“Accused of a crime they didn’t commit, a ragtag band of fugitives fights a covert battle to clear their names and expose the insidious enemy that is… Cobra. Some call them outlaws. Some call them heroes. But these determined men and women think themselves only as “Ordinary Joes”. And this is their story.”
Those words began nearly every episode of G.I. Joe: Renegades, The Hub’s attempt to breathe some new life into the familiar G.I. Joe formula. Reinventing a popular franchise is a thankless task. If you stray too far from core concepts with hopes of bringing in a new audience, you risk alienating the longtime fans. But if you rely too much on what has gone before, you probably won’t have any new eyeballs checking out your efforts either. Yet despite overwhelming odds, Renegades managed to walk this tightrope of awkwardness successfully. Even though the series borrowed story elements from sources as disparate as The A-Team and Lost, it still managed to become an inspired variation of the G.I. Joe saga that is just as entertaining — if not even more so — than the 1980s toon or even Warren Ellis’ beloved G.I. Joe: Resolute.
Over the course of 26 episodes, Scarlett, Duke, Tunnel Rat, Roadblock and Snake Eyes attempted to expose Cobra for the terrorist organization that is was while staying a step ahead of a misguided Flint. Each episode had our heroes encountering familiar faces from G.I. Joe‘s past, although this time around most of these characters had noticeably different backgrounds from what had gone before. Although it was underappreciated during its original run last year, the series has gathered a fanbase that truly appreciates the fact that it strived to do much more than just rehash the work of its predecessors. Yet because the world is an unjust place, G.I. Joe: Renegades is no longer in production. But at least you can still look back upon it with today’s list of the 14 best episodes of the series. For fans already familiar with the show, this will be a walk down memory lane with some old friends. For everyone else, hopefully this will serve as a catalyst to get you to check out a truly fun series that you may have missed. Okay folks, it’s Joe time.
14 & 13) The Descent, Parts 1 & 2
The early promos for G.I. Joe: Renegades described the show as “the birth of a new American hero.” That sounds exactly right. The groundwork for the entire series is laid out in the opening episodes. In my intro above, I mentioned how the program is essentially a riff on The A-Team‘s formula, albeit it one with a hell of a lot more ninjas and snake-based terrorist organizations. In 45 tightly paced minutes, these two debut installments introduce each character’s personality (Scarlett is driven and a bit damaged, Duke is a stick in the mud, Tunnel Rat is a wiseass, Ripcord is a slightly less funny wiseass, Roadblock is just pure awesome and Snake Eyes is faithful and fearless) and illustrate that that Cobra Industries is up to some fairly shady shenanigans. So when our heroes’ investigation of one of Cobra Pharmaceuticals’ manufacturing plants results in an explosion and the apparent death of Ripcord, they are forced to go on the run until they can produce enough evidence to prove their innocence. That’s a lot of plot to get out of the way before the series can properly get started, and these two installments do so skillfully. This is primarily due to the smart writing of Henry Gilroy and Marty Isenberg, who make the expository sequences (which tend to be the most cumbersome portions of any pilot episode) feel natural. Better still, the writers throw out fan-pleasing references to previous incarnations of G.I. Joe, starting a tradition that would run the course of the series. Some fans dismissed Renegades because it played fast and loose with established G.I. Joe lore. If you count yourself amongst their numbers, check out “The Descent” again and maybe you’ll appreciate it for what it is: a fun re-envisioning of the Joe saga for the 21st century. As for those of you who still think changing things up is blasphemy, might I remind you of a certain plot device known as Cobra-La?
12) The Enemy of My Enemy
Poor James McCullen. All he wanted to do was to sell some weapons and get it on with the Baroness. Unfortunately, in this episode he made the mistake of playing the Joes off of Cobra as a revenge tactic after he was forced to collaborate with Dr. Mindbender. Subsequently, he was punished by Cobra Commander, who encased him in an uncomfortable yet oddly stylish metal mask (after he fed him to his pet snake, adorably named Serpentor). McMullen must now refer to himself as “Destro” a word which his clan reserves strictly for those who have disgraced their entire family. The upside to of all of this is that the mask doesn’t crimp his libido one iota, because for the rest of the series he is still trying to make whoopee with the Baroness. Which just proves to further reinforce the widely held beliefs that haggis is a natural aphrodisiac. Also, metal headgear? Totally a pussy magnet. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.
