I love The Real Ghostbusters. My crush on the animated version’s Egon Spengler has lasted for 28 years. (I just met Maurice LaMarche, Egon’s voice actor, last weekend – and he was absolutely lovely by the way.) There are moments within the show that have stuck with me just as long – snips of music, a particular joke, a particularly striking image or implication. There are a metric ton of great, clever episodes written by Twilight Zone alumni containing literary references to Lovecraft, Dickens, Tolkien and Poe, some of the absolutely pants-wettingest scary images available to cartoons at the time.
Today’s animation world is dominated by shows like The Venture Brothers, The Simpsons, Archer, Futurama – shows that assume the audience watching them is primarily composed of young-to-middle-aged adults and write their scripts accordingly, loaded with innuendo, cultural reference and satire. This is a world that was inconceivable in 1986. Long before Adult Swim existed, The Real Ghostbusters were knocking Saturday morning and syndicated afternoon audiences on their asses with sophisticated, funny, literate storytelling. Today’s shows owe some debt to RGB paving the way.
There are tons of great episodes in The Real Ghostbusters. The scripts are always solid (even if the animation outsourcing occasionally lets them down) and there’s not a single one in the first three DVD volumes of the show I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend to any viewer.
And then there’s Ragnarok and Roll, an episode that is so great the show transcends itself, rising to a different level. The episode where all the show’s pieces are in perfect sync – animation, voice, and script all combining into a stunning singular 22 minutes. This, if anything, is the episode of the series that The Real Ghostbusters was always trying to be.
And like so many classics, it starts with a broken heart.
Jeremy Whittington. presaging the Fedora Nice Guy cliche by several decades, and his one-eyed dwarf companion DiTillio (named after writer JMS’s BFF, Larry DiTillio – they would go on to create Babylon 5 and other shows together) go to a remote place implied to be the Himalayas to summon The Power To End The World. Because, you see, Jeremy’s really messed up about a recent breakup. He takes out a picture of his love, but the wind snatches it out of his hand, whirling it out of reach. The scene is gloomy and dark, the animation in cold shades of blue and grey under an oppressively low sky
“The world is a cold, heartless place, DiTillio – it’s hurt you and it’s hurt me. But no more.”
He recites the inscription of the One Ring of Sauron and the demonic powers respond by turning his face into a strange, bug-eyed blue alien mask, and giving him a special gold flute with the power of destruction and life. After demonstrating the flute’s eerie Song of Destruction on a nearby cliff face, and above DiTillio’s anxious fretting, Jeremy portentiously announces it’s time to go – “my home, where the pain started – home to New York.”
Cut to: an incredibly dark New York skyline, the oppressive clouds lingering here. The Ghostbusters are already at work – usually episodes start off with wisecracking and some kind of in-firehouse setup, but this intro scene plays it completely po-faced, with gargoyle-demons coming down from above. The guys face off against the monsters, and the proton packs don’t work. Egon audibly snapping, “I don’t like it,” the stress clear in his voice. Most of the joke work in this ep calls on Peter, but it’s clear he’s cracking wise against the dark.
The guys head home while Egon explains that PK activity all over the world is skyrocketing with “frightening speed”. The windows of the Ecto-1 are frosted – normally for most episodes we see inside the car with a virtual camera inside the roof.
Jeremy and DiTillio are shown at a pier, watching a boat arrive – hard to tell if they’re setting out for New York or just happened to arrive already. DiTillio is side-eyeing his “master”.
Inside the firehall, the guys and Janine have gathered around a map of Manhattan – Janine is hurting her fingers putting in the stick pins. Peter promises they’ll get her to a vet as soon as possible. Janine protests to Egon that he promised he’d stick Venkman’s brain into a chicken the next time he made fun of her. (This is the kind of exchange that a later regime-change of the show eliminated because it wasn’t “child-friendly” enough. So yeah, you know, taking the funny out.)
The pins mark an inverted five-pointed star, which Egon draws with a red marker on the map. In the very center of the star is a house- and the house belongs to miss Cindy, a very nice young lady who Jeremy is now out to end the world over. Cindy wasn’t ready to get married – she wanted to focus on her career first. We never find out what that career is, but judging from the excess of photos on the wall, it might have been photography or something to do with art. In any case, this is a very sweet girl.
The guys sit on her couch and get the backstory about Jeremy and DiTillio, then have a fun little exchange involving a letter Jeremy sent Cindy a few days ago. The sheet of paper is written in a language that “only three people in the world can decipher” – Ray looks at Egon, “Is there any point in asking?” and Egon interprets the word: Ragnarok.
