Western Animated shows, on the whole, are fundamentally different from anime in a number of ways.
The tropes they employee, their general reputation, the style they use–it all combines to create a more lighthearted, comedic atmosphere in comparison to the Japanese medium many know and love. This has led to a format where most Western cartoons tell their stories sporadically. With lots of independent, unrelated stories in between, compared to anime, which continue a single plot without interruption.
However, there are times when these shows choose to focus on a single story, over the course of multiple episodes. These are the episodes that get plot-heavy really quick–the ones that oftentimes are responsible, for creating the most high-stakes, memorable situations of a show. And today, I’ll be talking about my top ten favorite story arcs!
I tried to stick to two criteria for this list. First, only one story arc per series, and second, the arc has to last at least five episodes, or at least be addressed over the course of a series. This was to rule out those hour-long specials, which are so common in Western cartoons. That said, let’s get to it!
10. A Taste of More (Miraculous Ladybug, 2015–Present)
For the most part, Miraculous Ladybug is a feel-good, happy superhero show, that is characterized by its extremely well done 3D animation. It is indisputably a family-friendly show, that provides an interesting take on the traditional American superhero. But because of this, the plot of the series as a whole is rather simple.
Bad guy shows up, Ladybug and Chat Noir fight, they deal with problems with juggling their responsibilities as Marinette and Adrien respectively, and they ultimately save the day! For the better part of this series, that’s the formula, and that’s what they stick to–multiple extremely self-contained stories.
But then, the last five episodes happen. And they give hints of so much potential, that anyone watching can’t help but be excited.
These last five episodes are fantastic in their own right, but share a common focus on developing the history of the characters, as well as expanding the world of Miraculous Ladybug. It’s extremely impressive just how much plot-centric information is focused on during this short span of time, and provides a lot to look forward to.
Despite consisting of relatively independent stories, this last arc of Miraculous Ladybug did SO MUCH for the series. It expanded the scope of what the “Kwami” are. It hinted at the sad history of Adrien Agreste. It provided huge amounts of character development for our two intrepid protagonists. Overall, this “arc”, these last five episodes of Miraculous Ladybug teased at a world of possibility, and for that reason, I had to include them here, at the number ten spot.
9. Stakes (Adventure Time, 2010–Present)
I’ll admit to not being the biggest fan of Adventure Time. Its length has dissuaded me from keeping up with it, and as such, there’s not many character arcs that I remember clearly enough to really talk about, sorry to any fans!
However. I revisited Adventure Time once more for the Stakes story arc, and man, it was good.
As a standalone story that focused on Marceline, and her struggle with her status as the Vampire Queen, the Stakes story arc was simply enjoyable to watch. You don’t need to know at all about the vast world of Adventure Time to appreciate some solid storytelling, which Stakes accomplishes very solidly.
In my mind, Stakes addresses what I find to be Adventure Time’s biggest flaw–a lack of focus. I feel as though Adventure Time has lost a decent amount of its fanbase, due to its drip-feeding of plot-heavy episodes, padded entirely too much by comedic fluff. Although that’s something to go into another day.
So, for eight episodes, Adventure Time reminded me just how damn good it could be. Its ability to tell a compelling, thematically sound story that gave depth to one of its most beloved characters was, on all counts, exceptional. You wouldn’t think tarot cards, vampires, philosophical themes of cyclical happenings would ever make their way into a “children’s show,” but man, Stakes is there to prove you wrong.
8. Tracking Down Jasper (Steven Universe, 2013–Present)
Steven Universe is a rather interesting series, that can deal with anything you can think of. From preparing for alien invasions and the potential destruction of the Earth, to watching sitcoms and growing fruit, Steven Universe is quite a quirky show.
However, in recent years, it has become rather renowned for its tendency to lean towards very, very plot-heavy, character-heavy episodes. This trend really started picking up in the third season–and by the end of it, we were treated to this short little arc, which showed off the best of what the series had to offer.
At this point in the series, the Homeworld gem Jasper has been stranded on Earth, alone, beaten, but still having her pride. Biding her time, she waits, taking control of rogue gems, fighting the Crystal Gems while she can, hoping to build up a force strong enough to beat them, once and for all. And while this is happening, Steven and his friends learn to fight, deal with their own demons, and along the way, bring a stop to what Jasper is planning.
This arc, leading up to the finale of Season Three, does a LOT for several characters of the Crystal Gems–Steven, and Amethyst in particular–and ties up some loose ends very nicely. Between plot elements such as corruption and fusion that are given some nice emphasis throughout this arc, we also receive a lot of time for character growth, culminating in some of the most memorable moments of the series.