11 & 10) Homecoming, Parts 1 & 2
Embracing the clich? that there’s no place like home for the holidays, this two-parter finds Duke returning to Missouri to protect his family from a Cobra threat while his cohorts crash the evil organization’s Christmas party. We never get to hear Roadblock belt out “Last Christmas,” but at least we find out about what the deal with Duke and Flint’s rivalry is. Long story short, they’re frenemies (which is the douchiest word I have ever typed). We also learn that Duke’s baby brother Vincent — who’ll grow up to be Lt. Falcon — is a total narc who’ll rat out his own sibling at the drop of a hat. Damn kids. The Yuletide aspects take a back seat to all the betrayal and personal revelations on display here, so in an effort to not be a Scrooge let me leave you with a parting trivia gift: Duke’s parents Max and Connie are voiced by Michael Bell and B.J. Ward…the same folks who performed the roles of Duke and Scarlett in the 1980s cartoon. Your nerdgasms may now commence.
An indirect sequel to the episode “Dreadnoks Rising,” this episode has Flint and Lady Jaye enlisting the help of Zartan to catch the Joes. This turns out to be a very bad idea indeed because at the same time, Cobra has gotten possession of a camouflage suit that uses cutting edge technology to alter the appearance of whoever tries on the billion dollar duds. So before you can say “chocolate in my peanut butter,” a twist of fate results in the suit bonding with Zartan’s skin… and the birth of one of the Joes’ most iconic villains. What’s so winning about this episode — other than the endless gags about how much Tunnel Rat apparently stinks and some funny business about how Roadblock’s constant chatter causes his pals to tune him out — is that it attempts to give Zartan’s shapeshifting abilities some basis in reality (well, as real as a show about a reptile-obsessed outfit with unlimited funds and resources can be anyway). Like Tomax and Xamot, Zartan was always an especially goofy figure in Cobra’s rogue gallery of villains. To try to humanize him through this episode and in his previous appearance is another example of the series’ commitment to attempting to place the action in as believable of an environment as possible. As for the aforementioned psychic twins, we’ll see how Renegades dealt with them later in this list.
To quote Ford Prefect in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, “family’s always embarrassing, isn’t it?” That’s a sentiment Roadblock doubtlessly agrees with in this episode, which has Flint recruiting the big man’s cousin Hershel — better known to Joe fans as Heavy Duty — to track him down. While in Mississippi to secretly attend the memorial service of his Tuskegee Airman grandfather, Roadblock is apprehended by his cousin. Their awkward reunion is quickly interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Major Bludd, and a wild chase through the Mississippi swamps ensues. By the time things wrap up, the pair understands each other’s motives and, more importantly, Heavy Duty realizes that his cousin isn’t the monster he thought he was. This plot point is handled subtlety here, but it has far-reaching implications for the season finale. There’s a lot to love here, from the banter between the bickering cousins to the cheap-but-effective poop joke that closes the episode. Unfortunately there’s no embeddable footage online, but you can watch a clip here. “Cousins” is a perfect example of how G.I. Joe: Renegades effortlessly balances comedy and characterization while furthering the ongoing story arc. It’s a shame that Hershel and Marvin didn’t get another chance to team up during the series’ short run, because they are one hell of a duo.
