Has a cartoon ever come along and just tore your heart out because of a specific scene or moment? In America, cartoons are mainly associated with comedy and children’s entertainment, and it’s true that most of the following shows can fit into at least one of those two categories. But that doesn’t make them any less emotionally powerful, any less heart-breaking or tear-jerking than any of the best adult prestige dramas that make up this “golden age” of television. If anything, playing these moments of tragedy against the backdrop of more escapist genres gives these moments an extra edge, an element of surprise or a deeper connection to more primal childhood emotions.
In selecting the cartoons on this list, there were a few ground rules to consider. No movies (because then Pixar would take up half the list), no anime (because there’s just too many options to choose from there), and only one episode per series (to get a good range of different shows, though many have multiple episodes worthy of consideration and your tears). With that in mind, please enjoy this list of 15 times cartoons reminded you that you have emotions and then went on to rip your heart out.
The following will contain SPOILERS for all the individual shows and episodes listed.
15. “CODE OF HERO” (BEAST WARS)
People sure get emotional over Transformers. Even those ridiculous Michael Bay films have moved people, and countless childhoods were traumatized by the death of Optimus Prime in the 1985 animated movie. As far as the Transformers TV shows are concerned, Beast Wars‘ primitive ’90s CGI hasn’t aged particularly well, but as they say, there’s more than meets the eye, and its writing has aged better than most of the other Transformers cartoons.
The death of Dinobot in the second season episode “Code of Hero” stands out as the moment fans remember as the most heartbreaking. Dinobot died as he lived, as an honorable warrior, pushing his abilities to the limits defeating Megatron and the Predacons. In his last words he quotes Hamlet: “The rest is silence.” Pretty classy for a show based on toy robots.
14. “CI” (SAMURAI JACK)
Samurai Jack‘s final episode is mostly a happy one. Jack achieves his goal of getting back to the past and defeating Aku once and for all. Time travel paradoxes get in the way of a purely happy conclusion, however. In a scene clearly inspired by the sad ending of the anime Gurren Lagann, Ashi, Aku’s daughter and Jack’s lover, fades away from existence right on her wedding day, the death of her father effectively erasing her from history.
The show’s final scene ends on a bittersweet note. Jack is contemplative, seemingly depressed following Ashi’s disappearance, when he notices a ladybug flying freely and smiles. He recognizes that though much has been personally lost, he’s guaranteed a future where life can live free of the evil that is Aku.
13. “FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING” (JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED)
The only adaptation of Alan Moore story to receive the author’s personal approval, “For the Man Who Has Everything” is a profound meditation on the central tragedy of Superman’s life: he has never known his home. Through most of the episode, Superman is incapacitated by the Black Mercy, a parasitic plant that feeds its victims visions of their hearts’ deepest desires. Superman sees himself living a simple life with a family on Krypton.
As Batman rescues Superman from the Black Mercy’s grip, Superman realizes he’s in a dream and heartbreakingly has to say goodbye to his son as the dream comes to an end. Batman gets briefly gets stuck within his own dream of being with his parents, because dealing with just one sad backstory isn’t enough.
12. “ENDGAME” (YOUNG JUSTICE)
Fans of Young Justice were already prepared to cry at the end of “Endgame”, if only for being the beloved but short-lived series’ final episode (well, until the streaming revival was announced years later). But even if Cartoon Network still knew how to market action shows and Young Justice went on for years, “Endgame” still would have been a brutal experience. Why? The death of Wally West, the original Kid Flash and one of the founding members of the Young Justice team.
Wally’s death was one of those epic sacrifices you only get in superhero stories: he literally ran himself to death in helping The Flash and Impulse destroy a planet-threatening alien machine. There’s been hints Wally might return from the dead somehow when the show returns but regardless of his impending resurrection, his heroic death scene will still be moving.
11. “ROSE’S SCABBARD” (STEVEN UNIVERSE)
Steven Universe can be described as “all the feels”, and is as likely to make viewers cry both tears of joy and tears of sadness. Of all the heavy themes Rebecca Sugar and the Crewniverse weave into their show, one of the most potent is that of grief, and no character in the show deals with their grief over the loss of Crystal Gem leader Rose Quartz as intensely and heartbreakingly as Pearl.
