unwatchable, due at least in part to some huge missteps with the female characters. Scarlett was an insufferable twerp, while Cover Girl, the Joes’ scrappy fleet mechanic, was turned into Hawk’s personal assistant; she had a few seconds of screen time, and then she was murdered by Zartan. Worst of all, Sienna Miller’s Baroness turned out to be just a sweet blonde debutante brainwashed into working for Cobra against her will. Horrible stuff. The 2013 sequel was a step up—Adrianne Palicki’s Lady Jaye was tough and resourceful—but the damage had been done. Memo to studio executives: Do not update a beloved franchise by adding a healthy dollop of sexism.)

The Gamemaster brings his captives to his candy-coated deathtrap of an island and outlines the object of the game: There’s a one-man helicopter hidden somewhere. Whoever finds it and flies away wins; the others will be killed.

Set loose on the island, Flint and Lady Jaye stick together, naturally enough. Watching G.I. Joe as a kid, it was obvious Flint and Lady Jaye had something going on—they flirted a lot, and they kept taking vacations together—but I naively assumed they were just friends, stoically fighting off their mutual attraction in deference to the military’s stringent anti-fraternization policies. Viewing it as an adult? It’s pretty clear they’re boinking on the sly.


Soon, the Joes and the Cobra members start getting into scuffles with each other. Nitwittery ensues: Duels with gigantic candy canes! Impromptu dips in butterscotch pools! And I can’t even begin to explain what’s happening here:


Eventually, they all reach the conclusion that they’re going to have to work together if they want to survive. And then Flint gets eaten by an animatronic dinosaur.

A cluster of tux-clad animatronic pallbearers dump Flint’s lifeless corpse into a grave. The Baroness comforts a sobbing Lady Jaye: “Think not of sorrow. Think of revenge!”


When I grow up, I want to be the Baroness.

Meanwhile, the Joes suspect Cobra of capturing Flint and Lady Jaye, while Cobra suspects the Joes of capturing Cobra Commander and the Baroness. Duke heads into the swamp to browbeat Zartan into releasing their teammates, while Destro captures Ace to do exactly the same thing. The Geneva Conventions get violated all over the place (Duke threatens to poison Zartan with his own noxious brand of genetically-modified swamp flu, and god only knows what Destro is about to do to poor Ace there), and then it sort of dawns on everyone that an unidentified third party is probably just messing with them. The Joes and Cobras agree to combine their might to rescue their missing comrades.


(One detail I admire about G.I. Joe is the way the Joes and Cobra, despite being blood enemies, have this weirdly convivial relationship. They’re all on a first-name basis, and nobody ever seems terribly invested in, like, killing each other. It’s all very mellow and civilized: “Oh, hey, Scarlett, what’s up? Is Duke around? I need to deliver my weekly rant about how I’m going to destroy you all. Thanks!”)

Back on the island, a not-really-dead Flint kickboxes his way out of his grave in time to save Lady Jaye, Cobra Commander and the Baroness from getting shredded by a gigantic lawnmower.


The Joes and Cobra, working in tandem, arrive on the island and battle the Gamemaster and his automatons; I won’t go into much detail, other than pointing out that, in the midst of all the chaos, mortal enemies Scarlett and Zartan start flirting with each other (“You’re good!” “The competition keeps us in shape”). It’s weird! And yet adorable! After vanquishing the Gamemaster and his goons, everyone stands around smugly congratulating themselves for a while. There’s a brief shot of Zartan and Scarlett chatting each other up; we don’t get to hear their conversation, but I imagine it ran something along these lines: “I respect your fighting skills, and I’d love to buy you a drink now that all this is over, but I think that might be considered treason.”


And then Cobra Commander ruins all this newfound Joe-Cobra bonhomie by acting like a tool. As usual. So everyone goes back to being enemies.


Delightful stuff. All ninety-five episodes of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero are currently streaming on Netflix, which is pretty much ideal for binge-watching purposes.

Comments

DKoren said…
I can't tell you how much fun this review was. Even more so because I missed out on G.I. Joe (my cartoon intake was restricted to Bugs Bunny and friends every weekday from 3:30 to 4 pm. My mom did not like anything else, particularly those new-fangled modern cartoons, so they were not watched.) But this review of this ep totally makes me want to watch it. And you had to mention Netflix has it streaming... LOL!
Morgan Richter said…
The weird thing about G.I. Joe (okay, there are many weird things) is that it's got really great characters. As I mention in my review, the female characters are especially great, and they're shown to be every bit as rugged and combat-ready as their male counterparts. And it has a wide assortment of fun villains, and the plots are always pretty much bonkers. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of dud episodes, and it often demonstrates a certain, ah, insensitivity to other cultures, but overall? It's oddly delightful.
DKoren said…
Hee! "the plots are always pretty much bonkers" -- as a writer, this totally makes me want to watch this show even more. Just because. And the strong female characters is really as selling point. That is really cool.
Morgan Richter said…
Yeah, I'm willing to forgive a TV show for a lot as long as it treats its male and female characters equivalently. G.I. Joe managed to pull that off with a minimum of fuss, which is especially noteworthy in a cartoon from the eighties that would appear on the surface to be geared primarily toward boys (it seems very likely the creative staff went to some effort to make sure the show was also appealing to girl viewers. Small touches, like making sure to depict a healthy percentage of high-powered background characters like scientists, doctors and top military brass as women, really made a difference).

Also: Campy villains! So help me, I love campy villains.

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