As promised, the first entry in my new series about dysfunction in the Pataki family from Hey Arnold!
While “The Little Pink Book” was the first Helga-centric episode (and showed us how deep her love/obsession with Arnold runs), “Olga Comes Home” is one of the first episodes that really sheds light on Helga’s home life. When her older, perfect sister Olga comes home from prestigious Wellington College for spring break, Helga’s jealousy and resentment get the better of her. So to exact “sweet, black revenge,” she changes one of Olga’s grades to a B+, effectively destroying her sister’s flawless academic performance and sending her into a downward spiral of depression, tears and Mozart’s Lacrimosa. For a while Helga reaps the benefits of her sister’s depression, but eventually her guilt gets the better of her (aided by a Salvador Dalí-inspired dream). She reveals the truth which leads to her and Olga having a rare, bittersweet sister-to-sister moment.
This episode marks an important moment for the Patakis: there had been many references to Olga, the mythical older sister whose shadow is constantly cast over Helga—her father constantly calls her “Olga” (hell, “Helga” is just another version of that name) and both parents are always rhapsodizing about how wonderful Olga is. This episode is devoted to unveiling (and deconstructing) the legend of Olga Pataki and revealing how she and the image she has had projected onto her is the nexus of the entire family’s behavior. Olga’s presence is the only thing that takes Miriam out of her slurred, drunken stupor and makes Bob express interest in his family.
When we first see Olga, as opposed to just hearing about her secondhand, all of Helga’s negative feelings seem validated: she is a peppy Stepford Smiler who is completely committed to the role of flawless overachiever and totally oblivious to Helga’s suffering. Helga’s method of revenge may seem over the top and unnecessary until we really stop to think about how Helga has endured this her entire life. For her, Olga is the root of all her family problems. If it weren’t for Olga being so perfect and sucking up all of Bob and Miriam’s attention/energy, Helga wouldn’t have unrealistic expectations to live up to and then her parents could just appreciate her for who she is; instead she is either ignored or encouraged to be more like Olga. And Helga’s revenge is ultimately futile—even though at first things seem better, her parents are still too absorbed in worrying about Olga to pay Helga any attention.
And it’s when Helga tells Olga the truth that we’re really given a glimpse into the abusive nature of the household: Olga admits that she thinks Helga is lucky because their parents pay no attention to her, that she feels like a wind-up doll who has to perform constantly. The facade is broken and we see Olga for who she is—someone who suffers just as much as Helga does because of the expectations of her parents. But where Helga throws up defensive walls and blatantly refuses to meet their standards, Olga bends over backwards to try and meet them, to the point where something as silly as getting a B+ instead of an A sends her into a deep depression.
In this moment of sisterly bonding, it becomes apparent that both Helga and Olga have suffered from their parents’ impossible, abusive expectations. It is not that Helga is inherently vindictive and jealous or that Olga is naturally an overly cheerful perfectionist. They have both been given a set of expectations to meet by parents who don’t know any other way to raise their children. Olga chose to meet them and found out early that it was a (or possibly the only) way to get positive attention from her emotionally incapable parents. Helga, born 10-11 years later, didn’t have a chance. As a result, both sisters crave what the other has: Olga wants them to just forget she exists and Helga, just once, would like for her parents to give her unconditional love and affection without the expectations.
Please leave any comments below and come back next week for more Pataki analysis!