“Rose’s Scabbard” was the first episode to deal with the depth of Pearl’s unrequited love for Rose and the complexity of her feelings about raising Steven, her former crush’s child and pseudo-reincarnation. Her feelings of betrayal learning Rose kept secrets from her, and of deep shame in almost endangering Steven was painful. Yet even as the audience’s hearts break for her, Steven’s seemingly infinite supply of love and acceptance heals all wounds.
10. “AUTO EROTIC ASSIMILATION” (RICK AND MORTY)
Beneath the penis jokes and high-concept sci-fi rigamarole, Rick and Morty has a chilling emotional core. Since much of the impact of “The Wedding Squanchers”‘ tragic ending has been softened by the reversals of fortune in “The Rickshank Redemption,” the ending of “Auto Erotic Assimilation” now stands as the best example of the show’s capacity for sadness.
Most of the episode is hilarious as ever, as Rick reunites with his ex, Unity, who happens to be a hive mind that consumes planets. Their relationship has mutually negative effects, and ultimately the thing that Unity finds attractive about Rick is the reason they can’t be together: Rick can’t change. Aware of his failings yet unable to improve, Rick returns home and contemplates suicide. As “Do You Feel It?” by Chaos Chaos plays into the credits, the conclusion’s more chilling than a show with a character named “Mr. Poopy Butthole” should be.
9. “AFTERSHOCK” (TEEN TITANS)
Teen Titans might have skewed younger and sillier than other DC cartoon series, but still packed a serious emotional punch in its major story arcs. Of all the show’s ongoing arcs, the second season’s adaptation of the comics’ “Judas Contract” storyline stands out as the most impactful. Even with the content lightened (a more direct PG-13 adaptation, Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, was released in spring 2017), Terra’s inner struggle between working as a double agent for Slade and her feelings for Beast Boy is still intense, and her sacrifice in the season finale “Aftershock” is heartbreaking.
As if the pain of “Aftershock” wasn’t enough, the series finale “Things Change” brought Terra back but without any memories and no explanation of how she returned. And this was the show’s final episode! The original Teen Titans cartoon ended too soon; the current Teen Titans Go show just can’t compare.
8. “LISA’S SUBSTITUTE” (THE SIMPSONS)
The early seasons of The Simpsons were more down to Earth than what the show would later become, and were as adept at heartfelt drama as they were at comedy. The best of the show’s more serious episodes is easily “Lisa’s Substitute” from the second season. Mr. Bergstrom, the brilliant substitute teacher voiced by Dustin Hoffman, is the first of Lisa’s many crushes over the series, but more than that he’s the father figure Lisa deserves, someone who can connect with her intellectually in a way Homer can’t.
Lisa’s heartbroken when Bergstrom leaves, but what’s most heartbreaking to the audience is how Homer struggles to but just can’t understand what his daughter’s going through. Bergstrom’s final note to Lisa, simply reading “You are Lisa Simpson,” emphasizes just how much Lisa will need her self-reliance in the face of loneliness.
7. “NUMB” (MORAL OREL)
Somewhere along the line, Adult Swim’s Davey and Goliath parody Moral Orel got serious… and seriously depressing. Where the show’s first season was mainly a goofy satire of fundamentalist religion, the odd moments of pathos grew more frequent throughout the second season, and by season three it had become a brutal drama with scarce laughs.
In “Numb”, the season three premiere, the show’s opening is replaced with “No Children” by The Mountain Goats, setting the tone immediately. The episode follows depressed housewife Bloberta while her son Orel and husband Clay are out on a hunting trip. She harms herself in desperation for attention from the town doctor, and when she finds out Clay shot Orel on the hunting trip, she suffers a complete breakdown. Despite the stop animation, it’s all played seriously. Creator Dino Stamatopoulos would have more success with depressing puppets with the Oscar-nominated Anomalisa.
6. “I REMEMBER YOU” (ADVENTURE TIME)
Adventure Time is another show that got more serious as it went along, but unlike Moral Orel, it’s always kept its sense of fun, and that emotional range makes its sad moments all the more impactful. Who’d have predicted that Ice King, the show’s funniest villain, would also turn out to be its most tragic hero? Ice King’s backstory (that he was once a normal human driven insane by the magic crown) was revealed in the “Holly Jolly Secrets” Christmas special, but “I Remember You” made his tragedy all the more impactful.
