Why Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold! is one of the darkest characters Nickelodeon ever green-lit

Name a better character in Hey Arnold! than Helga Pataki.

Go ahead I’ll wait.

From her undeniable quotability to her soft spot for the show’s namesake, you just know any episode revolving around her is going to be a good one.

She’s such a highlight of the 90s Nickelodeon show that creator, Craig Bartlett, named her “the most complicated character [he’s] ever created” in a 1998 interview.

And he wasn’t wrong.

Here are some things about Helga from Hey Arnold! you may have missed during your childhood…


Her mom’s an alcoholic… and depressed

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

With allusions to “smoothies”, a constant slur in her speech, lost licences, and the tendency to find her sleeping in uncommon places, Helga’s mom, Miriam Pataki, is hardly what you would call a functional alcoholic. Often times she forgets to pack Helga a lunch, and is seen toting around the blender that she uses to make drinks, as though she’s attached to it at the hip.

And, whether it was the cause, or the effect of her alcoholism, she’s clearly depressed. Miriam is hardly ever seen leaving the house, is particularly indifferent to her surroundings, and clearly feels stuck in a dead-end marriage with the Beeper King.

This is made pretty apparent the episode ‘Olga Gets Engaged’ when Bob offers some advice to the young couple, saying, “So then what’s the stinkin’ rush all about? Get married in a year, if you still  want to.” If Miriam’s unhappiness wasn’t apparent before, she snaps back with “You won’t want to.”

Her dad loves winning, and almost nothing else

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

This one may not be as subtle as Miriam always looking for that dang tabasco sauce, so you may have caught it during the show’s original run. But Bob’s love isn’t self-less, it comes with a price. If you haven’t achieved anything worthy of mentioning in the morning paper, you probably shouldn’t even talk to him at all. He loves winning, is a poor loser, and quite frankly, doesn’t care to hear your opinion on the matter.

Regardless of the numerous times Helga has corrected him, he continues to “accidentally” refer to her as Olga, the daughter he clearly favours. Olga has won numerous awards, has an abundance of talents and is generally liked by basically everyone except for Helga. With all of this recognition, of course she gets all of Bob’s love. She makes him look good! And although he has his moments scattered throughout, Olga is the only character he continually looks out for.

Her sister Olga is a nervous wreck, and always a few seconds short of a breakdown

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Being lauded as the best doesn’t come without its pitfalls. Praised as beautiful, popular, talented, well-mannered and a pleasure to be around may seem like the dream to many, but it’s what fuels Olga’s rampant anxiety and perfectionism. The expectations she, and others, have put on her shoulders, are undeniably hard to maintain. So, when she falls short of them, she spins into a negative way of thinking.

Olga definitely feels the heat from her parents, and has even referred to herself as a “wind-up doll.” Helga fails to see Olga’s point-of-view in the matter, because where she stands, Olga has everything she never had the chance to, and resents her for it. On the opposite side of the coin, Olga is jealous of the attention Helga doesn’t get.

Helga isn’t convinced that she’s deserving of love

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Due to Helga’s family dynamics, she has put up some pretty serious walls. She doesn’t see herself as someone worthy of loving, which is why when it seems like Arnold may find out about her secret, she treats it like the literal end of the world.

In the episode ‘Helga’s Masquerade’, Helga acts more Lila-like to get closer to Arnold, and it works surprisingly well. That is, until he mistakenly refers to her as Lila, and she has a moment of clarity. When she returns to the party out-of-costume, Arnold, pretty immediately, loses interest in hanging out with her. How’s that supposed to make a girl feel?

Arnold sees her true-self, which is probably why she’s so crazy about him

Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Since pre-school, Arnold has been one of the only people to see through her “ tough blistery exterior” into her “soft, mushy good-hearted center.” He has consistently seen Helga for the person who she wishes she could be all of the time, even though he’s the main target of her outbursts. Of course he doesn’t know about the poetry, or the locket, or the shrine or any of the other wacky things Helga does, but he knows that she puts up a front.

In the episode ‘Married’, this is even more apparent when, even though Arnold’s dreaming, Helga acts much like the audience knows her to be towards the end. And then he hits her with this: “I know you’re not this lazy and cold and uncaring. You may act like that, but deep down I know you’re smart and you have feelings. Why can’t you just admit it? You’re not this mean.”

Damn, Arnold.

‘Helga On The Couch’ is worth checking out for a little more insight on Helga’s character. It’s the first episode they really go in on Helga’s issues, and address the reasons why she acts the way she acts.

Hey! Arnold in general has a clove of very interestingly developed characters who are also worth trying to understand. But even with the colourful cast of characters, there’s no denying that Helga is the most complicated one.

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