Almost seventeen years ago, in October 1998, WNUV-54 – Baltimore's WB affiliate – first aired my favorite episode of the Pokemon anime: The Ghost of Maiden's Peak. (The fact that I've been waiting in vain for over 850 episodes for the show to top what it did in the first twenty is a different story entirely…) On the surface, The Ghost of Maiden's Peak screams pointless filler. There are no in-game locations or characters, indeed no recurring characters at all besides the ever-present Team Rocket trio, and neither Ash, Misty, or Brock catches, releases, evolves, or in any way alters their rosters of Pokemon. However, this episode, and the many others like it in the Original Series, are the basis for my argument that filler episodes have the potential to be among the best episodes. Through originality and creative writing, the show can stretch beyond the canon of the source material (in this case an 8-bit monochrome video game) and add depth and color to the universe that the franchise exists within.
Why do I bring this up? Because as time went on, fillers became less of an opportunity for creative expressionism, and more of a rest for the writers from the oppressive grind of churning out a new episode every week. It's much simpler to merely introduce a new Pokemon and have Ash and friends save it and/or its trainer from Team Rocket. So on the surface, this week's episode didn't appear to be particularly promising, especially coming on the heels of a series of terrible episodes. (Although it is worth pointing out that *technically* this episode isn't a true filler, since it clearly takes place on Kalos Route 14 – complete with the abandoned playground and the Scary House). I don't want to spoil the episode review, but's let's just say that my initial speculation that this would just be another boring "spooky" episode that failed to measure up in any way to the legacy of The Ghost of Maiden's Peak was, thankfully, very, very wrong.
With that out of the way – on to the episode!
Our heroes are tramping through the woods on their way to Laverre City when they come across a playground. Serena grumbles that they have already passed this landmark, but Clemont seems more worried about something as unscientific as the wind causing the swings to appear to move on their own. "You sure are good at getting scared…" Bonnie intones. The mention of fear suddenly reminds Serena of a story about these woods and a spooky mansion that sometimes appears to travelers lost in the forest. Serena's scary face fails to measure up to that of Ash's first girlfriend, but it is good enough to make Clemont soil his jumpsuit and also make Bonnie very excited at the prospect of visiting a haunted house.
Ash makes a rather unusual (for him) use of effective reasoning, declaring that since they went left at the fork last time, they will simply go right instead! The idea that this episode is different than usual is then further reinforced by the Narrator's creepy voice when our heroes run smack into – the Scary House. Noticing that the lights are on, Ash further reasons that there must be someone living in the mansion (something has to be wrong when dumb-Ash is the smart one in the group), and just as he predicted, an old man in a bolo tie opens the door and invites the children in out of the rain.
Unfortunately, our young heroes have violated the basic tenets of towel safety, but Lon the old man never forgets to bring a towel, darn it! And he has plenty of extras to offer his houseguests. Clemont is very concerned that Lon just so happened to have exactly the right number of towels on hand for the four twerps, but he quickly (and less-than-convincingly) recovers when Lon asks him if anything is the matter. The John Denver lookalike wraps the towel over his head and coos "this towel is just so soft! Ooh! [giggle giggle]"
Ever the gracious host, Lon next invites everyone in to his dining room for an already laid-out meal of pasta, bread, and salad. Ash wastes no time in stuffing his face full of free food (it's a favorite past-time of his), but Clemont again can't help but note that there are exactly four plates (Ash: "shut up Clemont, I'm trying to eat!")
Ash actually has the common decency to look up from his food for a second to notice that Lon isn't eating, and expresses some polite concern (he's so out of character today!), but the old man replies that he has already had his meal (and the dead don't need to eat… Dum dum duuuum!).
After dinner, everyone is walking happily down the obviously still-spooky and cobweb-infested hallway, chatting about how silly it was to think this house might be haunted – everyone but Clemont that is! He claims that they should not let their collective guard down just yet. "I don't think you've been noticing," the Lumiose gym leader begins (and the understatement of the year for Ash Ketchum), "but there have been some strange things going on." He then procedes to explain how odd it is that Lon, who lives alone, managed to have exactly the right number of towels waiting for them, and also just randomly had a dinner for four set out after he had "already eaten." It's almost as if he knew we were coming and –
OMG HE'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU CLEMONT!