The episode shows how as he was starting to lose his memory and sanity he was also young Marceline’s only protector in the aftermath of the Mushroom War. The episode’s final song, where Ice King rocks out to lyrics he no longer remembers the meaning of, is heartbreaking to anyone who’s lost a loved one to dementia.
5. “TALES OF BA SING SE” (AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER)
“Tales of Ba Sing Se” is an untraditional episode of Avatar, divided into vignettes focusing on individual characters. The reason this episode makes this list is because of the vignette “The Tale of Iroh.” It follows Iroh, the show’s wisest character, just going through a regular day being helpful to people. Then, at the end of the day, he sets up a altar for his dead son. Speaking to the altar, Iroh wishes his son a happy birthday, confessing sadness about his failures as a father, before breaking down in tears singing a sad song.
If all this wasn’t sad enough, the segment ends with the title “In honor of Mako.” Mako, the voice actor of Iroh in the first two seasons, died of lung cancer only months before the episode aired. If the sad story didn’t have your heart ripped out, the real life tragedy did.
4. “APOKOLIPS… NOW” (SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES)
Regular characters just didn’t die in ’90s American cartoons. So when Metropolis police officer Dan Turpin was killed by Darkseid in the second season finale of Superman: The Animated Series, audiences were in for a shock. Superman’s grief was painful to watch, and his final eulogy (“The world didn’t need a Superman, just a brave one”) simply beautiful.
Like “Tales of Ba Sing Se”, “Apokalypse Now”‘s sadness is heightened by how the episode doubles as a loving tribute to a real person. In this case, the animated Ben Turpin was modeled after the character’s creator Jack Kirby. The traditional Kaddish prayer at Turpin’s funeral was a tribute to Kirby’s Jewish faith, and in the original broadcast version, funeral attendees include various Kirby creations… including those from his time at Marvel! A death so powerful it brought universes together!
3. “HEART OF ICE” (BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES)
Telling great stories with classic foes like The Joker and The Penguin was one thing, but Batman: The Animated Series really proved its genius when it took Mr. Freeze, a one note joke of a villain, and successfully turned him into figure of Shakespearean depth and tragedy. His ice obsession? Explained by his terminally ill cryogenically frozen wife. His robberies? All for the purpose of raising funds for her cure.
Mr. Freeze was now so sympathetic that Batman thought he could be reasoned with, but Freeze was too far gone in his dedication to avenging his wife. All versions of Mr. Freeze since have played on Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s reimagining, including the dreadful Arnold Schwarzenegger version in Batman and Robin, so the episode’s biggest flaw might be that it’s indirectly responsible for that disaster. But don’t hold that against it because it’s still powerful to this day.
2. “JURASSIC BARK” (FUTURAMA)
90% of the time Futurama was pure comedy, but then there were times it could unexpectedly rip your heart out. Episodes like “The Luck of the Fryrish” and “The Sting” could also make a strong case for making this list, but sticking to the one episode per series rule, nothing could ever compare to the sheer emotional sadism that is “Jurassic Bark.”
If you haven’t seen it, watch it because it’s brilliant, but then you’ll probably never want to watch it again. Even the Futurama movies’ attempts to soften the blow don’t negate its evil genius. Seymour… Such a good dog… He just waited for his master to come back… He just wanted to see Fry again! HE DIED WAITING FOR HIM! WHY, GOD, WHY!?!?!?!?!
1. “THAT’S TOO MUCH, MAN!” (BOJACK HORSEMAN)
No cartoon understands depression the way BoJack Horseman does. Without failing to entertain, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt’s quirky Netflix series continually breaks down its characters to devastating effect. The show understands and sympathizes with why they repeatedly make bad decisions, but doesn’t spare them of the painful consequences. Each season gets better and sadder, and the penultimate episode of season three is the most heartbreaking yet.
If your heart wasn’t broken when Sarah Lynn, BoJack’s former TV co-star turned drug addict, passed away in the planetarium, after reminiscing about her dreams of being an architect before childhood superstardom ruined her life, you might want to check if you had a heart in the first place. The tragedy was a searing indictment of both BoJack, who played her dad on TV but was the worst possible father figure in real life, and of the toxicity of show business in general.
Did any other animated moment bring you to tears? Let us know in the comment section!
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