Then they almost blow up Cindy’s house when the PKE meter goes berserk over the inscription. Egon frantically tosses the thing outside into the street, where it leaves a very significant six-foot-wide crater.
“Is all your equipment this dangerous?”
“Oh no, no. Well, actually it is, but we’re all very well trained. We haven’t blown up a house in… days.”
Meanwhile Jeremy and DiTillio arrive in New York. Jeremy spouts off some more portentous nonsense about “The second adagio in the symphony of destruction.” The overcast sea begins to swirl and churn as he plays the Song of Destruction again. Janine gets on a walkie-talkie (that’s some range, but these days you could just as easily interpret it as a very clunky take on an early cell phone) to tell everyone to get to a television quickly.
The news report is as grim as anything you could imagine in a live-action show, let alone a syndicated
kid’s show. Over 2012-level sea rising waves washing out an entire town, 9-11 style building collapses, city-wrecking tornadoes, and huge chunks torn out of the earth. we’re told: “Unparalleled destruction all over the world. Survivors have been quoted as saying that it was as if nature had turned against mankind. All of this has started within the last half-hour. Whole cities are being destroyed, hundreds of thousands displaced. No one knows what’s happening or why. Governments can only sit helpless and hope that the madness ends soon.”
Just sit and think that through for a second. Really sit with that. Has any show committed such an epic level of catastrophe within 30 seconds? New York, where we are, is currently untouched, and the streets are almost totally vacant, but that’s hardly a surprise – between the grim sky and the disaster news probably everyone is inside wondering when it’s going to be the Big Apple that gets sliced.
There are lots of words for it but they all add up to the same thing.
The end of the world.”
Let’s be clear about this. In context of the larger show, the Ghostbusters have saved the world – or at least the greater New York metropolitan area – from mass annihilation at least half a dozen times in the show. Never, ever have the previous scenarios been described, presented or formatted with this background radiation of grim brutality. We’re not shown it, but several million people, right now, this moment, are horrendously dead. The show tends to underplay its hand and attack issues with a much lighter touch than this; by comparison, Ragnarok and Roll is playing out like a sledgehammer to the face.
After the commercial break we come back to one of the ep’s few “jokey” scenes – the Ghostbusters encounter an odd transient with a “no world” sign and calling for everyone to “Repent, brothers and sisters, for the end of the world is upon us.” Oh, but if they give him some money, he can arrange a reprieve. Egon looks quizzical, to say the least, while Peter cheerfully notes that “Actually, you’re right, the end of the world is upon us.” The transient grumbles – now he’ll have to find another line of work. Did… the show just make a religious reference here?
Then we cut from this little jokey bit (which is still shot through with lightning bolts striking overhead, and wind swirling in the background) to a genuinely distressing shot of average New Yorkers screaming and running for their lives while cars crash into the camera and a vicious red swirling power is rolling over the top of a building that looks like a cross between Chrysler Building and 70 Pine Street – the show calls it the “Carstairs (sp?) Building”, probably to avoid copyright and trademarking issues. The point is, GEEZ THIS SCENE IS FREAKY.
Jeremy and DiTillio are up at the roof (so, like the corner penthouse of Spook Central) looking down. Jeremy, the Nice Guy that he is, laughs about how “fun” it is to watch everyone run. “And they haven’t even seen the worst of it yet.” The street below is full of wrecked cars. Then Jeremy tries to strangle DiTillio.
And calls in more gargoyles to chase people through the streets, attack the Ghostbusters, and tear a huge chunk out of the back end of the roof of Ecto-1 with their foot claws. (Ray does not take this well.) Lightning rains down from the skies, tearing massive chunks out of the sidewalks, tossing the debris around. What few people we see are openly running for their lives.
Kid’s show. AMERICAN kid show. American kid show IN THE 80’s. Not a Special Episode or a movie adaptation or part of a five-part miniseries or even the series finale.
The beams aren’t working on the gargoyles because techno-babble about ghosts and monsters being on a different ionization rate – no time to find the right frequency. Egon notes that the only way to end it is to deal with the source.
Oh, and then a tidal wave comes pouring through the streets and the streets start cracking apart. Geez, did JMS have a bad breakup right before he wrote this episode?
And we have another of the occasional shots that time and the horrible real world have made extra eerie- there’s a high aerial pan of a massive wave of fire rushing through Manhattan at the foot of the World Trade Center. This happens occasionally in Ghostbusters, as RGB is so intimately tied with New York as a setting that several significant scenes – notably the series’ second scariest episode, The Bogeyman is Back, where Egon actually falls off the roof of the World Trade Center – involve the Twin Towers.