Amethyst’s character growth in particular is some of the most interesting to witness, as the audience gets to see the very blatant effects of her perceived “weakness.” Through confronting her own self-loathing, Steven’s character is given huge depth, we get some wonderfully animated scenes, and the plot points of season three are resolved in solid fashion. Not a single episode disappoints, cementing this story arc among the best of Steven Universe.
7. Gruncle Stan’s Secrets (Gravity Falls, 2012-2016)
Gravity Falls has made its name, as undeniably one of the best Western Animations of recent years.
With clever writing, an enticing, strange premise, and some very fun characters, Gravity Falls was, in my mind, one of the most well-constructed shows of the past decade. Mixing zany, loony, mysterious adventures with an ongoing, behind-the scenes narrative that created genuine intrigue. Half of the reason you’d watch the series, was for its fun episodic happenings, but the other half was for the plot that undeniably existed in the background.
And chief among these numerous behind-the-scenes plotlines, was the story of Gruncle Stan, and just who he really was.
At the very end of the first episode there was a rather interesting scene, that set the tone for the rest of the series. Gruncle Stan, having just denied the existence of anything supernatural or strange in Gravity Falls, is viewed, opening a secret door, leading…somewhere. Throughout the series, such small hints are left, small details are discovered by Dipper and Mabel, planting small seeds of doubt. As everything builds up, more and more of the full picture is shown, until, suddenly, the dam bursts.
Although this story arc is not one that is explicitly pursued very often, it is one that has mastered the art of subtlety. The audience does not get the full picture for a LONG time, but hints are always there in the background. Even as the episodic madness of Gravity Falls continues, the small details build up, to become something bigger, and better.
Ultimately, this story arc, despite not having much of an explicit focus, is one of the best in Western Animation, for its ability to tell a story without really…telling you it. Rather, by building up the mystery, displaying something completely unrelated, Gravity Falls is able to misdirect you, while also moving forward, ever so slowly. It’s really rather intriguing just how smartly the show is put together, and seeing for yourself the history of Gruncle Stan’s enigmatic past, really showcases that.
6. Escaping The Unknown (Over the Garden Wall, 2014)
Is this cheating? Considering half of a ten episode series, a story arc?
Over The Garden Wall is an odd story, to say the least. It is a short mini-series, debuted on Cartoon Network in 2014, garnering extremely positive critical reviews over the five days it was on the air. The story tracked the brothers Wirt and Greg, as well as their bird companion, Beatrice, as they tried to escape the strange, rustic American world called “The Unknown.” As they wander the Unknown, befriending and getting to know its inhabitants, they are faced with a mysterious threat: “The Beast,” which threatens to trap them in the Unknown forever, without a hope of returning home.
It’s an interesting story, wrought with mystery and intrigue, to say the least. And, for the first five episodes, our protagonists simply don’t know what’s going on, and do what they can to move forward, with the ambiguous goal of meeting the witch Adelaide. However, starting halfway through the series, a wrench is thrown in Wirt and Greg’s plans, as they realize they cannot trust anyone.
The final half of Over The Garden Wall is perhaps the most strangely beautiful example of Western animation I have ever experienced. It paints a human story, of a pair of brothers that just want to get home, stuck in a strange world that wants to deny them of that simple desire. Mysterious enemies are revealed, sacrifices are made, and Wirt and Greg’s simple ideals are put to the test, as the two newcomers to the Unknown do their best to escape it all.
…I’m not the best at describing it in such a vague fashion. But trust me when I say, that this story arc, characterized by the desire to escape The Unknown, is one of the best. Some top-notch storytelling, a pervasive, dark, yet somehow hopeful atmosphere, makes this fairytale story one to remember.
5. Korra’s Poisoning (Avatar: The Legend of Korra, 2012–2014)
Avatar in general, is a fantastic series, that between its two iterations, pushed the boundaries of Western Animation in every single way imaginable. And The Legend of Korra in particular, championed darker, more realistic, adult themes that were wonderful to experience. It consistently challenged the mold of what children’s programs could accomplish, from the first season to the last.
However, the arc in The Legend of Korra that stands out the most, in my mind, is at the beginning of the last season, where Korra deals with the aftereffects of a crippling poison.