The creepy host invites everyone downstairs for tea, and Serena seizes the opportunity to ask Lon about the story behind the “Scary House” name. Well, as anyone with a grandfather can attest, old men cannot resist telling backstories of dubious factual accuracy, and Lon immediately launches into the tale of how he first came to the house one rainy night (apparently before he had embraced the Western rancher wardrobe and was still dressing like Agatha Christie's Poirot).Finding the house unlit, and being a typical Frenchman, Lon turned to his trusty lighter that he carries with him at all times to smoke cigarettes! Since anything even closely related to playing with matches is verboten in the dub, the English dialogue has to dance around the fact that Lon is carrying a lighter: calling it a "light" and "my tiny flame" at different points! (Phew! Crisis averted! I'm actually kind of surprised they didn't turn the lighter into a sandwich or something…) Anyway, Monsieur Moustache proceeds to explore the seemingly-abandoned house. Arriving in the kitchen, Lon comes across a curious sight: there is a hooded man huddled on the floor in the corner. When approached, the man shouts at Lon to get away, which is actually an entirely reasonable thing to say to someone who has burst into your home uninvited. But the man continues, telling Lon that he isn't talking to him. "Can't you see them?!" he asks incredulously,
THE FACELESS MEN ARE STANDING RIGHT BEHIND YOU!
Clemont collapses ass-first on to the floor, and Ash makes an almost instinctive grab at Serena (there's those Oak genes at work!), but Bonnie merely replies happily "what happened after that?" Everyone seems to be slow on the take that Lon was merely telling them a scary story for his own amusement. (They better give him a tip now, or something really scary might happen!) As if to prove these words true, the chandelier begins to shake and so too the pictures on the wall. Lon hurriedly explains that he is not responsible for this bit of poltergeism, and Bonnie happily exclaims, "Yay! A ghost! Helloooooo!"
Well. Clemont has had just about enough. "There's not a thing science can't prove!" he declares angrily. "Then why don't you stop acting so scared already?" asks Bonnie. The embarrassed inventor snorts steam out of his nose like Ash's Torkoal used to do, and reveals a device he created for just such an occasion! (It's not a Silph Scope is it? Because Saffron City's leading capitalist enterprise will sue you down to Clembot's last circuit for copyright infringement!) It's actually some kind of metal detector looking thing that Clemont probably bought on the Internet from one of those ghost hunting television shows.
Man, if only Ash already had something that could identify ghosts!
Clemont leads the gang in a search of the mansion. Pausing by a window, the full moon casts Ash's shadow on the floor – and it springs to life! The John Denver lookalike tries desperately to identify the malfeasant menace, but to no avail. A dark blob (which looks strangely like a Gengar…) cozies up next to Ash, and shortly thereafter, the animators prove that you can't have a truly great episode without some questionable decisions on their part:
Poor Clemont is also shamed, although in a different way than Serena just was. The Lumiose gym leader is hoisted into the air by some unseen force and has no choice but to recant the very idea of logical reason itself. "This is a warning for me to stop trying to fight back with science!" he sobs, in a stunning victory for the forces of mysticism and religion.
But when Clemont's backpack is stolen, Bonnie chases after it into a room off the main hallway, instructing the invisible spirits to calm down. Strangely they acquiesce, but then they begin to play a piano and Serena goes into full Stephen King mode and begins to concoct a story about the piano attracting other ghosts who work together to lure children into the house and make them disappear!
Kind of like what's happening right now.
But then, spurred on by readings from Clemont's device, Ash and Serena finally, finally take out their Pokedexes and utilize their inherent Silph Scope technology to unveil the ghostly culprits: Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar! Yes, much like Ash's trip to the Pokemon Tower in Lavender Town, it seems that these ghosts just want to have fun. Lon explains that he actually knew about the Ghost Pokemon all along, and that they like to scare visitors as part of their hospitality – thus the reason behind the "Scary House" name. So everything is awesome once more and now it is time for Ash and friends to go,
BUT WAIT! WHERE'S BONNIE?!
Clemont wastes no time in blaming Gengar for his sister's disappearance (racist), but the noble Shadow Pokemon lets the nerdy inventor know that it is a citizen of Cenation, and furthermore in a stellar display of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect, and a Never Give Up attitude, Gengar taunts Clemont with John Cena's signature "U can't C me" move. (It seems to me that Clemont might be in need of an Attitude Adjustment…) In any event, Lon translates that the Pokemon are innocent, and so Ash and Pikachu run out the door to find Bonnie – and disappear with a scream! But rather than cut his losses and continue his journey alone with Ash's recently-widowed girlfriend, Clemont enlists Serena to help him search the house. It doesn't take too long before Serena falls down a shute in the floor – in classic Scooby Doo style – but rather than, you know, standing on the opening until his weight opens the trap door, Clemont and Chespin bang on it weakly a few times and give up.
The Lumiose virgin asks Lon if maybe he knows something about mysterious doors in the floor, and, uh oh!
It's repressed memories time!
Lon mutters something about "another way downstairs," but he is visibly shaken, and after showing Clemont the stairs to the basement (which he has hidden under a rug for some dubious reason…) he declines to come along (because that's not sketchy or anything), explaining ominously, "I feel like I'm forgetting something…" (like the fact that the basement is where you keep the bodies of all of the travelers that you kidnap and torture!)