Whether you chalk it up to wanting the distance the character from his Popeye/Jack Nicholson mash-up persona from the Sunbow cartoon or seeking to avoid comparisons to The Venture Bros.’ infinitely awesome Shore Leave, the producers of G.I. Joe: Renegades made Shipwreck an entirely new animal than what came before. Having been screwed over by Cobra himself, he realizes that he and the Joes share a common goal early on. But he still puts them through their paces, which gives us some fun scenes in which Duke gets knocked down a few pegs by being put on barnacle-scraping duty and Tunnel Rat gets to throw up a lot. Good times. Not since the 1980s two-parter “There’s No Place like Springfield” has Shipwreck been given the opportunity to shine as he does here. It’s a welcome turn of events, even though his parrot Polly is nowhere to be seen (disturbingly enough however, it’s pretty clear that Shipwreck has the hots for his vessel, marking the first appearance of a character with objectum sexual disorder in the history of children’s cartoons). Bonus points go to this one for naming the ship Courtney in tribute to Cover Girl and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern motif that opens this episode which has two Cobra officers reflecting on how their run-ins with the Joes as previously seen in the series got them stationed in the arctic.
6 & 5) Return of the Arashikage, Parts 1 & 2
It’s clear that giving the die-hard fans what they want was high on the production staff’s priority list. Which brings us to this two-parter, which should have been called “Everything you’ve Ever Wanted to Know about Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and the Arashikage.” In other words, it’s the scoop on the Joe franchises biggest breakout characters. Looking to see how Snake Eyes lost his ability or speak? Or how Hard Master died? Perhaps you want to know the truth behind the rivalry between the series’ unforgettable ninjas? These episodes deliver all of this as well as an origin story for Jinx. Just as “Homecoming” (see above) and “Revelations” (see below) did, “Return of the Arashikage” is all about presenting in-depth back stories for these characters. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable if you want to ignore all this insight and just focus on the entertainment that comes from watching Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow beating the crap of each other.
4 & 3) Revelations, Parts 1 & 2
Though it hasn’t officially been cancelled by The Hub, the sad truth is that G.I. Joe: Renegades as we know it is over. The network’s confusing stance is that the series is merely on hiatus, and a new animated show based on G.I. Joe will debut at some point in the future. Hmm. This vague bit of PR posturing coupled with lead writer Henry Gilroy’s straight up confirmation that there won’t be a season two hammers the final nail into Renegades‘ coffin (as for Gilroy, he is currently working on the Mass Effect: Paragon Lost prequel film project). The only bright spot about the cartoon’s untimely death is that it was allowed to resolve the season-long arc in “Revelations.” Spoiler alert: By the time the end credits roll on the second part of the story, our heroes have proven their innocence and literally brought down Cobra. It sucks that we will be denied seeing the Joes work together with the Falcons in the second season, but at least the primary story was given a satisfying conclusion. Yeah, I know that’s small comfort.
2) Brothers of Light
Of all the characters that were reinvented for the series, none were handled as brilliantly as Tomax and Xamot. Presented here as the leaders of the “Brothers of Light” cult, the psychic siblings have never been more unnerving. As charismatic as they are creepy, they use their abilities and the tech they have at their disposal to fleece followers out of their savings. After the Joes encounter them, most of the team is brainwashed, and it’s up to Snake Eyes and Tunnel Rat to rescue their comrades. Obviously, the good guys win. Yet I can’t help but wondering how amazing it would have been if we got to experience Tomax and Xamot spreading their cult across the globe via mind control and Trouble Bubbles. Sigh.
1) The Anaconda Strain
Apparently, the Lost influence upon G.I. Joe: Renegades didn’t end with the series’ use of flashblacks to deliver information on how the characters pasts impacted their present-day behavior. Basically an origin episode for Kurt Schnerr, a.k.a. Airtight, this one really comes alive through Michael Emerson’s smarmy performance as Dr. Menov (Joe obsessives know him better as Dr. Venom). Menov and Schnerr are friends who work together as scientists for Cobra. In a turn of events that won’t come as a surprise to fans of a certain show about people stuck on a mysterious island, Menov sells out his colleague in order to further his own agenda. The best part? That betrayal is just the starting point for an action-packed episode that culminates in an exciting sequence that has Scarlett and Snake Eyes boarding a moving plane in order to prevent an outbreak of the titular virus that would turn all of mankind into snakelike creatures. Cynics may complain that the plot is just story elements from Outbreak and Sssssss mashed up with the ongoing storyline, but ignore any detractors. “The Anaconda Strain” is G.I. Joe: Renegades reaching its full potential. Check it out…and then the other 25 episodes.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.