The fight with the driven, fierce anarchist Zaheer in the previous season has left Korra crippled in every way. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, Korra has been weakened, to the point where she can’t meditate, can’t walk on her own, and can barely talk to her own friends. Suffering from hallucinations, reduced physical strength, and sever self doubt, Korra struggles to redefine who she is, desiring nothing else but to go back to normal. However, she learns that, as much as she might want to, she can’t go to what she once was.
These episodes of Legend of Korra tackled a very, very touchy topic in a classy, engaging, and powerful way, while also providing great character development for a character who, in my mind, sorely needed it. Korra’s journey throughout these episodes provide a strong argument for her strength as a character, and is definitely a reason as to why so many people are able to relate to her.
Confronting the stress of heroism, acknowledging that the main character is not a perfect protagonist, and tying it into a larger plotline about spiritual balance? Not many shows can pull that off, but this story arc showed that the Legend of Korra is certainly one of those shows.
4. The Continuing Journey (Samurai Jack, 2001–2004/2017)
Okay, who else was hyped out of their mind for season five?
Well, anyways, Samurai Jack has proven its mettle throughout the years, enduring as a fan favorite series even to the present day. Garnering enough support to justify the creation of a fifth, final season, on Adult Swim of all places, Samurai Jack continued to show why it was a show that deserved to be rebooted.
And the first seven episodes of the fifth season really proved its point.
All alone, Samurai Jack has grown tired of his conflict with the great evil, Aku. Having survived countless conflicts over the past 50 years, Jack has lost hope of beating his adversary, instead just doing his best to continue to survive. Not aging, not giving in, Jack persists, even as the demons in his head continue to grow larger and larger.
With his traditional magic sword lost, relying on whatever tools he can craft for himself, Jack has proven, every step of the way, that he still has what it takes to survive. Through hard-fought battles, a commitment to honor, and helping those who cannot help themselves, Jack truly shows that he is a hero. But, as he eventually realizes, being a hero for so long has its price.
These seven episodes took the Samurai we all knew and loved, and developed his character exponentially from the first four seasons. Taking advantage of its new status as a cartoon on Adult Swim, Samurai Jack is able to deal with much more mature subject matters. Facing the reality of killing, of being killed, and living a purposeless life, Samurai Jack’s character is thrown into some harrowing situations, forcing very, very dark decisions from the lonely warrior.
Samurai Jack was never respected for its plot and character development–it was renowned for its amazing stylistic choices. However, with the fifth season, on top of some exceptionally great stylistic choices, we received a fantastic narrative, that asks questions not many stories dare to ask. How hard is it to be a hero? Why keep fighting anyways? And what’s the point of heroism at all?
You know, someone’s gotta ask the hard questions.
3. Raven Brings The Apocalypse (Teen Titans, 2003–2006)
Teen Titans was a show from my childhood that I remember very fondly.
An action-packed, adventure-filled super hero show, Teen Titans was definitely fun for all ages, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Beneath the colorful, cartoony aesthetic, and episodic fluff, was a spectacular ability to tell a story. With top-notch writing, memorable characters, and action sequences that were as emotional as they were exciting, the series has stood the test of time, proving itself to be an enduring fan favorite.
And one of the two story arcs that stands out to ANY fan of the series is my third favorite arc of any Western Animation: where Raven struggles with her destiny as the harbinger of the apocalypse.
This story arc was DARK. From massive daddy issues, to undertones of rape, demonic summoning, and human extinction, this season had some of the most mature themes in any “children’s” show. And man, it was FANTASTIC.
The buildup to the actual event was deliberate, paced, and dramatic. Every character had their moments to shine, and the dynamic of the Teen Titans with Raven was explored and showed off very well. It all builds up so that, when the apocalypse comes, you can’t help but wonder–is this actually happening? And then it does, and it’s…jarring, to say the least.
Never before had an animated sequence so exceptionally captured the aura of desperation. It’s a drastic change from the colorful atmosphere the audience had grown to love, presented in such a way that it’s hard to imagine how our heroes could possibly find a victory. The world was already destroyed, a demon was ruling over its remains, and their only hope–Raven–was lost.
And throughout all of this, Raven’s character is explored extremely intimately. It sheds a new light on her character, that had not been explored up until this point in the series, allowing for a greater understanding of why she is the way she is. This story arc is one that defines her character, in a big way, and that’s yet another reason why this makes it to my top three.
2. Zuko’s Redemption (Avatar: The Last Airbender, 2005–2008)
Ohoho. Speaking of defining story arcs.
Zuko has become one of the most beloved characters in all of Western Animation, and this arc, in the third season of the show, is why.