Jeremy carries on with his tortured musical metaphor, saying there’s “one final stanza to be played in the destruction adagio”. I feel like he’s about to go home and create a redpill subreddit, seriously. DiTillio asks if the world really deserves this. But hell, Jeremy isn’t scared – “We alone serve the darkness that will follow, so don’t worry.”
The Ghostbusters kick the door to the roof down and – with a VERY savage twist on the usual routine in the show, directly open fire on Jeremy. Again, at every other episode in the series, there’s always something to stop the boys from firing directly on a “human” target – whether it’s someone getting in the way of the beams (Night Game) or some other plot-related reason. They usually show great restraint on this matter, possibly due to “imitatable behavior” concerns? In this episode, the boys just flat out fire execution squad style – and are even shown in a tilted lineup pan implying this – without so much as a by-your-leave.
It turns out that the beams don’t work on Jeremy either, but consider if they HAD worked like normal. The dude would totally have been toast. Instead, he shrugs off the beams, because Cindy’s with them. She asks them to let her talk to Jeremy, and Peter agrees.
Having his ex-fiancee show up at least causes Jeremy a few moments of remorse – he turns his head away from her with a guilty look. But despite her pleas, he “won’t have her pity, so goodbye, Cindy.” The wind howls around them.
Egon decides that the only way to stop this is basically for the four Ghostbusters to suicide bomb Jeremy – if they set their packs on simultaneous overload, they hope it’s enough to take him out before he can take out the rest of the world. “There’ll be a blast crater half a mile wide.” The sequence visually and script-wise is a deliberate echo of the original “cross the streams” bit from the movie – a dark little sequence where the guys are literally saying goodbye to each other, because they’re about to die. Egon looks directly at the camera and just says “Janine.” Kid’s show! Fun! Laughs! Good times! On after school! (LaMarche sells the shit out of that line, let me tell you.)
Cindy almost gets knocked off the building by a surge of wind cause by Mister Not All Men playing his flute, but DiTillio intervenes and bodyblocks, saving Cindy but getting himself knocked off the building instead. He dangles perilously off a gargoyle, interrupting Jeremy’s little solo, while the Ghostbusters can’t do anything but stand there and watch. DiTillio refuses Jeremy’s hand and gives this speech that has stuck with me (like the line from The Halloween Door) for three decades:
“You’ve thrown away everything because the world hurt you. Well, look at me! Yes, I’m small and twisted and ugly but at least I’m still human! Nobody ever said the world was an easy place. Nobody ever said you wouldn’t be hurt. If you weren’t sufficiently loved, it’s your own fault, not the world’s.”
Yeah, just drop two atom bombs in a row right on my heart, JMS. Really, I’m 13 years old in 1986. I can totally take it. I still can’t watch that scene today without crying. (LaMarche sells the shit out of DiTillio’s lines here, too.)
This speech of Righteous Earth Logic rightfully knocks Jeremy off his selfish pedestal, the guys switch off their portable nuclear accelerators, and he agrees to stop what he’s doing. He pulls DiTillio back on the roof and vows to play the Song of Life instead – except, uh, the hideous leering fanged demonlord in the sky doesn’t like that idea one bit, as the Song of Life takes out his minions. The animation throughout this part is excellent and totally horrific- the swirling, leering demon head and the screaming dissolving gargoyles are bound to stick in your head for months afterward.
Grinning boy up there flat-out SMITES Jeremy with a nasty red bolt that blows him up REAL good. The guys start firing on the demon, as the Song weakened him just enough, and we get an even more horrible animation as the demonlord’s face melts into this red skull of light that snaps in half and twists around screaming before it evaporates. BRrrrrr! This is way, way creepier than the presentation of Cthulthu in The Collect Call of Cthulthu, and far more likely to deal mental damage.
Although he was at least partially completely ionized, Jeremy is still alive and still has a measure of his cursed power left – but the flute has been terribly damaged, so he asks everyone else to give him strength to fix it. Then we get a strange, lyrical coda – the Song of Life’s innocent notes drifting over scenes of total devastation. The tidal wave rolls back, the earth knits itself back together. And for the first time in the entire episode, the clouds break, the sun coming back out, the normal warmer palette of the show’s backgrounds reasserting themselves. And we all suddenly and abruptly wish we had a Song of Life of our own when the closing shot drifts over the Twin Towers on its way toward showing the sun shining off the Atlantic. (Fuck you, reality. Seriously.)
Cindy hugs onto Jeremy, and we get this kind of ‘aw shucks’ collective movement from the guys as they all shuffle just a little bit to the side.
And that’s the show – the darkest and arguably most emotionally complicated episode of a cartoon that nobody thought would ever last this long. Thanks, JMS, and everybody else who made The Real Ghostbusters.
I think you did just fine.