It is left to Clemont and his faithful Spiny Nut Pokemon to descend the stairs to the cellar alone – aided by the light of an electric lantern, I might add, because smoking is bad, kids, and people who do it are criminals! But it is here, in the basement of the Scary House, that Clemont and Chespin discover something truly horrifying. Something so shocking, that frankly I'm amazed they allowed this show to air at all. Younger or more sensitive viewers might want to turn away, because when Clemont and Chespin reach the hallway at the foot of the stairs they find:
Apparently this show has matured enough in the past seventeen years that we are allowed to call these Japanese spirit seal things "tags" now, possibly because of the Cleanse Tag item in the games. Clemont overcomes his bizarre fear of stickers, and approaches the door, discovering that Ash, Bonnie, and Serena are trapped behind it! Ash has been unable to make the door budge, so he laughably asks the muscle-less nerd Clemont to give it a try – with predictable results. Clemont reasons that if the door is rusted shut, Frogadier's frubbles should be able to lubricate it. (I had no idea jizz has anti-rust properties…)
Oh ejaculation! Is there any problem you can't solve?
Meanwhile, Pikachu discovers Tom Riddle's diary laying on a table in the room. It was obviously supposed to stay sealed down here in the Chamber of Secrets to stop it from bringing Voldemort back to power, but Ash figures, what they hey? and takes it back upstairs with them. Upon seeing the diary, Lon asks Clemont to read it to him (correctly reasoning that literacy is not a club that Ash keeps in his golf bag), and the Lumiose gym leader recounts the tale of a boy who used to live in the house who was always afraid of malevolent spirits. His father built him the basement freak-out room and the elaborate series of passageways to hide in whenever he wanted, and a medium proscribed the anti-ghost tags. But the boy was still frightened, and so rather than commit him to a psychiatric hospital, the boy's family simply decided to move instead. A yellowed picture of a little boy in a bolo tie flaps out of the diary, and Bonnie takes one look at it and realizes, hey – it's Lon! The old man looks at the picture and then it comes back to him – oh yeah, I used to live in this house! This revelation is quickly followed by another, huh, I guess it was the Pokemon that were haunting the house. I suppose living in a world inhabited by magical Pokemon, we could have checked on that before just up and abandoning our giant-ass mansion…
Well that seems… somewhat less-than plausible. Even for this show. Bonnie flips the photo over and notices a date on the back: July 14, 1758! Ash looks at the picture and realizes, that was over 200 years ago! (I don't know what is the most shocking: how old Lon is, the fact that his parents had a camera almost a century before they were a viable technology, or that Ash just did math…) Lon chuckles and turns to face the children with a smile, "it's all coming back to me," he says, "I'm not quite alive!"
The next morning, our young heroes awake in the forest wondering how they all arrived there. What happened to Lon and the Scary House? Bonnie giggles and declares that maybe the three of them all had the same dream since they are so close. But it couldn't have all been a dream, could it? But Bonnie marches confidently ahead, shouting that the Pokemon Center, and thus Lavarre City, are just on the other side of the woods. Once she is out of sight of her companions, our little Bonnie reaches into Dedenne's knapsack and pulls out a picture of her posing with Lon and his Pokemon after everyone else collapsed from fright, or something.
She was the only one worthy of the Scary House after all!
But wait, there's more!
Team Rocket, being absent for almost the entire episode, is revealed to be almost an entire day behind the twerps. They run through the same creepy empty playground in the rain from earlier bemoaning their bad luck. But hark! Jessie spies a big house up ahead, perhaps our favorite villains can shelter there?
"Relax said the nightman, we are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!"
Final thoughts: Wow! Wow!
I think a lot of times people wonder why I still follow Pokemon all these years later when I readily admit the show will never be as consistently good as it was from 1998 until 2000 or so. Besides the fact that Pokemon is by far the geeky franchise/fandom that I'm most deeply immersed in, I believe it is because every once in awhile the writers throw you for a loop and bang out an episode like this one. This one had it all, sketchy adult-ness, references to Original Series episodes like Ghost of Maiden's Peak and Tower of Terror, actual Japanese-ness (only somewhat out of place in French Kalos), an interesting character of the day, and a surprise ending featuring Team Rocket! Unfortunately, these memorable episodes are now much more of an exception than the rule – a result (and I hate to belabor this point) of the too-frequent nature of this show's episodes. Good lord, imagine how fantastic this show could be if as much thought and love were put into every episode as was put into this one? I'd honestly like nothing better than to be able to have a series to point to that could be considered better than the Original Series – the artwork is certainly "lightyears away" from where it used to be, to quote Brock's gym trainer from the games. But the sad fact is that this is, to my mind, unquestionably the best episode of the sixth generation so far, and it came on the heels of some of the worst. I hate to be too hard on Pokemon XY, because this series has certainly been much better than the sluggish days of mid-Johto and the Advanced Generation, so I'll end on a positive note, hoping that episodes like this will inspire continued excellence in the future – it definitely has me hooked!