In general, The Last Airbender was renowned for its expansive world, its exceptional ability to create a sense of adventure, and of course, its extraordinarily well-developed characters. From its likable protagonists, to its menacing and powerful antagonists, almost every character was done well. However, when it comes to Zuko…we got something rather unique.
Zuko, exiled Prince of the Fire Nation, is an extremely interesting character throughout the series. Initially, he was portrayed as a solid rival to Aang and his friends, hunting the Avatar for the purpose of restoring his honor, in the eyes of his father. Of course, over the course of the series, it quickly became clear that there was a lot more to Zuko’s characterization than just “honor” and “glory.” However much Zuko tried to appeal to his father, it was apparent that he was meant for a lot more than just the role of “rival.”
So, come Season 3, we have an interesting scenario arise. The Avatar is near-dead, on the run, his father has welcomed him back with open arms, and Zuko’s honor has been restored! For all intents and purposes, if Zuko were truly a villain in the series, he would have won! But of course, Zuko’s story was certainly not over.
The initial episodes of Season 3 begin an arc that would create some of the greatest moments of the series. We see Zuko begin to struggle with guilt–a feeling that shouldn’t exist, if he thought he was doing the right thing. But the feeling is there regardless, eventually leading him to betray his father, join Aang and his friends, and turn away from everything he’d once followed.
This story arc provided closure to a character that desperately needed it. It was the last major character arc, a definitive end to the development of debatably the most complex character of the series. However, unlike with Teen Titans’ fourth season, this story arc did not just focus on Zuko’s character; it allowed for massive amounts of development for every single one of the protagonists.
Zuko’s betrayal may not have been the most high-stakes, important moment in the series, but it was something that The Last Airbender had been building up since the first season. Highlighting the changes of the entire cast from the beginning to the end, there are almost too many great moments to count, from these episodes alone. This arc had everything–story progression, character development, suspense, and pure entertainment.
However, there is still one last story arc that, in my mind, surpasses it.
1. Steven Universe is Rose Quartz (Steven Universe, 2013–Present)
I’ve expressed multiple times that I find Steven Universe to be among the most excellent examples of storytelling in Western Animation. And this story arc, starting from the end of the third season, really, really exemplifies that.
Steven Universe can now say, well and truly, that he has escaped death. Having dealt with the numerous consequences of his mother, Rose Quartz’s actions, he can’t help but wonder, question things he thought he knew about the world. Factoring into that, the fact that every one of his enemies, and even his friends, at times, believe him to be Rose Quartz…
Well. Let’s just say that makes for a rather substantial identity crisis.
What is brilliant about this story arc is a combination of what made the previous story arcs wonderful. Similarly to Samurai Jack and Avatar, this arc feels like a definitive point in a specific character’s life–in this case, Steven’s. It also progresses the plot by leaps and bounds, showcasing more of the world that Steven lives in, while also emphasizing the threat of the often-mentioned, never-seen “Homeworld.” And of course, some of the best, most memorable moments of the series were created during these episodes.
But really, I think this story arc does everything so much better.
The thing about story arcs in Western Animation is that they have to fit within the general structure of the story. With Gravity Falls, Samurai Jack, and Avatar, we see gradual build-up, intentional, deliberate events that lead up to the story arc in question. However, with Steven Universe, the manner in which the series accomplishes this is unbelievably fulfilling, in a way no other Western Animation has managed.
From the very beginning, the story was about Steven, while also expanding upon the messy reality of the world that he had to live in. The whole point of the story was his growth, and the audience’s experience of learning more about the world that is supposedly just silly fun. That Rose Quartz has killed, that Steven, or any of his friends, might very well die, and that Homeworld is a far more powerful enemy than we’ve initially perceived.
All these themes, and more, are explored to their fullest in this story arc of Steven Universe.
This entire story arc has been built up since day one. From the very beginning, Rose Quartz, her mysterious history with Homeworld, and Steven’s ideas about her were central to the plot, to the development of every single character. And this series of episodes played to that continuing theme directly, eventually coming to a head in the most thematically fulfilling conclusion the series had ever produced.
Combine that with technically sound episodes, great character moments all around, and a continually more exciting plot, and you have my pick for the best story arc in Western Animation.
What can I say? I think Steven Universe is a pretty good show.
Well, that was fun. I’ve posted and reposted this now around three times, since the words just weren’t coming, sorry about that!
So. Do you have any story arcs that come to mind that you like? I’m sure I’ve missed some great ones, I’m curious to know what you guys think. Leave a comment down below!